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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    “No pain, no gain”

    Sophomore Alexis Greene works out on the uneven bars 10 weeks after rupturing her Achilles tendon during practice. Greene hasnt yet been cleared to run on solid ground, but shes been swinging on the bars - and even learning new skills - since a week after surgery.
    Sophomore Alexis Greene works out on the uneven bars 10 weeks after rupturing her Achilles tendon during practice. Greene hasn’t yet been cleared to run on solid ground, but she’s been swinging on the bars – and even learning new skills – since a week after surgery.

    “”They say that there’s one pain-free day in a gymnast’s life,”” said UA gymnastics head coach Bill Ryden, “”and that’s the first day.””

    After that will come strains, sprains, broken bones and torn ligaments for the members of the Arizona gymnastics team.

    “”The wear and tear on their body starts once they become a serious competitor around age 12 or 13,”” Ryden said. “”If things aren’t done right … it can put strain on ligaments and tendons, and after a while, they just go.

    “”There’s been many times I can tell you when a girl will land a trick perfectly and then drop to the ground grabbing her knee. Nothing happened, other than that was the final straw that broke the ligament’s back, so to speak.””

    But the Arizona gymnastics program does everything it can to keep team members healthy.

    Every square inch of the gym is padded, and a certified athletic trainer, Douglas Contaoi, is always on hand in case something goes wrong. And if an athlete needs medical treatment outside the gym, the university pays for any expenses her family’s insurance won’t cover.

    Contaoi said he averages an entire box of tape – at 20 rolls per box – per week in the training room, taping the athletes’ ankles and wrists to prevent injury.

    Still, some injuries are unavoidable.

    ‘I got lucky’

    Sophomore Alexis Greene was a key contributor at Arizona’s season-opener at Michigan State Jan. 12, scoring a 9.825 on floor and 9.650 on bars. One week later, she was practicing the last tumbling pass of her floor routine when a hard landing ruptured her Achilles tendon.

    Injury breakdown
    by location:

    foot/ankle: 8
    shins: 3
    knee: 2
    elbow/wrist: 5
    shoulder: 3
    back/neck: 2

    out of 15 gymnasts

    She knew immediately what had happened.

    “”I know other people that have done it, and they say it feels like you punched a hole in the floor, and that’s what it felt like,”” Greene said. “”It felt like if that were a wall, I would have punched through it with my foot.””

    A few years ago, it would have been a season-ending injury, but surgical techniques have progressed to the point that now an Achilles tendon can be stitched back together in a way that makes it even stronger and less prone to further damage.

    Greene had surgery a week after her injury, then spent six weeks on crutches and another two weeks in a walking boot. Doctors told her it would take a year from the date of injury before she’s fully back to normal, but Greene has a positive outlook.

    “”They tell you (recovery) is about how much you really want it, and obviously, I want to recover,”” she said, “”so whatever it takes, I’ll do.””

    Although she won’t be allowed to tumble for several more months, Greene has taken advantage of her injury to keep in shape on the uneven bars – and she’s even learned some new tricks.

    She was swinging on the high bar within a week of surgery, weeks before she was even allowed to bear weight; when she wanted to dismount, she would land on her back on a soft mat.

    The strangest part of the injury was that Greene’s Achilles wasn’t even bothering her. Though many Achilles tears are the result of tendonitis, Greene said she doesn’t know why hers suddenly snapped.

    For Greene, it was just another injury added to the expansive rǸsumǸ a gymnast collects throughout her years of competition. And it’s not even the worst.

    “”It was probably the least painful injury I’ve ever had,”” she said, “”because the doctors said since it was torn completely, there were no nerves connected anymore to send messages to my brain that I was actually hurting.

    “”I’ve sprained my ankles worse, and my back hurts more than my Achilles ever hurt,”” Greene added. “”They say if you’re gonna tear it, you need to do it all the way (through), because if you don’t do it all the way, it’s excruciating.

    “”So I guess I got lucky.””

    Finished in four

    Greene is eligible for a redshirt, having competed in only one regular-season event before her injury, but she’s hesitant to take it.

    Often gymnasts come into college with their minds set on doing four more years of gymnastics and then calling it quits, Ryden said.

    “”Finding a gymnast who really wants to do their fifth year at age 22 or 23, it’s kinda rare because at that point they will have done the sport for 18 years, their body is beat to snot and they’re tired and hurt,”” he said.

    The team has one gymnast who has taken a redshirt, freshman Sarah Specht, who performed an exhibition on beam at the Gymcats’ 2006 season opener and took the rest of the season off to have elbow surgery.

    Specht has returned to the lineup on three events this year, and Ryden said she has matured dramatically, but her case is an exception.

    “”It’s not a real wonder why in our sport, a lot of times the freshmen and the sophomores are the stars,”” Ryden said. “”They’re the youngest; their bodies are the least abused. By the time you get to be a senior, you’re like, ‘Man, I hurt.’ “”

    Senior Jamie Holton and junior Danielle Hicks are both slated to have surgeries this summer – Holton on her shoulder and Hicks on her shoulder and ankle – but for now, they’re just trying to get through the rest of the season.

    “”They go through a lot of pain and a lot of rehab each week just to get out there every Friday,”” Ryden said. “”It’s amazing how much work they do in the training room just to be able to salute”” at the beginning of each routine.

    Sucking it up

    Ryden said the key to staying injury-free in gymnastics is to develop an intuitive sense of when to push yourself and when to yield.

    “”You’ve got to know what you’re doing,”” he said. “”A soft pad will hurt you just as much as a hard landing if you don’t understand it.””

    But when the going gets tough, the tough suck it up and compete.

    Take Kristi Gunning, a four-time All-Pacific 10 Conference gymnast who competed for Arizona under Ryden from 1990-94. During her senior year, Gunning broke her wrist doing a trick on beam, but she still wanted to compete in the postseason, so her coaches worked out a compromise.

    “”We left the cast on for her to do the three events, beam, floor and vault, and she would tumble on her fist,”” Ryden said. “”Then we just sawed it off for bars, and she just sucked up the pain for 30 seconds. And she was our top all-arounder at regionals.””

    Gunning’s case may sound extreme, but in a sport where pain is a constant, gymnasts build up a pretty high tolerance. Ryden said he once saw a male gymnast compete on rings after breaking his leg in an earlier event. He landed on one foot.

    “”There are stories like that all over gymnastics,”” he said. “”You just suck it up. If there ain’t no bone sticking out, you suck it up.””

    Contaoi said he’s worked with athletes from a variety of sports, but he’s never seen anything that affects the body quite like gymnastics.

    “”It’s unique because they put the punishment on themselves,”” he said. “”The closest sport that I’ve worked with that’s comparable to this is wrestling, but in wrestling, somebody else punishes you.””

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