The anesthesia was kicking in, but there was enough time for a single thought to pierce Maile’ana Kanewa’s mind: What if I never do gymnastics again?
A Sudden Discovery
Gymnastics is about where your body goes, and where your body goes begins and ends with your hands and your feet.
Hands grip a bar as a body swings around it. They brace a gymnast as she performs a series on beam and help her explode off the horse in vault. Their movement adds elegance, emotion and personality to a floor routine.
Hands touch, reach, balance, push, pull and grasp. There was good reason, then, for Oklahoma freshman gymnast Maile’ana Kanewa (my-lee-AH-na ka-NEV-ah) to be worried when the fingers on her right hand started to turn blue in Oct. 2012.
Though she wasn't immediately told, it was clear Kanewa was unlikely to ever do gymnastics again.
“They were freezing cold,” Kanewa said. “I went to the doctor and they did x-rays and MRIs on my hand, but they couldn’t find anything.”
Kanewa proceeded to the next step, a referral to a microvascular surgeon in Oklahoma City. It was discovered that she had a rare clotting disorder. Coupled with years of pounding on her hands from competitive gymnastics, the surgeon determined that the gymnast had a severe blood clot in her hand and wrist.
The six-inch clot stretched through her artery from the middle of Kanewa’s palm to the middle of her forearm. The doctors had never seen such an extensive clot in someone so young. There was reason for concern that the damage could have spread through her hand and would require amputation of fingers. Though she wasn’t immediately told, it was clear that Kanewa was unlikely to ever do gymnastics again.
Within two days, Kanewa’s mother had flown to Oklahoma City to join her and she was set for surgery at Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City. She arrived at the hospital early on Nov. 7, prepped for her procedure. Clad in a gown and hooked up to a bag of fluids, Kanewa was ready to go when her doctor entered the room to see her before surgery.
“He came in and told me he was probably going to have to take off my fingers,” Kanewa said. “I was panicking, but they gave me more medicine and I fell asleep. I don’t remember anything after that.”
The last thing Kanewa remembers thinking before she went under?
“What if I never do gymnastics again?”
A Magnetic Personality
Kanewa first appeared on Oklahoma head coach K.J. Kindler’s radar when she was just 14 years old; her magnetic personality and incredible ability distinguished her amongst her peers.
“She was ridiculously talented,” Kindler said. “She was super mature and fun to watch, and she had this ease about her. I knew right then that we wanted her on our team.”
Kanewa would not commit to Oklahoma for several more years, but she spent that time making a name for herself at the club level in Duluth, Minn. A 2011 Junior Olympic National Team member, she finished third in the all-around at J.O. Nationals in 2011 and qualified to the Nastia Liukin Cup that same year. She won three regional titles at the club level and was a Minnesota Gymnast of the Year nominee.
She attracted plenty of attention from other schools in the meantime. Florida, Nebraska, Arkansas, Minnesota and Iowa State came calling, but Kanewa would land with Oklahoma and a staff that keyed in on her personality as much as her talent.
"She has this glow about her. People want to talk to her and be with her; she makes them laugh. She's a really special person."
“She has this glow about her,” Kindler said. “People want to talk to her and be with her; she makes them laugh. She’s a really special person.”
Kanewa came to Oklahoma in the fall of 2012, joining a resurgent program that had achieved two top-three NCAA finishes since 2010 and had declared itself a member of the nation’s elite. She arrived with dreams of helping her university win an NCAA championship, of donning the crimson and cream on the competition floor for Oklahoma.
But in two short days, all those dreams looked like they had been derailed. Kanewa feared her dream was lost.
A Journey Slow, then Fast
“When I woke up, I thought my fingers were gone, because that was what it felt like,” Kanewa said. “One of my doctors came in and helped me wake up. He talked me through it—and told me I had all my fingers.”
Despite her disorientation post-surgery, Kanewa broke through the haze and saw one of the most welcome sights of her life: five fingers on her right hand, five fingers that she had been told might not all be there just a few hours earlier.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘I think I can do gymnastics again!’ That was the first thought in my head: gymnastics, when I could get back and when I could start doing things again.”
Her doctor was more hesitant. The surgery had gone exceptionally well, but had still been extensive. After removing the blood clot, a section of her artery was so damaged that it was no longer functioning properly. Surgeons removed an accessory vein from her hand and transplanted it to the other side of her arm in hopes that it would help open up blood flow through her forearm and palm. Whether the transplant would hold remained to be seen.
