The most important steps: How Sam Cerio overcame her horrific gymnastics accident
The late afternoon downpour finally stops. Staff members at the Fairhope Yacht Club frantically wipe down wet folding chairs, all while guests gather on the lawn overlooking a small harbor filled with sailboats bobbing in the light breeze.
There would be no point in sitting, though. Not for this.
Samantha Cerio tries to hide from view, waiting behind a concrete pillar next to her dad. She wears a white gown with shimmering spaghetti straps and soft lace, and a sparkling necklace that drapes down the plunging back of her dress.
Earlier in the day, she and her bridal party had their hair and makeup done, as her mom set up handmade decorations for the reception, and her dad and brother rushed to pick up flowers. Her fiancé's sister delivered two homemade cakes, including a stunning groom's cake featuring Toomer's Corner (complete with toilet paper).
Everything looks exactly the way she planned -- well, almost everything. Cerio wanted to wear a pair of sparkly Betsey Johnson heels, but after the accident, she realized she needed to be more practical if she wanted to make it down the aisle. She chose another Betsey Johnson design, a pointy-toe satin slip-on with rhinestones.
But really, the shoes are a footnote. Her wedding day looks and feels perfect. The music begins and her bridal party makes its way out, the anticipation rising with each of their steps. Cerio starts to shake, not with nerves, but with excitement. She feels her eyes start to well up, but wills herself not to cry. Two hundred people will be watching her every move, because she is the bride, but also because she is something more.
Only two months earlier, Cerio was stretchered off a gymnastics mat, air casts on both of her legs, after a gruesome injury during her floor routine at NCAA regionals. She dislocated both her knees, tore multiple ligaments and broke her left leg. In the moments after the fall, as pain shot through her lower body and medical personnel rushed to her side, Auburn trainer Cindy Cohen ran toward Cerio, hovered over her and made sure of one thing.
"You're going to walk down the aisle."
Would she walk down the aisle? In the hours after she got hurt, the diagnosis seemed surreal. Dr. James Andrews, the foremost expert in treating athletes, was called in, and one of his colleagues, Dr. Benton Emblom, was tabbed with doing the surgery.
"Just to put things in perspective, Dr. Andrews has been taking care of athletes for 45 years, and he said he'd never seen a bilateral knee dislocation in an athlete," Emblom says. "So it's kind of like a 100-year storm. I'll probably never see it again."
But it was not just the devastating injury that Cerio had to deal with in the immediate aftermath. Within hours, video of her fall went viral, and everything about her was lost in a 30-second clip. To the world, she was not Sam Cerio, all-SEC gymnast, aerospace engineering major, president of the Auburn Student-Athlete Advisory Council, dog lover, taco connoisseur and soon-to-be-bride. She was simply the gymnast who shattered her legs in a horrific fall.
People tagged her, her family and friends on Twitter when they shared the videos, forcing them all to relive a moment they wanted to forget. Friends begged strangers to stop sharing the video on Facebook. An Auburn professor showed the video in an exercise science class, and one of Cerio's teammates had to sit there and watch, crushed.
The injury and the viral aftermath could have consumed her if she allowed it. But Cerio has never been one to get distracted. Highly competitive, determined and driven, she focused on the one thing that would not change in her changed world: the first Saturday in June, in Fairhope, Alabama.
That helps explain how she got to Auburn in the first place, and why she chose aerospace engineering as a major. Cerio had offers from more highly ranked gymnastics programs out of high school in Huntersville, North Carolina, but she wanted to do what others thought might be impossible: make Auburn nationally relevant.
"We felt if we were going to turn this program into a national contender, we needed risk-takers, mentally tough athletes that would take a chance on us," said Jeff Graba, Auburn's head coach since 2010.
Plus, Auburn had an excellent engineering program, and that is what she wanted to study. To those who told her that student-athletes just didn't major in anything that difficult, she shrugged her shoulders. She started as a chemical engineering major, then settled on aerospace because she found the classes fascinating.
By the time her senior season arrived, Auburn gymnastics had vastly improved, making it to the Baton Rouge regional as the No. 14 team in the nation. Cerio, the unquestioned team leader, was set to compete as the anchor on the floor exercise and on her best event, bars.
