Jumping for Joy

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Debbie Copp
By Debbie Copp
Director of Publications
MAY 11, 2017
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ou get yourself in the blocks and wait for the starter's commands – on your mark, set. On set, you get into your best starting position and wait for the gun. At the crack of the gun, you explode out of the blocks, summoning every bit of energy to your legs that carry you to the first hurdle. As you move up into a running position, your head does as well and you see a lane filled with 10 hurdles, each a solid crossbar of wood attached to a metal frame. For a collegiate women's 100-meter hurdle race, the hurdles are 33 inches tall.

That height is important to this story as it was a hurdle that set into motion a fall that quite literally caused senior Bianca Brazil to lose two thirds of her sophomore season and a full year of running the hurdles. More importantly, she lost virtually all of her memory. It was April 3, 2015, and the Sooners had traveled to the Baylor Invitational as the Bears celebrated the opening of the Clyde Hart track facility.

Brazil had missed some meets as a freshman with injuries and this was to be her first meet to run in 2015. She had trained hard and was running better than she had as a Sooner. She was entered in the second heat of the 100-meter hurdles with teammates Geo Tamez Reyna and Olivia Haggerty (also her roommate at OU) waiting in the wings to run in the fourth heat.

Brazil got a great start and had the race of her lifetime going until she clipped the eighth hurdle. That messed up her steps heading into the ninth hurdle. Suddenly the 10th hurdle was waiting for her and she wasn't ready for it. She hit that hurdle and fell, rolling to avoid landing face first. Unfortunately for her, she landed with the upper part of the back side of her head taking the brunt of the fall. It hit the track hard and she was down. She was out for awhile and so was the rest of her season. In time, it looked possible that it could have been a career ender.

Since her memory was lost, three people who have been involved in her story will continue.

Luke Spitz, the athletic trainer for the Sooner track and field team

“I had joined the program about six months before Bianca fell so I really didn't know her that well. You get a lot closer to someone when you are helping them find their memories.”

Spitz wasn't covering the hurdles but he got a call that Brazil had fallen and he headed that way. He was on the scene in a couple of minutes and began checking Brazil out.

“She was on her back but she was not moving. I was doing all the basic tests. I was actually checking to make sure she was breathing, that she was alive. She began moving and responding to our questions – not by talking, but by nodding or mumbling. We ruled out all the major things like a neck injury or skull fracture. We knew she had a concussion but none of us had any idea how serious it was.”

The decision was made to put Brazil on a back board and get her to an ambulance to go to the hospital. That was the last Spitz would see of her until after the meet. His GA, Jubilee Price, traveled with her to the hospital and was relaying info back to Spitz at the meet. While the staff at the hospital ran a number of tests, they still weren't able to give Price a complete diagnosis. However, once Spitz saw the video of the race, he understood how serious the injury was.

“I hadn't seen her fall but when I saw the video, I knew. She was running an awesome race, one of the best I had seen her run in my short time at OU,” Spitz adds. “After she hit the eighth hurdle, you could tell her steps were off and she was approaching the remaining hurdles too quickly. She hit the 10th one and I saw her fall to the track, hitting the back of her head. Her head hit the track very hard and she went limp.”

It turned out that Brazil had sustained a grade 3 concussion, the worst one on the concussion scale. “It was as severe as it gets. When a person has the significant memory loss and loss of consciousness that Bianca had, you start worrying about the possibility of permanent damage,” Spitz continues.

Brazil went home from the hospital, still not knowing basic things about herself. She stayed at home for two weeks, then returned to OU to be evaluated by OU's head team physician, Dr. Brock Schnebel. Spitz knew that she would have a long road back, regardless of what they did next.

“The decision was made for her to stay in Norman. I knew we were dealing with a long-term situation to help her get back to an elite level of competition and that wasn't even a priority on our initial treatment plan. We wanted to help her regain her memory and be able to function as a college student.

“We had a lot of tough days as we saw each other every day. I know she had to be frustrated because she could do nothing physical in nature. She had to recover to a point where she was symptom free and, once that happened, we started very light activity. If she got a headache, we had to stop and try again the next day,” Spitz says.

