After suffering a serious neck injury last January, the fifth-year senior is taking charge in 2009
COLUMBUS, Ohio – There is something comforting about the usual. While some frown on monotony, there are others who like their days to be “same as usual” and the reassurance it brings to a life in an ever-changing world.
The week of Jan. 27, 2008 started just like any other, a Sunday off after a Saturday night home meet. And what a meet it was. The Ohio State men’s gymnastics team lost six-time All-American DJ Bucher to an injury sustained mid-meet on its way to a conference loss to Illinois.
But with the break of dawn come Monday morning, it was time to get back to business as usual for the Buckeyes.
Following schedule, the men’s squad slowly filtered into Steelwood Athletic Training Center after morning classes for its 2 p.m. practice Monday, Jan. 28. A quick visit to the athletic training room and the team was taped, warmed up and ready to go.
Practice started just like any other but with one flip of fate, all normalcy went out the door. On his first event, his first routine, then-senior Pejman Ebrahimi’s hands simultaneously ripped off the rings, sending his body hurling head first toward the blue mats covering the practice gym floor.
“I made it through the whole set,” Ebrahimi said. “But as I swung through the bottom of the rings during my dismount, both my hands peeled off. When I felt my hands rip off, I remembering thinking to myself, Oh man, I’m going for a ride.’”
It was not supposed to happen. Even now, the Encino, Calif., native calls it a freak accident. On a dismount he competed and practiced too many times before to count, Ebrahimi firmly believes his fall was not the result of a gymnastics error on his part.
It just happened.
With the centrifugal force of his body sending Ebrahimi spiraling out of control, his only safety net came in the form of Ohio State assistant coach Doug Stibel who was able to turn the fourth-year student-athlete just enough to his side to save him from landing straight on his head.
“I assumed Doug had tried to help break my fall but I don’t remember it,” the fifth-year senior said. “I just remember hitting the floor and not being able to move. Our athletic trainer ran over to me and stabilized my neck while the other trainers realigned my body. At the time I couldn’t feel anything and couldn’t move if I wanted to. My body was shut down.”
In 15 minutes the paramedics arrived and Ebrahimi was quickly carted out of the gymnastics practice room and en route to the emergency room.
And the hits kept coming.
“Right off the bat, a neurosurgeon came into my hospital room and told me he was the head of the department and that my season was over,” the 2007 NCAA vault champion said. “The first two things he ever said to me hit me hard.
“It was a tough moment for me because at the time all I could move were my hands. I didn’t know how bad my injury was.”
Tests followed and x-rays were taken and in the end it proved that Ebrahimi had, in some ways, lucked out. The All-American gymnast did not break any bones in his tumble. Instead, Ebrahimi damaged the ligaments between the C4 and C5 vertebras in his neck. He was admitted overnight and walked out the next morning on his own accord wearing a simple neck brace.
In the grand scheme of things, the outcome could have been much worse. He was not paralyzed. He could walk without assistance. But as an athlete, worrying about the sudden end to a 17 year gymnastics career, it was the pits.
From running around in a grown-ups’ Gymboree to assuming a sedative lifestyle, Ebrahimi was thrown out of his typical routine, and with his family more than 2,000 miles away, the California native learned to rely on the support of his Buckeye family.
“My teammates were unbelievable,” Ebrahimi said. “I wasn’t able to do too much with my brace so they helped me with whatever I needed. It was long and hard but the guys helped me through it.
“My sister also came out in February for a couple weeks to take care of me because I needed family. I needed a family member, not only to help get me to class and buy groceries, but for the emotional aspect of it. I needed family support and that feeling of home.”
And while he knew his 2008 season was over, Ebrahimi remained optimistic that he would get a second chance at a senior campaign.
“Right away I started talking to Coach Miles Avery about redshirting and coming back in 2009 but he told me not to worry about that yet,” he said. “Coach told me to concentrate on getting better and that we’d talk about gymnastics later. It was reassuring to know that No. 1 to the coaching staff was my health.
“But I didn’t want to go out like that.”
Five slow and painful weeks passed and Ebrahimi’s appointment to have a second set of x-rays taken proved that there were indeed no fractures. It was his silver lining.
“Usually, with the type of injury I had, there is a facture involved and surgery is necessary to fuse the vertebras together,” Ebrahimi said. “Luckily, I didn’t have any fractures because surgery would have meant my gymnastics career was over.”
It was a hard five weeks for the Ohio State squad on the competition floor as well. Down two All-Americans, with Bucher and Ebrahimi, the reigning NCAA vault champion, out of the lineup, the team entered its toughest stretch of the season.
The Buckeyes dropped three-consecutive meets to California, Penn State and Michigan, all of which were ranked in the nation’s Top 5, falling to 4-8 on the season.
“It was so hard to not even be able to rehab,” Ebrahimi said. “I wasn’t allowed to do anything for the first five weeks and even after the five-week mark all I could do was ride the stationary bike.
“And we had a lot of injuries last season so it was hard to sit back and see your team hurting and not be able to do anything about it.”
By the end of eight weeks, Ebrahimi was itching to get out of the stabilizing neck brace. After eating, showering and sleeping in the brace for more than 50 days, the gymnast quickly found that he had severe atrophy of the muscles in his shoulders and neck the day he finally shed the white brace.
And after what Ebrahimi describes as “the most excruciating massage” of his life from Steelwood head athletic trainer Alex Wong, his road to recovery began.
In rehab, he started with range of motion exercises and long stretching sessions. Soon he moved on to strength conditioning.
“I had to do directional resistance, turning my head in different directions against a slight resistance just to rebuild the muscle in my neck,” Ebrahimi said. “It took sometime for my upper body and back to not hurt when I did gymnastics. Even to this day, I still feel tightness.”
But it is an uncomfortable feeling he endures because it is better than not doing gymnastics at all.
Now entering his fifth season with the Buckeyes, Ebrahimi is back to a routine schedule of class and practice and ready to make a comeback, even if it means he has to pay his own way.
“I had a decision to make,” he said. “Because the 2008 competition season had already begun, my scholarship had been allocated to another gymnast for the 2009 season.
“I could receive a general scholarship to finish my coursework as a fifth year with exhausted eligibility but that meant not returning to the team. My other option was forfeiting my scholarship, finishing my classes and competing in a fifth season.
“It wasn’t a hard decision for me. This team has such a great opportunity to battle for the Big Ten and NCAA team titles and I want to be a part of that effort.”
And on a young 2008-09 team, Ebrahimi is the last Buckeye remaining who has competed in an NCAA team final. Now 10 months after his injury, the veteran gymnast is in the best shape of his life and hitting all cylinders in the gym.
“I worked really hard this summer to get my body in shape,” Ebrahimi said. “I’m eating better than I ever have before and it is helping my gymnastics. I’ve never been this consistent on vault this early in the year, so it’s reassuring.
“We’ve watched the team finals and witnessed it from the stands. Now it is our turn to get back to the finals.”
And the question left lingering in the air will he compete the infamous dismount?
“I have not worked the dismount I ripped off of yet,” Ebrahimi said. “It’s not a mental thing because I know my fall was a freak accident. I just slipped. But I’m going to start working it in the pit soon.”
Then he adds with a smile, “But I’m also exploring other dismounts as well.”
by Emily Meyer, Ohio State Athletics Communications