Overcoming the Odds
April 15, 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio - A little over five years ago, Ohio State redshirt junior Nick Tagliaferro lay on the hard floor of a crowded arena, unable to feel or move his legs as he stared into the concerned faces of his coach and athletic trainers.
Moments before, the high school junior had been performing on high bar at the 2008 Junior Olympic Regionals, hoping to qualify for the Junior Olympic Nationals held that May at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek, Mich.
With only his dismount remaining, Tagliaferro prepared to release the bar. But his grips slid and he lost control, flying past the landing surface and slamming the back of his head on the ground in whip like fashion. Though he didn't know it at the time, the damage done to his neck was extensive enough that he could have died.
The details of the accident are still blurry for the Sewell, N.J., native.
"I was out cold for about 10 to 15 seconds before I came to," Tagliaferro said. "When I did come to, my trainers and my coach were hovering over me trying to figure out what was going on. I couldn't feel my legs, and when they tried to stand me up I collapsed. I was taken out of the meet on a stretcher to the hospital where I was later discharged with a Grade III concussion and traumatic brain injury."
The road to recovery would be a long one for Tagliaferro as the full extent of his injuries had not yet been realized. He had been diagnosed with a severe cerebral concussion, explaining the constant headaches as well as the sensitivity to noise and light.
"We knew it was a little bit worse than a normal concussion," Tagliaferro said. "I'd had mild concussions before but this was completely different. I had to wear sunglasses and earplugs just to be around people. I also had a lot of vertigo and balance difficulties. I slurred my speech and couldn't get through many sentences. I had problems with anxiety and irritability."
Tagliaferro had developed post-concussion syndrome and his health problems continued to get worse. He could no longer read well and he had to relearn how to walk because he was temporarily paralyzed. The headaches grew so bad that he would dunk his head in a sink full of ice and water to try to lessen the pain.
"I saw so many different doctors and tried so many different therapies," Tagliaferro said. "I had an occupational therapist, a physical therapist and a balance therapist to try to get back to walking normal. I went to neurologists, concussion specialists and neuropsychologists and was never able to get an answer. I was always told to give it time."
Eventually, the medications Tagliaferro was taking caused him to have 16 straight days of nosebleeds. Tired of not having an answer and of his health slowly deteriorating further, the family took him to see an ear, nose and throat specialist who diagnosed a vestibular concussion in addition to the cerebral concussion, explaining the constant balance and vertigo issues plaguing Tagliaferro.
What happened next can only be described as a crazy coincidence.
Tagliaferro grew up an avid hockey and Philadelphia Flyers fan. Around the same time he was trying to figure out the next step in his recovery, one of his favorite players, Simon Gagne, had done an interview detailing how he had recovered from a concussion the previous season. Based on the information Tagliaferro and his family received from watching that interview, they decided to go for an evaluation from a prolotherapy specialist.
The specialist diagnosed him with cervicogenic headaches (headaches that originate in the shoulders, neck and spine) and damage to the C2, C3 and C4 discs in his neck that was interfering with nerve flow to his brain, explaining why the concussion symptoms were not resolving. Tagliaferro elected to receive prolotherapy injections, which allowed a solution to strengthen his weakened connective tissue and alleviate the musculoskeletal pain. In addition, he received hyperbaric oxygen treatments five times a week.
While all of these treatments were going on, Tagliaferro was completing his junior and senior years of high school and applying to colleges from home. He couldn't be around his classmates because the dizziness, headaches and lights and noises fatigued him to the point where he felt as though he was in slow motion and everything was freezing around him.
By the end of his senior year, Tagliaferro decided to attend Rowan University for his freshman year of college, having decided that it would be best to be close to home for his first year back in school.
It had been a life changing 15 months, but Tagliaferro was finally cleared to attend college and train at gymnastics again.
But his dream of competing in college gymnastics still wasn't meant to be. The summer before transferring to Ohio State on partial scholarship, Tagliaferro tore the tendon in the rotator cuff of his left shoulder on a missed release on high bar. After training and working so hard to get back to the level he had been at before the concussion, Tagliaferro now needed surgery and would be out for six to eight months for recovery.
"I couldn't believe it," Tagliaferro said. "It was here we go again, I can't catch any breaks. It was very hard to deal with. I went through a lot of emotional issues and problems with my head injury and at one point I thought I was done too. Eventually I decided that this was what I wanted to do and I wasn't going to stop. I was going to push through whatever obstacles I could."
Tagliaferro recovered with time and was back in full training mode by the end of his first year at Ohio State. But in November of his second year, the shoulder pain was back again. He recognized the nagging pain, knew he could no longer ignore it, and asked for an MRI from the training staff at Ohio State.
The news was bad; he had torn the same tendon again.
It is a testament to Tagliaferro's determination, persistency and mental strength that he still did not give up on his dream, even though the training staff and others were hinting that his career was drawing to a very fast close.
"At that point, I no longer knew what to do," Tagliaferro said. "I called my Dad and asked him what he thought I should do, and I talked to the training staff who kind of hinted that maybe I should just fix it, that I gave it my best shot but it wasn't meant to be. There was a lot of emotional baggage behind all of it. I couldn't believe that it had happened again."
"I decided I wasn't done," Tagliaferro continued. "I kept pushing through all of the injuries and took every obstacle in stride. I wanted to overcome everything I could."
This season, his first competing in college gymnastics, Tagliaferro has competed on rings in every single meet. On Senior Day at St. John Arena March 9, he scored a career-high 15.10 to finish second behind teammate Drew Moling.
The season is now drawing to a close and the 2013 NCAA Championships held April 19-21 at Rec Hall at Penn State are now less than a week away. Tagliaferro's family will make the four and a half hour drive from Sewell, N.J., to support their own as he makes his dream come true.
"I've dreamed about competing at the NCAA Championships since I was a kid, and finally throughout all of the injuries and emotional issues I've been through I can finally be there," Tagliaferro said. "This year has been everything that I dreamed about and more and I wouldn't trade it for the world.
"As much as it means to me to compete, it's also for them," Tagliaferro said. "At one point, everything I went through wasn't for me. It was for everyone who was by my side through the injuries; my brothers and my Dad and my Mom who took me to every single doctor appointment. She saw me at my worst moments. They were all there for everything and they knew exactly what I went through. Everyone is so excited and it's been an amazing dream. I don't want to wake up."