When her time came to get ready for floor, Cerio felt more nervous than usual. She went through her routine in her head the way she always did. Then the music started and she began. Before the first tumbling pass, she made sure to tell herself to relax, but she could tell something was off in her run. "I had definitely pulled out double fronts from that kind of running before and my set felt OK," Cerio said.
This time, she could not pull it out. Double fronts are notoriously tricky because they have a "blind" landing, meaning she couldn't spot the ground during the skill, and it is it much harder to make adjustments or brace for a bad landing.
When she fell to the ground, she thought she had hyperextended her knees.
Then she looked down and saw her legs contorted. She screamed in pain, and started to cry. "Our hearts dropped in that moment," teammate Emma Slappey said.
Assistant Bryan Raschilla, stationed in the corner where she fell, rushed to her. So did Cohen, Auburn support staff, LSU trainers and emergency personnel. All Cerio could think was, "Oh my god, I just let the team down."
"That had me feeling more emotional than what the pain had already had me feeling," Cerio said. "That was my only thought at the time. Now I can't compete on bars and I can't compete the next day. My mind was like, 'There's no way I can help my team.' That was probably the biggest hit, regardless of the injury. I felt like I had just blown it for the team."
What happened next is still a blur. Cerio remembers holding Raschilla's hand to help deal with the pain, especially as doctors worked to stabilize her legs before placing them in air casts. Before she was stretchered off the floor, Graba came up to her and told her the team loved her. She looked at him and said, "Make sure they finish this thing off."
Auburn had two rotations left in the meet with a chance to qualify for the regional final the following day. Graba gathered his stunned team together, and delivered a powerful message. "Jeff told us, 'Yes, this is the most important meet. Yes, that did happen to Sam. But in the face of adversity, this is when you're going to find out how tough you are and how strong you are as a team. Are you going to fall or stand up to this adversity?" Slappey said.
Senior Abby Milliet spoke up. "You guys know what Sam would have wanted," she told her teammates. "Let's go do what Sam wants."
The next rotation, Auburn recorded a season high on vault and scored a 49.350 on bars. The Tigers ultimately advanced to the next round but were too emotionally spent the following day and failed to advance further. Cerio was flown on a private plane from Baton Rouge to Birmingham, Alabama, for surgery.
Andrews flew in from Florida to assist Emblom, who went into the surgery anticipating they would be operating on Cerio for six to eight hours.
Emblom went to treat the left side first, so he could stabilize her broken leg. He found that the break kept nearly every ligament intact in her left knee. Only the PCL was torn, and it ripped so cleanly from the bone, he could fix it without doing a major reconstruction.
The right side had more extensive damage: The bones in her knee had to be realigned, and she tore the ACL, PCL and three other ligaments. Here again, each ligament pulled completely off the bone, so there was no major reconstruction necessary. Because the ligaments tore so cleanly, a surgery that could have lasted all day lasted less than three hours.
"I don't intend to make it sound like an easy surgery," Emblom said. "My point is, if you sat down and said, 'I hope this happens, this happens and this happens because it will allow us to fix it in an easier, more time-effective manner,' all those things lined up. ABCDEFG all fell into place perfectly. I've never seen an injury that severe that was that amenable to repairing in a timely fashion.
"That has made the recovery somewhat more manageable because she didn't have this massive amount of swelling in both her legs."
On a scale of 1 to 4, this injury would rate a 4, the worst on the scale. "When you dislocate your knee, tear ligaments and fracture bones, that's as severe a knee injury as you can sustain," he said. Although he and Andrews have seen bilateral ACL tears, or single knee dislocations, seeing two dislocated knees is "highly unusual." So how did the 100-year storm happen? Emblom watched the video in slow motion several times to get a better idea.
"Her knees when they landed were a little hyperextended to begin with, and she under-rotated, and we're talking just a degree on a 360-degree scale," Emblom said. "That one degree was enough to force all of the energy to the backs of her knees, rather than up through the bones. When they land perfectly and flat, the impact goes right up through the bones -- through the feet, tibias, femurs, up to the waist, perfect. In this case, it was an angle, so it forced the energy out the backs of her knees and it blew out all the ligaments and caused the fracture on the left side."
Once the surgery was complete, Cerio, her doctors and trainers had to focus on the rehab. There was no handbook for how to approach it, considering the rarity of her injury. Because she had little swelling, she was able to start rehab in the hospital -- and with the days slipping away and the wedding getting closer, that turned out to be a bigger blessing than anyone knew at the time.
