Broken Athlete


Photo Credit: Bryon Arnao

Sophia Arnao on beam at a state competition in May 2010

Born Competitor

Encouragement is key for any parent, but it’s only in the child’s best interest, and in the end it’s only he or she that can truly determine their future. Whether it be basketball, lacrosse, running, gymnastics, golf, drawing, dance, or cheerleading, everyone finds their place.

As soon as Sophia Arnao could walk, Liza Arnao, mother of two young and healthy children, believed with some aid from a young age, they’d become the best that they could be.

At the age of three, Sophia was enrolled in dance at Miss Patty’s Dance Studio in Midland Park, NJ. From those early days on, she got older and became capable enough of making her own decision to move forward from her years in dance.

Sophia’s brother, Ben, is seven years older than his sister, and competed on the Glen Rock Shooting Stars soccer team. Sophia, being the youngest in her family, was dragged to many soccer tournaments and games. It was easy for her to be friendly, for she had always been this way. Some of Ben’s teammates had older sisters who attended often.

Alex Raccioppi, one of the two girls Arnao befriended, would teach Sophia all sorts of tumbling, cartwheels, and handstands. By the age of seven, she would have her doing back walkovers and more.

At that point,  it was suggested to Sophia’s mother that her daughter be enrolled in gymnastics.   So yes, Liza encouraged her to take gymnastics, but it had to be something that her daughter wanted as well.

Sophia started competing on a gymnastics team in 2006 at the age of seven. She could do a cartwheel, somersault and even a roundoff, the simple techniques that she had learned at her brother’s soccer games over the years. They came naturally to her. When she wasn’t practicing, she enjoyed teaching her friends all of her acquired skills.

It wasn’t easy to jump right into harder tricks, but her instructors and coaches taught her confidence. They instilled the idea that confidence is the most important part of learning how to do any new skill.

Competing at a young age benefited her future in ways she couldn’t fathom. At the beginning of Arnao’s career at the Eastern National Academy of Gymnastics, she was on USAG for levels four, five, seven, and eight out of 10.  JOGA, Jersey Optional Gymnastics Association, was another ranking system of levels for gymnastics, placed Arnao on levels two, four, and six.

Arnao fell into a weekly routine. She attended ENA Gymnastics classes about four times a week. The classes were about four hours long and involved learning new skills and techniques. Once they were learned, mastered, and performed, she felt determined and confident enough to enroll in the competitive team as a level four gymnast.

As Arnao made the journey to level 10, she not only improved her techniques but also made lifelong friends. She started going so often that it became like a second family to her. The people she surrounded herself with were some of her best friends.

Sophia and her teammates learned from each other. When it came time for competitions, there was always so much support and excitement between the girls. Competitions and meets became more frequent as the competition season approached, which allowed the girls to spend more time together.  Arnao continued to graduate to new levels and improved on her tumbling skills.

Sophia and teammates on the floor of Atlantic City Convention Center at a state competition in front of the judges in 2010.
Photo Credit: Bryon Arnao
Sophia and teammates on the floor of Atlantic City Convention Center at a state competition in front of the judges in 2010.

With intense training and exceptional talent, she made it to some of the best competitions with her ENA team. She competed in four areas: floor, vault, beam and uneven parallel bars. In each of those categories, she took first, second, third and all-around.

At the age of 13, a crowning achievement was placing in 2nd at Joga States. This made her second in the state at her level.”

— Liza Arnao

In 2012, Arnao became second in the state at her level.  As Arnao was crowned with the honor, the feelings of accomplishment and pride radiated off of her.

Arnao’s achievements were incredible. Although, with a small shift of the team, she didn’t know if she should continue.

At the age of nine, Brenna Drummond, a long time friend of Arnao’s, left ENA Gymnastics due to her interest in cheerleading.  Drummond joined a cheer team and used her background in gymnastics to make the coaches think fondly of her.

“Tumbling is most important for cheerleaders to have a background in on a competitive team,” Arnao said.

Shortly after Drummond left the team, Arnao’s attitude towards her future in gymnastics began to shift.  Arnao enjoyed being challenged, and gymnastics alone was not enough.

New Beginnings

Brenna Drummond opened incredible doors for the fresh new athlete. Arnao had only been competing in gymnastics for two years. At this point in her career, she was ready to try something new that she had never done before.

