The Devastating Run of Injuries Afflicting America’s Top Gymnasts

The stadium scene.
Oct. 12 2011 12:05 PM

Last Leotard Standing

The United States women’s gymnastics team keeps winning gold, but at what cost to the athletes?

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Anna Li, Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Sabrina Vega, Alexandra Raisman and Gabrielle Douglas of the United States pose with their gold medals after winning the women's team final during day five of the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships.

Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images.

The U.S. women’s gymnastics team trounced the competition in Tuesday’s world championships in Tokyo, beating the Russians to win the team gold. The Americans’ dominance was surprising considering the team’s recent run of injuries. World vault champion Alicia Sacramone ruptured her Achilles tendon during training and had to withdraw. Another team member, Anna Li, was demoted to alternate due to an abdominal injury. And Aly Raisman competed in Tokyo despite lightly injuring her ankle just a few days before the world championships started.

Are all of these injuries merely freakishly bad luck? Maybe not. If you read the comments on the USA Gymnastics Facebook page immediately after Sacramone’s injury was publicized—many of which have since been removed—you would’ve seen one person take the blame for all this bodily harm: Martha Karolyi.

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Martha Karolyi, who has historically been overshadowed by her much louder, mustachioed husband, Bela, has helmed the U.S. women’s gymnastics program since 2001. Together, the Karolyis coached Nadia Comaneci to the first perfect 10 and Mary Lou Retton to the all-around title at the 1984 Olympics. But now it is Martha who is in charge of team selection and who runs the monthly training camps at their Texas ranch.

While her leadership has been credited with the tremendous success of the women’s program after the medal drought of the 1997-2000 quadrennium, she’s also been criticized for the ligament damage she’s left in her wake. The monthly camps, which are designed to foster camaraderie between the athletes and focus on conditioning, have also been the site of numerous injuries to top gymnasts. In 2008, International Gymnast editor Paul Ziert wrote that the selection procedure for the women’s Olympic team “is simply too demanding,” explaining that he’d “heard one coach call them ‘death camps.’ ”

This year’s gantlet included two days of competition at the televised national championships, followed by two additional training camps, which featured even more closed-door all-around competitions. The United States was one of the last countries to announce its traveling squad for worlds. To get on this team, you literally had to be “the last leotard standing,” as one Internet commenter darkly noted. By contrast, the men’s team was named immediately after national championships, thereby allowing them some time to rest and regroup. Its next competition would be in Tokyo, not on a ranch in Texas.

Injuries are ubiquitous in gymnastics, and never more so than today. Since introducing an open-ended scoring system that eliminated the iconic “10” from the sport’s lexicon, gymnasts have been pushed to cram as many tricks as possible into their sets. Still, the United States women seem to have the world’s worst injury track record, especially right before major competitions.

In 2003, Annia Hatch tore her ACL right before the world championships and had to be replaced by Chellsie Memmel, who had a great competition in Anaheim. Unfortunately, Memmel fractured her foot at the Karolyi ranch a few months before the 2004 Olympics. Courtney Kupets showed up at the same Olympics with a hip injury, while Courtney McCool was nursing a wrist problem. This hobbled team, the defending world champions, lost to a Romanian squad that had won just three silvers at the previous championships.

In 2008, Memmel again was felled during training for the Olympics and Samantha Peszek injured her foot during the warm-ups before the games’ first event. And team captain Alicia Sacramone, normally spunky and charismatic, looked exhausted throughout, her body beat by the arduous selection procedure. It is not surprising that she fell twice in team finals. Many accused her of “losing” the gold for the United States, but the title had been lost long before she fell from the beam. It had been forfeited in Texas.

Why do Martha Karolyi and the USA Gymnastics hierarchy insist on selecting teams in such a Darwinian fashion?

Because they can. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States has been the primary beneficiary of former Eastern bloc coaching talent, which has increased the level of the athletes as well as the number of gymnasts in contention for spots on elite teams. In a way, it’s an embarrassment of riches—the United States simply has too many gymnasts to choose from. Because of this seeming abundance, we treat our athletes the same way we treat our natural resources, as infinite in quantity and therefore expendable.

Other teams do not have that luxury. The Romanians, for instance, have so few senior elites at present that they had to invite the British team to flesh out the roster at their most recent national championships. As a result of their depleted ranks, the Romanians practice extreme caution. After struggling with foot pain, Sandra Izbasa, the Olympic champion on the floor exercise, is not competing at this year’s worlds so she’ll be protected for the 2012 London Games.

The Russians are also playing it safe. Their star, world champion Aliya Mustafina, tore her ACL in April and could’ve theoretically been ready to compete in two events in Tokyo. Instead, the coaching staff decided to leave her home and allow her to fully recover for the Olympic year. Their past champion, Svetlana Khorkina, who competed at every European championships, worlds, and Olympics from 1994 to 2004, was also protected from unnecessary roughness and repetitions. The Russians are training their gymnasts as individuals, tailoring the approach to the needs of each one. A little more rest for an injured gymnast and extra repetitions for those who can handle it. Sacramone and Li, both older athletes, could’ve benefited from that sort of approach.

John Geddert, coach of national champion Jordyn Wieber, who is predicted to vie for the all-around title in Tokyo later this week, wrote about his athlete’s preparation for the world championships on his blog. Though he was diplomatic, Geddert questioned some of the decisions being made. He noted that from Sept. 5, when the first camp started, until the end of worlds, the girls would have only two days off (three if you counted the travel day to Tokyo) out of 42. “I would have liked to see a few more strategically assigned rest days,” he wrote.

In this way, Geddert seems to have more in common with the modern Romanians and Russians than the woman at the helm of his program. Martha Karolyi embodies the old-school Romanian philosophy about training—more is better. This was successful for her when the sport was less difficult, when an athlete had one or two major elements in a routine, not six or seven. But Karolyi hasn’t updated her philosophy on training and competition in the last few decades. She is like a Cold War warrior who acts as though the Soviet Union is still the enemy.

Karolyi’s practices are tolerated because even if the gymnasts do not perform to potential, they still do well enough. In addition, her presence helps shape a narrative for NBC’s melodramatic coverage—the sexist “Martha is watching you” story. At these national competitions, Martha appears on TV as much as the athletes. Every time a female athlete finishes her routine, the NBC commentators immediately say something like, “She’s looking over to Martha Karolyi to see if she liked it,” as though the gymnast cannot assess how she has done without input from others. (Male gymnasts are not subject to the same sort of commentary.)

Martha Karolyi shouldn’t shoulder all the blame for the injuries suffered by Alicia Sacramone and others. Sacramone’s Achilles, for instance, has been a problem throughout her career. Karolyi, though, clearly could’ve done more to accommodate each of her athletes and taken more precautions in the run-up to the world championships. The United States’ latest gold medal shouldn’t obscure the fact that female gymnasts keep breaking down, and not simply because gymnastics is a risky sport. With less than a year to go until the London games, we’ll find out if the United States finally learns to train smartest instead of hardest. If it doesn’t, the U.S. team—which will head to the Olympics as defending world champions for the third straight time—will again be bested by wisely paced athletes.

Dvora Meyers is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer who has written for the New York Times, Tablet, and others. She is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess.