Lexie Priessman is back where she never wants to be, but always seems to end up: in an operating room. She is undergoing yet another surgery.
The wear and tear of her nearly lifelong companion — the sport of gymnastics — has again forced her athletic but battered body to pause for repair. This time it is her right shoulder that needs fixing.
This is the afternoon of Wednesday, June 6, 2018.
Lexie is 21 years old, an All-American LSU gymnast, and this is her ninth injury-related surgery. Ninth.
Lexie knows pain well. Their relationship has been long and intense. Pain has challenged her. It has altered her path and pushed her to grow. It has also stolen from her: stolen away the glorious ending of her childhood vision ... stolen precious chunks of her college days, too.
Pain has never been able to overpower her grip on the greatest of human freedoms, though. It has never gained control of Lexie’s freedom to choose.
She chooses to embrace positives rather than dwell on negatives. She chooses faith. She chooses the comfort and clarity of a message long ago tattooed on the inside of her left wrist: Everything happens for a reason.
The fact that her Olympic dreams were first delayed by unfortunate timing, then forever extinguished by a multitude of mishaps? There had to be a reason.
The string of physical setbacks never really stopping from the time she stepped on campus to the recent end of her junior year? There had to be a reason.
The sweet, little girl — cancer assaulting her brain — who somehow walked into Lexie’s life and grabbed hold of her heart? Surely, there had to be a reason.
But reasons don’t matter right now. All that matters is getting that shoulder repaired so Lexie can have one final season doing what she loves most … one last chance to be with her teammates and try to help the LSU gymnastics program win its first national championship.
Lexie is out cold, under general anesthesia, in a second-floor operating room at the Surgical Specialty Center of Baton Rouge. Dr. Carey Winder is performing a procedure known as a biceps tenodesis.
In layman’s terms, this means he is working on a tendon that connects the biceps muscle to the shoulder. The tendon has been partially torn for a few months, causing a lot of pain, so the idea is to clean it up and put it in a better place — literally move it to another spot where it will have a new start.
Winder cuts the tendon to release it from the inside of the shoulder socket. He then reattaches it high on the upper arm bone known as the humerus.
The doctor also cleans an area where, before college, Lexie had surgery on the same shoulder to repair torn labrum. Then he stitches her up.
An hour and a half after Lexie was rolled on a gurney into the operating room, Winder is done. Everything went well.
After another hour and a half spent in recovery, Lexie carefully loads herself into a wheelchair. Bandages cover her shoulder, and a sling tightly restricts her arm. Pain medicine is helping her as much as it can. She remains groggy. But it’s time to go.
Once outside, the next move is from the wheelchair into a waiting car.
There have been times in D-D Breaux’s long tenure as LSU’s gymnastics coach when she wasn’t sure she would last another 42 days, much less 42 …
On a good day — and with generous measurement — Lexie stands only 5 feet tall and weighs 115 pounds. Rising gingerly out of the wheelchair, she appears even smaller than usual, as if temporarily diminished by what she has just been through and the energy it has taken out of her.
Lexie is weak. Her hazel eyes — usually sparkling in tandem with her impossibly white teeth — are glassy and tired.
Once settled in the front passenger seat of that car, though, she somehow manages a brief smile by trying to focus on better days ahead.
One last season awaits her arrival. One final comeback begins right now.
“A fresh start,” Lexie says. “I’m definitely ready to go.”
In the beginning, there was no pain. There was only the unlimited energy and joy of a pint-sized 5-year-old who loved to run and tumble, the spunk of a fearless child who eagerly embraced the excitement of trying new things.
After seeing her older sister, Jenna, participate in gymnastics — at a training facility half an hour from their home in Cincinnati — little Lexie wanted in on the action.
Lexie’s other sister, her twin, Leah, initially went with her to classes at Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy. But Lexie quickly set herself apart.
Her first coach, Enrique Trabanino, saw an ideal combination of athleticism and personality. Lexie ran so well and was remarkably coordinated — tumbling and jumping and doing cartwheels with unusual ease. She always seemed to be smiling. And she always wanted to learn … always wanted to do more.
“Lexie had all the right characteristics,” Trabanino says. “Right from the start, you could just see so much potential.”
In addition to teaching basic skills, Trabanino worked with Lexie on flexibility and strength exercises. Then he encouraged her to try out for a selective youth program operated by USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body. The Talent Opportunity Program, known as TOPs, aimed at finding and training talented girls as young as 7.
Lexie wanted in. Her mother, Vickie, a first-grade teacher, was not sure it was the best thing to do.
Part of Vickie’s thinking was philosophical: She never wanted to be seen as “the insane parent” pushing her child to go all-in on a single sport at the cost of missing out on normal childhood activities.
Part of it was simply logistics: TOPs training started at 6 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That would mean getting up at 4:30. Who wanted to do that? Plus, Vickie could not stay until the sessions ended at 9 a.m. She had to be at work. How would Lexie get to school from the gym?
“Are you really sure you want to do this?” Vickie kept asking.
“Yes, Mom,” Lexie insisted. “I really want to try it.”
Vickie still marvels at the passion Lexie already exhibited as a 7-year-old: “You can’t teach motivation. She’s always just had it.”
Vickie’s father, who was retired, happily volunteered to solve the transportation issue. Grandpa would pick up Lexie at the gym and drive her to school.
Lexie could not have been more excited about being in the TOPs program.
She even started sleeping in her favorite leotards — “leos” in the parlance of gymnastics — partly so she could wake up ready to go but also to spend her nights wrapped in the joy of her journey.
Trabanino was constantly impressed by Lexie’s desire and work ethic. It was not only the fun stuff — learning new skills and practicing them — that fueled her enthusiasm. She even liked doing the strength and conditioning drills.
As Lexie now explains: “I just loved gymnastics … everything about it. I loved every second of it.”
Once school was out for the day, Lexie often returned to the gym.
Her long hours and hard work yielded one accomplishment after another.
Starting at age 9, Lexie made the national TOPs team three years in a row. That meant making multiple trips to the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center at Karolyi Ranch in Texas. The Ranch, as it was commonly called, had long been a temporary home away from home for numerous world and Olympic champions.