Drummond had joined a cheerleading team that her cousin had encouraged her to join. Arnao, not knowing much about the sport, was optimistic. With the aid of Drummond, she joined St. Anne’s Varsity cheerleading squad. To her surprise, she fit right in with her teammates. For Drummond, the relationship was mutually beneficial.

She’d always calm my nerves. She was as close as a sister to me.”

— Brenna Drummond

“I didn’t know what I was doing when I joined but because Sophia and I did gymnastics, it gave us an advantage when we both joined cheerleading together,” Drummond said.

Despite being the new girl, Arnao felt that it wasn’t as scary and intimidating as she had anticipated it to be.

When practices began, she began to befriend many people.  To Arnao’s surprise, she was pleased to find out that many girls on her team were so welcoming and kind.

“The girls on the team were really nice to me, I never thought that when I first started there, it would be easy to fit in. I was only seven though. When I was younger I feel like it was a lot easier to be friends with people you didn’t know. It was also a lot easier than how it might be if I joined a team now, at 16,” Arnao said.

Competitions began right away.

“My first competition was so scary, I didn’t know what to expect at all. The only things I knew was from what Brenna and my coaches told me,” Arnao said.

Arnao didn’t know much before her first competition. She didn’t know the expectations and only knew some rules. The coaches told her the essentials and Drummond explained the strategies. It was all a learning process for Arnao.

The parents all wore St. Anne’s apparel and sat right in the front of the competition floor when the team approached the mat. Arnao walked on the mat and saw her mother sitting front row, which relieved some of her initial nerves.

One head turned to the floor and the others followed.  Breaths were heavy. It was almost as if you could hear the tiny hearts of tweens pounding through the air. Feet tapped and moved into place on the blue spring floor. Sophia Arano, seven years old, stood silently, blankly staring down at the mat underneath her body. Hearts pounded and tiny stomachs crammed with butterflies.

The first competition is always the toughest. When the first ding of the music traveled across the gymnasium, Arnao’s body hit a front tuck across the front of the mat, in sync with Drummond. Motions snapped with a ding of her head and Arnao snapped her arms to her side in a tight motion.  She walked backwards then moved into her next position to tumble. Every sharp movement and every crisp noise was made. Arnao successfully hit every move.

Brenna Drummond is on the left next to Sophia Arnao. This was taken of the two best friends before performing at a competition in 2009 on the St. Anne's cheerleading team.
Photo Credit: Bryon Arnao
Brenna Drummond is on the left next to Sophia Arnao. This was taken of the two best friends before performing at a competition in 2009 on the St. Anne’s cheerleading team.

In a successful first place win of the St. Anne’s Varsity team, they continued their seasons together as a team. They attended a competition in 2013, winning first place overall.

In 2013 Arnao participated at a cheerleading competition with her St. Anne’s varsity team

Video Credits: cherimc1126 (youtube)

The team continued to acquire more trophies.  As the girls grew up, the bonds between them strengthened.  Most of the team remained the same up until eighth grade. When it was time to move up, Arnao transferred to C.C. Champs for one year.  There she met a new mentor who impacted her life in an extremely positive way.

Rayshine Harris was a major influence in Arnao’s tumbling career. Harris competed in USA World 1996 in tumbling. With hard work, talent, and dedication, he earned an 11-time World Tumbling champion title that he his now able to uphold for the rest of his lifetime.

Despite the amazing coaches, there were still some minor setbacks in Arnao’s career.

Bumps in the Road

Arnao didn’t give up when she didn’t want to continue but rather stopped when she couldn’t keep going. Minor ‘bumps in the road’ brought her down, but only to make her a stronger athlete.

Throughout her career as a gymnast, cheerleader, and as an all around athlete, Arnao endured multiple injuries. Her first was a severe concussion in 2010.  Her second concussion was mild. With each concussion, the Arnao family had to make another trip to the hospital.  Doctors would run a number of neurological tests.

There was a follow-up with her pediatrician and a pediatric neurologist after the tests were taken. Unfortunately for Arnao, there wasn’t much she could do besides rest the brain. The severity of the first one kept her in bed for several days. She wasn’t allowed to listen to music, watch television, use her phone or computer, or even read.  Anything involving bright light was not allowed. It was lights out for her.

Arnao wasn’t able to take any medication for her headache because the doctors didn’t want to risk any potential serious brain damage. Gradually, she went back to school for half days.  Eventually with time and rest, she returned for the full day.

