Sometimes you’re not quite sure how an interview will go.
On Sunday, I was on my way to talk with a young woman who, on a warm summer night last year while hanging with her buds, crashed from the tree she’d been climbing and broke her neck.
A competitive gymnast nearly her entire life, in the blink of an eye, she’d become a quadriplegic who could barely breathe on her own.
Apparently, she was now getting around in a motorized wheelchair, but still, what would I encounter? Would she want to talk? Could she talk? Would I see the sad eyes of someone forced yet again to deal with the press? As it turned out – yes, yes, and an emphatic no.
In 22-year-old Alanna Jones, there were no tears. She did not play the victim card – though some would say she had every right to. In fact, there was very little sense she was anything other than the active, happy person she’d always been – albeit in the midst of a major setback.
Halfway through our interview, I noticed she was looking just over my left shoulder and had become distracted.
I asked if her friends and co-gymnasts who had gathered behind me were responsible. She nodded, smiling. I asked if they were making faces. She said “Yeah,” and everybody cracked up.
This was a very good interview indeed.
‘SHE’S MENTALLY STRONG’
The occasion was Surrey Invitational 2016, an annual competition hosted by Jones’ long-time club, the Surrey Gymnastic Society, at Guildford Recreation Centre.
But it was much more than that. It was also the triumphant return of a Surrey Gymnastics stalwart. Granted, on this day Alanna Jones wasn’t suiting up like she did so many times in the past. Truth is that she’d retired just two months before her fall. But even in her role as judge, swamped by well-wishers like her best friend Bridget Hastings, who’d pass her drinks and gummy bears, she was something to behold.
“After the accident,” she explained, “I was on a ventilator, so I couldn’t breathe by myself. They were going to put a diaphragmatic pacer (artificial breathing device) in me. But they hadn’t really given me any breathing time by myself. So I said ‘Let me try,’ and if it doesn’t work, you can put it in.
“The first time they let me try (in November), I did a half hour by myself, and they were shocked. And then I just kept moving up, hour after hour after hour, and they were like, well, we’re just going to leave you off the ventilator, and we’ll see how you do.
“And I did it.”
(Alanna pictured in a competition before her accident.)
But that’s not all she’s done. While we were chatting, I noticed her shrug her shoulder – a movement that to most of us is inconsequential. But for Jones, this was not supposed to happen.
Neither was the sensation of pain.
“I’m starting to get a lot of feeling back. My acupuncturist said the other day, ‘This one’s going to hurt.’ And I went, ‘Well, I can’t feel anything. What are you talking about?’ Then she stuck a needle in my foot and I went ‘Ow!’ That was good pain… good pain.”
Club co-ordinator and long-time friend George Burgoyne credits gymnastics.
“She’s physically strong, she’s mentally strong. It’s the gymnastics that did it. She has that strong, strong will. She was one of our great competitive athletes.”
‘EXCITED TO BE GOING HOME’
And now, after months at Vancouver’s GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre, Jones is going home.
“I met a lot of different people there…met a lot of good friends at GF Strong… but I’m excited to be going home.”
But that brings its own set of challenges – mostly fiscal. Mom Shelly talks about the elevator they’ve had to install, the home renovations, the private physio, the wheelchair accessible van, the meds. Some is covered – much is not.
To that end, there was a fundraiser back in January at the Green Timbers Pub. Hosted by Surrey Gymnastics and The Keg, the event raised $5,000. And there’s the GoFundMe campaign, captained by Surrey Gymnastics competitive coach John Carroll. To date it’s raised $23,000. But more will be needed. (Click here to donate.)
As our interview wound down, we got to talking about that fateful tree again.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Why are you climbing a tree?’ And I tell them, ‘It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am.’”
I say, “Stupid tree.”
And Jones laughs, “I know, right?”
And then she tells me that while at GF Strong, she met another young girl who was there because a tree fell on her.
“The trees are out to get us,” she says with a wry smile.
As I pack up, I ask her one final question. Do you think you can progress even further than you have already?
“I think so. I know so.”