SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Women who compete on U.S. gymnastics teams may be as likely to require surgery during their careers as professional football players because of brutal training regimens and a must-win attitude in the sport, according to a newspaper study released Sunday.
Elite gymnasts, who train as much as 40 hours a week, ignore injuries or are told to do so by their coaches even as they perform increasingly dangerous routines, The Orange County Register reported.
The newspaper interviewed 122 of the 300 women who competed on the U.S. junior or senior national teams from 1982 to 2004 for its two-part series. The second part is to be published Monday.
More than 93 percent said they had broken bones or other injuries that required surgery. Nine out of 10 women interviewed said they either had continued to train with injuries that resulted in broken bones or surgery or that they had resumed training without being cleared by a doctor.
"I had my first knee surgery when I was 12, and I pretty much had some kind of surgery every year after that," said Kendall Beck, a member of the 1997 World Championships team.
Famed gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi dismissed the newspaper's findings as a "gross exaggeration."
"There are no problems with our sport," Karolyi said. "We have an action-packed sport, and from time to time people get injured."
Karolyi and one of his athletes, Kerri Strug, created a defining moment in gymnastics history at the 1996 Olympics when Strug, competing with torn ligaments in her ankle, landed a brilliant vault and the coach carried her triumphantly away. Their team went
on to win the gold medal.
Competing like that, while injured, is considered routine within the sport, said Jamie Dantzscher, a member of the 2000 Olympic team.
"You're taught from the time you're a little girl that you just have to put up with the pain," Dantzscher said.
Sixty percent of those interviewed said they either were verbally abused by their coaches when they mentioned injuries or were afraid to raise the subject.
"You're afraid to talk about how much you hurt because you know your coach will either yell at you or make you continue working out," said Sierra Sapunar, a recent U.S. team member who has suffered shoulder, knee and ankle injuries.
The Register reported that few gyms have medical staff on site, and a USA Gymnastics program to educate coaches about nutrition and injury issues had its funding cut four years ago.
Gymnastics can be dangerous because, like football, it is a contact sport, said Don Peters, owner of a gymnastics academy in Huntington Beach and head coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.
"But in gymnastics we're dealing with very fragile athletes who don't wear protective gear," he said. "We're doing really dangerous things. We're flying through the air ... I think you have to remember whatever goes up has to come down."
Routines are also becoming more difficult. The one that Nadia Comaneci scored her historic perfect 10 with at the 1976 Olympics would probably earn only an 8 today, Peters said.
An estimated 3.4 million girls participate in gymnastics in the United States, but fewer than 200 in any given year are good enough to compete at the elite level that makes them eligible for the junior and senior U.S. teams and the Olympics.
The training becomes harder and longer as a gymnast advances in the sport.
It has paid off in victories, however. U.S. gymnasts have won 54 medals at the Olympics, Pan American Games and world championships since 2001.
More than 68 percent of the gymnasts interviewed by the Register said they had undergone surgery. By comparison, only 65 percent of National Football League players suffer injuries requiring surgery, according to studies by the NFL Players Association and Ball State University.
"It's a dangerous sport," said Carly Patterson.
The 16-year-old Texan, who won the all-around gold medal at this year's Olympics, had a broken elbow when she competed in the 2003 World Championships in Anaheim.
"Elite athletes in every sport push themselves to the limit,"said Robert V. Colarossi, chief executive officer of USA Gymnastics. "At the end of the day, it's the athletes who are driving the train. They're the ones trying do things that have never been done before. And when you do that, you put yourself in a position of risk."