Female gymnasts endure injuries as a way of life.
By Kathryn Lundstrom
Maggie Nichols was crowded into an ice tub in Denton, Texas. Stuffed like flowers in an overfull vase, she and her gymnastics teammates were trying to make space for as many of their muscular legs as possible, leaning their small torsos and brightly made-up faces out over the edge. Their meet––the University of Oklahoma versus Texas Women’s University––had just ended.
Nichols, then an OU freshman after her championship-winning career on the U.S. team, was tucked into the back of the icy bouquet. She hadn’t competed in the meet that afternoon––her knee pain had flared up again. The freezing water was meant to ease soreness or swelling after the competition. “Does it help?” I asked. “Yes, it really does!” Nichols nodded with enthusiasm.
Up close, the gymnasts looked tiny. Nichols, 19 at the time, is tall for a gymnast at 5 feet 4 inches. Lately the 20-year-old has been in the news because she was the first to report sexual abuse by the team’s former doctor, Larry Nassar, to USA Gymnastics, and went public about her experience early this year. Her family has been a strong voice against the negligence that occurred in and around the organization regarding Nassar’s actions.
“I trusted what he was doing at first, but then he started touching me in places I really didn’t think he should,” Nichols said in a public statement. “I was told by adults that he was the best doctor and he could help relieve my pain.”
For Nichols––and every other gymnast––there is a lot of pain.
Back at the gym in Denton, I asked her to list her injuries, from toe to head. Nichols amusedly complied. Her teammate, Chayse Capps, laughed from the ice tub: “How much time do you have?” The medical vocabulary quickly went over my head, and we were only up to her knees.
Gymnastics success requires hard work, love of the sport and an addiction to the adrenalin of defying gravity. But it also means pushing through injury after injury, never believing that this one will end it, trusting another surgery will fix it.
The reality is, the next injury could be the one you can’t bounce back from––or comes at the worst time. Nichols, for example, led the U.S. team to gold at the 2015 World Championships and made her NCAA debut ranked first on every event and in the all-around for most of her freshman season. But at the 2016 Olympic Trials, a tiny tear in her meniscus dashed her chances of competing on the Olympic stage.
Twenty years earlier, the United States’ victory at the 1996 Olympics inspired scores of girls to take up the sport. The dramatic showdown between Russia and the U.S. culminated in the Americans’ last apparatus: vault. As the Russians were completing their final routines, Dominique Moceanu, the 14-year-old American favorite, landed short on both of her attempts, falling onto her rear. That left the pressure on her teammate, Kerri Strug. In what seemed to be a bad dream, she made the same mistake as Moceanu, falling to a sitting position on the mat.
Strug stood up, favoring her left leg, and limped to the end of the runway for her second attempt. She nodded toward coach Bela Karolyi’s shouts: “You can do it, Kerri!” She shook her leg, saluted the judges and executed a near-perfect vault. But as she stuck the landing, Strug jerked her left leg off the ground. Pain flashed across her face as she crumpled to the ground and crawled toward the edge of the mat. The vault earned a 9.712, pushing the U.S. score ahead of Russia and clinching gold.
The picture of the gymnasts on the podium, tearily singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Strug’s leg wrapped in a splint up to her knee, became an iconic image in the gymnastics world. Her fierce defiance of pain was everything a generation of gymnasts hoped to be.
Fourteen years ago, Nichols was a tiny 5-year-old throwing back handsprings on the low beam in Roseville, Minnesota. Even then, there was chatter about the rising star in the gym, teammates sure she’d make it to the Olympics. Her mom, Gina Nichols, was sure of it too. “By the time she was 5, she had a kip,” she said, referring to a bars skill. “She was doing all this stuff––it was ridiculous!”
Women’s gymnastics ranks among America’s most-watched sports at the Olympic games. The combination of strength, femininity, risk and grace captivates. We love to wonder, How do they do that?
Behind the Olympic spectacle is the toll gymnastics takes on young bodies: a price paid in injuries. For every Simone Biles there are countless Maggie Nichols––the young women whose bodies gave out before they achieved their Olympic dream. And for every Maggie Nichols, there are countless girls who have to give up their hopes of gymnastics success much earlier.
Jackie Holland competes for a club team at the University of Texas. She was a level 10 gymnast until she tore three ligaments in her knee, ending her serious gymnastics career. But she continues to practice a few days a week, knee encased in a bulky brace of metal and Velcro, so she can travel to compete in low-stress gymnastics meets against other college club teams, filled with stories like hers. “I don’t know why I kept going,” she said cheerfully. “My dad was like, ‘why don’t you just quit?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, I can’t!’” At a club meet where Holland was competing in Waco, a gymnast was carried out of the gym on a stretcher after a bad floor landing.
