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Stacy Sykora - Back from the Brink

Three-Time Olympian's Vision Training is Key to Recovery

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Stacy Sykora - Back from the Brink
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You can also find the video of Stacy Sykora at her vision training session and in her first scrimmage since the accident by clicking here.

In a cluttered little office space in North Orange County, Stacy Sykora stands with her doctor and works through various exercises. She holds in her hand a clear plastic sheet with several sets of two red and green circles on it. The two circles look exactly like Lifesavers candy and her vision therapist, Cheryl Watanabe, refers to them as such.

Her task is to bring the plastic sheet to the distance in which the two lifesavers seem to become three. The third one isn't actually there, it is a product of human depth perception. Nonetheless, the doctor asks her to concentrate on the non-existent third lifesaver, a strange mixture of red and green.

Like those 3D posters that at first glance look like splashes of color and later become an image if you can let your eyes glaze over to look deeper, you can't look directly at the third lifesaver or it will disappear. The therapist asks Stacy to focus on it until one of the letters comes toward her a bit. The non-existent lifesaver has the word "clear" written across it. The letter C begins to float toward her. The therapist seems pleased.

At this point, things are not exactly clear for Sykora. Not yet anyway. Earlier this year, Stacy was in a coma for three days after suffering a serious brain injury due to a bus accident while traveling with her Brazilian professional team. What Stacy is training her eyes to do would be difficult even for a person who has not suffered a brain injury like hers. But in order to reach her goal to get herself off of the bench and onto the 2012 Olympic team, she is working toward a type of visual control that she may not have had before the accident. It is all necessary though for her to make a complete comeback and return to her previous form.

Her biggest issue at the moment when is the trouble she’s having in tracking the volleyball. Translation: She sees the serve leave the opponent's hand, but somewhere on its way across the net she loses sight of it. It reappears when it is right upon her, sometimes too late to control it well.

As a libero, or any position on the volleyball court for that matter, this is a very big deal. Liberos are called upon to have impeccable ball control, passing and digging the majority of the serves and attacks that travel toward them at high speed. That she is even out on the court just months after the April 12th accident is incredible. Over in Brazil, they actually call her “The Miracle.” Doctors said she wouldn't walk or talk again. Certainly playing volleyball at a high level was out of the question, they said.

But yet here she is in the ophthalmologist's office ready to prove everyone wrong. Again. She's done it so many times in her recovery to this point it is difficult to count her out. Though when you think about the odds of a person recovering quickly enough from such a serious injury in time to make the Olympic team in just a few months, the task seems impossible to most. But not to Stacy.

She doesn't let herself dwell on what people tell her she can't do. She just does it. That's how she found herself walking and speaking in several languages not long after she awoke from her coma. That's how she managed to get back in the gym and to start passing balls just a few months after the crash. And that's how she plans to go about making the team for 2012, which would be her fourth Olympics.

"I've always been able to accomplish everything I have ever set my mind to," Stacy says. "I want to get back to where I was so I think about how I got there in the first place. I worked my butt off. So that's what I have to do now."

That work includes practice, weights, video tape and now vision training. Each week she heads to her doctor's office and goes through the various exercises to expand her field of vision. At one point in the session, she is asked to walk on an unbalanced balance beam while the doctor throws a beanbag at her from various places in the room. She must use her peripheral vision to catch it.

At the start of her vision training, just about anything located to Stacy’s right side was not visible to her. Now, she marvels at her enormous progress. While Stacy gazes straight ahead, she can still see her therapist, who is standing about 20 feet away and well into that right side periphery that was previously blocked from Stacy’s sight. They both take a moment to appreciate how far she’s come.

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