Real-life ‘survivors’

Rugby players tout themselves as tougher than wimpy, pad-wearing football stars. Kickboxers argue that boxing is for featherweights. Even NASCAR fans point out that their sport is riskier than Formula One racing.

Here’s another candidate for World’s Toughest Sport: collegiate gymnastics.

“Gymnastics is the football of women’s sports,” Ute head coach Greg Marsden said. “It’s an impact sport that involves constant pounding on the body. It may not be other players creating the contact, but the contact with the mat and the apparatus is equally tough.”

As a result, “a gymnast is not immune from any injury,” Marsden said.

Gymnastics is an oddity in major sports. Most of the injuries the athletes suffer result from simple repetition. Gymnasts are less likely than some other athletes to have acute injuries like torn ligaments or broken bones. Instead, most slowly acquire a slew of overuse problems.

Trainer Tom Iriye explained, “The most common injuries we encounter are back injuries from all of the constant pounding, shoulder injuries from the uneven bars and ankle injuries.”

Although the Ute squad is considered healthy at the moment, “healthy” is a relative term in the world of gymnastics.

Nicolle Ford will compete in all four events at the Ken Garff Supermeet this weekend despite a sore wrist. Doctors cannot diagnose any visible injury to Ford’s wrist from her MRI, thus it is assumed that Ford is not risking any long-term damage by competing this weekend. (Marsden suspects she has a bone bruise.) It’s a dangerous assumption, but one that a collegiate coach must make from time to time.

“If every time we had one of those things we stopped what we were doing, we wouldn’t be able to compete,” Marsden said. “They just have to bite their lip and go.”

In another sport, injuries such as Ford’s would be described as “nagging.” In gymnastics, a mere sore wrist can lead to an immense amount of pain that lasts all season long.

“(My wrist) doesn’t look like it will get better any time soon,” Ford said. “It affects me everywhere, it’s not like I can avoid it or anything. Once the season is over, I can rest.”

In the meantime, every time Ford launches herself onto the vault she’ll be holding back cries of agony. Every time she plants her hands on the mat during her crowd-pleasing floor routine, her ear-to-ear smiles will barely suppress painful winces.

Yet the hypercompetitive junior is at peace with the challenges of her sport.

“You can’t prevent anything from happening,” Ford said. “If I had known about everything I’ve had to go through before I started gymnastics, I’d still have done it.”

For some, however, no amount of motivation can overcome the toil that accompanies the incessant twisting and pounding.

Three-time All-American junior Rachel Tidd shocked many Ute fans with her recent retirement announcement after back injuries began to threaten the quality of her future life.

“She had symptoms that interfered with her daily living,” Iriye said. “The decision (to retire) was extremely tough for her. Gymnasts know that they only have four years left when they begin their college career, and that’s the end of the tunnel. It’s even tougher to have the end come prematurely.

“(Tidd’s) an adult, I didn’t try to push her to do anything. I just tried to guide her and let her make her own decision,” Iriye said.

At the end of the day, though, there were no realistic choices left for her and her battered back, and she was forced to cut short her gymnastics career.

Tidd’s experience is not atypical. In her freshman campaign she was sidelined with a shin injury and unlucky enough to miss the NCAA championships with mono. Last season she was constantly struggling with her back, which was never allowed an opportunity to heal through the rigors of weekly competition.

“We start training almost the first day of classes, and we go straight through to April,” Marsden said. “It’s a long, grueling season.”

And a tough conclusion to a long, grueling career.

“They say most gymnasts reach their peak around 18,” Iriye said. “Most of those competing in the Olympics these days are 16 or 17.”

To accommodate the sudden rise and fall of gymnastics careers, Iriye thinks young athletes may be pushing themselves too hard from an early age.

“Across all sports we’re seeing more of a trend with sport-specific athletes at an early age,” he said. “They don’t get any rest time, and they don’t take summers off anymore. It’s leading to more overuse injuries at a younger age. Most of our gymnasts started doing this at three or four years old.”

Coach Marsden disputes the popular notion that older gymnasts can no longer physically manage like they did when they were younger.

“It’s really not the case that gymnasts lose their abilities as they get older,” he said. “Older athletes can still do the same things. Whether they do or not depends on a lot of factors. To some degree it takes good luck, but it really depends on how much their hearts are in it. A number of our athletes have been much better at the end of their collegiate careers.”

Marsden points to former German National Team member Gritt Hofmann, who is 25 and performs at a higher level today than she ever has.

Still, gymnastics does not offer a senior league, so athletes can be tempted to risk major injury in college with such a rapidly diminishing window of opportunity in front of them.

Surely, with daily care and myriad conferences with coaches, athletes don’t withhold vital information about their injuries, do they?

“On a daily basis,” Iriye said. “Of course, their main focus is to compete. I try to emphasize the need to be healthy for the end of the season, but telling them they can’t compete is like cutting off their legs.”

Collegiate gymnasts are constantly working through pain. Unlike club-level gymnastics, in which there are only a handful of meets a year, collegiate gymnasts have to prepare themselves week after week.

Five-time All-American sophomore Ashley Postell is working to regain the form of her standout freshman year after missing six weeks of training with a torn elbow ligament. Postell swears that she no longer feels pain, but even if she did, it seems unlikely that she would miss out on the chance to help her team.

“As the season goes on you hear about injuries everywhere, so you’re definitely aware of the risk,” Postell said. “It can be pretty tough. There’s no time to rest. We have two days of workouts each week, and then it’s on to another meet.”

“We try to ensure that (the athletes) are able to compete safely,” Iriye said. “Rest is very important, too. If athletes don’t get enough time to rest, their injuries don’t have time to heal.”

As a matter of necessity, Marsden’s athletes try to avoid dwelling on the negatives.

“I don’t think about (injuries),” Ford said. “I focus on competing today. I’m not concerned about not being able to walk in 20 years.”

Iriye and Marsden certainly hope Ford and others will avoid such a fate. In order to ensure that they do, it’s very important for them to have a steady stream of communication with both the athletes and each other.

“I talk to Greg every single day,” Iriye said. “If an athlete lets me know about some type of pain, or especially if somebody is in a depressive state about an injury, I let him know so that he can make the necessary changes. If he sees a weakness on the floor, he lets me know so that I can start working on rehabilitating something to get it to the point it needs to be.”

“I think Tom’s the best in the country,” Marsden said. “He plays a very, very critical role with our team.”

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