Clearly, Lexie was on a path toward the highest echelons of her sport. While most of her classmates at St. Ignatius Loyola School were content just running around outside during recess or maybe playing games of some sort in a youth league, Lexie was unmistakably committed to the four components of women’s gymnastics: floor exercise, balance beam, uneven bars and the vault.
In 2008, her final year of eligibility for the TOPs program, Lexie was one of only 18 11-year-olds on the national team.
With 2008 being an Olympic year — the Summer Games were held in Beijing — it was also a time to watch the world’s best gymnasts on TV … a time for Lexie to take in the grand pageantry and intensity of it all … a time for her to dream.
Perhaps she, too, could one day make it to the Olympics — the letters “USA” decorating a red, white and blue leo of her own.
ST. LOUIS — The Super Six may be history, replaced next year by a still-to-be named “final four.”
That last year in the TOPs program also coincided with Lexie leaving St. Ignatius before the start of sixth grade. Being home-schooled via online classes would allow her to spend more time at the gym.
She had a new coach, too. Mary Lee Tracy had already made significant marks in the gymnastics world. Her most notable athletes were Amanda Borden and Jaycie Phelps, both members of the USA women’s squad that won the team gold medal in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
With Lexie’s best friend and training partner, Amelia Hundley, also a TOPs performer and frequent traveler to the Ranch, Tracy had another pair of rising stars.
Lexie was first with a breakout performance in a major competition. In 2010, at age 13, she won the all-around title at the inaugural Nastia Liukin Supergirl Cup, which included 36 of the nation’s best up-and-coming gymnasts. Among them were future Olympic champion Gabby Douglas and future world champion MyKayla Skinner.
Lexie was thrilled just to meet Liukin — the all-around women’s gymnastics champion at those 2008 Olympics she had watched so closely — and then topping such a talented field lifted her confidence to a new level.
Five months later, Lexie earned a spot on the 2010 women’s junior national team. That meant she would start competing against athletes from other countries, too. Her first international trip would be to Italy. All signs were pointing up.
A memorable scene the next year illustrated both Lexie’s growing reputation and the impact she could already have on other young girls. It happened during the 2011 CoverGirl Classic in Chicago.
Minutes before performing on the uneven bars, Lexie stopped in a women’s restroom just off the competition floor, and she encountered another gymnast crying in there. The girl was terrified that she was about to humiliate herself on the bars.
She had been struggling with a difficult release-and-catch move known as a Tkatchev. During warm-ups, she had been unable to complete the skill, repeatedly crashing to the mat after failing to reconnect her grip on the high bar.
Now she could hardly believe she was face-to-face with one of her idols — Lexie Priessman, national team member — and while trapped in such an emotional predicament.
Wiping her face with a tissue and speaking as best she could, the girl told Lexie about her problems with the Tkatchev: “I’ve tried everything, and it’s not working.”
Lexie stepped closer to the girl and placed her hands on her shoulders. She gently encouraged her to stop crying and calmly offered some technical advice. Then she escorted the girl back to the arena floor.
When it was the girl's turn to perform on bars, she noticed Lexie smiling at her with both thumbs held up in support: You can do this! And the girl successfully completed her Tkatchev. Lexie cheered with great enthusiasm and the girls felt a bond.
They would later become close friends while training at the Ranch and traveling together on the national team. Neither one of them would ever forget that day they huddled in a restroom ... the innocent charm of one 14-year-old helping another.
That other girl ended up being pretty good, too. Her name was Simone Biles. She would later become the most decorated American in the history of women’s gymnastics.
For a mere exhibition, LSU’s Gymnastics 101 Showcase on Monday night had plenty of what you want to see in a sporting event.
Lexie put on quite a show at that Classic in Chicago — winning the vault and placing second in the all-around competition — and she filled the rest of her 2011 season with equally dazzling performances.
At the Visa National Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota, she won the vault title and placed second on floor exercise. She finished fourth in the all-around competition and again qualified for the junior national team.
Lexie then went to Japan and had the best meet of her young life. Facing an elite field of gymnasts from five countries, she dominated the Japan Junior International, winning the all-around competition and three additional gold medals in individual events.
Tracy had been coaching long enough to know what she was witnessing: a rising star with all the key elements coming together at once — Lexie combining remarkable skills with exceptional fitness and magnetic energy to deliver one crowd-pleasing performance after another.
“Lexie was on fire,” Tracy says now. “Mentally, physically, emotionally, she had everything peaking at the same time.”
In other words, she was right where any world-class gymnast would want to be heading into an Olympic year.
“Every day, I went into the gym with a big smile on my face,” Lexie says. “It was always so much fun. And I kept getting more and more confidence. There was no better feeling.”
The first half of 2012, the critical months leading up to the Summer Games in London, brought another string of tremendous results.
Lexie won two gold medals and one silver competing for Team USA in the prestigious Pacific Rim Championships … three gold medals, one silver, one bronze at the City of Jesolo Trophy meet in Italy … a gold and a silver back in Chicago for the renamed Secret U.S. Classic.
Then came the national championships in St. Louis. Competing as a junior for the last time, Lexie won the all-around title plus another gold medal (floor exercise) and two silvers (vault and uneven bars).
Lexie clearly had all the right stuff to go to London and compete on her sport’s biggest stage.
External signs of stardom were already finding her, too. Lexie made the cover of USA Gymnastics magazine. She was featured in a catalog put out by the world’s leading supplier of gymnastics apparel, GK Elite Sportswear. She and her mother appeared together in a popular “Thank You, Mom” Olympics-related promotional campaign produced by corporate giant Procter & Gamble.
No matter how apparent a straight path to the Olympics might have appeared, though, one problem would not go away. The irrevocable issue was Lexie’s date of birth: Jan. 23, 1997.
That made her 23 days too young for the London Games. To be eligible, a gymnast had to be at least 16 years old — or have a 16th birthday coming by the end of 2012.
Had Lexie been born a mere 23 days earlier, the last day of 1996, she would have been perfectly positioned to chase Olympic glory in 2012. Instead, she would have to wait an additional four years until the next Games: four more years of training and staying locked in on her dream, four more years of hoping she could stay at the top of her game.
Everything happens for a reason.
Lexie watched on television as five of her friends from the Ranch, including breakout stars Douglas and Aly Raisman, won the team gold and four other Olympic medals in London.
