Chronic back pain, high-stress work, anxiety about retirement, fear of weight gain, erratic or nonexistent menstrual periods, dependence on laxatives, low bone density. The laments of a 55-year-old professional woman? No. Sadly we are talking about some of the country's most popular young female athletes, and the above are just sonic of the problems they encounter as they struggle to reach the top of their sports and remain there. Joan Ryan discusses these and other difficulties young athletes face in her book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters ( Doubleday, $22.95).
The book, published this month, is a detailed condemnation of the intense physical and mental training that some of these girls endure. Ryan likens this process to "legal, even celebrated, child abuse." She aims many of her hardest shots at gymnastics, and she weaves dozens of heartbreaking tales around the shocking story of Julissa Gomez, a 15-year-old gymnast who crashed headfirst into a vaulting horse while practicing a vault before a meet in 1988. Gomez suffered a broken neck, lapsed into a coma and died three years later.
This backstage view is a reality check for anyone who has ever turned on the television and been charmed by these little girls in bows and makeup competing for gold medals. In the book are stories about young gymnasts who train with cracked bones, consume only 1,000 calories a day, pop Advil to dull the pain in their limbs and get cortisone shots so that they can perform when they are injured. Ryan also tells stories of figure skaters who have eating disorders and who overtrain.
Ryan concedes that much of her evidence is anecdotal, gathered during 10 years as a journalist covering gymnastics and figure skating for the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle. However, the stories she tells seem to confirm what many people who watch these sports suspect: that encouraging ever younger, ever smaller girls to stretch the limits of their bodies by performing ever more difficult jumps, flips and spins is not healthy for their developing bones or young minds.
According to a 1993 study in the Journal of Pediatrics, a gymnast who trains more than 18 hours a week in prepubescence and continues training at that level through puberty can alter her growth rate and fail to reach her full adult height. Despite these risks some parents of elite gymnasts allow their daughters to train an average of 30 hours a week.
Why do otherwise loving parents allow their daughters to continue participating in gymnastics or figure skating when it begins to damage their well-being? In Ryan's book Wendie Grossman, whose daughter was once a dedicated figure skater, describes the "high" that parents get from having children in competition: "We became junkies for our kids' success.... You want more and more, and you push your kids." Another mother was so bent on her daughter's success that she covered up the young gymnast's chicken pox so that she could compete in a meet.
The pressure from all sides to win and the way the girls respond to the pressure are both awesome and frightening. Before the 1991 world gymnastics championships, a stress fracture was diagnosed in Betty Okino's right elbow. She continued training, even though doctors told her to stop. "But that wasn't really an option," she says. "It was like, either you are paralyzed and you can't move, or you train. No matter what, you went to the gym." Okino, who retired after winning a bronze medal in the team event at the 1992 Olympics, cannot fully straighten her arm today.
Next to injury the biggest fear for these athletes is weight gain. At 16, national champion figure skater Elaine Zayak found herself taking prescription diet pills. She weighed only 125 pounds, but her coaches and parents told her that to succeed she would have to drop the 15 pounds she had gained in puberty. As U.S. Olympic skating coach Evy Scot-void put it: "As soon as they have a woman's body, it's over."
Ryan blasts the U.S. Gymnastics Federation (now called USA Gymnastics) and the U.S. Figure Skating Association for not doing enough to protect these girls. She suggests that athletes be required to stay in school full time until they are 16, that the number of hours they train be limited and that coaches who encourage them to train when they are injured be disciplined. Ryan argues that these young performers deserve the same protection from exploitation that the government provided child actors decades ago. The best young gymnasts and figure skaters are marketable stars, and their caretakers are vulnerable to temptation to profit at the kids' expense.