By Jon Nalick
For most of her life, gymnast McKayla Maroney dreamed of competing in the Olympics. But on her first day of training at the 2012 Summer Games in London, that dream was in jeopardy. She seriously damaged a previously injured big toe and was unable to perform her floor exercises
Nevertheless, persevering in the vault, and winning gold and silver medals, Maroney afterward faced the likelihood that she could never return to gymnastics. “It’s really hard to hear that you’re never going to be able to do what you love again,” said Maroney, now 17. “So I was praying for a miracle — and that’s what happened.”
The “miracle” was surgery performed by USC orthopaedic surgeon Timothy Charlton, MD, who repaired the dislocated and broken toe, ended the constant pain and restored her full mobility.
That the surgery succeeded so well was especially surprising, she said, because it came after she chose to compete in the games despite the injury.
“A lot of doctors said it was a career-ending injury,” she said, but she refused to give up her Olympic dream, even knowing what it might cost later. Besides, she added, “If you’re not going to push it when you can, you wouldn’t have gone to the Olympics in the first place.”
That determination helped her win at the Olympics, but she quickly discovered the doctors were right: the pain and flexibility problems she suffered afterward all but guaranteed she would never compete again.
Unwilling to face that prospect, Maroney and her family solicited advice from trusted physicians on finding a surgeon with the expertise to help — a search that quickly led them to Charlton.
Charlton performed the surgery at Keck Hospital of USC in September 2012, and soon it — and the physical therapy that followed — paid off. In early 2013, Maroney was able to return to competition and the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team. In July 2013, she competed at the 2013 Secret U.S. Classic, where she placed first on vault and third on floor exercises. In October, she became the first U.S. woman to successfully defend her World vault title at the 2013 World Gymnastics Championships, held in Belgium.
McKayla Maroney praised Charlton’s efforts on her behalf, saying, “I could never be more thankful. I’m competing today and it’s all pretty much thanks to him.”
For his part, Charlton said he will always remember how, at the hospital after treatment, Maroney spontaneously executed a cartwheel down the hallway.
“When she did a cartwheel down the hall with a big smile — it was the greatest reward.”