Then she went back to work.
In March 2013, two months after finally turning 16, Lexie went to Europe with Team USA for her first international meets as a senior. Back at the City of Jesolo Trophy in Italy and then at a meet in Germany, she made key contributions as the Americans won the team competitions. Lexie also placed high in the individual all-around rankings: fifth in Italy and sixth in Germany.
That summer, competing in the annual Secret U.S. Classic in Chicago, Lexie won the floor title and also performed well in the vault and on bars. With the U.S. Championships only three weeks away in Hartford, Connecticut, she was primed for another strong showing.
But her body protested.
The big toe on her right foot had already been a problem for more than two years — ligaments torn and pain a constant thanks to a beam dismount that had turned ugly. The mangled toe kept taking grotesque turns to the left, uncontrollably, instead of pointing straight ahead. Wrapping and taping it was now the only way to keep it properly aligned.
The injury was causing other problems, too. By trying to limit direct hits on that side of her foot, attempting to lessen the pain shooting through her toe, Lexie was creating stress issues in other places. Her Achilles tendon was now badly strained and required rest.
Lexie had no choice. After being hyped as a potential star of the national championships, she could not even compete. She had to withdraw from the meet.
That fall, Lexie had surgery to repair the toe. She never would have thought to assign the procedure a number. But it would later merit proper identity. It was surgery number one.
The 2019 LSU gymnastics schedule, which includes the Southeastern Conference Championships at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans and NCAA…
The setback did not alter Lexie’s focus on the target destination: Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Browsing in a mall one day, she came across a scented candle with the name “Rio Glow” and two nighttime photos of the city on its label. She didn’t like the scent. But Lexie had to have that candle. She put it on a shelf in her bedroom — a motivational symbol of all that waited in the distance.
Rio, Rio, Rio. That Olympic endgame was always on her mind.
The marketing folks at USA Gymnastics clearly believed in her. When they published a 2014 calendar featuring star gymnasts, February belonged to Lexie — her three action photos sharing the layout with some colorful hearts representing Valentine’s Day.
Lexie’s comeback competition, her first meet since surgery, was set for Chicago in August 2014. With the Secret U.S. Classic approaching, she shared her excitement on Instagram: “I know I’m ready to get out there again! Just ready to compete routines I feel confident with! Can’t wait!”
Practicing on the beam a day before the real action would begin, Lexie was about to do her standard dismount known as a double back. After bounding off the end of the beam, she would flip backward, two full rotations, before landing on her feet. But something told her not to do it. She instead did an easier move with only a single back flip.
Lexie had no problem finding her mark, landing straight up and down, but she felt and heard something she had never felt or heard before. It was her left ankle: cracking, breaking. Lexie had never felt such pain.
“I was almost in shock,” she says. “I mean, I looked at my ankle, and it was almost like it wasn’t even there, like I didn’t even have an ankle anymore. The whole ankle and foot area was huge.”
Lexie would never forget the song then playing in the arena: the hit duet “Somethin’ Bad” by country music stars Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood. Got a real good feeling something bad about to happen.
Something bad meant she had to withdraw from her comeback meet before it even started. Something bad meant a surgeon would have to use pins and screws and wire to put her ankle back together. Something bad meant being told her days as a gymnast could very well be done — that her ankle might never again be flexible enough for the demands of her sport.
Lexie was crushed — an “emotional wreck” was how she’d later put it.
But she would not just go away. A day after breaking that ankle and only starting to process that everything she’d ever worked toward might now be gone, she was back in that arena — on crutches — to cheer on her friends and teammates.
Three weeks later, Lexie went to Pittsburgh for the U.S. national championships. Again, her sole purpose was to watch and support. When the competition was done, though, she was surprised with an honor she would always cherish. USA Gymnastics presented her with its top award for sportsmanship, naming her the 2014 Women’s Sportsperson of the Year.
The awards ceremony — Lexie still on crutches standing next to all-around national champion Simone Biles — illustrated a dramatic reversal for the longtime friends. Three years earlier, Biles was a panicked newcomer and Lexie a star when they first met in that restroom in Chicago. Now Biles was the reigning world champion and winner of her second straight national title. Lexie was struggling and would no longer be part of Team USA. Her string of four consecutive years on the national team was done.
Lexie soon underwent surgery to have her ankle put back together. Rehab would be long and painful.
But she refused to abandon her usual emphasis on staying positive. “One small crack does not mean you are broken,” she insisted. “It means that you were put to the test and you didn’t fall apart.”
Within days of leaving the hospital, Lexie was back at practice, slowly starting to work on the bars while wearing a giant orthopedic boot that extended almost to her knee.
Then came a series of blows that was hard to believe — three more surgeries over a stretch of several months.
First: An earlier injury to Lexie’s left shoulder required cutting. Next: She had another operation to remove screws and clean up her healing ankle. Finally: A labrum tear in her other shoulder required surgery, too.
That put the overall tally at five surgeries in less than two years.
Of course, injuries were nothing new to the high-risk, high-impact sport of gymnastics. As a youngster, Lexie had seen T-shirts and posters with a playful promotional line: “If gymnastics were easy, it would be called football.”
Football tough guys would naturally scoff at such an assertion. But how many 18-year-old football players had already been under the knife five times?
Vickie Priessman repeatedly questioned her daughter to see if she really wanted to keep training and competing, really wanted to keep pushing through all the pain.
“I do,” Lexie said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Lexie always answered.
She could not imagine letting go of something she loved so much, something that had always been such an integral part of her life.
No matter how much pain she felt, no matter the rigors of rehab, Lexie kept nourishing herself with an endless stream of inspirational thoughts.
All that matters is if you fall down 1,000 times, you stand up 1,001 times!
If plan A fails, remember there are 25 more letters!
Positive thinking would take her only so far, though, because her body kept holding her back. Plan A, the road to the Olympics, eventually had to be abandoned. Plan B would take her to college.
On June 5, 2015, Lexie announced on social media that she was retiring from elite gymnastics and would start school with the fall semester. She would still be a gymnast — an LSU Tiger — and the banner headline on her post made clear that she would still be chasing greatness: “You’re gonna hear me ROAR.”
