One of Tucson's top male gymnasts is paralyzed from the neck down after suffering spinal cord damage in a tumbling accident his coach says happens "one in a million times."
Andrew Donnellan, a sophomore at Salpointe Catholic High School, fractured two vertebrae when he landed on his head during a workout at Gymnastics World in Midtown on Friday.
He underwent a five-hour surgery at University Medical Center on Wednesday afternoon to fuse four vertebrae. He was listed in serious condition late Wednesday.
His next stop likely will be the renowned Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., a spinal-cord-injury rehabilitation facility. He is expected to begin rehabilitation next week.
Donnellan was performing a basic forward tumble, coach Yoichi Tomita said, when he over-rotated and landed on his head.
"It happened to one of the nicest kids," said Tomita, a two-time Olympic coach and owner of Gymnastics World in Tucson. The accident is the worst Tomita has seen since opening his gym in 1979, he said.
Donnellan, 16, was taken to University Medical Center, where he was stabilized until Wednesday's surgery could be performed.
Salpointe students were told of the injury on Monday.
Donnellan's gymnastics teammates met with a counselor Wednesday evening and were encouraged to express their feelings and fears.
"It's tragic," said Mike Urbanski, a guidance counselor at Salpointe and a family friend. "Drew is just such a great kid. He epitomizes who we want our students to be. He is such a quiet, respectful, hardworking student — and such a great kid — that it's tough for us to deal with right now."
Added Salpointe athletic director Phil Gruensfelder: "It's devastating. Here's this kid who is incredibly in shape and fit, and for this to happen … ."
Donnellan's mother would not comment.
Speaking at the gym Wednesday evening, Tomita described Donnellan as one of his best athletes. He had the best finish of any Gymnastics World entrant at last month's nationals after qualifying in the parallel bars.
But more important, Tomita said Donnellan is a quiet leader who did everything that was asked of him in eight years at the gym. Donnellan had competed on the advanced team for five years and was thriving.
"He never complained about a long practice or a hard day or anything. The same with his mom," Tomita said. "He has great physical and mental strength. He got hurt — little things — but he always bounced back up."
Donnellan's strength has already helped his recovery process. Tomita said Donnellan's neck and shoulders are so strong that doctors might not fit him with a "halo" brace during recovery.
Donnellan was excited about undergoing surgery Wednesday because it meant a start to the recovery process, Tomita said.
"He was so focused and so excited to get going," he said.
Accidents resulting in paralysis are rare in gymnastics, though other injuries are not uncommon. According to USgyms.net, gymnastics had the fourth-highest frequency of injury among high school sports, at 56 percent. The majority of the injuries are considered minor, such as ankle sprains and stress fractures. Club gymnastics teams have an injury rate at 22 percent, according to the site.
University of Arizona gymnastics coach Bill Ryden said coaches do everything in their power to help prevent injuries, whether it's padding the workout facility or spotting athletes.
Gymnastics World's Midtown location is nearly covered with safety padding and outfitted with a springy floor, which aids in flips and helps to cushion falls.
"The odds are in extreme favor of the athlete," Ryden said.