Ring specialist cleans up after recovery

By Daniel Johnson

Although he would never compete the way he had before surgery, a successful operation gave Jon Drollinger a freshly cleaned neck to work with.

The problem was the rest of his body was neither fresh nor clean.

His neck brace wasn’t very conducive to personal hygiene, keeping him from bathing considerably longer than he would have liked.

“Finally, I said, ‘I need to get in the shower,’ and we had a special neck brace to put on,” he said. “So, I’m in the bathroom, and I can barely move. I’m changing stuff and all over. I had to put on my swim trunks because my parents had to help me get in the shower and stuff like that.”

Although he barely exerted himself, his body wasn’t in the strongest of states yet. Waiting to wash off the stench of a nearly week-long hiatus from the shower, Drollinger’s parents were readying to help him when needed.

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“I was sitting down on top of the toilet seat, and my parents are switching neck braces, and when they took the first one off, all of the sudden, I just passed out,” he said. “The next thing I remember is my mom looking at me, holding my face, saying, ‘Jon, stay with us, stay with us.'”

“It was the first time that the neck brace came off, and we just lost him for a second, it was pretty nerve-racking,” Drollinger’s mother, Deb, said.

She laughs a little remembering the situation, though it’s hard to tell if her laughter is out of amusement or nervousness, likely both.

“Those first few days were interesting, if nothing else,” she added.

Drollinger knows what his parents went through when he lost consciousness; he can’t help but laugh at the situation, between breaths, he continues.

“I was just like, ‘What are you talking about? I feel great.’ My mom was getting worried, and I don’t know what’s going on, and I’m getting worried.”

Rather than risk another accident, Drollinger’s parents replaced the neck brace and tried to bring him back to the now-familiar quarters of his arm chair.

“So, still in my swimming trunks we start to move back, and I pass out again,” he said. “My body went limp again, and I passed out. My dad caught me and helped me up until I came to again.”

“At that point, I think we knew we were beat and he was going to have to wait to shower,” Drollinger’s father, Mike, said. His laughter is much more full and lacks the more concerned tone of his wife’s.

On their second attempt, the Drollingers got their son back to his “bed.” Rather than put his parents through another ordeal, he decided to bite the bullet and let his body’s funk build a bit longer.

“Finally I was able to get back to the recliner, and I decided to just stay there for a couple more days until I got stronger,” he said. “But, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.”

Ahead of schedule

Drollinger’s recovery time was set at one year. He stayed at home in Hoopeston, Ill., and wrapped up high school like a “normal” student. He was able to finish his time as a drum major at the school, among other things, before graduating. Drollinger was to slowly work back into a regular lifestyle after almost losing it. For him to be able to return to the sport that took away his last months of 2003, he would have to return to better physical shape. Cardiovascular conditioning would progress to light work in the gym and culminate in a return to the sport after adequate rehabilitation. Given the severity of the injury, a year was a realistic time frame set by Dr. Karahalios, the neurosurgeon who operated on his neck.

But Drollinger felt differently.

“You can ask any gymnast, or any athlete, if a doctor gives you a set time of when you’re supposed to come back, we feel like we’re ready to come back much sooner,” he said. “You’re in good shape, you’ve been conditioning. You’re always able to come back a little earlier than the doctor says.”

“A little earlier” for Drollinger was about eight months faster than expected. He discarded his neck brace after about a month and half and was back to conditioning after about four months.

“In the beginning, I just did a lot of training and small stuff,” Drollinger said. “But I’m not really a person to just stick with sit-ups and push-ups. If I’m going to be in there, I’m going to be in there doing other things.”

Drollinger started working more extensively with Illinois assistant coach John Valdez, who had been helping Drollinger after one of his coaches from high school, Kurt Hettinger, left to become a coach at Kent State.

“It was just getting in shape, doing core conditioning, things like that,” Valdez said of Drollinger’s rehabilitation. “It was just a gradual process for him of getting back in shape.”

“Gradual” for Drollinger meant that roughly two more months after starting to rehab, he was back in the gym, readying himself for his collegiate gymnastics career.

“As far as basic gymnastics skills, I was definitely doing that between the five- and sixth-month period.”

Drollinger’s body would now dictate how quickly he would rehabilitate. His parents could not be sure, but they were aware that their son was likely going to push himself harder than he should.

“He was going back and forth by himself at that point in the summer,” Mike said. “We didn’t ever really know what he was doing in the gym, but I’m sure that he was doing more than he was supposed to. It’s always been so hard to hold Jon down.”

Ringing in a new year

After training for the rest of the summer, Drollinger was now being held back by one thing.

“The hardest part for him,” Valdez said, “was getting the doctors to medically clear him (for college gymnastics).”

Even when he was medically cleared, he still had to get past any jitters of competing in meet situations and pushing himself.

“There have been some times when I have had some nasty crashes when I have landed on my face or on my head,” he said. “It was scary. I tried to do more in the (foam) pit, but at some point you just have to trust in yourself that the practice that you put in is all worth it.”

Drollinger was medically eligible in time for his freshman year but was limited to three events: vault, floor exercise and still rings. It wasn’t nearly the role that he desired, but he and his teammates knew that, all things considered, they were lucky to have him.

“The kid almost never walked, he almost never moved again; it was unbelievable,” former teammate and current assistant coach Justin Spring said. “Coming in as a freshman, he only did those three events, and because of the surgery, (he) started to develop bone spurs. He ended up only being a rings specialist, but he is way better (all-around) than what he demonstrates on rings.”

In today’s collegiate landscape, where scholarships are at a premium, Drollinger might have been seen as a burden to a program from the outside.

But to those who know the difficulty of the event, Drollinger is more of a luxury than an inconvenience.

“The one event that he does is so crucial,” said Spring, now a U.S. Senior National Team member. “You can’t teach his kind of strength; you’re born with it or you’re born having to work really hard for it. Jon was just born naturally strong. Put that together with his great work ethic, and you can see why he is able to really excel on rings. I could never do the ring routines he does.”

In Drollinger’s junior year, he was the third-most prolific scorer on rings.

In his senior season he was second only to teammate Tyler Yamauchi by a mere 0.150 points. Drollinger is the 13th best in the nation on the event, and stands a strong chance of contending with the best for the All-American title this season.

Luck of the draw

Drollinger is now as physically recovered as he will ever be, and his life is now as normal as anyone else who suffered a life-threatening fall.

He is finishing with school, will graduate in May, plans to pursue a career in federal law enforcement and is engaged to be married. He’s back sleeping in a bed and showering regularly – without the help of his parents.

Life in the gym, however, is different. Drollinger is now a full-fledged specialist on rings. Because of the toll the other events took on his body, he has been relegated to that one event. He admitted that he still has a desire to do all the events, but knows he is fortunate enough to be able to compete at all.

Drollinger generally does not like talking about what could have been or explaining how “lucky” he is, but after some prodding, he does. Rather than ask, “Why did this happen to me?” Drollinger seemed to be more concerned with, “Why didn’t more happen to me?”

“I definitely look at things differently, appreciate things more,” Drollinger said.

He reflects, then continues.

“I know people say that when they have experiences like these, but it really does change you. Sometimes you’ll have moments when you’re just lying around thinking about things, and you realize how lucky you are. I’ll see someone my age who is in a wheelchair around campus, and I’ll think, ‘That could have been me,’ or how easily that still could be me.”