In 2011, she was attending a practice at St. Anne’s when her knee popped out. Her knee did a full circle in her knee socket. The doctor popped the knee back into place at the appointment following the accident. They told Arnao’s mother that all she needed to do was put ice on it and rest. The only thing holding Arnao back from cheer was her own comfort.  She needed about two or three days of rest before going back to the sport.

In 2013, Arnao was at a gymnastics class when she fell off the beam and bruised the left side of her ribs.  She wasn’t able to participate in gymnastics for a significant amount of time.  She took another trip to the hospital with her father, Byron. The doctors took x-rays and an ultrasound of the organs near her ribs to see if anything became ruptured as a result of the accident.  Arnao found out that she didn’t bruise her ribs but rather fractured them.  Arnao was out for a month, leaving her injury to heal on its own.

Another accident occurred at ENA Paramus. Coming out of a difficult roundoff straddle jump, Arnao came down on her right ankle. Right in that moment, black spots suddenly appeared and closed over her vision. Following the spots, her body collapsed to the ground.

Two minutes later, Arnao’s eyes rolled around in her eye sockets, and she tried blinking. Slowly her eyelids opened and her vision became clear again.

Coach Karen, head coach at ENA for USAG level seven, stood over her and began asking questions.

Nothing in her head seemed different. In the midst of the questions spewing from her coach’s mouth, came a severe pain in her ankle. It was then that Arnao thought something was broken. Coach Karen took Arnao over to a seat and waited for her mother.

The doctors met with Arnao that night after practice around 7 p.m. They took x-rays and discovered that she had fractured her growth plate. This injury resulted in a lot of rest and a short period of time in a cast.  Most of the healing occurred while she was in a boot.

Sophia’s most recent accident paved the way for a surgical procedure.

Bad News

In the summer of 2015, Arnao attended a gymnastics camp at Camp Woodward in Pennsylvania. She was in a considerable amount of pain from her ankle.  Due to the constant impact it was receiving, her ankle became inflamed.

Arnao was born with an extra bone on the inside of the arc of both feet. Dr. Sheeraz Iqubal told Arnao one of the bones, known as the accessory navicular, was larger than the other and that she wouldn’t be able to continue with her cheerleading and gymnastics career.

This bone was surgically removed in early December.

Appointments and routine checkups became a normal thing for Arnao. Ridgewood Pediatrics doors’ swung open and Arnao’s mother walked into the office of Dr. Iqubal. A consultation began and Arnao was informed that the surgery should be sooner than later.

“I was upset when I heard about the surgery. I knew it would keep me from doing a lot of things, such as cheerleading for the winter season. I couldn’t do anything about it though, I was just nervous to pick a date and have to anticipate waiting the date,” Arnao said.

The surgery date was initially chosen for Dec. 6, 2015. Nerves ran through Arnao like lightning bolts. The car slowed down two blocks down at the corner of 535 E 70 St in a line into the parking garage.

Anticipating the wait, she closed the car door and waited for her parents to give the car keys to the man in the black shirt. Arnao walked out behind her mother, smelling the perfume on the tip of her nose, trying to block out the slick smell of New York City. To calm her nerves, she continued out the garage listening to Justin Bieber on SoundCloud.

534 E 70 St. was slowly approaching. The Hospital for Special Surgery was in eyesight.

“I could see Sophia was really nervous to go inside, but she’s so brave and I was really proud of her that day, I know it was scary going in there,” Liza said.

She stepped into the building, and closed her eyes, simply thinking.

Facing Fears

The elevator dinged.  One foot in front of another, the black hightop converse hit the floor and the groggy, tired body walked into her new home for the next few hours.  The clock hit a quarter before 8 a.m.

Liza, Byron and Arnao walked into the office with a sign overhead reading Hospital for Special Surgery.

Map displaying the location of where the surgery was taken, at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.

With a few steps and sighs, Liza stood in front of the office check in desk and spoke to the lady behind it. As the confrontation happened, Arnao tapped her feet nervously, and her body sunk into the typical waiting room chair; soft but cold, puke colored, chair.

Liza walked towards the cream colored wall where her husband and daughter was sitting. When she got to the seat, she stood over her saying, “We are right on time, they’ll take you in shortly I’m going to assume.”

Arnao’s face fell blank. Her hands began to shake in her lap, but she hid them from sight.  She couldn’t help but feel the wet droplets appearing, ready to fall down her forehead. Arnao felt her heart racing a mile a minute.

“People have probably felt as nervous as I did at that moment, but for someone who hasn’t felt it before, I felt crazy,” she said.

