Three-time U.S. Olympian Stacy Sykora has wowed fans during her immensely successful career with a take-no-prisoners approach on the court and a radiant personality off of it. Both of those traits are now being used by one of the sport’s most recognizable faces to overcome the biggest obstacle of both her career, and more importantly, her life.
The 34-year-old Sykora suffered a critical head injury during a mid-April bus accident in Brazil just prior to arriving at the arena with her Volei Futuro club team for the first match of a best-of-three semifinal matchup in the Superliga playoff.
Sykora was in her first season playing professionally in Brazil after previously enjoying a prosperous overseas career in places such as Spain, Italy and Russia. She was part of the 2008 U.S. women’s Olympic team that won the silver medal in Beijing.
Just two months later, Sykora, who has no memory of anything that occurred from April 12 (the day of the accident) until the evening of April 21, speaks for the first time about an injury that doctors warned would leave her brain damaged and possibly unable to walk.
“What I will tell you is from what people tell me—teammates, my family,” she said. “I’ve talked to so many people and I’m still talking to a lot of people to find out more about what happened.”
Despite the initial grim prognosis, and much more healing and therapy to come, Sykora can lean on the fact she still has volleyball in her life—more specifically the goal to return to the U.S. women’s national team.
Heading to the Big Match It’s April 12. Sykora and her Volei Futuro teammates were just about to arrive at the arena in Brazil for that evening’s start of semifinal play.
“It had been raining hard all day,” she said. “They said on YouTube that we were almost at the gym and when we arrived there was four feet of water. It was really bad. We were going down the curb and there was an island, I guess you can call it. The bus driver didn’t see it. When we hit that, the bus flipped on its side.”
Published reports describe the bus hitting a guardrail separating the highway and an off-ramp.
Because the bus was crowded on that trip, Sykora was sitting on the lap of teammate Clarisse Benicio Peixoto (she goes by just Clarisse). Sykora had given up her seat to Clarisse.
“They told me the bus was surprisingly full,” she said. “Clarisse wanted to listen to music. She’s a lady. I told her to take my seat instead of standing up. I sat in her lap and listened to music with her. When the bus flipped, I flew off. That’s why I was hurt. Not everybody was hurt. It was myself and the girl next to me. The girl next to me got 10 stitches. The president of our club (Basilio Torres Neto) was in the back and there was already a foot of water in the bus and I’m face down unconscious in the water.”
After conducting this interview, Sykora spoke with Clarisse via Skype and learned Clarisse and Basilio carried her off the bus and flagged down a random motorist, who then took them to a Brazilian hospital.
“Clarisse said when Basilio took my head out of the water, my forehead was gushing blood,” Sykora said. “Clarisse told me she talked to me the whole car ride to the hospital and kept saying, ‘Say something. Say something.’”
After being taken to a Brazilian hospital, Sykora was told she had to be restrained.
“My agent (Ana Flavia Sanglard), who speaks Italian, said I was screaming at the top of my lungs,” she said. “I had brain damage and that had a lot to do with it. I wasn’t going crazy. I was just messed up. They put me in a three-day coma.”
Sykora had part of the right side of her head shaved as a precaution to prepare for possible surgery to prevent additional cranial swelling.
“They thought my head was swelling and they thought they would have to cut my skull because there was so much blood in my head,” she said. “They didn’t have to do that, but there was a lot of blood. They told my mom (Sherian Richards) and sister (Keri) that I had brain damage.”
The initial news Sykora’s family received was much graver than simply brain damage.
“They followed my mom and sister out and told them I could be impaired the rest of my life,” Sykora said, talking in her usual energetic and mile-a-minute voice. “They said I could be impaired and might not walk again.”
When she awoke, Sykora, who is fluent in several languages thanks to her globetrotting overseas professional career, again was talking in different tongues.
“They said I was speaking part Portuguese, Italian and English,” she said. “I was calling people by made-up names. I said it was 2002 and told random stories.”
Sykora said around April 21, things started taking a turn for the better.
“Everything became conscious,” she said. “I remember waking up and my sister took pictures of my head. About the 23rd (of April) I was OK and coherent.”
Sykora spent from April 12 to May 7 in the Brazilian hospital. Sykora and Marcela Constantino, the team’s manager, flew from Brazil back to California where Sykora entered Casa Colina in Pomona, Calif., which Sykora noted is one of the top traumatic brain injury facilities in the world. She stayed there from May 8-18 and continues to do outpatient rehabilitation there three days a week.
The day Sykora left Casa Colina, she made a beeline for the U.S. Women’s National Team training center in Anaheim, Calif.
“It was the greatest feeling in the whole world,” she said of getting back to familiar surroundings and familiar people.
Sykora’s first order of business on her road to recovery was standard physical therapy.
“Oh my gosh, it was amazing,” said Sykora in an interview that lasted the better part of an hour. “I would walk up stairs and think, ‘Wow.’ The first few days in physical therapy I would do things like walk and touch my nose. Every single day I’ve gotten better. Last week was so much more work than this week. Physically, I can do so much more now.”
In mid-June Sykora returned to her native Burleson, Tex., to see her family in her hometown for the first time since the accident. She spoke enthusiastically of how good it was to go back home, but that some changes were quite noticeable. The athlete has seen her weight drop from about 136 pounds down to a meager 125.
