Junior overcomes heart condition
Comeback Player of The Year
Luisa Leal was never supposed to compete in gymnastics again. At least, that is how those closest to the junior once felt.
Diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome in the summer following her 2011 Rookie of the Year campaign, Leal faces a heart condition that transcends Rutgers gymnastics.
The Cali, Columbia, native needed two separate procedures in June and October that year to treat the condition, which can cause episodes of abnormally rapid heart rate, severe chest pain and dizziness. She thought the worst of it was behind her.
But in just the second meet of her sophomore season Jan. 15, 2012 at West Virginia, Leal experienced another scary episode of cardiac symptoms, leaving the future of her career in doubt.
After seeking a further opinion from doctors the following Monday, Leal and Rutgers’ coaching staff decided it was best for her to sit out the remainder of the season. Because of her chronic history with heart problems, doctors required periodic electrocardiogram testing of Leal’s heart rate for the next three months and complete removal from conditioning for six months.
Leal reluctantly called her mother with the news that her condition still lingered.
“She’s like, ‘You know, Luisa, I think what’s happening with your heart is destiny telling you that it’s time for you to put your wheels on the side,’” Leal said. “I was like, ‘no, mom, it’s just an obstacle, and I have to go over it.’”
It was the first of multiple obstacles that The Daily Targum’s Comeback Player of the Year would hurdle in putting together an inspirational junior season.
When Leal returned to the team in the winter of 2012 ready to make amends, destiny came calling once more.
This time the gymnast suffered a freak injury, breaking her foot and spraining her neck after falling off a balance beam right before the first event of the season.
She could have easily bowed out for good, but Leal opted to fight harder.
“I think it just made me stronger,” she said. “I just wanted gymnastics more than everyone else because I had so many things in the way trying to stop me that when I could finally do it … it was like, ‘yes, finally.’ It made me work harder. It made me believe in myself more and more.”
Doctors deemed Leal healthy enough to finally compete again Jan. 26 — four meets into the season — and she did not miss a beat.
The junior earned the team’s highest score on vault that day and captured a 9.825 in two events the following week to help the Scarlet Knights earn their first 195 total in nearly 13 years.
“She never had any doubt in her mind that she would be back right where she left off,” said head coach Louis Levine. “It was pretty impressive to not miss a beat at all.”
Leal went on to break the program’s individual vault and all-around records March 3 and March 8, respectively. To cap it off, she was named EAGL Team MVP after the season.
For someone who had few strength and conditioning workouts during the offseason, returning with virtually no signs of rust seemed inconceivable.
Leal said the mental aspect was critical.
“I was not ready physically, but I had been getting prepared mentally, so I think that’s why it wasn’t too, too hard on me,” she said. “I’m not going to lie — coming back without being prepared and without a pre-conditioning, coming back so fast, it was hard on my joints. And at the end of the season I was feeling like I was breaking apart.”
Yet Leal grinded, persevered and stopped at nothing to further tap into her vast potential revealed as a freshman.
Her teammates can only marvel at the adversity Leal has overcome.
“She really truly loves the sport, and you can see that,” said senior Danielle D’Elia. “It’s an inspiration to everyone around and everyone in the gym because you can feed off of it. It makes you want to do better. … She didn’t let [injuries] define what kind of next season she was going to have.”
Possessing an unwavering positive attitude is Leal’s secret to success.
She understands that with her heart condition — which she still takes care of today through cautious cardio with a heart monitor — being able to perform gymnastics at all is a privilege.
As she presses onward in hopes of one day competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics, Leal refuses to allow anything to frustrate her these days.
“I don’t have moments where I get mad at myself and I can’t perform,” she said. “I’m always so excited and so happy to do what I do, that I think that’s why good things come to me.”