Dec. 16, 2008
By Larry Watts
It was a ride Pejman Ebrahimi never wants to take again.
Two days after dropping the season's opening dual meet to Illinois last January, the Ohio State men's gymnastics team was preparing for practice. In addition to the defeat, the Buckeyes thought they would be without DJ Bucher for the rest of the season after the senior All-American suffered torn biceps.
"Monday, Jan. 28, I'll never forget that day," Ebrahimi says. "Right before I got on the rings, I told DJ I was dedicating this routine to him. He told me, 'I don't think you should do that.'
"It was one of the best sets I have ever had and my strength felt great. I swung down hard to prepare for my dismount and suddenly I heard this 'ping' and both my hands ripped off. I was flipping through the air and all I could think was 'oh man, I'm going for a ride.'"
Fortunately, the 2007 defending NCAA vault champion always asked assistant coach Doug Stibel to serve as a spotter whenever he performed this particular routine on the rings. Stibel managed to turn him just enough to prevent a major tragedy.
"Thank God, or I may not be walking today," Ebrahimi says. "That flip prevented me from landing face first or right on the top of my head. Instead, I hit the side of my head. Stibel later told me he had seen a lot of broken bones in his time, but this was by far the worst injury he had ever seen.
"At first, I couldn't move at all. My body had completely shut down and all I could think was I'm paralyzed."
Quick work by the Ohio State trainers, who immediately immobilized Ebrahimi, and an instant response by paramedics soon had the gymnast on his way to the hospital.
"I remember looking up at the ambulance ceiling and there was a sign, 'Enjoy your ride on Engine 7.' It wasn't so funny then, but it's funny now that I think about it."
After a CT and several MRIs, Ebrahimi started regaining some movement in his fingers and toes, but it was still four or five hours before someone finally came in to talk to him. And it wasn't the kind of news he wanted to hear.
"The first thing he told me was he was the head of neurosurgery and that immediately set off a red flag," the Encino, Calif. native says. "Then came red flag No. 2. He told me I was done for the rest of the gymnastics season. From that point on, I didn't hear a thing. I thought my world was over, but fortunately there were two trainers there to take in everything else he said."
While the MRIs did not show any fractures, they did reveal damage to the ligaments holding the C4 and C5 vertebras in place. The All-American walked out of the hospital the next day wearing a neck brace.
"Spinal fusion, which would end my gymnastics career, still had not been ruled out," he says. "I had to keep that neck brace on day and night for the next seven weeks. I had to sleep in it, eat in it and shower in it. Because of that brace, I couldn't look down to study and I couldn't drive anywhere, which meant I couldn't go shopping for groceries.
"This was probably the toughest time of my life. The gym had always been a form of escape for me. It represented freedom and I no longer had that freedom."
Fortunately, his 27-year-old sister, Pegah, was able to fly in from California to lend a helping hand for five days.
"As soon as we arrived back at my place, I handed her the keys to the car and told her we needed to go shopping for groceries," Ebrahimi says. "She just looked at me and said, 'Are you kidding me? There's snow out there!' But I was just glad to have that family support."
It was late March before the neck brace was removed and the senior returned to the Steelwood Athletic Training Center for his first rehab session.
The first order of business was a heating pad on his neck for 10 minutes. That was followed by a massage from athletic trainer Alex Wong.
Ebrahimi's thoughts of a pampering from Wong soon turned into "the most excruciating experience of my life."
"I expected my neck to be a little stiff, but I didn't realize how much atrophy had set in," he says. "I was gritting my teeth, digging my nails into the table and tearing up pretty good. I wanted to kick him (Wong) so bad.
"We did this for about a week and then I would follow it up with light resistance workouts for my head. Tilting my head back really hurt."
Once he got the OK to do some running, Ebrahimi sprinted full speed right to the vault.
"The landing area was in the pit, so there wasn't a concern," he says. "Then I got up on the rings and did some light swinging. Rings is the hardest event in gymnastics because of the strain it puts on your shoulders and upper body. I could really feel the tightness in my shoulders."
But there was still another hurdle along the comeback trail. Because Ebrahimi was expected to graduate, all scholarship money for this year had already been allocated.
"Coach (Miles) Avery had always been worried about my health first and didn't want to discuss my gymnastics future," he says. "When we finally looked into the possibility of a redshirt season, we found out I had two options. I could stay on scholarship for academics and graduate after the fall quarter, but I would have exhausted by gymnastics eligibility. Or I could pay my own way for two quarters and still maintain one more season of eligibility for gymnastics.
"My parents understood that I loved gymnastics too much and I didn't want to go out this way, so I'm back to where I started. I was a walk-on at Ohio State as a freshman and sophomore and now I'm a walk-on as a fifth-year senior."
Along with his dedication to his comeback, Ebrahimi has also made a big change in his lifestyle, basically eliminating that pepperoni, sausage and mushroom pizza along with a pint of Ben & Jerry's Chunky Fudge Brownie ice cream from his diet.
"I can't remember the last time I had pizza," he says about the staple of college student's diet. "It was hard at first, but I didn't need all that greasy food. And I've found a low-fat version of the ice cream, which is very good. I'll just take a small serving and put the rest away."
Ebrahimi, who is 5-foot-6, tipped the scale at 158 pounds when he reported back to school in August. Now he's at 149.
"I can't tell you the last time I was under 150," he says. "I competed at 155-156 as a junior, but I feel so much stronger now. I'm lucky to get this second chance and I decided I wasn't going to blow it by eating garbage."
An Academic All-American with a double major in finance and real estate, Ebrahimi will perform in floor exercise as well as the vault and rings this winter for the Buckeyes.
"Right now my vaults are the best they have ever been this early in the season and the value of my routine (16.6) rates among the best in the nation," he says. "I've changed my dismount on rings, but it still carries the same degree of difficulty, so things look great there.
"I'm extremely excited about the upcoming season. We were ranked No. 1 in the nation my freshman year and we wound up taking second. This team is much younger, but I think we have more talent."