NORMAN, Okla. It started with an innocent e-mail. Then another. And then another. By the time the string of one-line messages was over, Oklahoma coach Steve Nunno had finally convinced his curious pen pal it was OK if she came to practice.
The timid redhead had been away from the sport for more than three years when she walked into that first practice. Nunno couldn't have guessed that this would be his first All-American.
Erin LaBarr had quit gymnastics at age 14 after doctors found a cyst on her brain, about halfway back on the top of her head. A CAT scan, an MRI and a spinal tap later, a neurologist decided it would be more risky to remove the cyst than to leave it.
She stayed away from the gym until her freshman year of college, when she sent Nunno an unsigned note asking if just anyone could come stretch with the team. She never really intended to join the team, but wanted some involvement with the sport.
Four years later, the tentative freshman has become the star of Nunno's Oklahoma team, which begins competition Thursday with 11 other schools at the NCAA women's gymnastics championships in Auburn, Ala.
First, the former Olympic coach had to draw out of his mystery writer that she was a a former gymnast - and a good one - that she was a student and finally her identity. An invitation to practice soon followed.
To participate with the team, LaBarr would have to pass a physical and then get cleared by the NCAA. Reluctantly, she said OK.
Once she got started, LaBarr kept her expectations reasonable, understanding that the cyst wasn't going away but not letting it hold her back either.
"It wasn't something I was really thinking about," LaBarr said. "I was thinking about all the stuff I could be doing. Even if I couldn't do 100 percent of what I was doing before, I could still be doing something and making an effort."
Doctors monitored her closely to make sure she wasn't doing any harm.
"She did get some headaches and she had some problems," Nunno said. "A couple of days she had serious problems and we just backed off. ... There were times when she thought that she'd quit again."
Within four months, LaBarr eased into competition by taking part in the vault in the 2002 season opener. By the end of the season, she was performing in all four events and back to the form that made her a top-rated gymnast at the Krafft Academy in Tulsa before the cyst was found.
It had taken years of training to get to that point. LaBarr's mother started her on gymnastics at age 7 and by sixth grade, she was ready to move beyond her hometown gym in Bartlesville for a 45-minute drive to Tulsa to practice.
"She eventually started coaching classes there so she would have something to do for the five hours that I was in the gym every day," LaBarr said.
LaBarr was there mostly to have fun, and when things didn't go well, she considered walking away. Her mother wouldn't let her.
"There were times that she wanted it a lot more than I did, and there were a couple times that I tried to quit and she wouldn't talk to me," LaBarr said. "It was just her way. She knew what was best for me. She knew that I was good at what I was doing."
But LaBarr started getting headaches, and doctors then found the cyst. Gymnastics became a risk.
"I have a tendency to fall on my head a lot," LaBarr said. "By the time I was that age, I had already had six or seven concussions."
"Even now, if I get hit in the head too hard or land on my head, I could bleed out of my ears and eyes. It wouldn't be good. I just have to be careful."
Nunno, who formerly coached Olympic gold medalist Shannon Miller, said he worries about his 22-year-old more than he wants her to know.
"I look at her eyes a lot to see how she's doing," said Nunno, who's in his fifth year at Oklahoma. "The last thing you want to be is selfish about an injury like that and say, 'What can you do for us?"'
But from the first day, Nunno knew LaBarr could be something special. When she struggled through a subpar sophomore season, he expected improvement. He threatened to take back her scholarship if she didn't start dedicating herself more.
LaBarr promised to change, and she did. She earned a career-best 9.925 on the balance beam and finished in the top 10 in three of the four events at the NCAA West Regional last season. At the national meet, she earned All-American status on the uneven bars and was a second-team All-American in the all-around.
Entering her senior season, her teammates elected her captain. But before the season got started, her mother died suddenly of cancer. LaBarr had to get away.
"I didn't know if she would recover," Nunno said. "I didn't know how she would recover. She was just crushed."
After a month away, LaBarr came back in time to compete in the Sooners' season-opener and scored a 10 on the floor exercise. It was the first perfect score of her career and only the seventh in school history. She followed that by setting new career-highs in every event over the course of the season.
"I've never coached a gymnast that's been through such triumph and tragedy in the same short year," Nunno said. "I truly cannot believe that someone can be as good as she is under those circumstances."