Kristina Vaculik's path to the 2012 Olympics in London has been long, winding and full of detours.
Back from injury since just last December, Vaculik is feeling her way at the Canadian gymnastics championships in Kamloops this week, after qualifying second for the all-round title, but also qualifying for all four event finals on Saturday.
The 17-year-old gymnast from Whitby, Ont., lost a year of competition because of a rare elbow condition that required surgery and a long recovery period.
For the longest time, Vaculik did not understand the pain in her right elbow, which became a major factor in 2007, the year she became the Canadian all-round champion.
"It wasn't diagnosed completely," she said. "We didn't know what to do. We hadn't heard of anybody who had this before. Our doctor recommended just to wait and take time off."
She had been nominated as the Olympic reserve on the women's gymnastics team for the 2008 Beijing Games, but had to withdraw.
After two or three months of rest, it just wasn't getting any better.
Eventually, she discovered Jason Smith, orthopedic surgeon for the Toronto Blue Jays, who recommended immediate surgery. Vaculik had osteochondritis dissecans, a condition in which the blood supply to the area at the end of the bone is cut off.
Vaculik underwent surgery in December of 2008, and was told to take six months off, although she continued to work in the gym to maintain conditioning. "I didn't do a lot," Vaculik said. "I couldn't run or jump for about a month or so."
She had to avoid jarring landings for five months.
"I knew it was going to be difficult," Vaculik said. "I just kept working."
Vaculik made her comeback at the Elite Canada competition last December like an unleashed thunderbolt, winning the uneven bars and the floor routines while finishing second in the all-round. She also won a couple of gold medals at a World Cup event in Germany.
Vaculik's coach, Elena Davydova, said her student is almost 100 per cent but gymnasts always have a collection of ailments thwarting their paths. At the Pacific Rim Championships in Australia several weeks ago, infection set in on a cut on Vaculik's arm and travelled up to her armpit. That landed her in an Australian hospital in search of antibiotics.
Once back, she also landed a little short while performing a move, and hurt her ankle. Although she finished sixth all-round at the event, Davydova restricted her landings for a while in training at home before she headed to Kamloops.
Vaculik has set dead aim on the London Olympics, but she was awarded a five-year scholarship at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., starting this fall, and she's taking it. She will remain a member of the Canadian national team, but will be competing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association system. All of this adds an extra wrinkle to her Olympic preparation.
Davydova wouldn't dream of standing in Vaculik's way. "It's hard work through all the years," she said of the gymnasts. "I'm glad that they have a chance to get that scholarship and get something out of it. I cannot say, okay, you are thinking about Olympics, just keep your life the same. I cannot do that."
Vaculik said Stanford has a good gymnastics setup and after one year of university, she'll take a year off to focus on the London Olympics, and return to Oshawa, Ont., to train with Davydova. Still, it won't be easy.
"She is hoping that she can keep it up," Davydova said. "She's a pretty determined girl. Nobody knows what will happen. You can never promise anything. But she can do it."
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