On Saturday, the career of Stanford grad Erica McLain will come full circle as she begins qualifying at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., in an attempt to earn a trip to the 2012 Summer Games in London.
This is a comeback story perhaps unlike any other in the history of U.S. track and field.
During practice at Stanford in March of 2011, McLain leaped too far during the second phase of the triple jump — her right foot landing half in and out of the pit, causing a severe rollover of the foot.
Her ankle gave out and the dislocation caused her foot to flip completely upside down. All of her ankle ligaments were torn and tibia broke through her skin. The injury was devastating.
"There was no fracture," McLain recalled. "But, I really thought it was going to have to be amputated. One doctor said 'I don't think you'll be running and jumping again.'"
Despite spending five days in Stanford Hospital and enduring two surgeries to clean the sand from her wound and have her tibia and fibula bones reset, McLain never gave up on her dream and worked tirelessly to rehab her ankle.
Less than a year after the injury, McLain made the World Indoor Team in the triple jump. Heading into qualifying at the Olympic Trials, the 26-year-old has the No. 1 mark in America at 45-9 3/4.
The finals of the women's triple jump will be Monday. While the top three finishers will make the U.S. team, only the winner (having jumped the minimum 'B' standard of 46-3 1/4) will be guaranteed a trip to London. The 'A' standard is 46-11.
Presently, only Amanda Smock (46-6 1/4) has either standard.
McLain's lifetime best is 47-0 1/4, set prior to her injury. It ranks No. 5 in U.S. history. It's a mark McLain, a Menlo Park resident, has not gotten close to since her injury. Thus, despite her miraculous comeback, Track and Field News Magazine is picking McLain to finish only seventh at the Olympic Trials — likely based on her questionable fitness.
"It's frustrating. I've never been in a position like this," McLain said. "I mentally just have to stay tough, stay strong and understand it's going to come down to the day of . . . I just have to figure out how to deal with the limitation I have."
Edrick Floreal, Stanford's director of track and field, has coached McLain through her college career and has been with her every step of the way through injury and rehab.
"If she can put the pressure on the ankle, the jump will be there," he said. "It's 85 -90 percent mental. She just needs to trust the ankle and let it rip."
Floreal hoped that McLain would be able to attain the 'A' or 'B' standard before now, just to give her the confidence boost that she needs. Thus, training has been inconsistent.
"Some days. It's absolutely terrible; she believes she's the worst jumper in the world," Floreal said. "Some days, it looks like she could break the American record. You just don't know what you're going to get."
Floreal hopes the real McLain shows up Saturday and again on Monday.
"Preparing for the Olympic Trials and dealing with my ankle injury has turned into more than a full-time job lately," McLain wrote on her blog earlier this month. "The past month has been quite difficult me. My primary reason for pushing through the pain is to encouraging the youth that I work with to do the same and learn positive ways to overcome adversity. If it wasn't for that, I may have given up long ago, but I constantly remind myself what a poor lesson that would teach them."
McLain spent the spring as an assistant track coach at Monta Vista High in Cupertino. She also was a volunteer coach at Stanford, which helped take her mind off her injury.
"The month that I had to stay in bed due to my ankle injury was the longest month of my life, thus far," she said. "The few months that I had to take completely off, not even allowed to do ab/core strengthening, nearly drove me insane. It was the first time in my whole life, since I was 5 years old, that I had to take that much time away from sports. However, my injury taught me patience and about my personal ability to overcome adversity . . . an inner strength that I didn't know that I possessed.
"The power of positivity is real. I can attest to that whole-heartedly. I spent the past 14 months mentally blocking out the pain I felt and willing myself through my training sessions. However, at the beginning of May, I began to relapse. I suffered a hamstring injury to the same leg as my injured ankle and that was the 'straw that broke the camel's back' so to speak; it broke my heart and my will. I went on a bit of a downwards spiral for awhile."
With her spirit broken, McLain said she became consumed with negative thoughts and felt the pain in her ankle more clearly than ever.
"It even hurt to sleep," she said. "I grew tired of mentally trying to stay strong and positive. It's a very tiresome thing to do . . . I've been crying more days than I've been happy lately . . . Dealing with injury, especially when it keeps you from something you love, is a very difficult process to go through."
But, that process is at an end. A possible trip to London and the culmination of a dream is for the taking in the next few days.
"Making the Olympic team again would be huge," she said. "It would be a testament to my perseverance and courage. And, even if I don't make the team, as long as I can look back on this experience and can say I gave it my all, then, in a way, that's a win.
"(But) Making the team again would mean the world to me, and mean the world to my parents and everyone I have been supported by. It would be a great end to be able to tell people 'everyone has adversity in their life and sometimes they have to work hard to overcome.' And, it would be really great to be able to use this story to inspire people to overcome whatever adversity happens to be part of their lives, because I think that's something that everyone can relate to."