In my sport, gymnastics, injuries were always part of the game, and growing up I was no stranger to the ER. But it wasn't until I had a serious vaulting accident at age 14 that I realized just how dangerous the sport truly is. Running full speed, I hit the springboard. It catapulted me up in preparation to push off the horse and do a back flip. Somehow, my hands missed. My coach dived in to break my fall, but I still slammed onto the mat, banging my head. Blackout. Even in a concussed daze (with teeth through the lip) I remember feeling lucky. It could have been so much worse: I could easily have broken my neck. I'd practiced that vault a thousand times. I'd nailed it in competitions and won regional titles for it.
Needless to say, I wasn't exactly surprised by the latest findings on young gymnasts: Nearly 426,000 kids ages 6 to 17 were treated for gymnastics-related injuries in U.S. emergency rooms between 1990 and 2005, according to a study in April's Pediatrics, an average of almost 27,000 bang-ups a year. Upper-extremity fractures and dislocations were most common among the younger set, while the 12-to-17-year-olds typically strained or sprained their lower limbs. "Many people don't think of gymnastics as a dangerous sport," says study senior author Lara McKenzie, an assistant professor in the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio. But in terms of catastrophic injuries like neck breaks, it ranks right up there with ice hockey, she says.
Some suspect the number of injured is higher than this study suggests. "In my practice, gymnasts are the athletes that are most likely to put up with an injury for the longest time before they actually report it," says pediatric orthopedic surgeon Angela Smith, a past president of the American College of Sports Medicine. The grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it culture of the sport can exacerbate problems. The new study, Smith notes, only captures acute injuries, not those that arise from overuse, like stress fractures or tendinitis.
Despite the danger, Smith is all for participation in gymnastics. "It provides young athletes with quickness, agility, poise, grace, and actual presence," she says. Not to mention strength. "I think the benefits you can gain far outweigh the risks," says Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics (the national governing body), whose 3-year-old triplets now practice.
Besides, it's exhilarating. It's tough to describe what it's like to land your first double back flip (two full somersaults while airborne) or to finally stick a no-handed cartwheel on the balance beam. "I love flipping through the air—it's an amazing feeling," says longtime gymnast Amanda Osswald, 15, of Powell, Ohio. Although she recently developed stress fractures in her spine—which she treats with physical therapy—she doesn't plan to quit anytime soon. It's also fun: My teammates, coaches, and I traversed the country to compete and flew to Germany to perform. All those things made the 20-plus hours of weekly practice worthwhile.
For the concerned parent: Yes, there will be hand-wringing in the bleachers, and injuries will occur in the most careful of gyms. But there are several ways to increase your gymnast's safety. Children should practice in a supervised environment with a trained coach or spotter—not at home, McKenzie says. When evaluating a prospective club, make sure the equipment looks well kept and clean and that there aren't areas of concrete exposed. Still, the risk isn't for everyone, Smith says. For me, it was well worth taking.
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