Lexie chose LSU for two reasons: It had one of the best gymnastics programs in the country. And she had a close relationship with one of the assistant coaches, Jay Clark, who had earlier recruited her when he coached at Georgia.
Soon before heading to Louisiana, Lexie got the tattoo on her wrist, five simple but powerful words in white ink: Everything happens for a reason. Only the “t” in “everything” — designed to double as a cross — was set apart in black.
Lexie also wrote a leaving-for-college letter to herself. It started with this: “Before you stress, take a deep breath. Everything will work out and you will have the best 4 years. Remember … your tattoo means something. Don’t you ever look back and regret anything.”
Expectations were high.
With Lexie on board, LSU’s freshman class of gymnasts — Sarah Finnegan and McKenna Kelley being the other headliners — was ranked best in the nation.
Advocate columnist Scott Rabalais placed Lexie in exclusive company. In a story about many of LSU’s best current athletes being freshmen and sophomores, she was one of five he highlighted — and the only female — along with Leonard Fournette (football), Ben Simmons (basketball), Alex Lange (baseball) and Sam Burns (golf).
LSU gymnastics coach D-D Breaux was quoted as saying of Lexie: “When she’s healthy, she’s the total package.”
As Breaux now recalls what she then envisioned: “A healthy Lexie could be that person who wins multiple all-around titles, multiple championships, multiple individual national titles.”
The hype did not faze Lexie. She had already received plenty of attention through the years.
Nothing about being in the gym really worried her, either.
It was just college itself, the academic and social components, that initially intimidated her. Having been home-schooled since sixth grade, Lexie had no idea what to expect.
What would classes be like? What about homework and studying for tests? After so many years surrounded primarily by peers locked in on the same singular focus dominating her days — gymnastics — what about now jumping into the mix with so many “regular” students on such a large campus?
Lexie quickly adapted to her new surroundings.
“Just sitting in class, listening to professors, taking notes, learning so much, learning how to really study, I loved all of it,” Lexie says. “Even just having a book bag! Being home-schooled, I used to do everything online, so no books, and now I thought it was just the coolest thing to be walking around campus with a book bag. I felt like a little kid, I was so happy.”
With each class, each week, each challenge, Lexie pushed away any remaining anxiety and replaced it with the comfort of achievement. With a 3.7 GPA as a freshman majoring in communication studies, she would later be named to the Southeastern Conference first-year academic honor roll.
Lexie also enjoyed the social life.
And she embraced her team’s commitment to community service. At first, she visited with local youth groups and attended charity events as part of team outings. Then she started going on her own. Ever the daughter of a first-grade teacher, Lexie was always eager to visit elementary schools.
She read stories to children. She made drawings with them. She joined kindergarten kids on the floor to play with building blocks. Sometimes they just talked and laughed together. Children naturally gravitated to Lexie, during a school visit or anywhere else, and Breaux was amazed by how consistently that happened.
How would she explain it?
Start with some of the ways Breaux would describe Lexie to someone who doesn’t know her: She never meets a stranger. She’s a constant giver … outgoing … has a vivacious smile and a contagious presence … walks into a room and just fills it.
Then add this blanket statement, remarkable in its reach through the decades, from a coach now in her 42nd year leading the LSU gymnastics program: “Lexie is the most gentle-hearted, kind-hearted student-athlete I’ve ever been around.”
Clark long ago gave Lexie a title that covered both her personality — always upbeat, always smiling — and the way others were drawn to her: The Mayor of Happyville.
The mayor wanted so badly to be at full strength for her first year of collegiate competition, wanted so much to do whatever she could to help her team. Alas, she was still limited by her injuries.
“There was a lot of mileage on that little body, and it was really going to take a group effort, a real village of support, to get her through four years,” Breaux says. “Personally, I didn’t realize that we were dealing with such a fragile body, because she’s such an athlete. When you look at her, you just think, wow. You want to just wind her up and send her out there. But then we were realizing that she was breaking down.”
Part of the problem, as Breaux came to see things, was almost paradoxical. Whereas any coach would want an athlete as self-driven and hard-working as Lexie — “all-in in everything she does, extreme,” Breaux says — this was a case where the athlete actually needed to be reined in.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Lexie says. “I mean, knowing that I couldn’t make all the lineups and help my team, it was really hard just to be watching sometimes.”
Lexie did make two of the four lineups, vault and beam, for the first meet of her college career. And the Tigers, No. 5 nationally in the preseason coaches poll, began the 2016 season with a bang. Competing at home before a then-record crowd of 8,228 fans, the most for an LSU gymnastics season opener, they defeated top-ranked Oklahoma with a stunning display of talent.
As high as hopes had already been, beating the No. 1 team in the country quickly confirmed this team could contend for the national championship. In fact, LSU immediately jumped to No. 1 in the national rankings.
Lexie was excited about that. Individually, though, she had to pull back. She sat out the next meet, and a decision was soon made. For a while at least, Lexie would compete only in one event: the uneven bars.
Even that did not last long. During floor warm-ups before the sixth meet of the season, at Georgia, Lexie participated with her teammates, as she was hoping to compete in that event the next week and wanted a practice run. Unfortunately, while completing a tumbling pass, she landed in a bad place — smack on an unintended crack in the mat — and broke her right foot.
She could hardly believe it. At least no surgery was required this time. Lexie just hobbled around in another orthopedic boot and did whatever she could to stay in shape. A month later, she was back on bars in a meet, and she competed only on bars for the rest of the season.
Lexie did well in her one event — ultimately earning All-America status at the NCAA championships.
Those championships were also ground-breaking for the team as a whole. The Tigers placed second in the nation, the highest finish in school history, trailing victorious Oklahoma by only .225 of a point (197.675 to 197.450).
Breaux would always wonder what might have happened had Lexie been able to compete in multiple events.
“Yeah, yeah,” Breaux says now, the words spoken as if back-to-back sighs. “I mean, losing a national championship by two-tenths of a point …”
So what if the actual gap was a fraction more than that? What matters is her unshakable belief that a healthy Lexie could have made the difference between finishing second and winning the national championship.
“Yeah, I think that,” Breaux says. “I really believe that.”
