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The gymnast flies through the air on the uneven bars at the Rio Olympics. She pirouettes, twists, blindly grabs the bars behind her and, for a second, holds a perfect handstand—her long legs towering high above the bars.
Then Jessica López dismounts, nails the landing and, in an uncharacteristic show of emotion, smiles 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.
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,” says López’ physical therapist, Beth Park.
Now 33, López has been doing gymnastics since she was 3. She went on to compete on the Venezuelan national team and later for the University of Denver. López has long called Denver home.
“She has this combination of being very, very powerful and very artistic. And she persevered through all her aches and pains,” says Nilson Savage, López’ longtime coach. “That’s very rare. In my 38 years of coaching, she’s the one gymnast who combined all of those qualities. She’s a warrior.”
López still remembers the joy she felt when she landed her first back flip at age 5. But years of hard landings added up. While most gymnasts 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, but her Achilles tendons were so sore that she could barely walk.
“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,” she says.
Devastated, she had to withdraw.
When she returned home to Denver, one of López’ first stops was a visit to the Steadman Hawkins clinic. There, she received extensive physical therapy as well as help from Dr. Joshua Metzl, chief orthopedic surgeon for the Colorado Ballet and an assistant team physician for the Denver Broncos and Colorado Rockies. He wanted to avoid surgery so López could keep training.
He opted for a series of injections of platelet-rich plasma, also known as PRP, and López soon was on her feet again. “We give world-class care to everyone,” Metzl says. “We’re thrilled when all our patients do well and get to return to activities they love.”
Before long, López made it to Rio: “I’ve competed hundreds of times and I’ve won hundreds of meets, 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.”