The gymnast flies through the air on the uneven bars at the Rio Olympics, pirouettes, twists, releases, blindly grabs the bars behind her, and for a second, holds a perfect handstand, her long legs towering high above the bars in a moment of pure beauty and athleticism.
Then, Jessica López dismounts, nails the landing, and in an uncharacteristic show of emotion, claps, smiles broadly and raises a fist in the air.
She knows she has done it: completed a flawless routine that would earn her 6th place at the 2016 Olympics in the uneven bars and 7th in the all-around competition, the best finish ever for any Venezuelan gymnast.
Little did gymnastics fans know that in the months and years leading up to Rio, there were times when López could barely walk, much less pound her bare feet onto the mats.
To make it to the Olympics, she had to train endlessly, fight through severe Achilles tendon pain and tap deep reservoirs of mental toughness. Her support team included her family, her longtime coach and her medical team at the UCHealth Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Denver.
“She’s amazing. She’s this teeny-tiny person with a huge spirit,” said López’ physical therapist, Beth Park.
“We do our best to treat all people as if they were world-class athletes, but to actually be in the presence of someone of Jessica’s caliber is very special. She’s amazing. She has more drive and determination than anyone I have ever met.” Park said.
Her coach’s ‘once in a lifetime athlete’
Now 33, López has been doing gymnastics since age 3 when she started playing around at the gym in Caracas where her older sister competed. A natural at the sport, López was recruited at age 10 to join the Venezuelan national team. The federation tapped coaches from gymnastics powerhouses including Romania and Russia. López lived with her teammates, trained full time and learned classical ballet in addition to gymnastics.
She went on to compete for the University of Denver from 2005 to 2009, where she was one of DU’s most decorated gymnasts and a five-time All American. López long has called Denver home.
She’s just 5’ 2’’, so if you pass her on the street, you’d never guess she’s a three-time Olympian who has the ferocity of a giant.
López’ longtime coach, Nilson Savage, chokes up as he speaks about López.
He calls her that “once in a lifetime athlete.”
“She has this combination of being very, very powerful and very artistic. And she persevered through all her aches and pains. That’s very rare. In my 38 years of coaching, she’s the one gymnast who combined all of those qualities,” Savage said. “She’s a warrior.”
Savage is originally from Brazil and now is an assistant coach for the women’s gymnastics team at Iowa State University. He said López gave him a gift to him by doing so well in his native city and brought great pride to Venezuela and all of South America, which hosted its first Olympics ever at the Rio Games.
López is also unique for her staying power in a sport where teens dominate. She long has competed against girls half her age. Savage wouldn’t count her out if she decides to train for her fourth Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
“She’s an overachiever. Once she puts her mind to something, the possibilities are limitless,” Savage said.
Before López could dazzle the crowds at the Olympics, however, she needed to be able to walk.
From pure joy to severe pain
López still remembers the joy she felt when she landed her first back flip at age 5. She felt carefree, hurling herself backwards and landing firmly on her feet.
All those landings have added up over the years. While López and most gymnasts constantly train with pain, López could no longer ignore the messages her body was sending back in 2013. She had made it to the all-around final at the World Championships in Antwerp – a great accomplishment. But, her Achilles tendons were so sore that she could barely put any weight on her heels.
“I couldn’t imagine running to perform my vault or my floor routine, I gave everything I had during podium training and prelims. The pain was unbearable,” López said.
Devastated, she had to withdraw. When she returned home to Denver, one of López’ first stops was a visit to the Steadman Hawkins clinic.
Park, her physical therapist, remembers how bad López’ Achilles tendons looked.
“She was dealing with severe thickening of her tendons. Normally, they’d be about a quarter-inch thick. Hers were about three inches thick because there was so much inflammation,” Park said.
Park teamed up with López’ doctor, Joshua Metzl, to give López relief as fast as possible.
Alternatives to surgery: platelet-rich plasma and physical therapy
Metzl, who is the chief orthopedic surgeon for the Colorado Ballet and an assistant team physician for the Denver Broncos and Colorado Rockies, wanted to avoid surgery for López so she wouldn’t have to be off her feet and could keep training.
So, he opted for a series of injections of platelet-rich plasma, also known as PRP.
For each injection, López’ team drew some of her blood, then spun it in a centrifuge to separate out the platelets from the white blood cells. Then, Metzl injected the plasma back into López’ Achilles to promote healing right at the site of her inflammation. Each treatment takes about an hour and is done right at the clinic.
“She did really well and had complete resolution of her symptoms,” Metzl said. “PRP works really well for the Achilles. There’s some evidence it might also help with arthritis.”
In addition to the PRP treatments, Park saw López at least twice a week for physical therapy sessions whenever she was in Denver.
“We worked to improve the tissue quality and range of motion. As her strength returned, we progressively loaded her calf and Achilles to allow her to land and push off again.
“We got her to the point where she could run, tumble, land and dismount off the bars. That’s a ton of load on her calves and Achilles,” Park said.
To make matters even more complicated, gymnasts must compete without shoes. If an athlete like a runner or a football player has a foot or calf injury, sports medicine experts can use devices like orthotics or heel lifts to give them comfort.
“But, Jessica has to perform barefooted. She needs to control a much larger range of motion. She needs to be stronger. What elite-level gymnasts do is far beyond normal physiology,” Park said.
Park, Metzl and López’ entire medical team cheered for her whenever she competed.
“Her success is 100% her doing. She’s driven and dedicated and takes everything to the ‘nth’ degree. I was so grateful and proud to be a part of her journey,” said Park.
Added Metzl: “She’s a pleasure to be around. She’s one of these people who has a positive impact on everyone she meets….She’s fierce and focused.”
Metzl considers himself lucky to treat Olympians, professional athletes and regular folks alike.
“We give world-class care to everyone. We’re thrilled when all our patients do well and get to return to activities they love.”
Nothing like that Olympic moment
López was especially grateful that her medical team gave her maximum relief with minimal disruption to her training.
“Honestly, I’m very stubborn. I didn’t used to go to the doctor until I absolutely had to go. My Achilles was so bad that I couldn’t even walk or do floor routines. That’s when I decided I had to go,” López said.
Then, she found warmth, support and tremendous physical relief.
“Every time I went in, they were very kind. They know your by name. They know you personally. They make you feel special,” López said.
“The expertise in sport medicine is second to none. There was not one day I walked out of Steadman Hawkins without feeling better, physically and emotionally. The atmosphere is very positive, and everyone is passionate and caring.
“It’s amazing to have a team that cares so much about you and wants to make you feel better,” López said.
Time will tell what López decides to do in the future. If you see her in the gym, you might spot two clues. She wears a necklace with a four-leaf clover, a symbol of good luck. And, on her back, she has a tattoo of the colorful Olympic rings.
Perhaps she’ll take her talents to Tokyo and compete once again for a medal.
“I’ve competed hundreds of times and I’ve won hundreds of meets, including the World Cup. But there’s nothing like that moment at the Olympics. It was so special. You train so much. You sacrifice so much. You overcome so much. It takes an army of people to help you get there. There’s all the struggle and all the joy. You live for that moment.”