“I’m real skinny,” she said.
The lasting hurdle from the accident for Sykora is getting her vision back to where it was before the crash.
“My physical ability is good,” said Sykora, who has traditionally been one of the most physically fit volleyball players in the game. “Physically I’m a little behind with my volleyball skills, but every single day I touch a ball, I’m getting better. My mental ability is good. Every day my vision is getting better. On a Friday I was passing and had a problem with my vision and then on Monday, it improved. All of that improvement happened over the weekend. It’s crazy how it changes. It’s all happening so fast. The vision is what I am working on now and every day it gets better. I have to realize, A) I lived; B) I didn’t get any big injuries. I didn’t get any life-changing injuries and C) The vision is going to come. I just have to be patient.”
The ordeal has made Sykora take a major step back and reflect.
“I feel weird. I feel weird telling the story. If someone told me this story or I read about someone this happened to, I’d say, ‘Oh my gosh!’” she said. “Some of the things I’ve been through...it’s amazing to me. Everybody always says ‘Stacy is funny and is a jokester and tries to make people smile and laugh.’ It’s weird when something like this happens. It’s life. It can happen. It’s strange how it’s happened me. I’m not scared.
“Everything happens for a reason. If I didn’t sit down on Clarisse and did something different would everything be fine? It was the end of the season. It was two weeks before I was going home. I don’t know? For some reason it happened.”
And Sykora, ever the trouper, is taking her new haircut (partly shaved prior to surgery) in stride.
“So I have this big scar on the right side of my head. I had these four brain monitors to see if my brain was swelling,” she explains. “I have bangs now. I have to wear a headband and pull my bangs back. I have spiked hair on my right side. My other hair goes all the way down my back. It’s stylish.”
She also matter-of-factly mentions the inch-long scar on her forehead and the big bruise her mom told her she had by her right ear—both byproducts of the accident.
“They think I hit my head back there,” she said. “But I don’t have any idea for sure.”
But for all of the pain, misery and uncertainty she has faced in the last few months, Sykora still has the ability to play volleyball and holds on tight to the goal of returning to the national team. In her first days back to the USA gym she worked on things such as strength training and conditioning and in recent weeks has started to do volleyball-related partner warm-up drills.
“I feel like a different person. It sounds dumb. You don’t understand, but going into the USA gym…this is why I am back. This happened to me for a reason. A lot of people don’t get out of bed after two months after something like this,” said Sykora, who left the hospital in Brazil after 36 days. “It’s crazy. I love volleyball and I love the gym and I love all of the people and all of my teammates. They are my friends. I love all of them and I want to give them more. I’m not only talking my family and friends, but I want to do things for the people that have helped me through this—the people that have been there for me and have been a friend.
“I like to live. I always like to be around people. Gosh, I really want to show what I can be. I want to be better. I want everybody to celebrate this with me. I want everybody involved to be there with me.”
How determined is Sykora to get back on the floor wearing a Team USA uniform?
“I tell my doctors all the time, ‘Look, I’m not trying to be a human being. I’m trying to be a volleyball player. Get me back on the court. I want to be back on the volleyball court. I know that sounds dumb, but I want to be a volleyball player. My love for volleyball has gone up 1,000 degrees because of all of this. When people take something from you, you want it back. This wasn’t me. It was this accident. It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah? I’m going to show you. I’ll make it through this’.”
Sykora has been told it may take up to a year before her vision returns to what it was before the accident.
“Everybody has an estimation,” she said. “I don’t want to know how long it could be. A year is a statistic, that’s all it is. Everybody is different. My vision has improved like crazy. It’s amazing how much better it has gotten on a weekly basis. I don’t even think like it’s been two months and five days since the accident. I’m just focusing on getting better every day.”
Sykora heaped major praise on the Volei Futuro club team for going above and beyond since the day of the accident.
“I’m going to play for them next year,” she said. “They have already signed me. I’m thankful for what they have done for me. I’m going to take that bus ride to that gym one more time.”
In addition to doing outpatient therapy at Casa Colina three times a week, Sykora also is under the excellent care of U.S. women’s national team physician Dr. Chris Koutures and trainer Jill Wosmek. Sykora also lauded the efforts of the Team USA coaching staff and her teammates.
“The staff and players have been wonderful. They have helped me so much and have been so supportive,” she said.
Sykora’s long-term goal is to get to London and the 2012 Summer Olympics. It’s a goal that burns brightly inside her.
“I want to go out there and train like everybody else,” she said. “They are going to take the best players. There are so many talented athletes out there. My goal is to go to a fourth Olympics.”
Sykora acknowledges that the thought of possibly not playing again briefly entered her mind, emphasis on the word briefly.
“I’m not thinking that way…if I don’t play anymore,” she said. “I don’t say it anymore. Am I scared? No. I’m not thinking like that. I’m improving. I’m going for it. I’m not going to say I can’t or what if. Not yet. Maybe the day will have to come, but not anytime soon.
“I am going to scratch and fight for this opportunity to play again. Every day you play, it could be your last day. I went to that game and little did I know that I would get in a wreck. That could have been my last day ever. You have to play for every day. I tell everybody that something happened in my life. I survived. I didn’t lose an arm or a leg. I can possibly still play volleyball.”
And if anybody can push through something of this gravity, it’s Sykora. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Originally published in August 2011