Friday, June 1, 2012
Olympian Stacy Sykora works to beat brain injury
While Olympian Stacy Sykora believes that learning to compensate for the lingering effects of a brain injury has helped make her a more complete volleyball player, she's also honest with herself: She's still not where she once was.
Sykora was traveling to a match with her Brazilian pro team when their bus overturned just outside of Sao Paulo on a rainy April evening last year. She suffered bleeding and swelling on the left side of her brain that prompted doctors to put her in a medically induced coma.
Her recovery in the year since then has been an ongoing process. The injury affected Sykora's vision and at times she has trouble tracking the ball -- something obviously essential for her sport.
But she has rejoined the U.S. women's national team, which has already secured a spot in the London Games. Whether Sykora plays in a fourth Olympics, however, is still unclear: The 12 team members making the trip will not be selected until early July.
Sykora, 34, doesn't speculate what her Olympic future might bring. Instead, the 5-foot-10 libero is working with what she has. And that means doing things differently than she has in the past.
"I'm just not there yet. I'm not playing like Stacy Sykora can play," she said. "I'm doing all the things I can do for the team. Like instead of just thinking about myself and what I'm going through, what I can and can't do, I'm thinking more about the team, and what I can do for the team."
Sykora was a three-sport athlete at Texas A&M, competing in volleyball, track and basketball. She joined the national team in 1999 and played for the U.S. at the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics, helping the American women win the silver medal at the Beijing Games.
But her pro career as an elite volleyball player took a turn while she was playing for Volei Futuro in Brazil. She lost consciousness briefly after the accident, but otherwise did not appear injured except for a small cut on her head.
She was taken by ambulance to a Brazilian hospital only as a precaution, but by the time she got there her condition had become grave.
Sykora's mother and sister flew to Brazil to be with her, and news of her plight spread quickly in the tight-knit international volleyball community. Fans on Twitter and Facebook added "Forca Stacy" in their posts about her, using the Portuguese word for strength.
Determined to return to her Olympic form, when Sykora was well enough to travel she returned to Southern California, where the U.S. women's team is based. She worked out with physical therapists and trainers. She continues the regimen today, training six days a week.
"They say with a brain injury, you have to wait for the brain. It's a unique thing, you have no control of it and every individual is different," she said. "So we're waiting for my brain to be like `You can see perfectly!' When my brain decides, that's when I'll see perfectly."
She also returned early this year to her Volei Futuro team. "In Brazil this year I realized that I'm not where I was. Now, as a player, I have to give it to other people because I can't dig a thousand balls or I can't pass a thousand balls," she said. "In a way it's made me more creative. I have to do it another way. I have to help the team in other ways."
Karch Kiraly, assistant coach on the U.S. women's team, said that what Sykora has gone through, and how far she's come, "is nothing short of incredible."
"Whether you're on the team or not, if you have a pulse you have to be inspired by Stacy. She had some incredible misfortune to be sitting in the wrong seat, on the wrong bus, on the wrong rainy night," Kiraly said. "And what's amazing with that she went back to Brazil and got back on the bus with her team. I think that shows what kind of resilience she has."
Currently ranked No. 1 in the world, the U.S. women's national team hopes to build on the silver it won in Beijing. The women have never won gold at the Olympics since the sport was made part of the games in 1964. Their only podium finishes before Beijing were in 1984, when they won silver in Los Angeles, and in 1992, when they took the bronze home from Barcelona.
Sykora spoke to The Associated Press recently while watching the U.S. men's national team earn its trip to London at the NORCECA Olympic qualification tournament in Long Beach, Calif.
Even if she doesn't make the team, Sykora will no doubt have a place in London. She's the team's biggest fan.
"Right now I feel like, `Gosh, we have all aspects of our game going right now.' We're just polishing it up," she said. "We're playing defense, we're passing well, we're blocking well still, and we're attacking with high numbers percentage-wise. Right now we're doing everything well. I think we're in a good place."