As friends, family and fans rally around her, two-time Brazilian Olympic gymnast Lais Souza remains in a Utah hospital after a tragic skiing accident earlier this week. Photo: Souza at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing
As friends, family and fans rally around her, two-time Brazilian Olympic gymnast Lais Souza remains paralyzed and on a ventilator in a Utah hospital after a tragic skiing accident earlier this week.
Souza, who competed at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games as a gymnast, was on the verge of competing in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi in aerial skiing. She was training on Monday, however, when she collided with a tree near the track while warming up, dislocating her third cervical vertebra.
"She dislocated a vertebra near the top of her spine," said Dr. Andrew Dailey, a neurosurgeon with the University of Utah hospital. "She remains in critical condition, still using a breathing machine and unable to talk."
Souza shows off her medals won in aerial skiing at Utah Olympic Park in December. She had been set to represent Brazil at the Winter Olympics in Sochi before her accident.
After the accident, the 25-year-old Souza immediately underwent surgery to realign her vertebra and and stabilize her neck with pins. She also had a tracheotomy to help her breathe and had a feeding tube inserted.
Brazilian team doctor Antonio Marttos, who immediately traveled to Salt Lake City from Miami at the request of the Brazilian Olympic Committee, said Souza appears ready to fight for recovery.
"Right now, her spirits are very good," Marttos said. "She is a fighter. Athletes always do better to improve."
Souza initially had no feeling in her arms or legs, but doctors stated it was too soon to know whether or not she will face permanent paralysis. On Thursday, she was able to move her shoulders and keep them lifted, Marttos said. But her condition remains critical.
"Souza is relying on a breathing machine, and it's possible she may have to for the rest of her life," said Dr. Holly Ledyard, who is treating Souza at the hospital's critical care unit.
It wasn't the daredevil acrobatics of aerial skiing that caused the accident, Ledyard emphasized at a press conference.
"It could have been anybody," Ledyard said. "That fact that she’s an Olympic athlete doing what she’s doing, or that she’s from Brazil and is not used to snow, I don't think played a part in her injury. She was just skiing, like people do."
Souza's mother Odette arrived in Salt Lake City on Thursday, and said her daughter made kissing motions as soon as she saw her.
"When I arrived in the room and saw my daughter, she widened her eyes and pouted to ask me for a kiss," Odette said. "I'm very hopeful and hold great faith that she'll recover."
Souza made Brazil's squad to the 2012 Olympic Games in London, but a hand injury forced her out of competition. Last May, she set her eyes on a different Olympic opportunity, joining several former gymnasts trying for a chance in the Winter Olympic sport of aerial skiing. In December, she won two medals at the Nor-Am Cup in Utah, and followed her success by competing in three World Cup events in January with the hopes of earning enough points to qualify for the Olympics. She earned 40 points at a competition held Jan. 10 in Deer Valley, Utah, and 80 points at an event Jan. 18 in Val Saint-Côme, Quebec.
At the time of her accident Souza still was waiting to hear if she would earn a berth, as Brazil was an alternate to the competition. But dropouts from other nations gave Brazil its spot. Teammate Joselane (Josi) Santos, another former gymnast who switched to aerial skiing, learned this week she instead will go to Sochi. Santos will be one of 13 Brazilian athletes in Russia, Brazil's largest delegation for a Winter Olympiad. Santos said that she will compete in honor of her friend and teammate, who had been training with her under U.S. coach Ryan Snow.
Pedro Cavazzoni, head of the Brazilian Confederation of Winter Sports (CBDN), said there was some discussion over sending the shaken Santos after Souza's devastating accident.
"Whether or not Josi should participate was a decision taken jointly by everyone who is involved in the sport: the CBDN, the Brazilian Olympic Committee, the coach and Josi herself," Cavazzoni said. "It is very important to clarify that she also earned the berth by her own merits. She met all the qualification criteria and she was the athlete immediately after Lais in the qualifying list. It was decided that she should go to support how far our winter sports program has developed, and also as a way to honor Lais and the power of competing in the Olympic Games, which was the big dream they shared. It is a tribute to Lais and also to Josi's own efforts."
Santos posted a photo on Facebook of herself with Souza and their coach, taken Monday before the accident in Park City, Utah.
"I'm in this fight with you and will be with you together until the end," she wrote. "I'll follow my heart, and we spent all these months training together in this new sport. I will do it for you and for all of us. I love you, and you will go home the same way you entered this adventure with me: walking."
Meanwhile, friends, fans and former teammates have taken to social media to support Souza. Many changed their Facebook photo profiles to one of a smiling Souza, and are using the hashtag #forçalais ("Strength Lais") in support as she faces a difficult recovery.
Andrea João, a gymnastics commentator and analyst for Brazil's SporTV, said the positive messages will help Souza and her family.
"The whole world is sending messages wishing strength to Lais, saying she'll make it, she's gonna make it," João said. "Right now we have to do this: send support. Support her family, which right now is so weak. With this prayer chain that everyone is doing, Lais will recover."
Click here to visit Lais Souza's Official Facebook page.
Josi Santos and Souza pose on Monday with coach Ryan Snow before the accident in Park City. Santos will compete in the upcoming Winter Olympics in place of the injured Souza.