She also continued with her classwork. She would go to her first class every day then, if she felt like it, she would go to her second class. She was especially sensitive to bright lights and loud noises. Her teachers at OU let her wear sunglasses in class. She still had classwork to finish when the semester ended. She completed that coursework and began light jogging after she arrived home for the summer.

“Her professors that semester were awesome. They worked with us and helped her do whatever she needed to do to get through a class. Everything about this recovery process was a small step. Successfully navigating those was the only way she was going to come back.”

She began to improve over the summer months, then life threw her another major curve ball. Her coaches left OU for other positions and she now had a new event coach. She was going to return to campus in August and the coaches she would work with had never seen her run, seen her compete, seen her hurdle.

“We had the coaching change and I had to tell the new staff that ‘you have this runner on the roster and we have no timetable for when she will return. Her physical activity has to be monitored and she can't train with your other sprinters,'” adds Spitz.

As the symptoms lessened, the physical activity increased. She began jogging and doing short sprints. Some days all she could do was walk around the track, but she was making progress. Finally in October, six months after her fall, she was cleared by OU's medical staff to return to full practice. The journey, though, was far from over.

Ronnye Harrison, the coach

Harrison arrived in Norman before the 2015-16 academic year began, coming to Norman after serving as the head coach at Portland State. And he had an injured Brazil to help back to competition.

“I tell my group that if you are afraid to fall, don't hurdle,” Harrison said. “You often must fall to get faster as a hurdler. It takes courage to be a hurdler because the hurdles don't move. You have to get over, get your feet down and get ready to do it again in a relatively short distance. If you don't want to take a chance you might get injured, hurdles aren't for you.”

With Brazil, none of those statements had been true and that was what Harrison built his approach on.

“We had to rebuild her courage and her confidence. She had to get comfortable again with running.”

The decision was made that Brazil would not run the hurdles at all her junior year. Instead, she focused on the sprints and relays and she contributed to the team in those events. There came the day, though, that running the hurdles became part of the training routine.

“We started very slowly and we did it in baby steps,” Harris explains. “She worked so hard on her strength as a runner and she had to face her fears. It was a slow process but she never quit.”

That training and success as a junior led to PRs in the sprints and a trip with the 400-meter relay to the NCAA Outdoor Championship. That relay quartet earned second-team All-America honors and finished as the Big 12 runner-up with Brazil running the first leg. The time had come for her to run the hurdles in competition.

Olivia Haggerty, her best friend and OU roommate

In August 2013, a pair of hurdlers from Texas arrived in Norman to begin their collegiate careers. Olivia Haggerty hailed from Richardson and Bianca Brazil called Frisco home. The two towns are about 25 miles apart but these two didn't know each other at all.

“We instantly clicked,” Haggerty shares. “We ran the same event and our dads graduated from the same college. I loved her spirit but she was so quiet and I am not. As we got to know each other more, I learned she always had my back. She was quiet but she was focused on the task. It was all about business when we would go to practice.”

On that day in April 2015, Haggerty and another hurdler, Geo Tamez Reyna, had maybe the best place to watch the race. They were scheduled to run in heat 4 of the 100 and Brazil was in heat 2.

“Bianca was ready for this race. She was so excited and she had worked so hard getting ready to run. The gun went off and she took off. She was running the race of her lifetime, then she clipped the eighth hurdle which threw her off for the ninth one. Then the 10th hurdle was on her and she fell. We were watching it on the big screen from the starting line. After she went down, the screen went dark and we were concerned about our friend.”

Tamez Reyna and Haggerty had to wait 30-45 minutes before their heat was able to get on the track. Neither really wanted to race without news about Brazil's condition. They eventually ran the race, then sprinted to the medical tent to check on their teammate's condition.

“They were doing all these tests to see what she had done and we couldn't get answers. Like everyone else, we had no idea how serious the concussion was. It wasn't obvious until we got to her hospital room.

“When I walked in, she asked who I was. ‘Are you my friend? Are you my sister?' I didn't know what to do – I mean where do you go from here, what do you say. I was just frozen in shock.”

Another shock would come when Haggerty's parents, Beanist and Byron Haggerty, walked in the room. They had been at the meet and planned to stay with Brazil until her parents arrived. She immediately asked if they were her parents and everyone understood the depth of her memory loss.

