My Story: I Am Strong

I grew up a competitive club gymnast, joining the team program when I was five years old. For ten years I lived and breathed gymnastics, and everything that came with it—the intense training lifestyle, the body aches and crashes, not a day lived without calluses and blisters on my hands, and the love of competing in the sport. Being a gymnast was my identity and my passion, and it molded me in big ways as a young girl. Particularly, it instilled in me a high level of work ethic and physical fitness. I was a small muscular power-house, with a little bit of a perfectionist attitude and whole lot of mental toughness. I was a gymnast, and that is what I knew.

01.17.09

On January 17th, 2009 I suffered a terrible gymnastics accident at a competition in Phoenix, Arizona that sent my world crashing down. I was a freshman in high school, 15 years old, and at the beginning of my third season as a Level 10 Junior Olympic gymnast. I was competing on the vault when I landed wrong, with both of my legs locked.

I suffered two broken legs and a severely damaged artery in my right leg, cutting off blood flow to my right foot. I was rushed to a hospital in Arizona where I endured multiple surgeries to repair all of the damage that had been done and to try and reopen my artery. With that, many complications occurred along the way. I developed compartment syndrome and became dangerously close to losing my right foot altogether.

The lack of blood flow for an extended period of time combined with the compartment syndrome caused an incredible amount of nerve damage in my right leg all the way down to my toes. Even more, a large portion of my right calf died off from the trauma. My surgeons found it necessary to remove 70% of my gastrocnemius (what you would typically refer to as your calf muscle) and a small portion of my anterior tibialis (the muscle responsible for dorsiflexing your foot). As a result of all of this, I lost all feeling in my right ankle and foot for the next two years, and lost nearly all ability to move that ankle and foot on my own.

I spent four weeks total at the hospital in Arizona, enduring 12 surgeries, upwards of 30 hours in a hyperbaric chamber, and losing 15 pounds from my already small 100-pound frame. After those four weeks I was finally stable enough to be transported to Gillette Children’s Hospital in Minnesota where I would stay for four more weeks for inpatient rehabilitation. After my time at Gillette, I spent many months in casts and on crutches, needing two more surgeries, and continuing outpatient physical therapy for nearly two more years.  

Overall, I came out of this injury with two months logged in a hospital, 14 surgeries under my belt and 12 unique scars covering my legs. To this day, I cannot move my toes or pull my foot up on my own, and can only slightly push my foot down.

I refuse to let the lasting effects of my injury stop me.

After I left the hospital for good, I went to battle in physical therapy to build myself back up again. I did a lot of my therapy in my gymnastics gym alongside my teammates and eventually started doing the uneven bars two years later. I needed to prove to myself, and to the world around me, that this injury would not defeat me. The uneven bars was the only event I could physically do given my circumstances, so I gave it my all and made a comeback to the sport I loved, competing in a total of three competitions. I officially retired after that season, feeling very proud of what I accomplished and finally ready to close that chapter of my life.

My accident left me with lasting effects that still impact my life on a daily basis, but I refuse to let them stop me. I’ve learned to compensate for the problems with my foot and taught myself to walk without using my ankle and certain lower leg muscles. I have little to no balance on my right leg due to the missing muscle in my calf and my inability to stabilize my ankle. I’ve experienced firsthand how when one part of your body is not functioning properly, other areas of your body will inevitably be disrupted and have problems as well. I’ve also experienced how amazing the body is at adapting. It’s an extra challenge for me to effectively target and build muscle in my right leg without the proper function and balance on my foot. Yes, all of this can be frustrating at times for sure, but I always remind myself in times of doubt, that I am very lucky to be doing the things I’m doing today.

Today, I live an active lifestyle and have embraced a love for fitness. After I retired from gymnastics, I still craved the intense workouts. I started working out at my local gym and adopted a lifestyle of daily fitness on my own, teaching myself to compensate for my foot in every way I could.  I’ve carried my gymnastics work ethic and mentality with me through all walks of life, but it has been most notably present when it comes to my health and fitness.

Exercising is crucial for the health of my right leg.

The list of reasons I could write about why I workout is long, but one reason in particular is more important than the others: Exercising is crucial for the health of my right leg.

Sometime after I left Gillette, we found out my artery had closed once again, and that I no longer had a main pathway for blood to reach my right foot. However, my vascular surgeon confidently reported that because of my young age and the active lifestyle I had been living, my body had compensated by creating collateral blood flow around the artery to my foot. For the past 8 years my foot has been surviving thanks to this collateral blood flow made possible by my daily physical activity. Staying active and working out is now the most important thing I can do to keep my foot alive without another surgery.

I have been blessed with far more abilities to move and live an active life than anyone would have ever thought I would have. When I exercise my body and utilize my foot for the good it can still do for me, I am giving all the glory and thanks to God. It is a privilege to move and sweat. I workout for the health and function of my right leg. I workout because I CAN and I WILL.

It is such a privilege to be able to move and sweat.

There are so many things in this life today that I could be saying “no” to or shying away from because of my foot. It’s rare that I do that though, especially when it comes to fitness. Over the years I’ve taught myself to run, making adjustments in my stride, becoming comfortable and confident enough in my foot to still carry me through long distances. I ride bikes even though I can’t pedal correctly with my right foot. Balancing and jumping is obviously difficult without full coordination, but I still incorporate these movements in my workouts. I lift weights, I do HIIT circuits, and I do yoga even when certain poses don’t work for me. I run into new challenges every day and roll with the punches when I can’t do something. Modification is my friend, and some exercises I may not be able to do at all, but I’ll never let these things stop me from living a life I want to live.

• • • • •

My story is so much more than that of a gymnast breaking both of her legs. It’s one of perseverance. It’s a story to share about finding your inner strength. It’s truly about not letting anything hold you back from doing what you love.

This accident has a purpose in my life, and I believe for the time being, that purpose is for me to share my story and the message I can take away from it. We are all so much more capable than we may think we are, and we all have our “somethings” that we’re dealing with. Maybe it’s a sickness, a mental illness, a physical disability, or even self-doubt that holds us back.

But we are all ABLE despite what disables us.

I have learned and grown to be thankful for the abilities I have, instead of focusing on what I lack.

And each day I know that I am stronger than I was yesterday.

-Meghan Bergman