A career-ending injury didn’t stop Nicole Erlichman from running on senior night
Matthew Knight Arena was dark and Nicole Erlichman was in the tunnel, waiting. Her arms were wrapped around Kisa Chapman’s and Tara Lubert’s shoulders.
The lights flashed on, fans stood up and the Oregon fight song started playing.
For the first time this year, and the last of her Oregon career, Erlichman joined her acrobatics and tumbling teammates in the introductory, pre-meet jog around the mat. For the last time, Erlichman was in uniform, wearing her No. 33 jersey. Her left foot never touched the ground. She hung on to Chapman and Lubert throughout the jog – her left leg hanging about seven inches above the floor.
Erlichman tore her left achilles tendon twice in the matter of three months over the summer to seal a senior season that would take place outside the mat, looking in. The National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association’s Most Outstanding Athlete last year hasn’t left the team despite the career-ending injury. And on Monday night, before Oregon’s win over Azusa Pacific and Fairmont State, she ran with her teammates.
“I’ve been using them all year to lift me up,” Erlichman said.
She’s a three-time national champion coming off a season where she consistently made perfect 10s in the six-element pass. She was hand springing across the mat during a summer workout when she landed and felt her foot snap.
“My foot was kind of just flopping around,” she said.
A trip to the doctor the next day confirmed the worst. Erlichman had torn her achilles tendon. Surgery was planned and the road to recovery had started. Her sights were set on returning to compete for her senior season.
Three months later, Erlichman was walking when she felt a familiar snap. That meant another trip to the doctor, another surgery one week later.
Her father, Mark, was the first person she called. The conversation started with three words: “Don’t be mad.” Her worries disappeared when Mark told her he’d come to Eugene to be with her through the process.
Competing in 2015 was ruled out after surgery. Erlichman had two options: redshirt or retire. She decided to give up the sport she’d been competing in – through gymnastics and cheerleading, as well – for the past 15 years.
Erlichman looked ahead. She’d always wanted to be a coach. She’d seen the impact her coaches had on her and she wanted to emulate them.
Oregon coach Chelsea Shaw told Erlichman to take advantage of the situation. “She had a different view point this year than she ever did as an athlete,” Shaw said.
Over the course of the year, Erlichman has seen Shaw’s preseason words unfold. After a successful three years as an athlete at Oregon, Erlichman found she enjoyed watching her teammates get better from a new perspective.
“It made me feel like this year was worth something,” she said.
Still, in the back of her mind, Erlichman worried if she’d been a good teammate. She didn’t know the type of impact she’d had on the team.
All of her questions were answered after Monday’s pre-meet team meal.
Erlichman’s teammates told her the plan. They were going to carry her in. They showed her red heart stickers with the No. 33 scribbled on them that they placed on their left achilles tendon.
Erlichman started shaking. Then she started crying. “I was bawling like a baby,” she said.
After the national anthem had finished, Oregon athletes added some last minute warmups before the meet started. Erlichman walked to the bench where she put on her Lauren Jones remembrance t-shirt and stood with the rest of the girls who wouldn’t be competing. Erlichman watched, leaving her spot at the top right corner of the mat to help a teammate when needed.
Junior Chandler White heard the tune Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” blast from the speakers at the arena. She immediately looked at Erlichman.
Erlichman was dancing, her left foot still popped above the ground. “When I think of that song, I think of her,” White said. “She gets down to that song.”
Fellow senior Erika Schaefer calls Erlichman a “positive light” for the team. White agrees with that sentiment. “She’s a legend to this team,” White said. “She’s inspired us all.”
Erlichman’s goal coming this year was to improve and have a positive effect on the team. She didn’t focus on last year’s accolades. She never guessed that her impact on the team would come from off the mat.
Next year, Erlichman plans to pursue a graduate assistant coaching job. She wants to coach, and this season has only solidified those dreams.
“This entire year has been surreal,” she said. “It’s been so rewarding to watch my teammates grow.”
Follow Joseph Hoyt on Twitter @JoeJHoyt
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