When Brazil returned to Norman after the fall, her roommate had to be part of her healing process. “We couldn't have any loud noises or bright lights in the apartment. No visitors were allowed and we couldn't text. We were trying to find that fine line between protecting her and overprotecting her.

“She had to relearn everything and we did everything we could to help. She had our back and we had hers. It was so great when she returned to practice. I had really missed her smiling face.”

And now the hurdler in her own words.

“Most of what happened still is a blur,” Brazil starts. “I just knew I was running a great race and then 8-9-10 happened. I felt myself falling and I tried to roll over so I wouldn't land face first on the track. I remember my head bounced off the track and I tried to get up and couldn't.

“I remember a lot of people asking me what my name was and I honestly had no answer. I also had trouble understanding what they were saying to me. It was muffled like I was underwater. That's when I started freaking out and it seemed like I was down forever,” she continues. “When Olivia and Geo came to the medical tent, I had no idea who they were and they started crying. Then I started crying because they were. I kept asking them what my name was and who they were. Just so hard for everyone.

“In the heat before mine, a runner from Baylor had fallen and torn her ACL. I remember thinking I was glad that wasn't me. Who knew what waited for me at 8-9-10?”

Brazil was taken to the hospital and her teammates, coaches and other staff followed. She knew no one who came into her room. She didn't know Haggerty's parents and when her parents arrived, she didn't know them either. She didn't know her younger sisters. There was no emotional response from Brazil, something the doctors and other medical staff had hoped would happen when her parents, Charles and Daphne Brazil, and her younger sisters, Brittney and Layla, arrived.

She spent the night for observation then left to go home. Again, she still didn't know her parents or sisters.

“I didn't know who they were but I knew Luke would not let me go home if they weren't good people. I trusted Luke even though I didn't really remember who he was.”

When they arrived home, there was still no emotional response or connection. She complimented the people in the house for how nice their towels were and how pretty their house was. Her family tried to reassure her that it was her house as well.

“My mom would walk me around the house, pointing out things that I should have known. We went through stacks of photo albums, hoping for some reaction, but there was nothing. It helped establish some connections – faces to names. It was really hard on my parents and even harder on my younger sisters, who didn't understand what was going on.”

One of the pieces Brazil worked so hard to find was what her passion was. She had been running track since ninth grade and hurdling since her sophomore year in high school. She had started out as a gymnast and really loved that sport. She attributed her hurdling skills to the strength, flexibility and power from gymnastics.

It was a talk with her dad that probably started the recovery process. She had been asking who she was, what her passion was. His response, while simple, was so powerful.

“My dad finally told me that the Bianca he knew would not give up. That she would persevere, that she would go back to what gave me joy and that was hurdling and that was being a college student. I really didn't know him still but he seemed like a good person to listen to. That really helped me return to Norman.”

What waited for her at OU was going to be the struggle of her life. She took concussion tests multiple times every day. She had to stop what she was doing if a headache came on her. She had to take eye tests and classes presented real challenges with the lights and noises. She had to get reacquainted with friends, coaches, professors and other support personnel. She had to figure out if something was really a memory or if it was something that a person had told her happened.

She finished that spring semester of 2015 and returned home to complete her academic work from the semester. She started light jogging and was gaining strength. The headaches still came and she had to shut down but they weren't coming as often. She would return to Norman, again remembering her dad's words that the Bianca he knew would not quit. Waiting for her were two new event coaches.

“I got back and there had been a coaching change,” she adds. “The coaches who knew what had happened were gone and the new staff had no idea who I was or what I could do. Of course, I was still learning what I could do. I kept working hard, going to see Luke every day for concussion tests. We started doing short sprints and I was more comfortable doing those. Some days, Luke and I would just walk around the track while the team practiced. He helped me remain a part of the team and that was really important as I healed.

“I took concussion tests daily for five months. One I remember would get me so mad at Luke. He would say four random words and I was supposed to repeat them. I would just say four words and then challenge him about the words he said. I was very irritable and at times felt like I was walking around like a zombie. The headaches were horrible when they hit. And it is so weird to realize that everyone around you knows you but you don't know yourself. That was hard to get through.

