There is nothing more gratifying for an athlete than beating overwhelming odds to reach a level of success that seemed unattainable when life was at its bleakest.
Navy gymnast Andrew Faulk is a finalist for the Nissen-Emery Award, given annually to the nation's outstanding senior collegiate gymnast since 1966, but there was a time early in his college career when there were doubts whether he would live to see another birthday.
Faulk, a 2007 Madison High School graduate, almost died during his first semester at the U.S. Naval Academy when doctors at Brooke Army Medical Center accidentally cut a major artery in his stomach during surgery to remove a cyst inside his pancreas.
"That was a very tough time," Faulk said in a phone interview recently. "But as bad as things were, I knew my career wasn't over yet. If it was, it wasn't going to be because of me giving up."
Faulk's recovery and comeback in the sport that's been the center of his life since he was in elementary school stand as a testament to his perseverance and the values that guide him daily.
"When you go through adversity, it makes you think about a lot of things," Faulk said. "It was the love of the sport and my desire to not let circumstances dictate what my life was going to be that kept me going. It gave me a fresh outlook on sports and life."
Now 23, Faulk and three Navy teammates are competing in the NCAA Qualifying Meet on Thursday at the University of Oklahoma. Faulk, the Eastern College Athletic Conference Gymnast of the Year, will compete in the all-around competition. He won conference championships in the all-around, pommel horse, parallel bars and horizontal bar.
A remarkable comeback
The winner of the Nissen-Emery Award, considered the Heisman Trophy of college gymnastics, will be named during the NCAA Men's Championships this weekend in Norman, Okla.
"Just to be named a finalist has been an honor," Faulk said. "Once I found out I was a finalist, I was determined to live up to what other people who have been nominated have done. It's really humbling to be part of that group because those guys have contributed a lot to the sport and really defined it."
That Faulk ranks among the best collegiate gymnasts in the country after his comeback from such a harrowing experience is nothing short of remarkable.
Faulk's health problems began just before Thanksgiving in 2007 when a CT scan revealed that a gall stone had lodged inside his pancreas. He had his gall bladder removed at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, Md., but then pancreatitis set in and he returned to San Antonio to have a second operation to drain a cyst that had grown inside his pancreas.
What was expected to be a routine procedure turned into a nightmare for Faulk and his family. Faulk is the second of three children born to Renee and Emmet Faulk, who still live in San Antonio.
With his life hanging in the balance during surgery, Faulk lost eight units of blood before doctors at Brooke Army Medical Center stopped the internal bleeding.
Faulk has been standout Navy gymnast past four years
Faulk missed the rest of his freshman year at Navy while he recovered in San Antonio. While some gave him little chance of competing again, Faulk returned to the gym at Alamo Gymnastics with a grim determination that was tempered by his near-death experience.
"My stomach muscles were really tight because of all the surgeries, so I had a lot of work to do," Faulk said. "I'd go in every day and work out and train with the younger kids. It was really humbling. But as it turned out, staying in San Antonio for the rest of my freshman year really helped me recover and focus on getting better.
"When I came back to school, I was stronger. I was actually better than before I left. I also came back with a renewed dedication. I realized that I could have lost it all and I appreciated gymnastics more."
Faulk returned to school in the fall of 2008 and has been a standout on the Navy gymnastics team each of the past four years.
Faulk was born in Lafayette, La., but moved to San Antonio with his family when he was 7. A major in quantitative economics at the Naval Academy, Faulk is scheduled to graduate next month and report to Pensacola, Fla., in August for flight training.
"I want to be a pilot," Faulk said.
Faulk said his health problems ultimately made him stronger physically and mentally.
"That really describes the mindset I have," Faulk said. "It's important to really try to make a positive of what might look negative. As long as you can learn from something, no matter how bad things might look, you can put it to good use.
"But if you just let it happen to you and you let it be a debilitating thing, you're not going to grow. As Thomas Edison said, 'I'm not discouraged because every time I fail, it's a chance to grow.'