Resilient SU gymnast competes one-handed

Teammates, coaches and friends marvel at SU sophomore Casey Lesieur's motivation and seemingly effortless routines since injuring her wrist four years ago.

Round off. Back Handspring. Back Layout Double Full — a routine sequence for a gymnast and a routine sequence for Casey Lesieur, who executes it flawlessly. The only difference between Lesieur and most gymnasts is that this athlete only has the use of one arm.  

During the milliseconds her body is in flight, Lesieur keeps her right arm close to her body, while her left arm extends, as it should, to maintain her balance and then support her quick descent.

“I’ve always had a pretty good attitude but I think it got better through my injury because instead of looking at it as ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,’ I just changed it...I focused on what I can do.”
- Casey Lesieur

The 20-year-old interior design sophomore, returned to her Monday evening practice after spending a packed weekend doing the two things she loves: gymnastics and cheer.

Lesieur placed fifth in the annual National Association of Intercollegiate Gymnastics Clubs (NAIGC) national championships, April 7-9 in Richmond, Virginia. She then traveled to New Haven, Ct., for a competition with KC Cats, an all-star cheerleading team based in her hometown Coventry, Rhode Island. They placed first.

The wrist injury, which still prevents her from using her right arm, could have pushed her away from gymnastics, but she’s chosen to move forward.

“I’ve always had a pretty good attitude," Lesieur said. "But I think it got better through my injury because instead of looking at it as ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,’ I just changed it. Instead of focusing on what I can’t do, I focused on what I can do.”

The sport became a part of her, she says. She couldn’t give up on it.

When Lesieur first came to SU as a transfer student in 2009, she started as a member of Syracuse’s cheerleading team. She quit after the first semester, because the demanding schedule composed of frequent practices and traveling prevented her from excelling in both her schoolwork and gymnastics. Today, she still keeps a busy schedule that allows for her to balance practice three times a week, a 16-credit course load in the School of VPA, a full-day shift on Fridays at Shaw Dining Center, gymnastics lessons to students ages 3-17 in North Syracuse, and Sunday practices with the KC Cats in Rhode Island.

She loves what she does and doesn’t plan to change her schedule for her last two years, she says. Still, it’s a challenge. “It’s really tough, I make a lot of sacrifices,” Lesieur says. “Instead of going out on Friday nights, I’m in doing homework.” Not that she completely eradicates her social life. “I still try to make time for lunch dates with friends,” she says.

The injury

Lesieur, an enthusiastic, talented and unaffected athlete doesn't act like someone who competes with a wrist handicap. She just acts like a competitor. But during her junior year of high school, doctors told Lesieur that she had broken the scaphoid bone in her right wrist. She declined surgery, hesitant to lose precious time to the recovery process, and has instead adapted to her injury.

 “The doctor told me I could never do gymnastics again and I was really devastated,” she said. “I couldn’t picture myself out of the sport, it was way too early, and so the only choice I had was to overcome this obstacle.”

The recovery

That summer, she refrained from gymnastics but stayed active by engaging in other activities such as, biking, running, and jumping on her trampoline.  By the fall of her senior year of high school, Lesieur felt ready to return in some capacity. Instead of gymnastics, she turned to cheerleading. She took baby steps until she regained confidence. She never wondered what her doctors would say. “I didn’t tell them,” she says with a laugh. She slowly tested her limits by starting out on the floor with tumbling exercises.

“I realized if I could do floor, I could teach myself all the other events too,” she says; she eventually progressed to the three other events: vault, beam, and bars.

By the second semester of her senior year, Lesieur started competing again with her high school gymnastics team; it took her about a month to feel comfortable and to reach the level of competition she was used to, Lesieur says. For protection she wraps a tiger paw, or support glove, tightly around her wrist.

At times, especially when it rains, she feels pains, like sharp knives, that stab at her wrists. Sometimes, she feels it during her routine, especially on bars, which require the use of both hands. But Lesieur refuses to get surgery. “I’m not sure it’s still a problem,” she says. Besides, surgery would require her to stop gymnastics, and even if it’s only a temporary stop, she doesn’t want to take the time off. “I don’t really think about my injury anymore because I’ve been working around it for so long.”

A team leader

George Sabotka, the SU women’s club gymnastics coach, has worked with Lesieur since she joined the team in 2009. A gymnastics coach for 35-plus years, Sabotka says he’s noticed more recently wrist injuries becoming common in gymnasts. “I’ve had past gymnasts who’ve had similar wrist problems and most of them end up getting an operation,” he says, which doesn’t always guarantee a return to the sport. Either that, or they quit, he said. Lesieur plans to do neither.

Sabotka helps her work around it by suggesting skills and supporting Lesieur even when she wants to take risks.

“She always wants to learn new skills, always wants to try something harder,” Sabotka said. “My job is to figure out how she can do it with one hand.”

They also work to ensure she satisfies all requirements during competitions.

“I don’t use my hands at all on vault, I had to adjust since I can’t bend my wrist,” Lesieur said.

Instead, to avoid a score of 0 during competitions, she punches the vault with her right fist.

“Bars took me a lot longer, three years, to get back into it,” she said. “When I swing on bars, it puts weight on my wrist, but doesn’t bend it. I still feel pain on bars, but not enough to stop.”

Gymnast Casey Lesieur

Casey Lesieur has been competing in gymnastics with only one hand to support herself since she suffered an injury in high school doctors said would end her career. (Photo by Matthew Ziegler)

Pride and praise

While doctors have disapproved of the risk gymnastics poses to Lesieur’s arm, her parents have always supported her decision to continue competing. Her father, Michael Lesieur, proudly describes heaps of newspaper clippings that highlight Lesieur’s achievements and the two rooms in their home filled with trophies and medals. But he admits taking in all she does can be somewhat nerve-wracking. “She worries the heck out of me because she never stops,” he said.

There’s a comfort in club gymnastics because the people who participate, do it for fun, Sabotka says. Though they compete, don’t have the pressure of winning or being perfect. Lesieur is known by teammates as the hardest working girl at practice and a teammate who cheers on her friends’ goals with as much vigor as she works for her own.

At the NAIGC competition, a judge approached Coach Sabotka -- usually a negative sign. But the purpose for the visit was congratulatory.

“She had tears in her eyes, she was just impressed with what Casey was doing,” Sabotka said.

Another judge started videotaping Lesieur, who was the last person to perform at the competition. Afterward everyone rushed to the floor to congratulate her.

“She seems genuinely surprised and kind of happy that they acknowledge that they knew she had a problem and she worked through it,” Sabotka said.

(Video by Julianne Peixoto, Jack Regan and Mia Wiskow)  

Casey Lesieur

I am so glad that the News house decided to pick up the story. Casey is a very talented gymnast who sacrifices a lot to be where she is. Im her teammate and friend since she transferred to Syracuse and it makes me happy that she has accomplished so much and improved throughout the year. Im sure she will become a great president of the team and take the team to a very competitive level in the next few years. Loved the article, and the video (which was first covered by Jules Peixoto and her team) was simply marvelous. Great job!

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