AUBURN — Sam Cerio’s eyes lit up as she reached for the cell phone in the basket on the front of the blue scooter that, for the time being, is serving as her legs.
She flipped through photo after photo of herself walking across the stage at graduation a few days earlier, a moment she told her doctors would happen, a moment that received an ovation from the parents, family and friends of all the new graduates that were seated inside Auburn Arena on the first Saturday in May.
But Cerio wasn’t looking at herself beaming as her four years at Auburn University came to an official conclusion. She was laughing, lovingly, at the person you can kind of see behind her in those photos. There’s the one where his face is visible, but out of focus. There’s the one you can see just his left shoulder. There’s the one where you can see just his right eye poking out behind her cap.
Before Joseph Donald Wood III — or Trey, as everyone calls him — walked across the stage, someone told him, “Good luck following that.” He probably laughed. His name might have followed hers at their graduation, but she’ll take that name as her own when the two get married early next month.
That doesn’t mean Cerio is going to let her future husband live down the joke, though. That photo where her face is eclipsing his? It has shades of Ryan Reynolds’ viral tweet to his wife, Blake Lively. Cerio is thinking about getting it framed.
On April 5, Cerio became the subject of national headlines for a reason she never wanted to or could have even imagined. An awkward landing on the mat on her first pass in the floor exercise at an NCAA Regional in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, resulted in two dislocated knees and multiple torn ligaments in each.
Within hours, ESPN, Deadspin, the Washington Post, USA Today and countless other outlets had written stories about her. Days later, she appeared on NBC’s Today show in front of a national TV audience. Video of her devastating injury and photos of her anguish went viral so quickly that Cerio felt motivated to ask the Internet to stop, and it actually seemed to listen.
“Going through the pain and seeing my knees bent unnaturally in real life was horrible enough,” she wrote on Twitter, “but to continue to see it from videos/pictures because some people feel entitled to repost it is not okay. I have family, friends and teammates who do not need to see me getting injured over and over again. My pain is not your entertainment.”
You won’t find that video or those photos anywhere in this story, and not only because she has specifically requested it. Not much of this story is going to be about Cerio’s injury; it’s going to be about a four-year Auburn gymnast who recently graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering, has a job lined up at Boeing and plans to walk down the aisle at her wedding to Wood on June 1.
Cerio is so much more than that one pass across the floor at LSU.
“This injury, my injury, isn’t what’s going to define me,” Cerio told the Montgomery Advertiser. “I don’t want it to.”
Auburn University gymnast and graduate Sam Cerio talks about her Auburn career and her injury on Thursday May 9, 2019.
Cerio came to gymnastics by trial and error. Her parents, Becky and Michael, wanted to get her involved in a sport when she was about 4 years old, but they didn’t know which one. They tried soccer first, but the constraints were too loose. Cerio preferred to sit on the ground and play with the grass rather than run around. Next was ballet, but that was too constricting — the instructors couldn’t keep Cerio still long enough to teach her.
Gymnastics wound up being the perfect combination. She didn’t have to run in anything other than short bursts, and back flips and hand springs are much more exciting than a Pas de Bourrée. The Huntersville, North Carolina, native took to the sport so quickly and became competitive at such a high level that she began dreaming about the Olympics. The idea competing at the college level didn’t cross her mind until the first letters began arriving in her mailbox.
One of those letters was from Auburn. Cerio first popped up on coach Jeff Graba’s radar during her ninth-grade year, while she was competing at the Kristie Phillips Athletic Center in Troutman, North Carolina — a high-level gym frequented by college coaches. From a practical standpoint, she was a perfect fit for the Tigers; they had four scholarships available for 2016 and they needed a strong competitor on bars, which Cerio was.
What drew Graba to her, though, was just not her physical ability, but also the focus and dedication with which she attacked the sport. “You can run across athletes that are talented, but they don’t utilize every aspect of their talent because they’re not driven enough to access all their abilities,” he said. “Once in a while, you run across somebody that’s extremely talented but is also pushing the envelope.
“I feel like it’s the Michael Jordan thing, where he’s really talented, but he also used almost all of his talent because he was so driven, and I think, to me, she’s like that.”
At Auburn, Cerio earned SEC All-Freshman Team honors in 2016 and All-SEC honors in both 2017 and 2018. She also qualified for the NCAA Championships on bars in both 2017 and 2018, which placed her among the best in the country.
But academics were equally important to Cerio. Her parents have always been supportive of her gymnastics career, she said, but throughout it, they reminded her that “gymnastics will end eventually, and you have to go and do other things after that, so you have to find something that you love as much as you do gymnastics.”
That wound up being engineering. She started out in chemical, but after quickly realizing she wasn’t as strong in chemistry as she thought she was coming out of high school, she switched to mechanical and later focused in on aerospace.
Cerio helped design a launch vehicle concept that could go into low earth orbit for seven days than descend back down to the ground, using elements of the Saturn V, Atlas 5 and Dragon 2. She took the wing of a P-51 Mustang fighter and put it through finite element analysis. She did structural analysis on the Space Launch System during an internship with Boeing during the summer before her senior year at Auburn.
If you simply glossed over all those complicated groupings of letters and numbers, you’re not alone: Cerio’s academic work went over some of her teammates’ heads, too.