Beyond that, Kanewa’s case was an anomaly for someone so young. Her ability to recover and the speed at which she could do it were simply question marks. At the very least, her doctor did not believe she would compete during the 2013 season.
The journey back began slowly. Because Kanewa was on blood thinners post-surgery and was recovering, she was not allowed to do any physical activity—despite her objections.
“She said to me, ‘I don’t need my hand, I can do gymnastics. I’ll do it no matter what the doctor says,’” Kindler recalls. “We had to sit her down and say, ‘No, you actually do. You do need it, and the only way you’re going is if the doctor gives you the okay.’”
Kanewa resumed stationary activity first, focusing only on her legs. Then she was able to get on beam, but with no hands. She could condition on the stipulation that she did not put her hands down. Progress continued: hands down for push-ups and plank holds, then a handstand, then quick round-offs but no back handsprings.
She persevered, and the reward came unexpectedly: the week before OU’s meet against No. 5 UCLA on Feb. 22, 2013, she was cleared to put her hands down and vault. She was still unable to do bars and many of her other skills, but it was a start and Kanewa was thrilled.
“I wanted the doctor to clear me so badly,” Kanewa said. “I knew I could get back into the gym and get started, and I wanted to do that as soon as I could. I kind of pretended that I never had that clot or that I was out for three-and-a-half months. I just went back to where I was on vault, and it was a great feeling.”
Kanewa returned to practice, did one full day of vaulting practice that week, and received more unexpected news: she was being inserted into the vaulting lineup for the biggest home meet of the season. She would see the competition floor less than four months after her surgery.
“I was so excited,” Kanewa remembered. “The rest of my class had already done seven or eight meets and this was my first meet. I was just ready to go and so pumped up.”
"When I saluted, the little nerves I had went away and I went, 'Okay, just do it. Just do you.' When I landed, I knew it was a good vault. I saluted and started crying... I was like, 'Yes! This is what I've been waiting for--that moment.'"
She used the night before the meet to prepare, right down to practicing saluting the judges and finishing in front of her mirror. A hint of nerves were present, but more than that, Kanewa was anxious to finally take to the floor and compete her vault as an Oklahoma Sooner.
The true freshman was about to take the stage in a big way. She was up fourth on vault in a massive meet that pitted No. 2 OU vs. No. 5 UCLA in Norman. In front of a record crowd, she prepared for a moment that she had been anticipating for several years. Kanewa was about to live part of her dream.
“I was standing there waiting for the judge to salute me. When I saluted, the little nerves I had went away and I just went, ‘Okay, just do it. Just do you.’ When I landed, I knew it was a good vault. I saluted and I started crying, and then I look over and Lou (Ball) is tearing up, K.J. (Kindler) is crying and my whole team is crying. I was like, ‘Yes! This is what I’ve been waiting for—that moment. The very first college experience of competing.”
“We were elated for her,” Kindler recalls. “She was willing to sacrifice and give everything for the sport she’d grown to love. Knowing that was her attitude about it, it was like a moment of silence. It just stood still in time.”
Less than four months after being told she may never compete again, Kanewa hit a 9.925 on vault to tie for the event title and aid OU to a 198.375—the highest team score in program history—and a victory over UCLA. She went on that season to become co-Big 12 champion on vault, finish third at the NCAA Norman Regional and compete in the NCAA Semifinals and Super Six team finals.
A Blessing in Disguise
This season, Kanewa has come even further. As a sophomore she has made herself a staple on floor, bringing huge tumbling ability and a routine that reflects her shining personality to the Oklahoma lineup. She’s posted season-bests of 9.925 on floor, 9.925 (in exhibition) on beam and 9.825 on bars while handling the anchor spot in the vault lineup as well.
“I think it’s amazing that I can do everything again,” Kanewa said. “Even after the season last year, I didn’t know if I would ever do bars again because of the scar on my hand. I think I had a mindset from the beginning of the summer that I was going to train everything again because it’s what I truly wanted to do. I couldn’t be happier.”
To go from being told you were unlikely to ever compete again to becoming a key contributor on the No. 1 women’s gymnastics team in the nation has been an incredible journey and a remarkable achievement. Perhaps even more extraordinary, however, is Kanewa’s attitude through the entire process.
“I look back at it now and I probably wouldn’t change it,” she said. “My teammates were so supportive, and it taught me so many things and made me so much more appreciative of everything I’ve been given. Even though it was an awful thing to happen, it was a blessing in disguise.”