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Thursday, February 9, 2012
Stacy Sykora playing again, eyeing Olympics after crash

By Bonnie D. Ford

The day of the bus crash is a blank space in Stacy Sykora's memory. So is the week before. So are the 11 days afterward, days the three-time U.S. Olympic volleyball player spent in an intensive care unit of a Brazilian hospital, first in a medically induced coma, then conscious but with an uncertain prognosis due to her closed head injury.

That kind of amnesia is usually described as a blessing, and Sykora agreed it's probably best she doesn't have any recollection of the moment last April 12 when the Volei Futuro team bus, en route to a playoff game, skidded in a downpour and tipped over onto its side, shattering the windows and tossing the club's staff and players around like marbles in a tin can.

No one else was seriously injured. One woman had a broken arm, others were bruised and scraped. Sykora's teammates found her face down in a puddle of water. A passing driver offered to take her to the hospital. Two players accompanied her. Her condition, first reported as not serious, quickly deteriorated. Several of her friends from the U.S. national team made their way to Brazil, and the women's volleyball community held its breath.

Stacy Sykora
Stacy Sykora returned to competition in January with her Volei Futuro club in Brazil.

Nine months and a thousand hours of rehab later, the 34-year-old Sykora is playing again and bears no outward sign of trauma, except that she wears more bobby pins in her hair (one side of her head was shaved and her hair is still growing out).

Her career prognosis is still uncertain, but in a telephone interview from Brazil last week, Sykora said she's "in a better mental place than I was before the accident." Her first competitive minutes since the crash came in January. She felt like she had "won the lottery ... I thought I would be nervous, but I was just so happy," she said.

Sykora will play in her accustomed libero (defensive specialist) position with Volei Futuro until April, fly to California via her home state of Texas, and rejoin the national team.

"I'll be there until I make the [Olympic] team or I don't make the team,'' she said, and sighed deeply. "First and foremost, it's about the team. Do I want to go? Yes. But I have to see how I work with this team. There are some great liberos who are fighting for the same position. ... I don't want [the accident] to be for me or against me. Regardless of what happens with me, it's going to be a great USA team."

That serenity didn't descend overnight for the Burleson, Texas, native, a two-time All-American at Texas A&M and 2008 Olympic silver medalist.

Sykora learned just how mysterious brain function can be when she emerged from a three-day coma and, she was later told, spoke Portuguese to the doctor, Italian to her agent and English to her mother at her bedside. She doesn't remember that, or learning to walk again. Her first memory is of circling a date -- April 23 -- on a calendar.

She was released from the hospital in early May, flew back to the United States and spent the summer and part of the fall shuttling between Casa Colina in Pomona, Calif., which specializes in helping patients recover from brain injuries, and the U.S. team's training base in Anaheim.

"They proved to me how important they've always been," Sykora said of her fellow players. "They helped me go from a one to a nine."

But she found it hard to fend off frustration at times. "I was big-time in the past," Sykora said. "I'd think, 'I could have dug that ball before the accident,' or 'I could have run that ball down.'"

Stacy Sykora
Stacy Sykora plans to rejoin the U.S. national team in April.

Sykora was able to get fit relatively quickly, but her vision -- one of the things that made her a great libero -- had to be retrained like a muscle that had atrophied. A volleyball sailing through the air would sometimes disappear on her, like the moon ducking behind a cloud. Sykora had to put in long, tedious hours to regain clarity, light contrast and depth perception (and is still doing exercises five times a week). She needed ball touches, and she needed to re-map spatial relationships with her teammates on the court.

When the U.S. team traveled to the World Cup in Tokyo last October and secured an Olympic berth, Sykora wasn't yet ready to play a competitive match. She went back to Brazil and started traveling with the club again; she began dressing for games in December. And Sykora asked her Volei Futuro teammates to fill in the gaps about what had happened last April.

They told her she had been sitting on a teammate's lap, listening to music, when the bus flipped sideways. Everyone else grabbed their seats, but she went into free fall. They told her she was unconscious with her face in the water for perhaps 30 seconds, perhaps a minute; no one could be sure in the chaos of the moment. They told her how she was lifted out through a window and carried away. At one game, a man came up and introduced himself. "I'm the one who took you to the hospital," he said.

One day, boarding the team bus to go to an away match, Sykora insisted on recreating the scene and defiantly plopped down on the same teammate's legs. "I told them, 'I'm looked after now, this is not going to happen again,'" she said.

Everywhere Sykora goes, people tell her she's a walking miracle; but the true transformation has been internal, the kind of emotional depth perception that has nothing to do with 20/20 vision.

"I hope I get to 100 percent, but I'm content with where I'm at," she said. "I'm only focused on today. I don't look to the future at all. The only thing that matters, the only thing I have every day, is 24 hours to do everything I can."