Olivia Babe decided that this week’s performances of “The Nutcracker” would be her last. “I’ll always be a dancer, even if I never dance again.”(BRYNN ANDERSON/THE WORLD-HERALD)
Olivia Babe decided that this week’s performances of “The Nutcracker” would be her last. “I’ll always be a dancer, even if I never dance again.”(BRYNN ANDERSON/THE WORLD-HERALD)

The mystery of Olivia Babe's long-time ankle affliction began to unravel the day she crashed her bike and injured her knee.

Babe, a 22-year-old psychology major at Creighton University and a lifelong dancer, was riding through campus this April when she caught a bump in the road and slammed knee-first onto the pavement. Bloodied and hobbled, she managed to climb back on her bike and drift a few blocks downhill to the campus health center. Months of physical therapy followed.

On the road to healing her knee, she learned the truth behind another pain that's plagued her for more than a decade.

The mystery reaches its strange conclusion next week.

Before it does, though, Babe will star as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Creighton's production of “The Nutcracker” — the dream role she's worked to get for her entire life. She's performed almost every other role in the ballet. She knows the music by heart. When she takes the stage this week, it will be her 12th appearance in a “Nutcracker” — and her last. 

    Scoot, crawl, walk, dance.

For Babe, it was a natural progression. Dance classes started at 3 years old. By fifth grade, she was dancing year-round, learning from professionals at the Omaha Theater Ballet School of Dance. Soon her days revolved around the endless cycle of lessons, rehearsals and performances that make up a young dancer's life. She loved it, even when the ache along her Achilles tendon grew into a persistent and at times excruciating pain. She learned to deal with it. Elevated her feet. Iced her ankles. If she couldn't beat the pain, she could try to manage it.

She had received her first X-ray by the time she was 13. The results proved inconclusive. Most likely tendinitis, she was told. The options were hardly options: Quit dancing, or stock up on Ibuprofen and play through the pain. Babe kept dancing.

Like any serious athlete, she pressed on because of her love for the sport and what she saw around her. Professional dancers so graceful on stage, limping and wincing behind the scenes. Her pain wasn't exceptional. It was the rule.

But it did hurt, and it followed Babe from her teens into her 20s. It nagged like a dull ache at times, screamed into a sharp pain at others. Because it emanated from the point where her ankle and heel bones met, it shot through her leg whenever she pointed her foot. Every time she balanced on the tips of her toes, she felt it.

By the time she crashed her bike this spring, Babe had no reason to believe there was an answer to her pain. But in the process of rehabbing her knee, she saw a chiropractor this summer. “The Nutcracker” — which she had already decided would be her farewell performance — was a few months away, and Babe welcomed any advice that would help her through rehearsals. The chiropractor recommended a spine and musculoskeletal specialist, figuring he could give Babe cortisone shots, like an injured football player getting a shot before a big game.

A few weeks later, Babe sat in the office of Dr. James Devney, who noticed something strange when he examined her foot. A nodule that shouldn't have been there. He ordered an MRI, and a few days later Babe returned to the office to hear the results.

A monitor on Devney's desk lit up with an image of her right foot. Babe couldn't believe what she heard. She took out her phone to take a photo.

    Staring back at her, clear as day, was a small, nut-like thing Devney identified as an extra bone in Babe's foot called the os trigonum. The pain she felt for more than a decade was not tendinitis but rather os trigonum syndrome. It's particularly bad for soccer players and ballet dancers, who point their toes downward.

When they do that, the little nut-like os trigonum gets crunched between the ankle bone and the heel bone.

That visual earned os trigonum syndrome a medical nickname Babe couldn't believe the first time she heard it.

“The nutcracker injury.”


Also in Devney's office that day was Babe's mother, Nancy. Like her daughter, she experienced a wave of emotions. She felt shocked that an answer existed for a question they'd long given up on. She felt frustrated it hadn't been detected earlier in her daughter's life, sparing her years of discomfort.

She also felt relieved. “We knew what we were dealing with now,” she said.

Over the years, Nancy saw the sacrifices her daughter made. The events her daughter missed. The trips she passed up. The sleepovers she had to leave early because of a class in the morning. There were not carefree days at the pool, with no place to be. The clock always ticked to the next practice. She witnessed the suffering of a role gone to another dancer, and of course the physical suffering of an ankle determined to torment.

“I knew if she complained, it was not feeling good (that day), because she has a pretty high pain tolerance,” Nancy said. “She gets up there, and you don't know she's in pain. She doesn't let on, probably to what extent it is.”

It is the grand illusion of ballet, a painting in motion from the audience's view and a beaten up locker room from the artists'. It is a grueling rehearsal schedule, hours and hours of work leading to fleeting few seconds on stage. Now Babe prepares for her final moment in the spotlight, deciding her senior year in college was the right time to say goodbye.

Here is what those seconds will feel like. First, it will be painless. She will feel strong, light and delicate. The pressure of preparation will give way to what she calls “a weird calm in my mind, despite everything going on around me.” The adrenaline will come fast, the nerves long gone.

Before the final curtain drops, she will gather on stage with her fellow dancers, making their bows, smiling through exhaustion. There will be hugs and flowers and the strange feeling of a car drive home, adrenaline still present but now fading.

“I've found other things I'm passionate about, but it is tough to know this is it,” Babe said. “I'll always be a dancer, even if I never dance again.”

In the coming year, Babe will get her degree from Creighton. She hopes to move on to graduate school, studying to be a school psychologist. She will marry her fiance, a pre-med graduate student.

Three days after her final performance this week, Babe will undergo surgery to remove the bone in her right foot, in life as in art, the nutcracker a part of her past.

Full Article By Casey Logan / World-Herald staff writer

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