Nicole London's afternoon is packed. She's managed to squeeze in our conversation between physical therapy and visiting with an old student. She says the hallways are all a buzz at Mira Catalina, where she has been teaching for 10 years. Her fifth grade students are preparing for a disco dance, celebrating their graduation into middle school. But the hectic life of rambunctious students and physical rehab are not a match for the athlete's once busy schedule, filled with tournaments and world travel. Staying close to home, spending time with family and friends and watching her students move on is a reassuring calm after enduring three long years of surgeries and rehabilitation.
London, a South Bay native, is an adrenalin junkie. She likes competition, pushing her physical and mental limits and winning. London started playing tennis at the age of 5 and started competing in junior tournaments around Southern California when was she was 9. Selected to be on the Junior National Team at age 12, she traveled around the world for the next five years and won several singles and doubles tournaments, including Les Petits AS in France, two Junior U.S. Open Doubles titles-one with partner Lindsay Davenport (also a PV native) and a Junior Australian Doubles title. At the age of 16, she qualified for the Professional Grand Slam main draw for the U.S. Open. When high school came to an end, London had to pick between playing college tennis or turning pro and decided to attend USC on a tennis scholarship-her passion was becoming a teacher.
The Palos Verdes School system is in her blood. London was athlete of the year as a senior at Peninsula High School. And her father is currently principal at Dapplegray Elementary School in PV. He also started Cornerstone Elementary School in 1993, a Parent Participation School. Plus, London's mother is a retired teacher of 35 years in PV.
Flash forward to a spring vacation in 2008. The adventure seeker and a friend were on their way to Costa Rica. On the agenda: hiking Montezuma's waterfalls. A fairly easy hike, nothing was out of the ordinary at first. However, some locals had spoken of another pool of water with cliffs and a rope swing just a little bit higher up, off the beaten path. "I said, 'We're here. It's once in a lifetime,'" says London. So she made the decision she would later regret.
A few minutes in, London lost her footing. With nothing to grab, it seemed like she tumbled forever before a tree stump stopped her fall. At this point, London looked down to see bone sticking out of her leg. But help was not nearby. After getting locals to make a phone call, a rescue team had to hike in, make a stretcher and carry her out.
London was eventually medevaced to a hospital in San Jose, and as the pain set in, she was given more and more morphine. She was told that she needed immediate surgery. So she proceeded to have her tibia and fibula repaired. Now she admits she was naïve.
A few days later, London was on a flight back home, and her parents took her immediately upon landing to Torrance Memorial Medical Center to have the injury looked at. What would follow would be six more surgeries and years of rehab.
Stuart Gold, MD, was the orthopedist responsible for three of London's complex surgeries, and he was credited with helping her regain use of her leg and avoiding amputation-a possibility in a case like London's. When Gold took on London's case, she'd already had three orthopedic surgeries and was 10 months into treatment. He told London he would need one to two years to get her walking well. He followed through on this promise. London had a complex open tibia fracture. After the first plate was inserted in Costa Rica, it did not heal properly as the wound broke down. "The soft tissue envelope in the lower leg does not always tolerate swelling, particularly in an open fracture," says Gold. The fracture was re-plated, but the plate broke quickly. And yet another time, it broke again. At this point, Gold took over care and tried a ring fixture, a device that is affixed to the bone and is located on the outside of the leg. But again, London was not healing. As it turned out, the bone was dead because it did not have any blood supply. Healthy fresh bone was needed to achieve healing-the unhealthy bone is completely removed, and new bone fills the gap that has been created. "Once we had viable bone, we basically started from square one," says Gold. He inserted a custom plate to stabilize the new bone. This time, success.
London easily rattles off the procedures and terminology for all her medical procedures. But behind the technological lingo, she has not lost sight of what is important: she's happy just to be able to use her leg, even if she can't run as fast as before.
London admits that at times, she felt defeated. "It was harder for me emotionally than physically," she says. "I am pretty strong. I could deal with the physical therapy and pain, since I was an athlete and wanted to get back to 100%." It was having to slow down physically that eventually took its toll on her, mentally.
"There was the first setback, then the second, then the third. I started to get down. It was no longer going to be okay," she says. London wondered if she'd ever have her same quality of life back. But London credits her friends and family for helping her survive. "They wouldn't let me get too down. They'd call me and say, 'We're picking you up,' and there was nothing I could do."
London can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Still an athlete, she now appreciates every little movement her body makes as a miracle. "People say there is a reason things happen. I don't look for reasons any more, but it did show me that I'm a strong person." It also sealed her strong bond with her parents, whom she moved back in with at the age of 35 when she needed constant care.
Looking back, London says she'd probably make the hike again. Not the sit-around-the-pool or play-Scrabble type, she constantly looks for adventure. "That's my personality. I want to climb that mountain."
When we talk, London is days away from her final surgery-cosmetic-and she is feeling like she's got control of her life back. Sure, lunges at the gym will always be a bit harder. And although she can't dominate the tennis court any more, she'll be fine, she says, "as long as I can still walk and ride my bike on the pier."