RIFLE — The faded motivational message painted on the gymnasium wall reads: “Risk: It’s impossible to get up if we never learn to fall.”
Jessica Womble’s leg swings between her metal crutches as she passes before the words without notice. She is focused on getting to the uneven bars with her teammates for her first gymnastics competition event of the evening.
Jessica, 15, lost her left leg following a highway crash nearly a year ago. Such a loss might have shattered some young athletes. For Jessica, it was a matter requiring a rational response: She lost a body part; It’s one she can do without; The crucial parts are still intact; The spirit that has propelled her at high speed through life so far is still at her disposal.
So, here at a crowded gymnasium in Rifle, Jessica stands before the uneven bars working rosin into her hands. Her crutches lean on a nearby table.
She hops into position and jumps to grasp the lower bar. She swings back and forth over the bar before balancing for a second on the top. She propels herself to the higher bar and uses her powerful upper body to swing her body parallel to the floor. She ends her routine with a minor landing bobble — the same way many two-legged gymnasts do.
The gym erupts into cheers and applause before the score goes up: an 8.7. Her four siblings and her mother cheer the loudest.
Jessica, who describes herself on her Facebook page as “a spunky Mormon girl,” grins broadly, grabs her crutches, and walks off to her teammates’ hugs.
Later, she will jump, spin and flip through a floor routine drawing another eruption of cheers and a 7.45 score.
“After the accident, it was ‘What are we going to do to get you back on your feet – I mean ‘your foot’,” her mother, Jeana Winters Womble, said as she watched her daughter move through the hubbub of the meet. “She had been doing acrobatic dance. But we felt it was better to go back to the gym. She could be more creative with gymnastics.”
Jessica wanted to do it the hard way — on her own one leg
Gymnasts with disabilities aren’t rare. There are gymnasts who are blind, gymnasts with nerve-damaging diseases, a gymnast minus most of a hand, gymnasts missing feet or legs. In 1904, the gymnast George Eyser won six Olympic medals with a prosthetic leg. Those gymnasts with missing limbs generally rely on prosthetic devices. But Jessica wanted to do it the hard way – on her own one leg.
“I have never seen anyone missing a leg who competes without a prosthesis,” said Cammy Winder, the owner of the Rising Star Youth Training Center in Craig where Jessica’s team is based.
Winder added, “But I have never met anyone quite like Jessica.”
Jessica, the daughter of well-known Craig orthopedic surgeon Jeff Womble, who she calls “my hero” for saving her life, was known as a red-haired whirlwind around the northwest Colorado town before the accident. She has been viewed as a full-tilt cyclone since. She played flute in the school band and sang in the choir at Craig Middle School where she is finishing 8th grade. She performed in school theater productions. She plans to continue those pursuits in high school.
She has daily activities with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She babysits. She just finished driver’s education classes.
She recently starred in a local musical version of “Cinderella.” Her maid’s costume and her princess ball gown covered her missing leg. Her throne was on wheels so it could be nudged into place. And in the scene where Prince Charming kissed her, he improvised by sweeping her up in his arms. The few in the audience who didn’t know her didn’t realize she was missing a leg until the ovation, when she came to the stage-front lineup with her crutches.
Along with all that, and steady gymnastics practice that includes coaching younger girls, Jessica plans to attend acting and singing camps this summer.
It will be vastly different from last summer. The accident that took her leg happened within a week of school ending in 2018.
She knew when she saw her mangled leg that her life would change
She, two friends, and her father were returning from a rock-crawling competition when her father dozed off at the wheel. His truck ploughed into a guardrail near the tiny town of Maybell on U.S. 40. The metal rail stabbed into the truck through the passenger-side wheel well and pierced the empty passenger seat. It skewered the left leg of Jessica who was sitting behind that seat. She remembers her friends in the back seat were bent over picking up Cheetos and the metal just missed them. One suffered a broken wrist. Another had minor scratches. Womble’s father was uninjured.
Dr. Womble had his emergency medical kit and went to work saving the life of his daughter. He placed a tourniquet on her leg, packed her wound and exhorted her to keep her eyes open.
She remembers it all clearly. She wasn’t in pain, she said, because the nerves in her leg were so mangled there was no feeling.
“I just remember thinking, ‘This is a dream, this is a dream, this is a dream. This is not happening’,” she said.
It took 40 minutes for an ambulance to reach the wreck. Paramedics raced Jessica to the Memorial Regional Health Hospital in Craig. She was then flown to Children’s Hospital in Denver where doctors spent the next four days trying to save her leg.
When that became impossible, and Jessica’s parents came to her bedside to tell her that her leg needed to be removed, she had a breathing tube in her throat and wasn’t able to respond verbally. Her mother still cries when she talks about that moment: Jessica simply nodded her head, ‘OK.’ She wasn’t upset.
“I feel like, you know, when I first saw my leg at the accident, that this was going to happen,” Jessica said. “I had been preparing for it”
When she awoke following the surgery, she said she felt a deep peace.
“For the last couple of years, I had felt like something was missing in my life. Everything was all too easy,” she said. “I needed a challenge. I was good at everything. I had everything. I had a great family. It all felt just too easy.”
The first summer was not easy. She used a wheelchair and was in a dark place.
In spite of her acceptance, that first summer was not easy. Jessica said she was often in a dark place, especially during the first month, and especially at night when pain kept her from sleeping. She was confined to a wheelchair during the day. She said she contemplated suicide while she sat in her room watching her friends make plans on social media.
Jessica began trying out a prosthetic leg that fall, but it was painful and didn’t fit well on the mere inches of thigh remaining below her hip after 10 surgeries.
Her depression faded as the summer went on. By the time she returned to school in a wheelchair, she was raring to go. She soon began parking the wheelchair and using crutches more and more. She returned to the gym, in the beginning with bandages over open wounds, and in pain. That gradually eased and getting back on the mat and the bars gradually went from daunting to routine.
“It’s been scary. It’s been amazing, it’s been inspiring. It’s been a lot of things,” said Winder. “There were lots of tears and lots of fears at first.”
Jessica’s coach, Lexi Caudell, said it has been a lot easier than she anticipated.
“Sometimes I have tried to baby her,” Caudell said. Jessica, who is within earshot, interjects, “I’m like, noooo!”
She turns back to the circle of gymnasts sitting close together, fiddling with each other’s red-and-black hair ribbons and feeding off each other’s energy.
When they stand up to head to the next event, and she stoops to pick up her crutches, Jessica knows some in the audience fixate on her missing leg. But she also has faith that what registers with them is that “I am still a normal human being.”
“I wouldn’t consider what I have a disability,” she says. “I just consider it a little blip in the road.”