Kensleigh Owens began her love for gymnastics at two years old. Initially diagnosed with a pars fracture in high school, Kensleigh was unsure how she would be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a college athlete. We interviewed her about the journey she’s been on, from her first diagnosis, to post-op, to her present daily life. Read Kensleigh’s inspiring story below.
- How did your back pain affect you emotionally?
Emotionally, my back problems have been a long journey. I was diagnosed with a pars fracture in high school right when I was starting to be recruited by colleges for gymnastics. Back injuries like this can be career-ending for a gymnast so that was very scary. I was treated non-operatively with bracing, a bone stimulator and rest – including being out of gymnastics entirely for 6 months. My symptoms improved enough to return to gymnastics and ultimately, earn a full athletic scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. However, during my freshman year there, my pain returned with more intensity. I pushed through the pain to compete in vault and lettered in the sport, but I was in pain every day. I started having pain and numbness in my legs from the instability in my spine. My freshman year was so difficult emotionally because of the normal challenges that a college athlete faces combined with the daily struggle of my pain. I was afraid I might never get better.
- What did it mean for you to be able to go back to gymnastics?
To be able to compete again on a collegiate level pain-free is truly the most incredible feeling in the world. I’ve dreamed about competing as a college gymnast since I was a little girl, and I am finally living my dream – and really enjoying it. There’s no words to describe the feeling every time I compete. It feels surreal.
- Can you describe the feeling post-surgery?
When I woke up after surgery, I was very scared because I wasn’t sure what my future was going to look like. I was in pain and I didn’t know if I would feel normal again or if what I was feeling was going to be my new normal. During my recovery phase, I was completely dependent on my family. Daily activities that I usually did without thinking now took a great deal of thought and sometimes help. When I was hurt, people tried to convince me that I should quit the sport. I even had surgeons tell me that if I had surgery, that I would never do gymnastics again. During the first few weeks after surgery, I began to think that maybe those early surgeons were right. It was nearly impossible to believe that I would be able to get from where I was to where I am now. I was fortunate enough to have a surgeon who believed in me and gave me the confidence to persevere. I was out of gymnastics for an entire year. After having a spinal fusion your body must learn to adapt to the new ways of moving, and physical therapy was a vital piece of my recovery. Sometimes I felt lost and went through a very tough time. I’ve done gymnastics since I was two years old, so being taken out of it for an entire year was not something that was mentally easy to handle. Each day was a struggle to stay motivated and not give in to the mental pain of not doing the sport I love, but the struggle was all worth it in the end.
- Any words of advice for those around your age, who are involved in sports, and still apprehensive about spine surgery?
Before my surgery I was a little hesitant on surgeries in general. I had never had surgery before this one. It is very rare, especially in gymnastics that someone returns to the sport after a major surgery. The first advice I would give is to do your research. I got multiple opinions from different doctors before choosing the doctor that would operate on me. He had performed the same operation on other high level athletes who were able to return to their sport. Many of the other doctors and surgeons that I saw told me that gymnastics would not be a possibility after surgery. My surgeon said that the sky was the limit for me, and that I would be able to return to gymnastics. For many athletes, the mental struggle of coming back after an injury is tougher than the physical one. Your mind will tell you are not able to keep going and to give in, but you have to keep pushing yourself. The second piece of advice I would offer is to never give up.
Even if you’re the only person who believes in yourself, never give up.
I never took “no” for an answer or let someone else determine my future. You can conquer anything when you put your mind and heart to it.
- Would you like to share anything else from your experience?
If I could travel back in time I would have had the surgery sooner. I waited a very long time to make the decision because I was scared about the possible outcome of never doing my sport again. Having the surgery was the right decision for me. It has made me capable of living my life without pain and allowed me to chase my dream.
Kensleigh’s initial surgeon recommended open posterior fusion but was told she wouldn’t be able to compete again. The doctor she ultimately chose had performed at XLIF® surgery on her in 2016. After surgery, Kensleigh defined her own destiny and truly took charge of what her post-op life would look like. To read other patient stories on The Spot, click here.