The summer after her freshman year, with the 2016 Olympics unfolding in Rio, Lexie felt an emptiness that would never be filled. Sure, she loved being at LSU. But her heart had never fully let go of her previous existence. It was still attached to the international world of elite gymnastics.
With her lifelong dream playing out in Brazil, what was she doing in Baton Rouge? How had so many unforeseeable, unwanted turns taken hold of her Olympic roadmap and rerouted it into non-existence?
Lexie knew it would be hard to watch her Team USA friends competing without her. She was also excited to see them living out their own dreams.
The night of the women’s gymnastics team final, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016, Lexie and her roommates — Sarah Finnegan, McKenna Kelley and Myia Hambrick — hosted their LSU teammates for a watch party at their apartment.
Everyone enjoyed cheering on the Americans — the so-called “Final Five” of Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman — as they won the gold medal. Lexie also struggled as she took it all in.
“Everything was still so fresh for me,” she says. “It was so draining to watch, really hard for me.”
Wanting to be alone with her thoughts, needing to be, she eventually went into her room and shut the door. She had two dominant feelings: genuine happiness for her friends, overwhelming sadness that she had not been there to share in such a glorious achievement.
Lexie sat on her bed and cried. She texted with her mom and older brother back home in Ohio, and they consoled her as best they could. But what could anyone really say?
The dream had been hers. Now the hurt belonged to her, too.
At one point, Lexie texted something almost unthinkable: This is making me want to go in 2020.
Seriously? With all her body had already been through? Four more years of training and trying to hold it together for a comeback shot at the next Olympics?
The thought did not last long.
Lexie had it right when she started comparing her sports life to a wild ride on a roller coaster. The ups and downs kept coming.
Up: Her body held together pretty well the first two months of her sophomore season. That allowed Lexie to compete more, usually in two or three events per meet in early 2017, and she made significant contributions to a team on fire. Heading into March, the Tigers were No. 2 in the nation.
Down: Lexie was excited about a big showdown on March 5, 2017, the Tigers facing No. 3 Florida in the packed Pete Maravich Assembly Center. With the SEC regular season championship on the line, Lexie could hardly wait to compete. Then she stood for warm-ups, simply straightened up to get started, and felt something pop in her right knee. The pain got worse when she began jogging. Lexie had to pull out of the vault and floor exercise. She could compete only on bars as LSU beat Florida. Then came the diagnosis: torn cartilage in her knee.
Up: After a shot of cortisone and two weeks of rest, Lexie was back on bars at the SEC championship meet — and won the conference title with a near-perfect score of 9.95. She continued to shine while competing only on bars in the NCAA championships. LSU again placed second in the nation behind Oklahoma. Lexie was again an All-American.
Down: Two more surgeries, Lexie’s sixth and seventh, and they marked another medical milestone. It was the first time she’d ever had two the same day. On May 15, 2017, a month after the NCAA championships, one doctor operated on Lexie’s knee and another cut on her right wrist to repair torn ligaments.
Of course, Lexie being Lexie, she held tight to her belief that all the ups and downs made life more interesting and meaningful. They challenged her. They taught her. They made her who she was.
In Lexie’s way of thinking: Who would want to ride a roller coaster that only went straight? How would that even be fun? How would that ever be a ride worth taking?
As she began healing from her day of double surgery, Lexie found inspiration in the laughter and love of a young girl who really knew the definition of a physical challenge. In fact, thoughts of little Gracie Zaunbrecher, 7 years old and battling cancer — an aggressive brain tumor — had quickly become part of just about anything Lexie did.
They first met after Lexie happened to see something about her on Facebook.
Gracie lived in rural Mowata, Louisiana, outside Eunice, and was a fledgling gymnast on a youth team called MiMi’s Tumble Bees. The first weekend of March 2017, she was in Houston for a meet when everyone noticed something was wrong. Gracie’s balance was off and her eyes didn’t look right. She was stumbling, disoriented.
Two days later, an MRI revealed the presence of a tumor known as a Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, commonly called DIPG. Doctors told Gracie’s parents that it was both inoperable and incurable. All they could do was try radiation to shrink the tumor and at least relieve some of its pressure on the brain.
This out-of-nowhere story made Lexie sad. She closed her laptop but kept thinking about this girl she didn’t even know.
There are only two choices when we see or hear about someone else’s pain. We either walk away, or we look for a way to help. For Lexie, there was really no choice.
She went back on Facebook. She did not want to contact Gracie’s parents directly — figuring they must be dealing with so much — but she found Gracie’s grandmother and sent her a message: I’d love to meet Gracie. Maybe she’d want to visit the LSU gymnastics team.
Lexie heard back quickly. And the week after getting the worst news of their lives — radiation treatments already underway — Gracie and her family drove to Baton Rouge. Lexie greeted them outside the LSU gymnastics facility.
“As soon as I saw Gracie, both of us were smiling ear to ear,” Lexie says. “She was a little shy at first.”
Then Gracie changed into a leo. After that, all she wanted to do was run around and play in the gym — smiling and laughing and joking the whole time.
Gracie swung on the bars, walked on the beam, ran and flipped on the floor. And she started clinging to Lexie.
This was the morning of Thursday, March 16, 2017. A few hours later, Lexie and her teammates would depart for the SEC championship meet in Jacksonville, Florida, the one at which Lexie won the bars title with that injured knee.
But any thoughts of competition were for now eclipsed by the focus on Gracie. Three of Lexie’s teammates, Ashleigh “Bugs” Gnat, Kelley and Sydney Ewing, also spent time with Gracie. And coach D-D Breaux joined them for a while.
Lots of pictures were taken. Posing for one of the best, Gracie stood on a balance beam, arms triumphantly outstretched, Lexie and Bugs holding her legs to keep her steady. A thin but joyous smile lifted Gracie’s cheeks as a single word, in big, white letters, screamed out from high on the wall behind her. The word was always there to encourage the LSU gymnasts, but for now it belonged to Gracie alone: BELIEVE.
In the broadest sense, Gracie — the daughter of a farmer and a kindergarten teacher, the middle of three children — was already a believer. She routinely attended church with her family and even had a favorite Bible passage: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Gracie would never forget that morning at LSU. And it was only a beginning. Breaux took her on as an honorary member of the team: “Our newest fighting tiger!” Lexie took her on as family: “My little sister!”
