Friday February 10, 2012Dali Lemezan Inspired by Cancer Survivors to Help her Return from Injury
By Mara Rudolph, UF Communications
Tonight, when Dali Lemezan runs out of the Gator tunnel with her teammates to face a sea of pink shirts and screaming fans, she won’t be thinking about beating LSU, or sticking her landing, or setting personal bests. She’ll be thinking about the people the gymnasts are honoring in this Sixth Annual Link to Pink meet. She’ll be thinking about the breast cancer survivors and the fighters who show strength and hope through their toughest battles.
“We’re recognizing those that survive the battle and go through the battle to show that we’re there to support them. We want to show them that they’re not alone while they go through this,” Lemezan said.
For the past year, Lemezan has been fighting her own battle. She tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) at the NCAA Gymnastics Championships last April.
She led off the Gators’ vault lineup at the NCAA meet with a 9.775. Lemezan performed a vault at every meet of her two-year Gator career, but this one had an unfortunate ending.
Lemezan “stuck it too much” and extended her knees too early. She felt the effect as soon as she hit the mat.
“I was in disbelief because I really didn’t want to believe that something happened, even though I felt it. When I saluted to the judges, I felt my knee give out,” she said. “I saw the camera crew and my team all the way at the end of the runway, and the crowd, and all I could think was to smile. I tried smiling and playing it off, and I was just smiling and limping and running. I was just trying to stay positive.”
That positivity has proven useful in the past nine months as Lemezan battles her way back to competition form. As soon as she returned to Gainesville from the NCAA Championships, she started rehab to lessen the negative effects that ACL surgery would have on her muscles. She even made the most of walking around campus on crutches.
“I got some fancy crutches that had these springs in them. I think I was only the second person here to use that kind. It was actually pretty cool,” she said.
Each step of the way, from surgery to getting her leg brace off, Lemezan found something positive to take from her injury.
“I got cleared to run and it was the biggest accomplishment in such a long time. You take stuff like that for granted and when something like that happens, little things like walking or getting a brace off your leg and running is such a big deal,” she said. “You don’t realize how essential they are to your life.”
She also maintained her positivity with the support she received from her team, friends and family. As Lemezan recovered from surgery on her couch in Gainesville, some of her teammates who had gone home for the summer chipped in to send her a fruit basket arrangement and friends and family sent her magazines and movies to fight the boredom.
When training started in the fall, the gymnasts made sure to include Lemezan as much as much as they could.
“It was hard watching everyone do gymnastics. I was just doing my rehab and my strengthening, but I still felt like a part of the team. Even though I wasn’t doing gymnastics at the time, there wasn’t ever a feeling of being left out. If I was riding the bike or conditioning, the team and coaches would still cheer me on,” she said.
By the team’s intrasquad meet in December, Lemezan was able to do her vault with a soft landing. She said fighting her own battle on the sidelines for nine months helped her appreciate her sport that much more.
“I forgot the feeling of being pressured and the adrenaline. I saluted for my vault at our intrasquad meet and it was the first time since Nationals that I had that feeling. As soon as I started running, I felt like everything just let go,” she said. “After all this happened, it made me realize why I fell in love with the sport and for what reasons. I have started to appreciate the sport much more. I think I’m blessed to have come this far and not had any severe injuries up until this point. I’ve gained a lot more respect for the sport and for all those who have gone through more than I have.”