While Cerio was trying to make sense of what happened to her, she also had to deal with the fallout from social media. By the time Cerio got to the hospital, the video of her fall had started to go viral. Over the next few days, it became unbearable to even open Twitter or Instagram. She found that people created fake accounts just to share the video and tag her in it.
"I was in disbelief that some people found enjoyment in watching the video and being able to post it: 'Oh my gosh, look at what this girl did,' laughing at it," Cerio said.
Her initial plan was to ignore it all, but once she saw spam accounts take screenshots of her dislocated legs and tag her in them, too, she had enough. Shocked, furious and deeply hurt, she removed her social media apps from her phone and decided to release a statement.
She started typing out her thoughts on her phone, trying to figure out how to say what she wanted to say. Her closing line, "My pain is not your entertainment," resonated deeply.
You go from this very high moment of seeing college gymnasts go viral for floor routines ... to a very stark difference when someone gets injured, and it's not something people are used to seeing in the sport.Sam Cerio
"I know that words are very powerful the way that you use them and the way you can say them or the way you can line them up," she said. "That line didn't stem from wanting to be empowering. I thought about it because people who were posting the video were using it purely for their entertainment to see what people were going to comment on it, to see who shared it, to see who laughed at it -- just to get some reaction from people. The fact that it was something that made them feel good, that was something that really got to me."
Devastating injuries are a part of sports. Say the names Joe Theismann, Kevin Ware, Gordon Hayward, Alex Smith or McKenzie Milton and chances are you remember the brutal nature of their injuries, if you had the stomach to watch them at all. There is a macabre fascination among some sports fans to watch or share grotesque sports injuries, but something felt different about the way Cerio's injury went viral on social media.
Maybe that has something to do with the sport itself, especially considering the most notable viral video in college gymnastics during the season belonged to UCLA's Katelyn Ohashi.
"You go from this very high moment of seeing college gymnasts go viral for floor routines and getting 10s everywhere to a very stark difference when someone gets injured, and it's not something people are used to seeing in the sport," Cerio said. "You see basketball games where people get hurt or football games where players will get hurt. It's horrible altogether, but when you think of football and basketball, you think, 'OK it happens all the time in that sport,' but when you have something in gymnastics and someone gets injured like that, it's like, 'Oh my gosh, I didn't know people in that sport got hurt like that.' People see us in leotards, they see us in makeup and done up and doing all these crazy incredible flips. And yeah, it's dangerous, but do people really get hurt in it? That's why it was taken a different way."
Despite the negativity on social media, Cerio received more positive messages than she can count. One stood out more than the others: An Auburn gymnastics fan tagged her in a message, telling her they had followed her athletic and academic career since she arrived, and that the injury would never define her.
"I was in a very negative place," she said. "I'm sitting in my bed, and at that time I was in my wheelchair just starting to weight bear, and every time I go out people are asking me questions about my injury, and I'm like, 'Is this all I'm going to be known for at Auburn now?' The fact that someone was able to reach out and send a message like that was so touching, and very uplifting to me, and it was something that really helped."
So did keeping her focus on the goal that mattered most.
There would be no goal without Becky and Mike Cerio. After being unable to conceive on their own, they decided to adopt, inspired after watching a "60 Minutes" report about baby girls in China abandoned in orphanages.
They scoured the internet looking for more information before finding an adoption agency that fit them best. Eighteen months later, they got a match. Becky and Mike traveled to China, where they awaited a 14-month-old girl from Wuhu City in Anhui Province named Wu Zhongye. They had received one photo of her: straight black hair and puffy cheeks, swaddled in a big red and black scarf. Becky and Mike decided to name her Samantha, because Becky liked the thought of giving her a nickname.
When the caregivers brought their baby from the orphanage to their hotel in HeFei, some two hours away and across the Yangtze River, the Cerios thought there was a mistake. Their 14-month-old daughter weighed just 13 pounds, far different from the chubby-cheeked baby they saw in the photo. They brought clothes sized for 18 months, and they were so big on her, she wore seven layers their first night together.
Sam had no teeth, and could not crawl, walk or talk. She had eaten scalding hot, thickened rice formula from a bottle and hated to take a bath, because the orphanage bathed them by hosing them down in a separate room. Right away and unbeknownst to them at the time, they saw a brief window into her future.