Lexie and Gracie stayed in touch via text messages and on Snapchat, sometimes using filters to make themselves look silly in photos and videos, as Gracie thought that was just about the funniest thing anyone could do.
“Hi Lexie love you,” Gracie once wrote along with a picture of herself made to look like some unknown animal with fluffy pink ears growing out of her forehead.
“Made my day,” Lexie responded. “I love you so much!”
Between radiation treatments, Gracie attended an LSU gymnastics camp. Exhausted but determined, she stuck around Lexie as much as possible.
They even developed their own handshake. Actually, it did not include any shaking of hands. It was a choreographed sequence of hand slaps, foot taps, a hip bump and a closing hug — all of it bonded by the glue of mutual admiration and set against a soundtrack of giggles.
When Lexie looked at Gracie, she saw the personification of perseverance, a child defined by both determination and a huge heart. She also saw a magnetic blend of sweetness and silliness. As Lexie now says: “The day God placed this little girl in our lives, we changed for the better.”
In Gracie’s eyes, Lexie was about as perfect as anyone could be. She was pretty, friendly, funny, always smiling, always so caring, an amazing gymnast, and everyone loved being with her. She might as well have been some goddess straight out of a fairy tale!
“I want to be like Lexie,” Gracie told her mom.
“Be like her how?” Maile Zaunbrecher asked.
“Everything,” Gracie said. “Everything she does.”
And that was before Lexie just showed up at her school one day — having come all the way from Baton Rouge to surprise Gracie and visit her second-grade class at Iota Elementary. Gracie’s mouth shot open with shock and excitement when she turned and saw who was there. She dropped her schoolwork, ran to Lexie, and jumped straight into her arms. Lexie lifted her, and they instantly became one — one big ball of hugging joy.
“Just to see their closeness, the bond they had, was very inspiring … exhilarating,” says teacher Gena Daigle, who was in on the surprise.
Lexie sat on the floor with the second-graders, Gracie in her lap, and talked to them about being a gymnast. She showed a few competition videos, telling the children about some of her LSU teammates, and they were mesmerized. Gracie had to be the happiest girl in Acadia Parish.
She got another big surprise later the same month, on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, during the annual LSU gymnastics banquet. Gracie and her family were there as guests of the team, and Gracie was the belle of the ball, glowing in her purple pants and gold top, her brown hair held back by oversize purple-and-gold bows.
She was thrilled to see Lexie and her teammates showered with praise and awards in front of almost 300 people at the L’Auberge Event Center. What Gracie didn’t know was that she, too, was going to be celebrated. Breaux had a personalized SEC championship ring for her.
When Breaux called her up for the presentation, Gracie looked to Lexie, seeking guidance, and Lexie took her by the hand. Up they went to the stage. Once Gracie had her gift, she and Lexie stood together and took in the moment, each wearing both a ring of honor and the smile of a champion.
A week after the banquet, Gracie got another round of VIP treatment, getting to go on the Tiger Stadium field during warm-ups before an LSU football game. Down there with Lexie and Breaux, she even met LSU coach Ed Orgeron.
Of course, life for Gracie was not always so grand. She was often in Houston to see her doctors and to undergo radiation treatments at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Her speech was slipping. Her eyes were not right. Other issues came and went. Simply put, DIPG was a ruthless enemy.
Gracie just kept smiling as often as possible. Lexie kept supporting as best she could.
“She’s my inspiration,” Lexie would often say.
Sometimes she attached an even stronger label to Gracie: “She’s my heart.”
Soon before the start of her junior season, Lexie had another cartilage issue — torn meniscus — that required attention. She had another operation on her right knee. That was surgery number eight.
Eleven days later, on Dec. 11, 2017, she was back on the uneven bars for LSU’s preseason exhibition known as Gymnastics 101. Lexie’s 9.95 tied for best score of the night in any event.
She was at a point almost unimaginable for a 20-year-old athlete: going to bed every night not knowing which body part — or parts — would bring the most pain first thing in the morning. Pain would always greet her. It was just a matter of where it would be the worst.
Lexie worried about the ramifications for her future: If I already have all these aches and pains, what is my body going to feel like when I’m older? I want to be able to play with my children someday!
And yet she was stuck in a multi-layered love affair that would last only so long: She loved her sport. She loved her teammates. She loved representing LSU and competing for its fans.
Can’t stop now, she told herself. Not after everything I’ve already been through. Not after I’ve made it this far!
Then there was Gracie. Any thought of Gracie’s ongoing challenges reminded Lexie that every opportunity, every moment, held meaning and value.
One of the most poignant reminders came midway through last season. Early the morning of Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, Gracie stood in a hallway at MD Anderson in Houston and rang a bell mounted to the wall. The celebratory gesture marked the end to another round of radiation treatments. Gracie was wiped out but still battling.
Lexie was not there for the bell-ringing, with school and gymnastics keeping her busy in Baton Rouge, but she quickly got a family video and put it on Instagram with a message: “If you needed a smile this morning … or maybe some happy tears … Gracie rang the bell this morning and we are so proud of her!”
Three days later, Gracie was in the PMAC for an LSU meet against Texas Woman’s University. She had been to other meets and watched from the stands. This time she got to experience one as if she were really a member of the team.
Gracie wore a purple-and-gold leo. She was introduced to the cheering crowd right along with the gymnasts who would actually compete. She stood beside Lexie in the team huddle. And Gracie even got to wear the much-heralded LSU stick crown for a while.
“She got to experience what a lot of kids dream about,” Breaux says.
Gracie also played a role in one of Lexie’s best collegiate performances. This was after Lexie had already scored a career-best 9.975 to win the bars title. Now she was in her second event of the day, anchoring the LSU floor lineup to close out the meet.
Lexie was still battling knee pain. Her shoulder hurt. Having competed on floor only one other time all year, she did not have her usual strength or fitness. But she was trying to add events in preparation for the postseason.
Before her final tumbling pass, standing in a corner and gathering herself, Lexie was unusually spent. Her legs were exhausted.
Then she saw Gracie standing with Breaux just beyond the opposite corner of the mat, the one into which she would complete her final pass, and everything changed.
“Just seeing Gracie there, she definitely gave me that extra little oomph I needed,” Lexie says. “If she was not in that corner, I seriously don’t know if I could have made that pass.”
