Gymnast in familiar picture

ROB BRODIE, Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:08 AM ET

Heather Purnell knows the tale of courage as well as anyone who's ever been involved in gymnastics. Now it's her story, too.

We'll paint a little picture first, one that should jog a certain memory from Games gone by.

Gymnast lands vault to win medal at competition, but knows the moment she hits the mat that something just isn't right.

She ignores the sharp pain shooting through her leg, smiles and "presents" to the judges -- just the way she's been taught so well at her home club.

Then she collapses to the mat, and is carried to her seat by a burly East European coach. Because walking simply isn't an option.

Kerri Strug at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics?

Good guess.

And a thought everyone at the recent Visa American Cup on Long Island conjured up. Everyone except Purnell, who'd just lived the painful moment herself.

"It was exactly Kerri Strug. I did the exact same thing," said Purnell, 18, of the Ottawa Gymnastics Club. "I didn't think about it until after, when a whole bunch of people came up and told me that."

Purnell, it must be said, finds humour in that thought now as she speaks from her Metcalfe home. But it was hardly the reaction when doctors first told her about the severity of it all.

"I didn't think it was as bad as it was. I thought I just hyperextended it," said Purnell, who still managed to win the vault bronze and overall silver medal at the event.

Then came the reality hit. Torn ACL. Stretched MCL.

Even for someone who's dealt with her share of injuries over the years, it was a devastating blow.

"At that time, I was kind of in shock. I didn't really understand," she said. "One of the coaches said 'Don't worry, you'll be fine by December.'

"That's when I thought 'Oh my gosh, this is serious.' That's when it hit me that it was a big deal."

Purnell has dealt with back problems, broken wrists and ankles before.

But this was something else.

"It stops you dead in your tracks," she said.

Her thoughts quickly moved to Stanford University, where she's supposed to begin school in the fall on a full gymnastics scholarship.

Purnell spoke to Stanford coach Kristen Smyth the night of the mishap, and Smyth quickly put her in touch with two other Cardinal team members who dealt with equally serious injuries.

She has been assured her scholarship is safe.

"My parents just went down there for a visit (older sister Ashley is a member of the school's track team), and they just said 'Get her better, take your time, do it properly,' " said the Athens Olympian.

There is a bright side to the story. The NCAA season doesn't hit full steam until January, and Purnell's ailing back gets a much-needed break while she rehabs the knee.

"This is actually a great time for (the injury) to happen," said Purnell, who expects to resume full training in October.

That depends greatly when she has surgery on her wounded knee -- she's still waiting for the procedure to be done at Ottawa Hospital. In the meantime, Purnell heads off to OGC each day, where she works on upper-body conditioning. The ACL tear was so complete, she can walk without crutches -- or pain -- for now.

Purnell's season in Canada is obviously over, but she'll head to the national championships next month in Vancouver to cheer on friends and teammates.

And probably manage a smile when someone asks her how it feels to be Kerri Strug.

FURY LOADS UP: The Ottawa Fury seems determined to maintain its elite status in W-League soccer. The Fury announced this week they've signed Marie-Eve Nault of Trois Rivieres, Que., and Veronique Maranda of St. Lambert, Que., both of whom have represented Canada internationally. The versatile Nault returns to the Fury after a season with the Montreal Xtreme. She played for Canada at the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament. Maranda, also with the Xtreme in 2004, has earned 12 full caps for Canada and another 14 with the Under-19 squad, including the world tournament in November in Thailand ... The Fury's Melissa Abraham has accepted a soccer scholarship at Texas-El Paso, where Ottawa teammate Kelly Parker -- the W-League's MVP in 2004 -- is an assistant coach. Abraham was a CIS all-Canadian with the Ottawa Gee-Gees last fall.

CHAIRMAN OF THE 'BOARD: He's No. 1 in Canada and he's not done yet. Matthew Tunnicliffe of Gananoque claimed the men's crown at the Canadian junior open snowboarding championships, held at Big White resort near Kelowna, B.C. "I wanted to be on the podium, but to win the gold is special," said Tunnicliffe. He's aiming for a top-16 finish at the upcoming world juniors in Switzerland.

AROUND THE AMATEUR SPORTS SCENE: Ottawa Lions' Katie Engel placed 90th in the junior women's race at the world cross-country championships in Saint-Galmier, France. Ottawa's Nicholas Sunseri finished 112th among the junior men ... John McCrae topped the field at the annual Ottawa high school figure skating invitational event, with Kingston Holy Cross taking second, followed by Earl of March, All Saints and Sacred Heart.

rob.brodie@ott.sunpub.com


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