Still standing: Craig gymnast Jessica Womble back in competition 10 months after car accident, amputation
For much of her childhood, Craig teenager Jessica Womble worked on her balance, maintaining her bodily equilibrium and increasing her agility within the confines of Rising Star Youth Training Center.
However, it wasn’t until her life went topsy-turvy that she faced her greatest challenge and was able to tap into a greater wealth of strength.
Knocked off her feet
In May 2018, Jessica was in a vehicular accident along U.S. Highway 40 near Maybell. Her father, Jeff, was driving her and two of her friends home from a rock-crawling competition when he accidentally collided with the roadway guardrail.
Though she wasn’t the only one injured — one of her friends broke his wrist — Jessica definitely got the worst of it, with her left leg badly mangled in the crash.
After she was transported for extensive care, medical professionals worked for several days to try and preserve her limb, which had a great deal of nerve damage.
“They even took a vein from her other leg, and you can still see the scar, to try and get blood to go down to the lower leg, but it just never took,” said Jeana, Jessica’s mother.
Doctors were forced to amputate, and after that came the healing process, which involved about a month in Children’s Hospital in Denver. Though she faced extra treatments during the summer to ensure there was no additional infection, she was able to start her freshman year at Moffat County High School in August.
Jessica used a wheelchair for most of the early school year, but in time, she moved along to crutches. At first, the wheelchair was a necessity, though it soon became something she’d only rely on if she was low on energy.
“I don’t even bring it to school with me now,” she said.
Jessica was first fitted for a prosthetic leg in the fall in Grand Junction, which continues to be a work in progress.
“It’s very painful to walk around in and to sit in,” she said. “The seats at the school are already uncomfortable, but having the prosthetic with it is even more painful when you’re sitting all day.”
Because of the remaining inches of her left leg, a prosthetic device won’t easily stay in place, and motion only makes it trickier.
“I have a knee joint, but there’s no ankle,” Jessica said.
If the amputation had been below the knee, replacing the lower leg would have been less complicated, Jeana said.
“It’s a harder case than most,” Jeana said. “They told her it takes twice as much strength to move a prosthetic, and the less of your own leg you have, the more strength and power it takes. It’s a great challenge.”
Jessica has also had to contend with phantom limb pain as the rest of her body adapts to missing a major component. Though that’s gotten better as the months go by, it still sneaks up on her, whether at school or home, whether she’s being active or lying in bed.
“There’s no warning,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s very mild, and sometimes, it’s a small tingling sensation, but sometimes, it’s a hard, stabbing pain or burning sensation. There’s nothing I can do, just sit there and wait for it to go away.”
When her younger brother, Zach, playfully tickled her last summer, it proved a huge trigger for the feeling of phantom limb.
“It was so weird, just so much pain throughout the leg, and I had to tell him to stop,” she said.
A silver lining of losing her left leg is that, since her right leg is perfectly healthy, the 15-year-old will still be able to enjoy the milestone of getting a driver’s license.
Still, she likely won’t be driving a stick shift transmission.
“Manual might be a bit of a challenge,” Jeana said with a laugh.
A support system to lean on
Besides the usual anxieties most incoming high school freshmen experience, Jessica was slightly on edge about the reaction she might get from other students upon entering classes in a wheelchair and missing one of her legs.
The concern wasn’t so much being bullied or teased, but rather being pitied. Though the first few days brought some stares, the awkwardness was short-lived.
“It’s something I’ve grown accustomed to, and that sounds bad, but it’s really fine,” she said. “It just takes them by surprise.”
Jeana and Jessica added that most people in their circle already knew about Jessica’s situation, thanks to social media.
“A lot of people in Craig already knew about the girl with one leg,” Jessica said.
If anything, she wound up making more friends as the weeks went on at school. For instance, a classmate named Chase began assisting her by carrying her tray in the cafeteria, which led to them becoming close friends.
Participating in band and choir, she also threw herself headlong into other artistic endeavors, landing the role of the queen in MCHS’s fall musical “Cinderella.”