“I didn’t really talk about gymnastics and aerodynamics all that much,” Cerio said, “because my teammates are like, ‘that’s just stuff we don’t even understand. It’s OK. You don’t have to talk about it.’”
Somehow, between her training regimen and practice and meets and going to class and studying, she managed to fall in love, get engaged and plan a wedding. Like Cerio, Wood is also an aerospace engineer — that’s how the two met. He’s a few years older, a big car guy, and as of their graduation day, a commissioned Naval officer. He was part of the crew that did the flyover high above Jordan-Hare Stadium before Auburn’s Oct. 7, 2017, win over Ole Miss.
Wood popped the question in front of Samford Hall on Nov. 18 of last year, and she said yes. Because both are engineers, they were smart enough to get the bulk of the wedding planning done over Christmas break, before the gymnastics season and spring semester began, so there are only a few details left to finalize. The one most prominently on Cerio’s mind is figuring out what goes into changing one’s legal name.
They’ll be married at the Fairhope Yacht Club on Saturday evening, June 1, just steps away from the Mobile Bay — Cerio hopes it won’t be too hot and humid. They have already moved out of the house they shared in Auburn, and soon, they’ll relocate to Charleston, South Carolina, where Cerio will start her career as a structural analyst at Boeing (it was going to be Seattle before her injury) and Wood will prepare for deployment onto a submarine. They’re thinking Hawaii for their honeymoon.
“Trey must be one of the best human beings on earth, because I don’t know if he ever gets to see her,” Graba joked. “I just feel like that’s the untold story, is how does she squeeze all of this in?
“She’s the head of our Student Athlete Advisory Council; she’s an aerospace engineering major; she did a full internship last summer with Boeing and got out of a job out of that, so before her senior year of college, she already had a job; she’s engaged to be married halfway through this year; and she’s one of the best gymnasts that has ever walked through the doors here. I’m inspired by her.”
That’s what made what happened to her on April 5 in Baton Rouge so heartbreaking for everyone around her. The physical pain was Cerio’s alone, but the emotional pain was shared by her entire support system — teammates, coaches, friends and family. Graba described it as one of the worst nights in his life as a coach. For a while, the team couldn’t get through a meeting without someone crying.
Cerio doesn’t remember much from the immediate aftermath of her injury. She remembers thinking that her pass (a handspring double front flip) was slightly off, and that she still had a chance to pull it all the way around or, at worst, land on her butt. Once she didn’t, the rest — getting tended to on the mat, getting stretchered off the floor, going to the hospital — was all chaos.
One thing Cerio does remember vividly, though, is senior athletics trainer Cindy Cohen telling her, “Don’t worry; you’re going to walk down that aisle.” It became a rallying cry for her rehab process, which she described as standard for any major leg injury, only multiplied by both legs.
“My trainers and I all know, we’re all on the same page; this is going to happen,” said Cerio, who underwent a successful conducted by Dr. James Andrews days after the injury. “We’re going to make it work. We’re going to do as much as we can to get me to that goal.”
There is no doubt that Cerio will make a full recovery from her injury, but there is also no set timetable for when that will happen. Or, if there is, Cerio hasn’t asked. She doesn’t want to know. She has her own goals, and she’s not interested in anyone telling her she won’t be able to accomplish them.
The most pressing of those goals is being able to walk down the aisle June 1, and since she was able to walk across the stage at graduation four weeks before that, it seems likely that she’ll be able to do that. But the biggest goal is to be self-sufficient. She’s mastered the use of her scooter, and she’s able to get up and walk short distances without crutches provided there’s something for her to hold onto, but there are still so many basic day-to-day activities — such as showering, making food and getting into bed — that are hard for her.
And still, she has a smile ever present on her face.
“I’m sure she’s had her weak moments,” Graba said. “All us athletes have had those weak moments where we’re by ourselves and feel a little bit sorry for ourselves and we’re frustrated, and I can’t imagine she hasn’t had that. But that isn’t how she operates, that isn’t who she is. She’s very goal-oriented and driven, she’s 100 miles per hour; once she sets her mind to something, she’s able to block all the other stuff out.
“I’m extremely proud of the way she handled it, but I have to say, I’m not surprised at all.”
Cerio describes her attitude as a choice. Life is going to hand you these situations where things don’t go your way, whether it be in competition or the classroom or anywhere else, and whether you want to or not, you have to go through it. But it is up to you whether you want to go though it with a positive attitude or negative one, and there isn’t any mistaking which way Cerio decided to go.
After laughing at those pictures of Wood on her phone, she shows off the features of her scooter — the basket on the front filled with a water bottle, snacks and the grabber her friend gave her; the horn she wishes was much louder, or at least played a little tune. Before that, she chided the three people with her inside Auburn’s gymnastics gym for not having seen “Avengers: Endgame” yet, even though it had already been in theaters for more than a week. She told a funny story about the time her father mistook Graba’s twin brother, Jess, for Auburn’s gymnastics coach
Cerio suffered a devastating and career-ending injury just weeks earlier, but like she said: that isn’t going to define her.
“I’ve done so many things here that the positive totally outweigh the negatives,” Cerio said. “I’ve been able to do so many things I never imagined I would be able to do here that I’m just so grateful for the opportunities Auburn has given me, and the fact that I had one little bump in the road, it doesn’t really matter just because, when you look at the four years I’ve been at Auburn, I’ve been able to accomplish so much and learn so much as a person.”
Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.