UCLA gymnast Brittani McCullough chooses tough career course

The airbag introduced itself, a rude facial jab that left a dozen cuts.

UCLA gymnast Brittani McCullough, then a freshman, was jolted awake. Her behind-the-wheel nap, the culprit in this mess, was ruined. So was the cherry red 2005 Toyota her grandfather had bought her five months earlier.

She remembers the smell of burning rubber, metal and fluids — and worrying that her car might explode. At first, she couldn’t escape. The driver’s side door was jammed and her left foot was stuck in the floorboard.

McCullough finally yanked her foot free and exited from the passenger door, but the tendon of her big toe was severed in the process.

By the time she reached the hospital she was in a panic, upset about the accident and thinking she’d let her grandfather down. Then she met a person who changed her life — her nurse.

McCullough never caught the woman’s name, recalling only that she was short, wore glasses and was extremely kind and attentive, always checking to see whether her young patient needed pain medication, food or anything else.

The nurse left so strong an impression that McCullough chose a career course unlike no other athlete at UCLA, one that required a grueling academic schedule on top of an already-demanding athletic agenda.

That’s what it takes to go through UCLA and become a nurse.

“Everything happens for a reason,” McCullough now says of her November 2006 car crash.

On Saturday, McCullough will help lead top-seeded UCLA as it plays host to an NCAA women’s gymnastics regional at Pauley Pavilion. If there are struggles, the Bruins will probably turn to McCullough. She has overcome plenty.

“She’s an inspiration to the whole team,” senior Anna Li says.

There are about 650 athletes at UCLA, and McCullough is the only one in the 624-student nursing program, which last year received more than 1,200 applications for 50 open spots.

Its bachelor’s program is considered the most competitive degree program on campus, a UCLA spokeswoman said. But that didn’t dissuade McCullough, a onetime biology major. Even after her first application was rejected, she tried again —and succeeded.

UCLA gymnastics Coach Valorie Kondos Field and an academic counselor initially tried to talk McCullough into another major, thinking the time commitment was too great.

But McCullough wasn’t having it. “She doesn’t see roadblocks,” Kondos Field says.

“I knew that’s what I really wanted to do, and that if I wasn’t able to do it I’d at least know I tried,” McCullough says. “I never really thought of not succeeding at it, I guess.”

The path she chose is a lonely one.

Several of her science courses conflicted with practice, so she began seeing her teammates less and less. This quarter she can practice with them only once a week because of 12-hour clinics she is required to attend twice a week at Torrance Memorial Medical Center.

Usually she trains only with her coaches, so she sometimes leaves behind motivational notes for her teammates. “She makes sure the team knows she’s still there with us,” Li says.

McCullough’s schedule leaves little time for a social life, and she squeezes in 10-minute naps between classes.

“She seems to handle it very well by being extremely organized and very dedicated,” says Barbara Demman, a faculty member of UCLA’s nursing school.

Gymnastics is McCullough’s stress release, and she recently tied for first place in the floor exercise at the Pacific 10 Conference championships, helping UCLA win its 15th conference overall title.

“I love to do what I do,” she says. “I like the feeling of flying through the air and tumbling and all of that.”

Sometimes, she brings her stethoscope into the gym to practice on her teammates, but when they’re injured, the work turns serious and she listens intently and speaks with authority.

“I’ve had teammates that have had a lot of injuries …and I’m able to talk to them about it because I’ve overcome it all too,” she says.

Eventually, McCullough wants to work with children, maybe as a pediatrician or a neonatal intensive care unit nurse. She wants to give comfort, just as she received from the nurse who put her on her path.

“I think my car accident happened for me to realize what I wanted to do with my life,” she says, “and I wanted to do nursing.”