|Friday, January 19
Rash of injuries puts spotlight on jumps, training
BOSTON - - The way things were going, it was no surprise when Michelle Kwan slammed into the sideboards during practice, getting up gingerly and rubbing her already aching back.
The surprise was that she got up at all.
The injured list at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships was considerably longer than in recent years. Four top skaters were knocked out and almost everyone else was hobbled by one ailment or another. Things were so bad even longtime commentator Dick Button stayed home after hitting his head on the ice.
"From the sports sciences, all of us have talked about it. We do think it's a pattern," said Dr. Mahlon Bradley, chair of the U.S. Figure Skating Association's sports medicine committee. Maybe not Button's injury, but there's definitely something going on in skating these days - and it's not good.
Naomi Nari Nam and Deanna Stellato, two of the top female skaters, withdrew with hip injuries before nationals began. Sasha Cohen, the runner-up last year, came to Boston despite a stress fracture in her lower back, but her coach persuaded her to pull out after one bad practice. Elizabeth Kwon, an up-and-coming 14-year-old, withdrew Friday night with a right ankle injury.
Deborah Koegel and Oleg Fediukov, bronze medalists in ice dance the past two years, withdrew after Fediukov bruised the quadriceps muscle around his knee during compulsories.
Then there were the walking wounded. Michael Weiss missed most of the season with a stress fracture in his left toe and has back problems. Timothy Goebel strained a ligament in his knee. Kwan has been bothered by a bad back. Pairs skater Rena Inoue had a stress fracture in her ankle.
So what's the problem? It's easy to blame the jumps. Quadruples and triples that were a rarity only a few years ago are commonplace now, and skaters' bodies take a pounding as they try to master them. When they land a jump, skaters bring a force of seven times their body weight down on a blade only as wide as a straw.
But it's not quite that simple.
"Oh, no, I don't think so," Bradley, the USFSA doctor, said when asked if the technical bar has been set too high. "How to get there is the issue.
"These athletes are training at a very high level throughout the entire year," Bradley said. "We know the body needs a down time, a buildup time and a peak time. These athletes are now at a high level really most of the year, and so I think that's the main issue."
Twenty years ago, skaters didn't go all year round. They started training in July, competitions began in October and they were done by April. With most rinks closed for the summer, skaters were forced to do other things - cross-training, it's called today - and give their bodies a break from skating.
Now skaters go six days a week, 12 months a year, year in and year out. If they're not training, they're competing. If they're not competing, they're doing shows.
And with the stakes so high, every performance is critical.
"The junior Grand Prix and senior Grand Prix, as wonderful as it is, it's a lot of preparation every month," said Carol Heiss Jenkins, the 1960 Olympic gold medalist and now Kwon's coach. "The kids have to be up. And I don't know if what they're doing in the sport justifies having to be up every month."
The elimination of school figures could be another factor in the injury epidemic. Figures required half a practice session, which meant no jumping, no pounding. Just slow, steady tracing that also improved flexibility, balance and control.
Now skaters can jump all day long. Goebel, the Quad King, does 15 to 20 quads every day. Eldredge and Weiss do only five or six, but they also do 30 to 40 triple jumps.
"It's called progress and you cannot stop it," said John Nicks, who coaches Nam and Cohen. "You look at the old films of Sonja Henie and she's doing a cheated single axel. And so we go on year after year, getting better and better.
"The American way is not to stop that. I'm not sure it's the right way, but I'm sure it's what's going to happen."
Skaters are doing bigger jumps at younger ages, too. Goebel started practicing the quad when he was 14, and landed his first in practice when he was 15.
Tara Lipinski was 11 when she landed her first triple jump. She was doing the extremely difficult triple loop-triple loop combination at 14.
"It's exciting when you see someone jump, turn in the air and land. The push is always going to be there for harder jumps, more quads," said Jeff DiGregorio, Lipinski's coach when she learned her triples.
"The skaters have to be paced," he said. "You can't do it overnight. It takes time."
It also takes precautions. At DiGregorio's rink at the University of Delaware, all skaters, regardless of their level and skill, wear pads when they practice. Pairs skaters wear helmets.
They do 40 minutes of off-ice conditioning and stretching every day, as well as 40 minutes of dance work.
"I believe in lots of repetitions of jumps for consistency," DiGregorio said. "But I don't believe in that all year round. Depending on what time of the year it is, we limit the number of jumps."
Some skaters seem to be getting away from that, though.
"`The more you do, the more consistent things are?' That's only true in theory. It's not true practically," Heiss Jenkins said. "There has to be a point at which they do enough with the individual jumps to be consistent and comfortable, but not so much as to damage the body."
While the injuries at nationals put a harsh spotlight on the issue, it's been a hot topic for coaches and the USFSA the past few years. The USFSA even created a program called Podium 2002 Medical Care, assigning physicians to each of the elite athletes to provide advice and education.
"We are trying to develop programs to help them. We're not trying to tell them how to run their business," Bradley said. "We're only trying to help them prevent injuries."
To be fair, figure skating isn't the only sport facing this problem. Kids no longer swim in the summer, play football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring.
They pick - or are forced to choose - whichever sport they're best at and concentrate on it.
"I have the same issue in soccer," said Bradley, who also has a sports medicine practice in Boston. "It's pervasive in sports that you start getting good at one sport, you're trying to do it at the highest level all year long."
"You see the injuries in all sports and at all ages. You see injuries in gymnastics, tennis, soccer," he said. "It's a sport. That's what sport is all about, pushing the envelope.
"If you want to be the champion, that's what you have to do."