update: 16-Jan-2005


 Emphasis on thin is a heavy burden


This is the fifth of five stories examining the pain and suffering endured by elite female gymnasts. Today's installment focuses on the pressure to stay thin.

<< A few days before Christy Henrich died in 1994, her 4-foot-11, 95-pound frame had shrunk to 47 pounds.

Henrich died from multiple organ failure stemming from her eight-year battle with eating disorders, a battle that her family said began shortly after she joined the U.S. national gymnastics team in 1986.

"The first thing (other athletes) told her was if there's something you want to eat, eat it and throw it up," Henrich's mother, Sandy, recalled. "That's the first thing you learn when you're on the U.S. national team."
A decade later, American women's gymnastics has failed to learn the lessons of Henrich's death, former U.S. national team members and longtime observers of the sport said.
The Register interviewed nearly half of the roughly 300 women who competed on the U.S. junior or senior national teams from 1982 to 2004. The women portray a sport whose obsession with weight and diet, especially within the U.S. national team program, continues to lead to eating disorders.

But top coaches and USA Gymnastics officials disagreed.
"There are people with emotional disorders in every walk of life," said Don Peters, 1984 Olympic coach. "If gymnastics caused eating disorders, then everyone in gymnastics would have one."

Bela Karolyi, renowned coach of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, agrees with his old rival.
"The nutritional issue is long over," Karolyi said. "We've had our big hoopla due to the Christy Henrich situation. That was such an isolated thing, bless her heart."

Ever since Olga Korbut revolutionized gymnastics at the 1972 Olympics, the prepubescent waif has been seen as the sport's ideal body type. 
Girls training under Karolyi and his wife, Martha, were restricted to as little as 900 calories daily, said 1996 Olympic champion Dominique Moceanu, who trained with them for five years.
"We sat with Martha and Bela at breakfast, lunch and dinner," Moceanu said. "They were very strict. They measured everything."
Karolyi said the nutritional practices were healthy, and he believes the more girls weigh the more vulnerable they are to injury. USA Gymnastics now has a nutritionist during training camps at Karolyi's ranch.
U.S. champion Alyssa Beckerman said on trips to competitions her coach "checked our hotel trash cans to make sure we weren't eating anything."
The sport's preoccupation with weight is drilled into gymnasts at an early age. Gymnasts as young as 5 are weighed daily. Some elite gymnasts said they were weighed twice a day by their coaches.
Dozens of women recalled their coaches calling them names such as "pig."
When that happened to Patti Massoels, a national team member during the 1980s, she weighed 90 pounds and said she was living on two graham crackers a day.

Gymnasts not making prescribed weights receive punishments ranging from the withholding of food to being required to do extra workouts, gymnasts and parents said.
It is not uncommon for penalized gymnasts to work out in saunas wearing rubber suits. At one gym, the practice is referred to as the "Oink Olympics."

Veteran coaches such as Tom McCarthy said there are good reasons for the sport's obsession with weight.
"We have to practice flying a lot - that's how you get good," McCarthy said. "If you are even a few pounds above the best weight for your size and you keep taking landings, it's going to take a toll on your physical being."
The competitive environment, the gymnasts' youth and their driven personalities put them at high risk for eating disorders, according to Ron Thompson, co-director of an eating-disorder program at Indiana's Bloomington Hospital.
"These kids are so mentally tough, so willing to do anything the coach says will make them a better athlete. They're perfectionists," said Thompson, who has studied the issue for two decades. "So continuing to train on broken bones and having eating disorders is normal behavior to them."
In some cases, gymnasts without eating disorders are looked down upon by teammates and coaches for not being committed enough to the sport, according to medical experts and dozens of gymnasts interviewed.

"A lot of the national team had eating disorders in some way or the other," said Kim Arnold, a U.S. team member in the 1990s. "There was a lot of eating and purging. You used to see how little you can eat today and still get through a workout. "We used to see how many meals we could miss before we had to eat again."

Recent U.S. team members estimate that as many as 80 percent of gymnasts competing at the elite level have some form of eating disorder.
Some coaches think the number is even higher.
"I'd say 100 percent of them have some kind of food issue," said Suzanne Yoculan, a University of Georgia coach.
Source: Website of BUFFALO NEWS

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