By Emery Summey
She dedicated 17 years of her life to the sport, yet it only took one faulty landing to change the course of Leah Gneco’s gymnastics career. At the age of 21, the former collegiate gymnast received her fourth ACL reconstruction surgery, and her fifth surgery total.
A few days after her 16th birthday, Gneco was on the balance beam at gymnastics practice, gearing up for her dismount. She had been training extra hard in preparation for a college coach coming the next day. As Gneco zoned in and hurdled for the roundoff, her foot missed the beam.
Despite the pop in her neck, Gneco remained calm. It was 15 minutes later when her hands went numb, and Gneco’s parents rushed her to the emergency room. They learned that Gneco had torn ligaments between her fourth and fifth vertebrae and also crushed her spinal disk. The injury required Gneco to undergo surgery if she ever wanted to be active again. After two plates, eight screws and a cadaver bone, everything was fused back together. Gneco was back doing gymnastics three months after the surgery, unaware of the four major knee surgeries she would later undergo.
Dusting herself off
In 2017, a week before the regional championships, Gneco was training on the balance beam during practice. She was setting up to finish her back handspring back layout when her right knee popped out of place upon landing. Gneco noticed her knee began to swell, but continued with practice and even participated in conditioning. She eventually went to the ER with her parents, where she was referred to an orthopedic surgeon and received an MRI.
“I’m sorry to tell you this Leah, but your right ACL is torn and we need to schedule surgery to fix this,” Dr. Dasti said.
“So, my junior prom is next week, and I already bought my dress,” Gneco said. “I still really want to go. Is there any way we can schedule the surgery after prom?”
“Yeah, we can do that,” Dr. Dasti laughed. “But you’ll need to be on crutches until your surgery.”
Gneco agreed to the deal, knowing she wouldn’t take those crutches to prom.
With junior year being crucial to the college recruiting process, Gneco felt down about not being able to attend college gymnastics camps over the summer or show her skills to coaches during practice. Nevertheless, she remained optimistic that her body would heal quickly, and she would return to her old self in no time. After a nine-month recovery, Gneco was back to her normal training schedule.
Almost a year later to the date, Gneco was once again on the balance beam training for regionals. She was setting up for her series, back handspring back layout when she landed and felt a familiar pop in her right knee. She finished her workouts and even continued training for the next week, in denial of the hard truth. When she could no longer bear the pain, Gneco went to a new orthopedic surgeon specializing in female athletes and received her second MRI scan.
“Hi Leah, my name is Dr. McCarthy,” she said. “I see you’ve been through this before, but unfortunately you have torn your ACL again.”
“Yeah, I could feel the exact same thing as last time, but I thought I could keep pushing through and go to nationals,” Gneco said.
Dr. McCarthy shook her head in disappointment.
“We are going to have to schedule another surgery to fix your ACL and I would like to do it pretty soon.”
Gneco made a face.
“Last year I postponed the surgery so I could go to my junior prom … will I be able to go to prom after my surgery?”
“Yes, you can go to prom after,” Dr. McCarthy said. “But you will have to be on crutches, and you will probably be in a bit of pain.”
Gneco smiled and agreed, knowing that this time she couldn’t avoid the crutches.
Slow and steady
With her senior year over and a 13-month recovery ahead of her, Gneco headed to UNC-Chapel Hill to start summer classes. She slowly began rehab, weightlifting and eventually gymnastics. Entering college as an athlete, Gneco felt the excitement and pressure to deliver her gymnastics skills. She was thrilled to compete and contribute to the team, but also skeptical about what her knee could handle.
Throughout preseason during her sophomore year, Gneco frequently felt her knee pop out of place or lock up. It seemed like something was wrong, but her desire to compete in college was strong. One day in practice, Gneco had one more bar routine and asked her coach if she could leave out the dismount because her knee was feeling sore. Coach left the decision up to Gneco, who decided to go for it. As soon as she landed, she felt her right knee get blown out again. This time, Gneco was in too much pain to even stand up. She was familiar with the routine, but this time was different–Gneco instantly knew her gymnastics career was over.
Gneco went to UNC-CH’s knee and ankle specialist, Dr. Jeffrey T. Spang, who said that her ACL was torn once again. This time, however, she would have to undergo two surgeries to fix her knee. The first surgery would be in February to remove and regrow her ACL, while the second one would be in June to go back in and complete the reconstruction. With an 18-month recovery ahead of her, Gneco was devastated by the abrupt end to her gymnastics career.
A new normal
By the start of her junior year, Gneco had a slim chance of ever returning to gymnastics and decided to medically retire. With so much of her identity focused around the sport, she had to create a new normal for her everyday life.
Currently in her senior year, Gneco has found the positive side of medical retirement. Not having to spend 20 or more hours a week in the gym has given her time to focus on her future. Now, Gneco is working at Labcorp, has completed all of her medical school applications and is exploring new interests such as cooking and baking. Fifteen months out of surgery, she is still not cleared to do high levels of physical activity. However, Gneco’s love for gymnastics remains.
“Gymnastics has been my whole life for the past 18 years,” she says. “It has taught me to be resilient, adaptable and to push through challenges in all areas of my life. I have sacrificed so much of myself for the sport, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Edited by: Natalie Huschle