“Luke was so awesome through this process. I think I really tested him at times – not on purpose but I didn't know what else to do. I learned quickly that the track was a safe haven for me as long as I stayed away from the hurdles. There would be times I would go tell the hurdles they weren't going to trip me again. I also began to realize that I had been on a team and I started having dreams that were like real life. I would ask people the next day if what I had dreamed had really happened or if it was just a dream. More often than not, it had really happened and my memories slowly started to return.”

Brazil was cleared for complete return to practice in October. After watching the video of what she had been through, Coach Harrison had decided she was going to work on strength and speed her junior year. There would be no hurdling for Brazil in competition as a junior.

Eventually, Harrison realized that his student-athlete needed to hurdle so they started with small hurdles. Brazil discovered that she could handle the five hurdles on the indoor 60 but the 10 on the outdoor 100 were still a huge issue.

She kept racing in the sprints and relays and actually qualified for the NCAA Outdoor as a member of the 400-meter relay in June 2016. The relay also finished second in the Big 12 Championship in May of that year. And they kept working on the hurdles.

“We started working with baby hurdles at first,” Brazil continues. “I relearned what I needed to know about actually hurdling. When I moved up to the big hurdles, I started having flashbacks. I did not want to get into a fight with hurdles 8, 9, 10.”

She continued training on the hurdles and by the time her senior season arrived, she was running the indoor hurdles with ease. A shorter race, there are five hurdles in the 60-meter straightaway. She ran in six meets during the 2017 indoor season and set six personal bests, one in every meet, in the 60 hurdles. The increase in her speed showed up with three PRs in the 60-meter dash.

Those performances set up her for the first meet of the 2017 outdoor season and she was entered in the 100-meter hurdles in the opener, the Baldy Castillo Invitational. She would have to face 8-9-10 again for the first time in competition in nearly two years.

“I hit 8 a little bit, then sailed way high over 9. When I got to 10, I just jumped it. Then, I looked at the time and I finally had my PR in the hurdles that I had lost when I fell in April 2015.”

Brazil wasn't the only one to make note of the performance. Spitz says it was nerve wracking watching her race. “When you see someone come back from this kind of injury and they do what they did before the injury … that's why we do this job.”

“I didn't care about her time or her place. Those didn't matter,” Coach Harrison adds. “All I wanted for her was to race. Then I saw it was a PR. I was tearful. She did it!”

Her best friend wrapped it up. “It was great when Bianca came back to practice. She leads by example. I was so excited when we learned she was going to hurdle in Arizona. She's a great example of what you can do when you refuse to quit,” Haggerty continues.

“When people are complaining about something they think is bad, I tell them to watch Bianca. She had to come back from one of the worst situations a person can deal with and she came back better than before. She's the definition of a true athlete and what it is all about. She's an inspiration and I am so proud of her accomplishments. You can't always determine the path but you can determine how you are going to approach the path. She has shown all of us how to go with it. Our coach says to succeed you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

“We were all put here for a reason and Bianca's reason is to inspire people and contribute to the team.

“I watched the video from Baylor so many times trying to figure out what I had done wrong,” Brazil says. “I probably watched it too much but I decided while watching it that the hurdles were not going to hurt me. I had to go back to the hurdles. I have to live with the symptons. Life isn't going to go as planned and we are going to have failures. Don't give up on your dreams. They may not happen the way I planned but they will happen.”

Up next for Brazil in the Big 12 Championship this weekend in Lawrence, Kan. She enters the meet ranked 13th after lowering her PR to a 14.01 at the Penn Relays. Following that, if she can lower that time even more, would be the West prelims. Schedule in the LSAT and then her season could end at the NCAA Championship in June.

The LSAT? Brazil has a dream of attending the OU Law School and she is currently on the wait list. She is following this dream even though she has to study more and work harder than she did before the concussion because of her memory. Again, her dad's answer comes back to her.

“I asked my dad what I had wanted to do before the concussion and he told me about how passionate I was about becoming a lawyer. It's something I have wanted for a long time. He said the Bianca he knew would never give up on that dream. I wasn't so sure, then I did an internship last summer. It rekindled my passion to study law and become a lawyer.

“It's really simple to me. What is the worst thing that could happen? If I don't give my all and trust the process. I have come this far and I don't want to fail. I am adamant about getting into and succeeding in law school.”

As her best friend said, Bianca Brazil was put here for a purpose and that purpose is to inspire others.

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