By: Corbin Ensminger
Edited by: Mallory Cage
USC diver Courtney Forcucci was used to hitting the water, sometimes awkwardly when learning a new dive. But one day in November 2009, she knew something was terribly wrong by the time she landed.
Forcucci broke her leg while practicing what was supposed to be jumping on the board without actually diving in.
"When I went off the board into the water I knew that I'd done something really bad," Forcucci says.
Coach Todd Sherritt saw the board bend her leg backward and says now it was "one of the most horrific" injuries he had ever seen.
Forcucci initially thought she'd torn her ACL, a ligament in the knee. "I thought it could be a career-ending injury," she says.
But she was lucky. She hadn't torn any ligaments, which would have been worse, and she knew she wasn't done diving.
Today, 2 1/2 years later, Forcucci smiles, having completed her comeback with one of the best performances at the NCAA championships in March. She sums up in just three words what kept the broken leg from ending her career and what keeps her focused on qualifying for this summer's Olympics: "I love winning."
Doctors initially told Forcucci she'd be in a cast and on crutches for six weeks. It turned into 12. But Forcucci worked with doctors and trainers and was able to dive competitively again in nine months.
Sports medicine doctor Jason Stacy, who works with USC Athletics, says diving injuries are uncommon, "but when they do occur it can be serious" because it's usually a leg or neck.
In a way, Forcucci, 23, from Fort Mill, had been here before. At 12, she decided to give up gymnastics when she broke her back from the stress of repetitive practices. But her parents told her she had to choose another sport. She chose diving, and Sherritt became her club coach a year later.
Forcucci started college diving at Houston, but transferred two years later to USC to work with Sherritt.
In addition to the physical recovery, athletes also face mental challenges when they suddenly have to stop what's been their life for years.
As a sport psychologist with USC Athletics, Kendra Cusaac tries to keeps athletes focused on positive thoughts and makes sure they don't push themselves too hard until they're ready to come back.
She would not talk specifically about Forcucci, but she says: "Any injury is devastating. You don't know how long it will take and what changes there will be."
Forcucci says the injury was "one of those freak accidents that you never expect to happen."
She says she was trying a new jump on the board and she landed on it while it was bouncing up, rather than down, causing her leg to hyperextend.
"It was very scary," she says.
Forcucci's mother, Michelle Forcucci, says there was never a question her daughter would dive again because Courtney was so determined to return. She says recovery was a "long and involved process that was very hard" but that Courtney stayed focused on her goal of a comeback.
Head swimming coach McGee Moody, who had just left the pool before the accident, watched video of the injury the next morning.
"It was one of the most disturbing images I've ever seen. Her knee bent ways it shouldn't," Moody says. "I wasn't sure she'd go off a board again."
But she did. And not only did she go off a board, she won two All-America honors and scored 16 of USC's 18 total points at the NCAA championships. Only eight other divers in USC history have won two All-America honors at a single meet. To qualify as an All-American, a diver must finish in the top 15.
"It is one of those performances as a coach you just remember for the rest of your life. It's incredible," Sherritt says.
Forcucci says she was very pleased with her performance, especially considering her past with big meets, when, she says, she'd "kind of freak out."
However, Forcucci says the injury actually helped her overcome her nerves.
"I stepped back and thought to myself, there's a lot of other things out there besides diving, and this can't be my end-all-be-all," she says. "I took the pressure off that way, by realizing I'm going to do a lot of other things with my life."
Forcucci will try to qualify in time for the Olympics in June. When she spoke with the Reporter in late March, she was taking a couple of weeks off to rest before heading back to training.
"My entire career at USC has been pushing to be the best," she said.