April 20, 2012
By Scott Kemps
It was something that Kevin Fraser had done dozens of times, on days just like this one. It was a day after he returned to the Lone Star State after visiting teammate Alex Bubnov halfway across the country in New Jersey. He arrived back in Texas just in time to spend the July 4 holiday the way he had spent many others: on Lake Travis with friends and family. It was like any other Independence Day, until something went terribly wrong.
Fraser remembers his return from the Garden State. He remembers heading to his mother Sharon's house. The rest is a total blur.
In anticipation of the holiday, Fraser and his friends swam and water tubed. And then their favorite: the trapeze rope, a two-storied swing.
This day wasn't like the rest though; the rope swing handle had broken. The group pondered a fix and ended up tying the apparatus back together. Unfortunately, the solution wasn't nearly good enough.
"We thought we fixed it, and we did for the time being," Fraser was told after the incident.
Several of his friends went off the swing after it had been fixed. However, when Fraser attempted to swing off the dock, complete a 360-degree turn, and return to the starting spot 15 feet off the ground, the torque he put on the trapeze swing was just too much.
Each side of the triangle broke, and Fraser plummeted 15 feet into the concrete bottom portion of the dock, hitting the back of his head and his shoulder, and knocking himself unconscious. His limp body then fell into Lake Travis and plummeted to the bottom, which was nearly 20 feet deep.
"From what I heard, all my friends knew I had to be in the water, because no one could find me," Fraser said.
Four of his friends then dove into the murky water, where Fraser went unfound for nearly five minutes as he drifted underneath a boat slip right off the edge of the dock, putting him farther out of reach.
It was his friend Tyler Sonnier who found Fraser and swam his lifeless friend 20 feet from the bottom of the lake up to the surface. When Tyler brought him to the surface, Fraser's skin complexion had turned blue, and he was bleeding from his nose, ears and the back of his head.
Another friend, Forrest Eckert, who was certified in CPR, aided in pumping water from Fraser's lungs, buying time while 911 was called and a police boat and an ambulance neared the scene of the accident.
It was quickly determined that Fraser would have to be airlifted to Brackenridge Hospital in downtown Austin, which took eight minutes via helicopter. The airlift saved Fraser's life; it took his friends more than an hour to drive to the medical center from the lake.
Upon arrival that Sunday night, Fraser was placed in the Intensive Care Unit, where he was given a paralytic and was placed in a medically induced coma. His body temperature was lowered to 91 degrees, a process that took nearly eight hours, and he was held in a hypothermic coma for 24 hours. With a target wake-up time of midnight on Tuesday, the warm-up process began.
"Apparently when I was in the coma, my family and friends started to gather in the hospital chapel, holding prayer services for me," said Fraser. In addition, current teammate Reid Swanger, an Austin native, paid a visit to his injured teammate.
Early Wednesday morning became scary for friends and family, as nearly two and a half hours went by after Fraser's scheduled wake-up time. Finally, at 2:45 a.m., he awoke from his medically induced coma.
"As soon as I woke up, I tried talking right away, even though I had all sorts of tubes and a mask on me. My parents told me that when I woke up the next day I was being very sassy and sarcastic, so I was kind of back to normal right away," Fraser laughed.
When Fraser first woke up on July 6, three days after the accident, the main question on his mind was if his injury would prevent him from competing in the sport he loves: gymnastics.
"My short-term memory was bad when I first woke up, so I had to be told numerous times what happened and how I got in the hospital."
Another thing he didn't forget was the date his family was supposed to head to Hawaii for a vacation. Still in a groggy state, Fraser asked what day it was. When he was told by his mother it was July 6, Fraser exclaimed, "That's the day we're supposed to go to Hawaii!"
The astonished staff was floored that his long term memory was still intact.
Throughout the accident, Bubnov remained in constant contact with the team, updating them on Fraser's condition by communicating with Fraser's sisters, Kelcey and Korey. While still in the hospital, the outpouring from the U-M coaching staff remained a constant, as Fraser spoke with head coach Kurt Golder and assistants Geoff Corrigan and Xiao Yuan. Golder also remained in constant contact with Fraser's parents throughout the hospital stay and recovery process.
Support also came in from around the country, as Fraser received letters of encouragement from the William & Mary gymnastics team, among others.
Another thing he overheard when he first woke up was talk between his parents and doctors about his gymnastics career being over. The talk that he overheard was just that to Fraser; he used the doubt as motivation to push himself to return to elite level competition.
Fraser was sent home from the hospital on July 10, nearly seven days following the accident. After weighing 169 pounds prior to the accident, he saw himself drop to 152 pounds, a 17-pound difference that occurred over a four-day span. Another concern was the condition of his shoulder, which had limited mobility, as well as the large gash in his head that required 17 staples that were removed prior to his dismissal from Brackenridge.
Decreased lung capacity was also a concern; he had to see a pulmonary specialist as a precautionary follow-up.
The motivation became apparent for Fraser in August, when he began running again and headed back to the gym, nearly a month and a half after the life-threatening accident. The talk of his career being over was merely a speed bump.
Upon arriving back in Ann Arbor for the fall semester, Fraser found a new friend in staff athletic trainer Bill Shinavier. He spent hours rehabbing his shoulder with Bill in anticipation of the upcoming season. Another concern was endurance and his ability to get back to his normal, high-level floor routines.
"Before the accident, finishing a floor routine was easy for me, but afterwards, after two passes I was pretty much gassed out. So building my energy levels back up was a big goal for me."
By November, the Texan finally felt like himself again and was back in the lineup for the team's intrasquad in mid-December. Fraser sat out the first three competitions of the season, fine-tuning his floor routine and vault skills that saw him regularly crack the starting lineup as a true freshman.
After a rough first few meets, Fraser found his groove against Oklahoma on floor and notched a career-best 15.15.
Following an injury that was not only career-threatening but life-threatening, one might think that it would be difficult to achieve such high scores once again. But Fraser has upgraded his vault and is regularly eclipsing his scores from a year ago.
"Everything gymnastics-wise from last year is better," Fraser said. "Losing the weight that I lost and gaining it back as straight muscle is a big reason why my skills have looked much cleaner in my sets this year. It's scary looking back on what happened, and I definitely feel like I was given a second chance. I might as well make the best of it."
In addition, Fraser was named team captain by his teammates, who draw inspiration from Fraser's determination in coming back from such an injury.
In the classroom, Fraser has also remained at a high level, earning exemplary marks while majoring in cellular and molecular biology. The next step is the 2012 NCAA Championships in Norman, Okla.
As an athlete in a sport where courage isn't lacking, Fraser looks back and can't see himself being anywhere else, even after the near-tragic accident. When asked if he will return to the trapeze swing this summer, Fraser smirked and said, "Yes."