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US Olympian Sykora recovering from brain injury

Stacy Sykora doesn't remember the rainy April evening when the bus carrying her Volei Futuro volleyball team overturned just yards from the gym where the women were to play.

Brazilian news reports from the accident scene just outside Sao Paulo said the three-time U.S. Olympian did not appear seriously injured. Though the tall Texan briefly passed out, she had only a small cut on her face and it looked as if she was being taken to the hospital merely as a precaution.

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That outlook quickly changed.

By the time the ambulance reached the Sirio Libanes Hospital, Sykora's breathing had become labored and she had slipped into critical condition. She was admitted and doctors determined she had a serious head injury, with bleeding and swelling on the left side of her brain. The trauma put her in intensive care for a week and has cast doubt on whether she will be able to compete at the 2012 London Olympics.

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"I am doing better each and every day. I am excited to be alive," said Sykora, now in Southern California continuing her rehabilitation. "I am excited that I am getting stronger physically and mentally, but I know there is still a lot of work to be done."

Sykora's mother and sister flew to Brazil to be with her, and news of her plight spread quickly in the tight-knit international volleyball community. Fans on Twitter and Facebook added "Forca Stacy" in their posts about her, using the Portuguese word for strength.

It was an especially tense time for fellow national team players. Setter Lindsey Berg wrote SYKO on her taped fingers while playing professionally in Italy, and outside hitter Logan Tom rushed to Sykora's side.

"I obviously did not know anything about it during the process because I was just trying to get myself together," Sykora said. "Afterwards, I heard great stories. People told me how my experience affected them, how it had a positive effect on them and how much positive support I had to get better, and soon."

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Berg learned of the April 12 accident on the Internet. But it was the middle of the night in Italy and she couldn't get details from her agent - who is also Sykora's. Information about her teammate's condition was further delayed while Brazilian officials contacted Sykora's family.

"It was awful," Berg said. "Really scary."

Sykora was captured by a Brazilian television crew smiling and laughing in a rehabilitation center about three weeks after the accident. Her doctors there, who said there was no sign of permanent brain damage, credited her fitness as an athlete for speeding her recovery.

She was discharged from the hospital on May 6.

The 5-foot-10 libero was a three-sport athlete at Texas A&M, competing in volleyball, track and basketball. She joined the national team in 1999 and played for the U.S. at the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics, helping the American women win the silver medal at the Beijing Games.

Like most elite volleyball players, the 34-year-old Sykora also has played on professional teams overseas to make a living.

She continues to work with the national team at its training facility in Anaheim and responded to questions for an interview with The Associated Press via email with the help of a team trainer.

"I am spending three days a week at the hospital working on specific brain-injury deficits (for example, some of the minor issues I am having with my vision, cognitive memory and so on). The other days of the week I am with my team in Anaheim and working with the sports medicine staff here," she wrote. "All-in-all I am getting the gamut of therapy and can tell it is helping every day! I remain patient and optimistic, but as you can imagine as an Olympian, it is hard to be patient and away from the sport that you love so much."

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Berg says Sykora is an inspiration to her teammates.

"Even now, she's with us every day even though she can't play - and it's so frustrating to her - but she's still here with us every day in the gym. And I think that just shows who she really is," Berg said. "She's someone I couldn't imagine not having in my life. She's all around an incredible person."

USA Volleyball CEO Doug Beal released a statement supporting Sykora, calling her "an iconic member" of the national team and "a key member of the team as it competes to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games."

It is too early to tell whether Sykora will be able to play as her team makes the final push to qualify for next year's London Olympics, and indeed, right now it's the least of her concerns. But an eventual return to the sport she loves remains a key goal.

"My plans are to get Stacy Sykora back to 100%," she said. "After this, my goal is to play volleyball again."

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