The feeling was said to be undescribable. The doors shut to the room she laid in.  She got that feeling once again. It wasn’t the feeling you get before you walk into a doctor’s office, knowing you’re going to get a shot once the doctor walks through the door. The moment the nurse enters the room, there is more than one shot, and a longer recovery time. Something Arnao said she didn’t feel prepared for.

Waiting for only two minutes felt like two hours. She sat just waiting. The hour drew closer. She had no phone to calm her nerves. Quiet creeks, loud slams and the constant muffled echoing voices going up and down the hallway of the hospital wing filled her head.

Needles were laid out on the blue tray, gause and q-tips sitting in clear bins on the pale wall. To the right of the bed were two IV poles next to the brown roll around bed side table. The more her mind wandered, the more frightened she felt.

A nurse with long blonde hair and a matching blue top and bottom over her body, opened the door and shut it behind her gently. She stood next to the tall bed and asked the basics that hadn’t already been covered through Liza. Then came the usual.

“The doctor will be in soon to start, don’t worry you’ll do great. There’s nothing to be worried about,” she assured Arnao.

Arnao never understood why people said, “you’ll do great.” It didn’t make sense to her.  She would be unconscious and she wouldn’t be doing anything.  How could she do great? How couldn’t she worry? So many things could go wrong.

Shortly after the nurses popped through the doors, Dr. Andrew Elliott walked into the room.

She was told that there would be some shots done before she went under anesthesia. Her body began shaking uncontrollably.

Dr. Elliot gave her something to calm her nerves and keep her still enough for the shot. With warning, a needle as thick as her thumb was injected into her right thigh. She couldn’t scream, she couldn’t move.

Shots were given to Sophia Arnao on her surgery date. The small bruise shown above, his where the needle was injected into her right thigh. This was taken two weeks after the shot was given to her.
Photo Credit: Sophia Arnao
Shots were given to Sophia Arnao on her surgery date. The small bruise shown above, his where the needle was injected into her right thigh. This was taken two weeks after the shot was given to her.

“Everything after he walked in was a blur. I remembered the shots I got, the pain I felt, but I got sick to my stomach,” Arnao said.

As her eyelids slowly closed, she felt herself loose control over her body. Arnao couldn’t move and her body shut down. The last thought to cross her mind was that she could do it.  She could face her fears.

Road to Recovery

Black spots blurred her vision of the cream colored ceiling and the smell of cleaning products lingered throughout the cold room. Arnao couldn’t sit up.  Her words spun off her tongue into mumbles as the nurse came over to the bed.

Questions spit out like fireballs through the nurse’s mouth.

Shortly after, Byron came over to talk to his daughter. She was given her glasses to see. She took the medication handed to her by the doctor. From there, she laid down and waited.

 Post surgery a photograph was taken of Sophia in a hospital bed at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
Photo Credit: Bryon Arnao

Post surgery a photograph was taken of Sophia in a hospital bed at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.

It was 4:30 p.m.

Papers were signed, and before she knew it, Arnao was back home.

She sat up in her bed, holding a glass of water in one hand and her pain killers in the other. She put the glass on her bedside table and faintly heard the noise of her bedroom door shut, as her eyes did the same.

She woke up in pain. Shortly it became a routine. She took anti-inflammatory medication eight times a day as well as a few painkillers but she couldn’t keep them in her system. She would get up to go to the bathroom, eat the minimum amount and occasionally throw up.  Arnao had to switch her painkillers and eventually took them every four to six hours.

Arnao was bedridden for about a week and as time flew by, her foot healed and she changed into a soft cast.  She began to use crutches in preparation of going back to school.  She started with half days in order to dedicate the other half of the day to resting her foot.

Homework began to pile up. It was a lot of stress on not only one part of her body, but two. Arnao’s brain was fried.

She stayed on the crutches for two weeks. Follow-up visits were necessary.  Arnao was allowed to go out however she lacked the energy to do so.

After five visits for check ups during the crutch period, she attended a visit in the first few days of January to remove stitches and move into a boot with crutches. This still meant no weight on her foot.

Six weeks after surgery she could start limping down the halls of Glen Rock High School without crutches, just walking on the boot. It was a week later that she then started physical therapy three times a weeks for three to four weeks. Mr. Robert W. Egermayer took care of Arnao during her hours at his office in Glen Ridge, New Jersey.

Unfortunately, two weeks into her physical therapy, a minor setback occurred. Another stress fracture required Arnao to be back in the boot for another two weeks.

It’s a long healing process.