Top-level gymnasts can expect almost three injuries per season, according to a 2015 study published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine. Many physicians blame sports specialization—focusing on one sport year round rather than diversifying training. They argue that the physical and emotional pressure on children leads to overuse injuries and burnout. They argue young athletes should be involved in more than one sport throughout the year, keep the training under 12 hours per week and take sufficient time off.
“Pouring a lot of hours into sports really young, there’s a lot more negative consequences than positive outcomes,” says John O’Sullivan, CEO of the “Changing the Game Project,” an initiative created to inform parents on the dangers of sports specialization. O’Sullivan cautions parents against pushing their kids towards high-level gymnastics. “The lifetime consequences of all that pounding on young joints––your kid is going to deal with that later on.”
Female gymnasts peak before their bodies are fully mature, so the nonstop training at the international level is a race against time.
Dr. Jerry Dwek has studied the effects of high-level gymnastics training: particularly how putting too much weight on children’s wrists can cause abnormal bone growth in their forearms, leading to pain generally found only in middle-aged patients. Dwek explained simply: “Men and women are not intended to walk on their hands.” To continue to do so means “you’re going to hurt your hands.”
Still, knowing the risks doesn’t convince those dazzled by the sport to stay away––in fact, that’s part of the allure. Dwek has two young daughters in gymnastics. “But they’re not high-level,” he said. When pressed on whether he’d allow his girls to participate in the level of gymnastics that produces the injuries he studies, he said he’d tell them to “train hard, win, do your best.”
Doctors studying injury incidence trends in gymnastics don’t seem to have an answer beyond decreasing training. One study suggested: “Perhaps high- and elite-level gymnasts could lower their injury rates if they limited their practice to 12 hours per week.”
When asked if the injuries ever made her consider leaving the sport, Nichols was resolute: “I’ve always loved gymnastics so much I don’t ever really think about quitting,” she said. “There’s nothing like it.”
Her mom, Gina, said the same. “We never second-guessed gymnastics as being right, we always just dealt with it and moved on,” Gina said. “Our whole life is all this.”
On July 8, 2016 in San Jose, California, Nichols waited for the verdict that would mark the culmination of 15 years of training. After five years on the U.S. National Team, she’d just completed her first appearance at the Olympic Trials.
Throughout 2015, Nichols’ road to the Olympics looked almost certain. But less than three months before the Olympic Trials, she partially tore her meniscus, a piece of cartilage in her right knee. The tear was surgically repaired, requiring weeks of rehabilitation—weeks she didn’t have as the Olympics drew nearer. Two weeks before the Trials, she posted a Rocky Balboa quote on Instagram: “It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward.”
Nichols pushed ahead––focusing on every aspect of her health she could control, from an optimal diet to a strict rehab schedule. She placed fifth at the Trials, ahead of then-reigning Olympic champion Gabby Douglas. But she wasn’t chosen for the five-person team. Head coach Martha Karolyi didn’t want to gamble with Nichols’ knee injury. For once, Nichols’ positive attitude wasn’t enough.
Though devastated, Nichols moved on quickly. “She didn’t cry, didn’t complain,” Gina told me, adding, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be over it.”
Three days after the Trials, Nichols retired from elite gymnastics and refocused on college. Long scouted as a prize for any collegiate team, Nichols had committed to the University of Oklahoma years earlier. She now trains at OU with head coach K.J. Kindler. In April 2017, Nichols helped the Sooners defend their national title at the NCAA Championships.
For Nichols, NCAA Gymnastics was a relief after the grueling schedule of the U.S. team. For the five years before the Olympic Trials, Nichols spent one week per month at the Karolyi Ranch, the U.S. team’s training facility in Huntsville, Texas.
Being at the Ranch put enormous pressure on Nichols. “Sometimes she’d come back and was overwhelmed and stressed out by it,” Gina said. And if you couldn’t keep up, “there are a million other gymnasts out there who could take your spot,” she added.
This strict power dynamic has drawn criticism. Most recently, the U.S. team’s former doctor, Larry Nassar, was convicted of sexually abusing gymnasts for decades. The sport also received unwanted attention in the 1990s when journalists exposed patterns of abuse, injury, and eating disorders that cause irreparable damage to the minds and bodies of young girls.
Progress has been made on this front––demonstrated in part by the evolution of gymnastics from a little girls’ sport of the 1970s into the power-driven competition of the Rio Olympics. In response to critical coverage of harsh regimens and Christy Henrich’s death in the 1980s from anorexia, norms began to change. By 1996, the American women’s gymnastics team was the strongest, tallest and heaviest to date. The Olympic committee changed the age of competition from 14 to 16, and media pressure led to generally better nutrition and medical care for gymnasts––though there is still work to be done.
