Rachel Tidd has gone from being one of the best gymnasts in the country to a University of Utah student who physically struggles to get to class.
Still in her athletic prime, the junior is faced with the possibility of quitting the Utes' gymnastics team because of a mysterious debilitating back ailment, which began causing pain a year ago and has become progressively worse.
"It's something I try not to think about too much," said Tidd, who is expected to make a decision about her gymnastics career soon. The NCAA season starts in January. "I have it in my head that maybe I'm done with gymnastics, but I'm still holding on to it because it's hard to let it go."
Last season, she was held out of the Utah State meet and was limited in several other competitions because of the back troubles. The pain subsided enough to allow Tidd to compete in the NCAA Championships in April, where she finished third in the uneven bars and helped the Utes place third as a team.
Tidd hasn't been in the gym since.
A summer of rest, five rounds of injections and a treatment in which the nerves that caused the pain were numbed have done nothing to alleviate the discomfort.
Tidd walks almost normally now, but the problem was so intense in August and September, she had trouble moving or sitting and had to get a temporary handicap parking pass just so she could get to class.
"I missed a lot of class because I was in so much pain," said Tidd, whose grade-point average hovers near 4.0. "Sometimes I would make it to class and have to leave."
At the Dumke Gymnastics Center, the Utes' training facility, Tidd's teammates have been convening regularly for strength and conditioning workouts since school started, followed by the beginning of official practices on Sept. 19.
Tidd, though, knows little about their doings. She has avoided the center because it is too hard for her to watch others prepare for a season she isn't sure she will be a part of. In fact, she hangs out with her teammates less than she did in the past.
"We try to include her as much as we can, and every time she comes in we give her a hug," teammate Nicolle Ford said. "We'd actually like it if she came in more, but I can see it from her side too.
"Even if she hasn't done gymnastics and she is out of that loop, she is still one of us."
Utah coach Greg Marsden stays in regular contact with Tidd, and said it is her decision when to call it quits.
"As time goes on, it is less and less likely she will do gymnastics this year," Marsden said. "But the real fear is not that she will never do gymnastics again, but that she is going to have to deal with this from now on."
What makes the injury so frustrating is its lack of response to treatments. The aggravation has been pinpointed to the sacroiliac joints in the lower back, which are an extension of the lower back that comes in contact with the pelvis, causing Tidd lower back and leg pain.
"All of the doctors say that this and this is going to work, then it doesn't," Tidd said. "I'm starting to feel like their guinea pig."
Tests showed the treatment to numb the nerves in Tidd's back worked, but she still experiences pain. Additional therapy and exercises haven't helped either, exasperating Tidd and others who have worked on her.
"I'm trying to get her back to normal things, mainly daily living - like walking and sitting in class," said the team's trainer, Tom Iriye. "I've felt I've done everything I can from my book of knowledge."
Tidd will try a new form of therapy soon, one that involves weights placed on her shoulders, which should help trigger muscles to support her back.
"It has helped a couple of people I know, and sticking a bunch of needles in me hasn't done any good," Tidd said. "At this point I'm ready to try anything."
Tidd is smart enough to know she is running out of time and options, but still admits it's hard to consider giving up a sport that has been a part of her life since she was 7 years old.
"I know it's not my life, but in some ways it seems like gymnastics is my life because I've put so much time into it," she said. "If I were graduating, I would be sad, but I'd be looking forward to a new part of my life. But I have two years left, and they are supposed to be fun, my two best years."