Lexie finished with tears in her eyes. With the crowd still cheering, she rushed to Gracie and wrapped her in a hug. Then Lexie’s score was posted. It was her second straight career-best mark of the day: a 9.95 to share the floor title with teammate Kennedi Edney.
A lot of good things happened the next two months. LSU set a variety of scoring and attendance records en route to winning another SEC championship. The Tigers again reached the NCAA Super Six, finishing fourth in the nation this time. For the third straight year, Lexie became an All-American on bars.
But none of that would ever surpass her most remarkable memory of the season: facing Gracie across the floor in the PMAC and feeling the energy of that beautiful child help carry her as she flipped and floated and finished to the triumphant roar of the crowd.
Surgery number nine — on her shoulder last June — was the first one Lexie seriously considered not having. It was the closest she had come to finally saying enough is enough and shutting down her gymnastics career.
On one side of the ledger: She wondered how much her body had left to give. She questioned whether she could even make it through another season.
On the other side: With only one season left, she really wanted to be there for her team. After all she had been through, she wanted to finish strong.
Ultimately, she reached the same conclusion she always had: Why stop now?
Physically, her comeback, a mix of rest and rehab, has been nothing unusual.
Emotionally, though, Lexie has had a tougher time than ever before.
She has done a lot of big-picture processing — reflecting on unavoidable truths and doing her best to pack them back away as neatly as possible.
The loss of her childhood dream. No Olympics after all that time and effort.
The ongoing injury issues. Even the Mayor of Happyville could not forever fight off the accumulation of frustration.
The weight of unmet expectations. Oh, how she wished her body had allowed her to do more for her team, still wished it would allow her to do so, and now she felt added pressure because only one season remained — one final chance to transform hopes into achievements.
All of this swirled at once. And the emotional pounding took Lexie somewhere she had never been. She became angry at the sport she had always loved, angry to the point she was no longer certain she even wanted to be around it.
Just going to the gym — usually her favorite place to be — became a challenge.
Lexie knew what she had to do: I have to find my love of the sport again. It sometimes felt like an impossible assignment. But she took it on.
Fortunately, she had a lifelong habit of searching for the good in things. She had a deep reservoir of positivity from which to draw.
One night, Lexie pulled out a spiral notebook and wrote an instruction to herself: On good days + bad days ... NEVER FORGET. Then she began listing things she should never forget.
How far you’ve come. Everything you have gotten through. All the times you have pushed on even when you felt like you couldn’t. All the mornings you got out of bed no matter how hard it was.
Never forget how much strength you have learned and developed.
You don’t have to move mountains. Simply fall in love with the process and fall in love with the life you’re living.
When Lexie was done, she had 32 hand-written lines to help her remember what defined who she was. It was a good step in the right direction.
Two weeks later, the morning of Sunday, Sept. 23, Lexie was looking forward to being with Gracie at the 2018 LSU gymnastics banquet. Two months had passed since Lexie had been to see her at the hospital in Houston — and that was the last time they had been together.
Gracie’s condition had gotten much worse. The top priority now was just keeping her as comfortable as possible. But she was back home in Louisiana and everyone still hoped she’d be able to make it to the banquet. Breaux even had another special moment planned for her: Gracie would be getting the team’s Eye of the Tiger Award.
Unfortunately, she was not able to be there. Standing on the same stage where a year earlier his daughter had been given her SEC championship ring, Byron Zaunbrecher accepted on behalf of Gracie this time. Fighting back tears, he said, “I can’t really explain what this means to me.”
Lexie, on stage with Gracie’s dad, wiped away tears of her own. She and Byron hugged. Then the program moved on. As the banquet continued, Byron quietly exited the ballroom and headed home to be with his family.
That evening, Lexie wrote a letter to Gracie and put it on Twitter.
“We as an LSU family love you,” it says. “In case you haven’t already noticed, you are our hero. I have been full of tears all day thinking back to the day that I met you. I know with your smile, strong-willed spirit, unbelievable bravery, determination, and your courage you will continue to keep fighting this fight. I love you so much my little buddy.”
At 11:44 the next morning, Lexie was in a tutoring session when her phone rang. It was Gracie’s aunt. Surrounded by family, covered in both love and prayer, 8-year-old Gracie Marie Zaunbrecher had taken her final breath in this world.
The morning of the funeral, Lexie exited her first class of the day and saw a spectacular collection of colors high above campus: a giant rainbow stretching across the cloudy sky. An immediate thought — God is telling us He’s taking care of Gracie — allowed a brief respite from the pummeling of her emotions.
At 3:45 that afternoon, following a solemn bus ride from Baton Rouge to Eunice, Lexie and a group of her LSU teammates and coaches settled into reserved pews near the front of the St. Anthony of Padua Church. The place was packed, standing room only, young and old alike leaning against walls and filling even the foyer.
The strains of “Amazing Grace” filled the sanctuary as Gracie’s casket was wheeled down the center aisle, her family following, shattered and never again to be whole.
Father Travis Abadie read from the timeless work of 12th century poet Judah Halevi: “’Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch. A fearful thing to love, to hope, to dream, to be — to be, and, oh, to lose …”
When Abadie spoke directly of Gracie, he spoke not only of sadness and loss but also of faith and her final journey to a better place: “Gracie is more alive now than she has ever been. Brothers and sisters, we celebrate a saint today. A saint.”
The hourlong Mass was both brutal and beautiful. Brutal for all the obvious reasons attached to the death of an innocent child. Beautiful because little Gracie was celebrated with such honor and reverence, the love and support of her community so evident from start to finish.
Once the closing prayers were offered, the last words spoken, the casket was forever wheeled away back down that aisle — “Amazing Grace” again washing over the crowd — and the finality of it all crushed Lexie to her core.
Sobbing, she walked slowly out a side door, D-D Breaux wrapping an arm around her shoulders in tender solidarity. Lexie took a few minutes to gather herself, sharing hugs and gentle words with teammates, then turned toward the waiting bus.
The LSU gymnasts and coaches joined Gracie’s family and closest friends for the burial at St. Lawrence Cemetery. Then they went to eat with the family.
