One year after the near-fatal bus accident that almost killed U.S. volleyball player Stacy Sykora, she still remembers the devastation of the crash when she speaks of it, by rubbing her right hand over her heart.
“I never used to put my hand over my heart. But then people started noticing that I rubbed my heart every time I talked about the accident. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. But I do do it. Like right now,” she said, her hand pressed on the center of her chest. “I reach for my heart without realizing it.”
Sykora, 34, was left in a in a coma with significant brain damage after the accident. She could not see or remember small things, let alone play her favorite sport. Her dreams of a fourth Olympics seemed completely out of the question while she was in recovery.
“It’s like living in a fantasy world,” she said, “and not a reality world.”
Just over her heart, she bears a tattoo and a scar. The tattoo reads “4/12/2011,” a day that she will never forget. The day of the crash.
“I put that date on my heart because it’s in my heart,” she said. “It changed my life. I put it over my heart because it might be the biggest thing that ever happened to me. I put it there because I have to remember that my life wasn’t taken for a reason. I’m here for a reason.”
Sykora has played for the Olympic team since 1999 as a defensive specialist.
“An iconic member,” USA Volleyball Chief Executive Doug Beal said.
“Stacy is a rock for USA Volleyball,” Team USA trainer Lindsey Berg said.
In 2010, Sykora had relocated from Colorado Springs to Orange County when the Olympic team began training in Anaheim in 2009. She was voted the best defensive specialist or libero at the 2010 World Championships and was ready to go for Olympic gold.
Then, in the spring of 2011, Sykora and her teammates went to play with the Brazilian team Volei Futuro near Sao Paulo. She was sitting of the team bus with one of her teammates and listening to her iPod when the crash happened.
The night of April 12, 2011 was dark and rainy when the bus approached Sao Paulo. The bus hit a wet stream on the roadway and overturned. When rescue teams arrived to clear the wreckage, she did not appear to be seriously injured. She was cut and bleeding on her forehead when she arrived at the hospital. While she was being evaluated by hospital staff, she began experiencing respiratory problems. A scan revealed trauma on the left side of her brain.
She was in a coma for three days and then in the intensive care unit for a week. She had to relearn how to walk, among other motor and cognitive skills. She was transported back to Southern California to undergo more physical therapy, a process which still continues today.
Large parts of her life are now missing from her memory, including her recovery period and time spent with her family and friends after the accident.
Today, she is doing much better physically and has been training for days in hopes that she can regain her position in the team.
“She’s here and a lot of people aren’t,” said U.S. coach Hugh McCutcheon , who expects to name the team in June or July. “There’s no room for sympathy here. She’s earned the right to be here.”
Her place on the team is not guaranteed, even though she is deeply ingrained in the sport. The pool of players this year is one of the broadest in U.S. history. However, her intensive training and love of volleyball has given her the motivation to try out for the team.
“People might say it’s impossible,” Sykora said of her quest. “Nothing’s impossible. Is it going to be tough? Oh, hell, yeah. But I’m not going to let go. This is what I lived for.”
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