At the Rio Olympics, Aly Raisman and Simone Biles exuded a health that better matched their performances, a contrast from the underdeveloped bodies that populated some of the previous teams. But while valuing difficulty and power over grace and delicacy means the gymnasts are appropriately fed, the risky nature of dangerous skills remains.
On a walk around OU’s campus in Norman, Nichols pointed out her chemistry lecture hall, she joked, “This is where I die every Tuesday and Thursday morning.” Outside the gym Nichols looks like an ordinary college kid in jeans and Converse. Her eyelashes are thick with mascara, but the skin on her face is free from the thick makeup and OU logo the gymnasts adorn their cheekbones with for competition. The beauty mark on her upper lip, à la Marilyn Monroe, gives her a deceivingly matured look when she’s focused.
When asked how much free time she gets, Nichols gave a little burst of a giggle, and said: “None!” But she’s enjoying it, she said, and feels more like a regular student than she did in high school.
She walked me through her injury management at Oklahoma. Jen Richardson, the team’s physical trainer, uses athletic tape to support Nichols’ pain points: her left ankle, her right foot arch where she has plantar fasciitis, her left knee (the one operated on last spring) and sometimes her toes, to cover up the “toe splits” she gets from the balance beam.
Richardson and Kindler have developed what they call “pre-habilitation”––personalized physical therapy that strengthens every vulnerable part of the gymnast’s body based on current pain and past injuries. “Strength is the one thing that we can control that prevents injuries,” Coach Kindler told me. Other things, like sleep and nutrition, they leave to the gymnasts to take care of.
Shantell Doree was one of Nichols’ first coaches in Minnesota. After five years as a level 10 gymnast––the last level in the USA Gymnastics system before elite––Doree accepted a full-ride gymnastics scholarship to Iowa State University. But while warming up at Nationals in her second year, Doree collapsed after a tumbling run with searing pain in her back. “I was paralyzed,” she recalled. “I couldn’t get up.” She’d fractured her L2 vertebra.
Continuing gymnastics required surgery: a risky procedure that would take a chunk of bone from her hip and embed it in the destroyed part of her spine. “It was my life,” she said about gymnastics. “That was what I loved to do, and I was good at it.”
Doree didn’t have the surgery. Her doctor from Iowa State phoned her the night before to walk her through the risks, and she made the decision to quit gymnastics. Overwhelmed by the prospect of returning to Iowa as a regular student, she transferred to the University of Minnesota and refocused on her education.
The transition out of gymnastics wasn’t easy.
“I was depressed for a long time after that,” Doree said. After about five years she found a new focus, and attended nursing school after completing her bachelor’s in kinesiology. “Nursing kind of replaced gymnastics,” she said.
Doree has daily back pain as a result of the injury. Still, she thinks gymnastics is a net positive for young girls. “I always encourage my friends to put their kids in gymnastics,” she told me. “It teaches you about how to set goals, dedication, determination, focus, drive, the will to succeed.”
At practice in Norman, Richardson explained how they shape strength training around injury prevention. “We don’t have a strength and conditioning coach,” she said. Unlike other gymnastics programs, Oklahoma’s conditioning regime is done in the gym, using gymnastics equipment, rather than incorporating weights and machines to build strength.
Richardson taped Nichols up before floor exercise. Pointing to a spot just above her kneecap, Nichols said, “One of my dismounts hurt, like, really bad.” Soon Nichols’ knee was enveloped an elaborate web of tape that made an X on the back of her joint, was anchored by layers above and below the knee, and held in place by a nylon sleeve that slipped over the top.
A few minutes later, Kindler mouthed something to Richardson across the gym, motioning about Nichols’ knee. Lou, the bars coach, also checked in with Richardson. “It was a good dismount, too,” he said begrudgingly, and discussed avoiding that dismount in future practices. Though the coaches have to prioritize winning––it’s what they’re hired to do, after all––the greatest gymnasts become experts in pushing themselves and ignoring the pain.
As we finished up the tour of campus, I asked Maggie whether she’d put her own kids in gymnastics, if she has them. “I would,” she said.
The 2017 NCAA National Championships marked the end of Maggie’s first year at Oklahoma. Although she was ranked first in the country and scored the highest all-around score of the competition during the team finals, a fall on beam during the semi-finals kept her from the individual championship.
A week and a half after the season ended, she had her fourth surgery––this time to remove a piece of free-floating cartilage in the same knee operated on last spring. Now, after another weeks-long recovery, she’s back at it––sights set on another national championship.
Looking beyond NCAA, though, she’s not sure if she’ll confine herself to her retirement from elite gymnastics. “We haven’t ruled out Tokyo,” Gina told me. “We’ll see how her body holds up.”
Maggie also left open the possibility of vying for an Olympic spot in 2020. “Maybe if they need me,” she told me, smiling, with a cautious excitement. “Maybe.”
Article by Kathryn Lundstrom
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