Early the next morning, emotions still churning, Lexie went on Twitter and tapped out a message: “God, thank you for today, yesterday, and tomorrow. My family, my joys, my sorrows. For all that has made me stronger.”
This pain was different from any Lexie had ever experienced. Physical pain always came and went. Emotional pain was usually only temporary, too. Losing Gracie was so painfully permanent.
Lexie would never again laugh with her, would never again exchange Snapchat messages with her, would never again hug and hold her.
Lexie felt as if a thick fog was clouding all her senses — making her feel “blank” — and that the fog might never go away. Getting out of bed was initially a challenge. It was easier just to stay there, curled up and crying into a pillow.
“I was a wreck,” she would later say. “Just crying and crying … depressed.”
Of course, she had to pull herself together. Lexie still had classes and homework, still had obligations in the gym, still had life. It was a gradual process, turning darkness back to light, but if Lexie had learned one thing through all her trials, it was how to persevere through pain.
One step at a time. One day at a time. And with an acceptance that nothing this painful gets better all at once: Progress is success.
Assistant coach Jay Clark had known that she was struggling with her emotions even before Gracie’s death.
Then he saw her sink deeper.
The inner turmoil eventually gave Lexie a terrible migraine, and the ugly throbbing lasted a few days. There were times she could hardly even move.
Clark shared a story with Lexie. Years ago, after starting a club gymnastics business and feeling overwhelmed by stress, he once had terrible chest pain and had to rush to a hospital in the middle of the night. He ended up being fine. But the scare alerted him that he had to get things back in perspective.
Clark started a new routine. He began each morning with thoughts of gratitude, being thankful for specific blessings in his life, and that seemed to help him.
“You should try it,” Clark suggested to Lexie.
And she did.
Each morning, Lexie opened a notebook and listed three things for which she was thankful. They ranged in scope: from “my family” and “the LSU community” to “my morning coffee” and “my tutors for always helping me.”
Whenever her concentration slipped in the gym, whenever question marks or sorrow hijacked her thoughts, Lexie used one of her morning listings as a reminder to get her mind back where it needed to be.
Over time, her focus on gratitude helped break up the fog. The people who meant the most to her — family and friends, coaches and teammates — kept her wrapped in a blanket of support. Her longtime boyfriend, hometown Cincinnati sweetheart Cory Heffron, now a baseball player at Jacksonville University, constantly encouraged her from afar. And Lexie started to feel like herself again.
She also assigned new purpose to the final year of her gymnastics career: The whole season would be dedicated to Gracie.
“I owe that to her,” Lexie says. “She taught me to never give up.”
“Thinking about Gracie helps me remember how much I loved gymnastics as a kid. So many kids are going to be watching what we do. I never want to forget how important it is to perform well for them. And now I’ll have an angel watching me, too.”
It is the evening of Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, less than four weeks before the official start to Lexie’s final season, and the Tigers are back in the PMAC for their annual Gymnastics 101 Showcase.
Lexie planned on doing two events: vault and bars. While she warmed up, though, her shoulder did not feel right, stiffer than usual, so she was pulled from the bars lineup. Why take any unnecessary chances?
And that is how Lexie and Breaux want to approach the whole season: by listening to whatever Lexie’s body tells them and adjusting as they go. The plan is to start slowly — two events in the Jan. 4 season opener — and then build toward a strong finish in the postseason championships.
Lexie describes it as “managing my body so I can stay in one piece.”
“That’s the challenge,” Breaux says. “Because a healthy Lexie Priessman is a national champion.”
For now, Lexie is pleased just to be back in action. She looks good on the runway and strong off the vaulting table as she executes a vault known as a Yurchenko full.
No scores are being announced, but Breaux is offering the crowd commentary as part of the exhibition, and she likes what she saw: “Great vault! That was a super vault!”
A one-and-done gymnast for the evening, Lexie wraps herself in black leggings and a purple warm-up jacket, packs her feet into tan UGG slippers and cheers on her teammates.
She also thinks about the upcoming season. She thinks about increasing her workload … about performing at full strength … about putting up big scores for her team.
How should the success of her year ultimately be measured?
Breaux does not want to assign any specific benchmarks that need to be reached: “It’s being able to compete and do her best. I just want Lexie to have the satisfaction of being out there with her peers … healthy and thriving.”
“When the season is over, wherever she is on the scale of victory, I want her to know that all her hard work has paid off. I want her to have that feel of completion.”
Lexie frames her definition of success in equally broad fashion.
“Having no regrets,” she says. “Knowing I gave it my all. Knowing I led with my heart and gave everything I had.”
Still, after all the years of flipping and flying, after all the promise and the pain, there is one enchanting vision — unspoken but nonetheless possible — that sure would shine as the ultimate exclamation point of closure.
Fast-forward to the evening of Saturday, April 20. Lexie and her teammates are competing in the 2019 NCAA championships — the newly dubbed “Four on the Floor” — in Fort Worth, Texas.
Performing fifth in the LSU bars lineup, Lexie sticks the landing on her dismount. Or perhaps the moment comes upon completion of a stirring routine on the floor.
The point is this: Lexie explodes with joy because her score is about to give her team the first national championship in the history of LSU gymnastics. Her teammates and coaches go wild. Fans roar with delight.
But for one magnificent moment Lexie stands alone amid the euphoria — a solitary figure filled with relief and gratitude more than anything else.
Back home in Ohio, her Rio candle still sits on a shelf in her childhood bedroom. Her four Team USA plaques, 2010 through 2013, remain stacked on a wall. But now the signature moment of her athletic career is also its last. The journey is complete.
Lexie triumphantly fires her arms up high above her head — and they silently shout with great meaning. Nobody else needs to be aware of the messages she is waving toward the night sky, toward the heavens, but Lexie waves them with all her heart.
One message cuts through air in the form of a new tattoo on the inside of her right wrist: the letter “G” for Gracie spilling into the outline of an angel’s wing.
The other message, the older one carried on her left wrist, now speaks with more power and certitude than ever before: Everything happens for a reason.
So, has your Christmas included that gift of gifts you’ve been dreaming of for years? Did someone just plop a luxury car in your driveway like…
Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Marx is the author of “Walking with Tigers: A Collection of LSU Sports Stories” and five other books. You can follow him on Twitter, @LSUTigersBook.