January 16, 2013

 Support from Olympians for Jacoby Miles
(L-R) Melanie Roach, weightlifting; Jennie Reed, cycling; Kelly
Stephens-Tysland, ice hockey; Ariana Kukors, swimming;
Georganne Moline, track and field; Adrienne Martelli, rowing; Queen
Underwood, boxing; Me, bobsled; Stephanie Cox, soccer; Hope
Solo, soccer; Amanda Borden, gymnastics; Carly Patterson,
gymnastics; Kerri Strug, gymnastics; Peter Vidmar (speaking),

There are those times when you are punched in the face with reality – sometimes in the form of an injury because you tried to justify seven hours of beach volleyball on a Sunday as “active recovery,” other times in the form of a ripped crotch seam in your jeans because bobsled legs require that all of your pants have some percentage of spandex in them.  And then there is reality that dawns on you on a grander scale, when something so tragic happens that you are humbled by the realization that it’s not about me.  Life is a collective experience, made sweeter by our interaction with other people, and warmed by the kindness they’re capable of.

I made it home for the holidays just in time to be a part of an extraordinary display of human kindness in the face of tragedy.  Over 500 people, including 12 Olympians, gathered at the Temple Theatre in Tacoma, Wash., to raise money for a young girl who had recently been in a life-altering gymnastics accident.  The sadness of the circumstances was overshadowed by an overwhelming eagerness to help.  While the purpose was solemn, spirits were high with the excitement of how flawlessly the event was being pulled off after a mere two weeks of preparation.

On November 16, 2012, Jacoby Miles, a Level 9 gymnast, sustained a serious neck injury while performing a routine maneuver on the uneven bars.  While practicing a double back dismount off the high bar into the pit, she opened prematurely and “got lost” before her second flip was complete, landing on her neck on an eight-inch mat.  She underwent surgery for a dislocated C4 vertebrae, and is now paralyzed from the mid-chest down.  Jacoby’s spinal cord was completely pinched off but not severed, though doctors say the use of her legs again would be in the “miracle” category.

Jacob Miles tragic story told by Bree Schaaf 
 Jacoby Miles

Seeing that many Olympians fly in to support Jacoby is a testament to how a sports tragedy hits home for any athlete at any level.  When you physically put everything on the line day in and day out, it’s easy to become numb to the risk involved.  Gymnastics is such a great demonstration of the extraordinary things humans are capable of, but it takes a lifetime to get to Jacoby’s level, and a fraction of a second for it all to disappear. 

Bobsleds travel at speeds in excess of 95 mph, with no seatbelts and only the control and skill of the pilot to get the team down safely.  And yet because we do it every day, the adrenaline and risk becomes so routine that the gravity of the situation is long lost. I admit to even climbing out of the sled after a run and yawning at times.  It’s a tragedy like this, however, that shocks us back into the reality that we are taking huge risks every day, living a fleeting reality that can change drastically at any moment.

Jacoby’s family spoke of her genuine sweetness and kindness, praising her bravery through this ordeal.  It was seeing all of these people gathered, some knowing Jacoby well and others having never met her, that highlighted the pureness of the human spirit.  The generosity was overwhelming, with over $180,000 raised by auction and donation, including a full home remodel as well as a new minivan made wheelchair accessible.  Olympians attending included Kerri Strug (who seriously tested my filter because I so badly wanted to ask her about her Saturday Night Live skits), Carly Patterson and Hope Solo.  Olympian presence aided in the fundraising effort by offering a higher donation VIP package that included photos with the 12 Olympians as well time to mingle and ask questions. 

I was humbled not only by my Olympic peers, but by the fact that my presence was some form of help.  In a situation like this, you know that there is nothing you can say to make it better.  But being there with other Olympians, all so eager to help, helped to feel like we contributed in a small way to easing the recovery for Jacoby.  Because like I said at the beginning, it’s not about me.  Life is full of magic if you keep your eyes open, and though Jacoby’s tragedy leaves us asking “Why?” it also leaves us with the reminder that every day there is an opportunity to help someone.  That is where humanity shines brightest.  A quote I read by Mister Rogers after the event really hit home:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me ‘Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.’  To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers- so many caring people in this world.” -Mister Rogers

To donate to Jacoby’s recovery, please visit her website here.