When This Gymnast Was A Teenager, She Was In A Horrific Car Crash But She Didn't Quit

Did we mention someone made a movie about her?

    "When someone says they want to make a movie about your life, you just kind of laugh in their face," Ariana Berlin said. Of course, she laughed (again) as she said this.

     Berlin, 27 and a San Diego native, was talking about the upcoming TV teen movie, "Full Out" based on her life. The movie, which just premiered in Toronto and stars Jennifer Beals and Degrassi's Ana Golja, is a classic comeback tale, following Berlin's trajectory from promising young gymnast badly injured in  a car accident to professional break dancer to All-American honors as a UCLA gymnast.

    Berlin's life wasn't always ready-made for TV. As a gymnast, she had an uncomplicated rise from promising youngster to Level 9 National Champion. She was homeschooled and trained six hours a day, which is standard for a gymnast with Olympic aspirations. At 14 she was on her way to becoming an elite gymnast and hoped to make a run for a spot on the 2004 Olympic team.

    On Thanksgiving Day Weekend in 2001, Berlin and her mother were planning to enjoy a girls' day out when their car was slammed from behind. (The driver, who had a suspended license, fled the scene only to break down half a mile away.) The Berlins' car flipped five or six times. Berlin was left dangling out of the passenger side window with her seatbelt wrapped around her neck. 

    She woke up in the hospital after being in a coma for five days with two broken femurs, a broken wrist, broken ribs, a broken collarbone, two collapsed lungs, and pancreatitis. Gymnasts tend to be among the most injury prone of athletes, but the damage she sustained in that single event was more than several careers' worth of injuries.

The Berlins' car after the accident. (Courtesy of Ariana Berlin)
The Berlins' car after the accident. (Courtesy of Ariana Berlin)

    While she was in the coma, surgeons inserted a titanium rod in her right leg to stabilize it. This was the first of several surgeries she would need to repair the damage. It took Berlin and her mother roughly a full year to recover from their injuries. During that time, Berlin received a grim prognosis from the doctors — she would never do gymnastics again.

    "They [the doctors] actually thought that my right leg that had the rod in the femur was going to grow shorter than the other leg," she recalled. It's hard enough tumbling on the balance beam or do floor exercises with two same-sized limbs. It would be practically impossible to do high-level skills safely with different-sized legs. (Fortunately, this didn't end up happening.)

Berlin in the hospital after the crash. (Courtesy of Ariana Berlin)
Berlin in the hospital after the crash. (Courtesy of Ariana Berlin)

    Unwilling to accept the doctors' recommendations, Berlin tried to go back to the gym after the accident, but the pain in her right leg — the one with the rod — was far too intense. "I was in so much pain I ended up quitting indefinitely," she said.

    With gymnastics seemingly out of the question, Berlin focused on her second love—dance. Before the accident, she had been taking hip-hop classes. Without training hours crowding her schedule, the ex-gymnast was able to devote herself wholly to dance. Very soon thereafter, she was invited to join Culture Shock San Diego, a hip-hop dance company. At 15, Berlin was their youngest member at the time.

    Culture Shock had been hired to perform at Sea World San Diego as part of their human shows, which were directed by Valorie Kondos-Field, who was als the head coach of the UCLA women's gymnastics team. In addition to the Olympics, competing for UCLA had been one of Berlin's goals. After watching the show's gymnasts play around on the trampoline and wishing she could join them, Berlin reconsidered her decision to leave gymnastics.

Berlin as b-girl (Courtesy of Ariana Berlin)
Berlin as b-girl (Courtesy of Ariana Berlin)

    With some encouragement from her father, she approached Kondos-Field on the final night of rehearsals right before the coach was scheduled to return to Los Angeles. Berlin told Kondos-Field her story "It's my dream to be a UCLA Bruin and be coached by you," she told her. "I don't know what I'm capable of doing but I'll go back tomorrow if I can be a part of your program."

    "She said, 'I've seen your work ethic with your dance director and I would take you on just for that,'" Berlin recalled. That same week, she resumed gymnastics training and would send her future coach videos and sporadic updates. Berlin graduated high school a year early and joined the UCLA gymnastics team as a walk on athlete.

    Though she wanted Berlin on the team to show gymnasts how to cut loose and dance in front of an audience, Kondos-Field initially didn't expect the gymnast b-girl to make the competition lineups.

    This was unacceptable to Berlin. "There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to compete. I don't know why I was so sure of myself. I knew that if I was getting an opportunity like this, I'm going to make everything I can of it," she said. Though she trained far less than her UCLA teammates due to pain in her leg — she would eventually undergo one final surgery to have the rod removed from her femur — she became one of UCLA's most consistent all-around gymnasts. Berlin took a full out approach to her training, making every turn she could take in practice count. "I would only give myself three chances and I had to make them all because I wasn't capable of doing more. I had to know that if I was competing, I had to look back and know that I made every single one of those," she explained. After her freshman season, Kondos-Field offered her an athletic scholarship for her remaining years.

    Berlin wasn't simply known for being a consistent competitor—she became a fan favorite for her entertaining floor exercises where she showcased her b-girl skills and danced to b-boy classics like, "It's Just Begun" by the Jimmy Castor Bunch. Unlike most gymnasts who dance in a staccato, disjointed fashion, Berlin's movements were fluid. "She is such a firecracker," Golja, who played Ariana in the movie, commented. "Most gymnasts are kind of stone cold and super focused on what they're doing, but Ariana just puts on a show."

    After graduating from UCLA, Berlin ventured into stunt doubling, which is a popular pursuit amongst just-retired gymnasts. (Former UCLA star Heidi Moneymaker is one of the top female stuntwoman in Hollywood and most recently doubled for Scarlett Johansson in the most recent Avengers film.) Eventually, Berlin retired from that kind of work, too, effectively putting her remarkable and unexpected gymnastics career behind her. Until Jeff Deverett, a producer of family films, called and asked to meet her for coffee and suggested that her comeback story just might be movie material.

    Sean Cisterna, Full Out's director, said that he fell in love with the story immediately after being pitched it by Deverett. "You can't help but be moved by her tale. She's an elite gymnast who gets into a car accident and rebuilds her life from scratch," he said.

    "Full Out" led to Berlin's second gymnastics comeback because she opted to play her character's stunt double. Training to be Golja's stunt double was different than stunting had been when she did right after college. Back then, she had in tip top condition, having just spent four years as a competitor. "There was no time off," she said of her transition between competition competitive gymnastics and stunt work.

    This time around, she had been out of the gym for approximately 3-4 years, which was a longer break than the one she took after the accident. And at 26, she was several years beyond the peak age for female gymnasts. Or as she put it—"granny status."

    "It was tough," she said of her return to the gym. "I was sore for weeks." Eventually, she was able to regain many of her former skills including the "full out," gymnastics lingo for a full twisting double back.

Ana Golja with her stunt double--Ariana Berlin. (Courtesy of Sean Cisterna)
Ana Golja with her stunt double--Ariana Berlin. (Courtesy of Sean Cisterna)

    Berlin also had a brief cameo in the movie, playing Kondos-Field's (as played by Beals) assistant. In these brief scenes, Berlin would typically look at Golja-as-Ariana and talk about her. "It was a very comical part of it, me doing the cameo, because all my lines were basically talking about myself," she said.

    If stunting and cameoing weren't enough, Berlin, an associate producer at Fox Sports, also helped edit together the gymnastics sequences to get them just right. For this movie, as she had with just about everything else in her life up to this point, Berlin went "full out."