Auburn University senior Samantha Cerio stared intently at the purple floor exercise mat before her. The lights of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, reflected off the gymnast's bedazzled white, navy and orange leotard. As her teammates cheered raucously, the 22-year-old flashed a quick smile and waltzed out to kick off her floor routine, hoping to deliver a flawless performance and help the Auburn Tigers secure a spot in the NCAA women's gymnastics region final.
But within a matter of seconds, Cerio would be on the floor in agony, her nearly two-decades-long gymnastics career brought to a jarring end by what some have called the "worst sports-related injury" they've ever seen.
Cerio reportedly dislocated both knees and broke her legs Friday, April 5, after attempting to blindly stick a tumbling pass, meaning she couldn't see the ground before landing, according to the Times-Picayune, which cited sources familiar with the gymnast's injuries.
"It was pretty tough to watch," Jeff Graba, Auburn's women's gymnastics coach, told the Times-Picayune. Graba noted that in all his years coaching he had never seen anything like what happened to Cerio in the middle of the NCAA's Baton Rouge region semifinal.
On Sunday, Cerio announced in a lengthy Instagram post that Friday had been her "final night as a gymnast."
"After 18 years I am hanging up my grips and leaving the chalk behind," she wrote in a post that had nearly 3,600 likes as of early Monday morning. "It may not have ended the way I had planned, but nothing ever goes as planned."
Moments before Cerio was set to take the floor, her face was a mask of concentration. The senior, who was anchoring the event for the Tigers, could be seen getting last-minute advice from coaches and a pep talk from one of her teammates. She calmly chalked the bottoms of her feet, clapped her hands to psych herself up and rapidly ran through some choreography.
"Such an impressive young lady," one of the meet's commentators said as Cerio began her routine. The native of Huntersville, North Carolina, who is majoring in aerospace engineering, was recently named SEC co-scholar athlete of the year for gymnastics and, after graduating in May, has a job lined up with Boeing in Seattle. Known for her solid performances on the floor exercise and her stellar skills on bars, Cerio was regarded as a role model by teammates, according to AuburnTigers.com, the university's news site. Graba once described her as "the heart and soul of the team."
Cerio danced over to one of the mat's corners, readying herself for her opening tumbling pass - a handspring double front with the blind landing.
"Let's see how high she flies right here," another commentator said.
The gymnast sprinted across the mat, throwing herself into a series of dizzying flips. But as she opened up on the final flip, her feet seeking the floor, everything went wrong.
Upon landing, Cerio's legs buckled violently, bending unnaturally just below the knee and sending her toppling backward into the mat. Her face contorted with pain and she appeared to be screaming.
"Ooh," a commentator shouted. Exclamations from spectators could be heard over the pounding instrumental music being played throughout the arena.
Cerio sat hunched on the floor where she fell, eyes squeezed tightly shut. Her knees protruded from her legs, which were splayed out in front of her.
"I think she may be hurt," one commentator remarked as Auburn's coaching staff ran toward Cerio.
The music shut off. The meet came to a halt. The crowd of more than 10,000 people, mostly made up of supporters from one of Auburn's rivals, Louisiana State University, fell silent.
Almost 10 minutes went by as coaches, trainers and medical personnel tended to Cerio. At one point, she was surrounded by at least 12 people.
Commentators speculated on the extent of Cerio's injuries. Her knees were being looked at, they reported. One person deemed it a "very serious leg injury." Another brought up the difficulty of a blind landing.
"You almost have to feel it or anticipate it, and I think she got there earlier than her body was ready and she hyperextended her knees," the commentator said.
As about seven people lifted Cerio off the ground and onto a waiting stretcher, the arena erupted in applause. But even as the crowd clapped, their faces were etched with worry. Cerio's legs were encased in bulky black air casts that left only her toes visible.
"She's a trooper," Graba told the Times-Picayune. "The last thing she said was, 'Go help the girls.' The girls rallied around her. They're doing this for her right now."
After her fall, Cerio's teammates clustered in a tight huddle. There were still two rotations left in the meet, and if the Tigers wanted to advance to Saturday's final, they had to stay focused and compete.
"I circled everybody together and I was like, 'We're not going to do this,' " Auburn senior Abby Milliet recalled telling her teammates, according to AuburnTigers.com. " 'We're not going to get sad. We can be sad later because it is sad. But we're going to do what she would want us to do and light this fire. This is time for us to have a new fire. Sam wouldn't want us to give up. She would fight harder.' "
Guided by the rallying cry of "Stick it for Sam," the Tigers delivered an impressive performance, finishing with their second-highest score of the year and securing a spot in the region final.
"In the back of our minds we were all thinking that we know we can do it," sophomore Drew Watson told the university's news site. "We were all just having Sam in the back of our minds in a positive way. ... We were pushing through for her."
Social media erupted with reactions to Cerio's injury, many sending the athlete prayers and encouragement. As graphic video of the landing started widely circulating, others were horrified by what happened to Cerio.
All the while, Cerio continued to cheer for Auburn.
"All gas, no breaks!" she tweeted ahead of the region final. Auburn came in fourth at the final on Saturday, bringing an end to the team's season.
On Sunday night, Cerio thanked her well-wishers and shared a quick update on her health.
All,— sam_cerio (@sam_cerio) April 8, 2019
I wanted to reach out and thank everyone who has sent me encouraging messages. I truly appreciate all of the support and prayers that I have have received! I am doing well right now and getting lots of rest! From the bottom of my heart, thank you so much!
This article was written by Allyson Chiu, a reporter for The Washington Post.