For most of her time onstage, she remained in a seated position in an upgraded version of the wheelchair she had been using. The royal thrones were designed with wheels — partly to make the set pieces easier for the stage crew to move, but also to make things easier for Jessica.
Before the accident, had also performed with Missoula Children’s Theatre during the program’s stints in Craig, coincidentally playing an alien giantess ruler while with MCT and an evil queen in a show written by local playwright David Morris.
“I guess I’ve just got kind of a queen thing going,” she smiled.
She also utilized her crutches with a small part in the play “The Giver” earlier this month.
“I’ve made amazing friends with theater; it’s such a big support system with everybody,” she said. “It’s really helped me improve in my self-confidence. It’s amazing what theater can do for people.”
Back on the gym floor
While she was embracing theater and other pursuits at school, Jessica was also weighing the possibility of getting back into physical activities. She had spent about six years training and competing in gymnastics before taking a year off to try her skills at dance.
After the accident, former coach Cammy Winder, head of Rising Star, encouraged her to return to the sport.
Jessica first thought about it as soon as she began physical therapy two weeks into her hospitalization. Her regimen for the first day was to sit up in her hospital bed without any help and to use a walker to get to a chair across the room.
The two tasks barely took any effort for her, surprising her therapist.
“That’s when I thought I should get back into gymnastics. That’s partly why I recovered so well and quickly,” she said.
She began getting back into it gradually last summer, but she increased her time in the gym while she was performing in the fall musical during her downtime.
Regaining her sense of balance didn’t take long, even with her body different than when she had last slipped on a leotard. Besides that, her upper body strength was as good as it had been, if not better.
“A lot of that just comes from walking around school on the crutches,” she said.
Jessica officially got back into the game during the ShamRock Classic on March 23, hosted by Gypsum’s Ascent Gymnastics.
A floor exercise included a back handspring she had been working on, ultimately gaining a 7.5 out of a possible 10, showing she was still more than capable of competing in the sport.
“We didn’t think they would score her for floor, but the floor judge said, ‘Let’s see what she can do.'” Winder said.
A portion of the routine came with a little assistance as she was joined by two teammates who lifted her off the mat as her own version of a leap.
Coming off the floor after competing for the first time in two years, Jessica wept with joy, at first by herself, then, with the rest of the team.
“I knew it would be very emotional,” she said. “It’s felt so good to get back into it and do it well and with the team girls I missed so much.”
Jessica was also honored during the meet, along with Ascent’s Juliet McGill, who was competing after going through a successful treatment for leukemia.
Besides the floor, Jessica also took to the uneven bars — which she struggled with more during the competition due to some back pain — for a two-event score of 13.7 against the field of girls who were also competing in the balance beam and vault.
Her Rising Star teammate, LeeAnna Nelson, took a score of 9 in all four events, winning the beam, tying for first in the vault, and winning the age division overall, evoking huge screams from the rest of the team.
Much of the excitement was over Nelson keeping her numbers so consistent in each category, Winder noted.
“That was huge that they know how important it is to get all the same scores,” she said.
Winder said that, even with the new circumstances, Jessica remains one of her top athletes, largely thanks to her positive mentality.
“Jessica has always been a go-getter. We can tell her anything, and she’ll say, ‘OK, I’ll try it.’ She’s always had that confidence,” Winder said. “We’re all freaked out, but she’s showing us there’s nothing to be freaked out about.”
Rising Star has numerous upcoming competitions, ranging from nearby in Rifle to a state meet in Denver to a regional event later this year in Kansas City.
Rising Star has about 150 kids across all age groups, with 35 on the competitive team. Still, all ages will get to show their skills during the upcoming in-house competition, run by older gymnasts across several days beginning April 22.
An exhibition will be part of that for athletes, including Jessica.
“Everybody will be watching her, and I’m sure everyone will be crying,” Winder said.
Jessica has also been working in a coaching function for the program, which has not only allowed her to aid younger athletes in the techniques to succeed in the sport, but also become comfortable around people with different abilities or handicaps.
“It’s a good experience for them to have interaction with someone like me early in life, so if they see someone else like that in public, they’re not alarmed by it,” Jessica said. “I feel like this truly is a blessing to happen to me and to people around me.”