"She made her first gymnastics move in the hotel that night," Mike said with a laugh. "They had these little cribs in there, and she pulls herself up, looks me straight in the eye and flips over onto the bed."
Becky added, "We looked at each other and said, 'We're in big trouble.'"
Watching their daughter get big air while jumping on the couch and somersaulting for crayons on the floor convinced Mike and Becky to get her into gymnastics. Her competitive nature did not hurt, and it grew when Mike and Becky adopted a little boy from Orlando, Florida.
Though Sam and her brother, Dominick, are four years apart, they competed for everything, all the way down to who would finish their chores first. Dominick trooped to every gymnastics meet to watch his big sister flip on the bars or balance on the beam.
As she progressed up through the competitive gymnastics ranks, Cerio started getting interest from elite gymnastics programs across the country. Utah, Georgia and Stanford all sent letters. So did Auburn, a program that could not match the history of the top-tier programs but had a quirky head coach with a plan to get them there.
Graba needed a strong performer on the bars, but he also wanted a competitor who could help take the program to the upper echelon with characteristics that her teammates could follow: unflappable work ethic, toughness and determination to keep pushing until they made it to the top.
He went to watch her at a meet in Atlanta. Then-Georgia coach Jay Clark was also there. At one point, Graba leaned over, pointed to Sam and told Clark, "You leave that one alone, she's mine!"
Cerio contributed to the gymnastics team as a freshman, but she blossomed her sophomore year, earning a spot to nationals as an individual qualifier on bars. She excelled again, especially on bars, her junior season. It was also that year her relationship with Joseph "Trey" Wood III started to get more serious.
The two shared the same aerospace engineering major and often studied together. Their relationship grew from there as they found they had common interests beyond their studies: trivia nights, Marvel movies, good food, dogs, the beach and Auburn football games.
"She was cute," Trey said with a smile. "It was a very natural chemistry."
When Cerio needed an emergency appendectomy her junior season, Wood dropped everything to take care of her. "He's one of the first people who was like, 'I got you,'" Cerio says. "It's hard to find people that will love you no matter what and will be there for you through thick and thin. I know I've found that in Trey."
Wood proposed last November, pulling off an elaborate surprise following the final Auburn home football game of the year. He got both sides of their families to Auburn without Cerio knowing, and had them hide around the building where he planned to propose: iconic Samford Hall.
When they finally arrived from the football stadium, he got down on one knee and asked, "Will you marry me?" Sam replied, "Did you ask my dad?" "Yes, I talked to your dad!" Wood said. She said yes. They planned to marry in Fairhope, where Wood grew up, only seven months later. They needed a quick engagement. Wood was going to receive his commission in the Navy and be based in Charleston, South Carolina, and Cerio turned a summer internship at Boeing into a full-time job, based in Seattle.
Although her injury put a roadblock in the middle of their plans, they could not change them. She had to walk by June 1.
With less than two months to go before her wedding, Cerio focused on two big goals: graduation and walking without help on her wedding day. After the surgery, Cerio was fitted with large braces that extended nearly the entire length of both legs.
When she left the hospital, Auburn arranged for her to have a motorized scooter and live in a dorm room across the street from the athletic facility where she would continue her rehab. The mundane became difficult: getting out of bed, taking a shower, going outside without being stared at every few minutes.
Still, Cerio never had a doubt she would walk down the aisle. Whether she would need the crutches was the big question. Rehab lasted an hour each day at the beginning, and Emblom says the leg fracture allowed trainers to rehab her a little faster because she could do weight bearing exercises earlier. She spent the majority of her time working out her quad muscles, calves and hamstrings as a way to strengthen her knee. Cerio was focused on making each rep count. She calls it being "intentional" because she knew that precision and focus would get her what she wanted: an unassisted trip down the aisle.
With only a few weeks left in the semester, Cerio returned to class. Her professors worked with her so she could finish all her coursework. She spent most of her other time doing her physical therapy. The first goal was to walk with crutches across the graduation stage.
Four weeks after her injury, Wood wheeled her to the graduation stage. He retrieved her crutches, handed them to her, and she walked across. As "Samantha Cerio" was announced, Cerio got raucous cheers from the entire arena.
"That was something I wasn't expecting, and I had a lot of people afterward who were like, 'Good job, I'm so happy you were able to do that, you're amazing, thank you for doing this,'" Cerio said. "It wasn't just those that graduated. It was everyone. It was Auburn. It was the fact that the people of Auburn were able to see I was able to make this accomplishment and recover well. Their support is amazing, and it's so cool to see how a community can band together and uplift people."
At that moment, Cerio knew she would most certainly walk without any help on June 1.
Three weeks before their wedding day, Wood and Cerio sit in their favorite taco restaurant just off campus. Cerio is down to using one crutch. The owner comes over and tells her how proud he is of her, that he always knew she would be just fine.
After the injury, Boeing allowed Cerio to switch to a job in Charleston, so she could be with Wood and continue her rehab closer to Auburn. They would still be able to honeymoon in Hawaii.
Cerio was at the point in her rehab where she was doing progressive resistance exercises to help improve muscle strength so she could walk. She also used the leg press machine and hip machine to help as well. The following day, she met with Dr. Emblom.
"I examined her and the first thing I asked her was, 'Are you sure you don't have another year left?'" he says. "She's followed our instructions. She's been in therapy every day. She's had a great attitude, she hasn't complained and said, 'Poor pitiful me. I'm getting married in eight weeks, why does this happen to me?' Because of that, she's been able to recover from injuries faster than you'd typically see with this."
He cleared her to wear smaller knee braces and ditch the crutches.
"I don't know anybody that would have taken it as well as she has," Wood said. "Anybody would be destroyed mentally after something like that, but she's like a ball. You drop her, she bounces. It's a miracle how quickly she's come back."
She also reinstalled Twitter and Instagram on her phone, a decision she made around graduation, although she has changed her settings and turned off notifications to avoid the trolls that still linger sometimes. "I wanted to go back to normal life," she says. "Social media at this point is a huge part of most people's lives, and it's something I missed having."
The wedding day arrives, and so does the moment that should be *the* viral moment of the year. An instrumental version of "Can't Help Falling in Love" starts playing, and Sam emerges locking arms with her father. He could feel her shaking, so he leans over and says, "Look at these people giving me a standing ovation." She laughs.
Their first steps are on the damp, patchy grass before arriving at a white runner that serves as the aisle. They step onto the runner and pause, as attendants spread out her dress and veil behind her for the grand entrance. The runner is a little sticky from the rain and she has a small brace on her right knee, invisible under her satin dress, so she steps carefully.
She starts walking before her attendants let go of the veil. It falls out of her hair, and Cerio can do nothing but laugh it off with a little giggle and a big smile. Once it's back in her hair, they're off. She takes a step with her left foot, then her right. Left. Right. One after another, white rose petals dotting the way, about 25 total steps.
Wood's great aunt, Bert, serves as officiant and steps to the microphone. She speaks for everyone who had just witnessed what seemed improbable only eight weeks earlier.
"I think you all know how special this moment is, that Samantha walked down the aisle. It's very special," she said.
The crowd claps as tears stream down Becky's face. The sailboat masts clink gently in the background.
Aunt Bert begins the ceremony, and Sam stands next to Trey, beautiful, strong and unwavering on her feet. They say, "I do." They kiss. Aunt Bert pronounces them husband and wife.
They walk up the aisle together, hand in hand, ready to pose for pictures on the beach at sunset, the sky in ribbons of cotton candy pink and blazing orange.
"Walking down the aisle was something that really made the wedding day that much sweeter," Cerio said. "I'm really stubborn and want to accomplish goals that I set for myself, and I don't know if our friends and family were all that surprised, but it was something that definitely helped make the wedding day even better."
Cerio hasn't taken this many steps on her own since the day she got hurt. She's grateful to have changed into glittery white Keds for the photos and the reception.
Guests wander between multiple rooms, one with a dinner buffet, the other with a DJ and dance floor. Sam and Trey have their first dance to "Can't Help Falling in Love," and then she's able to rest for a little bit, eat and put on her second knee brace.
So much had changed in two months, but this day was always the one constant.
No matter how bleak, no matter how hard, no matter how many social media trolls came after her, Cerio believed. Walking down the aisle would be her response, her own personal love letter to everyone who pushed her, encouraged her and guided her. To her fiancé, Trey. And yes, to everyone who laughed at her and mocked her, too.
So when the moment came, the music played and she stood with her head held high and her father at her side, that first step meant far more than any ordinary walk.
She triumphed down the aisle.