When the news began to spread that Jordyn Wieber might have a stress fracture, the snarky comments about excuses began. Even though they shouldn’t have, they surprised me. After all, when a dominant, consistent gymnast all of a sudden starts putting in uncharacteristically subpar performances, it is more common than not that an injury – usually a stress fracture- is part of the equation. Jordyn is not the first, and as competitive gymnastics continues to get more and more difficult, I am sure she will not be the last.
In fact, the heartbreaking story of a gymnast who shows so much potential to dominate gymnastics who then comes down with a stress fracture before or during a major competition has become so commonplace it is treated as something that is barely newsworthy. Let’s look at the many past American hopefuls who have suffered Jordyn’s fate. Then we will talk about why stress fractures fractures dreams.
Kim Zmeskal was a brilliant world champion in 1991. Everyone expected her to claim all the glory in the Olympics.
Americans had high hopes for Zmeskal and the U.S. team heading the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games, with Zmeskal earning the cover of both Time and Newsweekmagazines before the Games. In the U.S. National Championships and Olympic Trials, Zmeskal battled an emergingShannon Miller, with Miller defeating Zmeskal at the Trials.
Zmeskal disappointed at the Games, falling off the balance beam during her compulsory routine on the first night of competition. Although she would rebound with performances on the floor, vault, and bars, Zmeskal was in 32nd place after the compulsories and 5th on the American team. She would further rebound with impressive scores of 9.912 on beam, 9.95 on vault, 9.9 on uneven bars, and a 9.925 on floor during the finals of the team competition, moving Zmeskal into 12th place and into the all-around competition by finishing third among the American women. Her combined score of 39.687 for the night was the highest of any competitor.
Although earning enough points to compete in the all-around competition, Zmeskal would again falter during her first event, the floor exercise, stepping out of bounds. It would later be revealed that Zmeskal was suffering from a stress fracture in her ankle before the Olympics began. (Wikipedia)
Next comes Dominique Moceanu in 1996.
Moceanu’s national and international successes, combined with her plucky, bubbly attitude, earned her attention and a wide fan base both in and out of the gymnastics community. In the months leading up to the Atlanta Olympics, she was one of the most recognizable faces of USA Gymnastics, eclipsing more decorated teammates such as Shannon Miller andDominique Dawes. Before the Olympics, she was featured in Vanity Fairand wrote an autobiography, Dominique Moceanu: An American Champion. The book was highly successful and ranked number seven on the New York Times’ Best Sellers List.
Moceanu was expected to be a major medal threat at the 1996 Olympics. However, following the 1996 U.S. Nationals, where she placed third in the all-around, she was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her right tibia. Her injury forced her to sit out the Olympic Trials, and she was petitioned onto the team on the strength of her Nationals scores.
At the Olympics, still struggling with her injury and sporting a heavily bandaged leg, Moceanu contributed to the team gold medal, turning in strong performances and she qualified for the event finals on balance beam and floor exercise. However, she faltered in the last rotation of team finals, falling on both vaults, a situation which directly resulted in the U.S. chance of a gold medal resting solely on teammate Kerri Strug‘s final vault. Strug injured herself in the successful attempt, and Moceanu only advanced to the all-around finals as her replacement. Mistakes cost Moceanu a medal, and she placed ninth. In the balance beam event final, Moceanu fell when she missed a foot on a layout and crashed into the balance beam on her head. She finished the exercise and went on to a strong performance in the floor finals later that day, finishing fourth and just missing a medal. (Wikipedia)
Next comes Courtney Kupets.
In 2004, there was a fierce battle between Courtney and Carly Patterson for the title of America’s best. But once at the Olympics, the fight seemed to go out of Courtney, who had always been a consistent and fierce competitor up to that point (and after I might add). Uncharacteristic pain in her hip caused her to be replaced by Mohini Bhardwaj on beam during the team finals at the last minute. She went on to “underperform” in the All Around Finals, placing 9th instead of battling for the gold. Though she would say in interviews that she had no excuses and injury was not a big factor, after the Olympics it was revealed that she had a stress fracture in her hip.
The 2008 Olympics passed with other injuries, but no stress fractures.
In 2009, Rebecca Bross took gymnastics by storm, and lost the world championship with a fluke fall. She dominated in 2010 and once again came into the World Championships expected to challenge for gold. After complaining of shin pain throughout the lead up to the competition, and giving in to uncharacteristic weak moments throughout the championships, it was revealed after the fact that she had a stress fracture as well.
So after a qualifications full of unusual small mistakes and then a floor finals filled with the same, in all honesty I assumed Jordyn had a stress fracture or another similar injury. It seemed the most likely scenario. It surprised me when people started saying they were making excuses.
It is laughable to me that what the normal public would consider a broken hip, leg or ankle gymnasts consider as a “nagging pain.” I find it almost absurd that they consider those injuries as “not an excuse for their performance.” But I know gymnasts and the pain they work through regularly. I guess it is normal. What I find completely absurd is that the fans and the public feel the same way. These athletes are competing on broken limbs! Most people can hardly walk with this type of pain. Not an excuse?
Maybe it is because unlike other major injuries, gymnast are able to actually compete on and train on injuries like stress fractures (and plantar faciitis in the case of Romania’s Larisa Iordache). This gives the impression that they are ok. It is hard to understand why they make all these little mistakes. Of course there is pain. But beyond the pain, lets look at why these nagging injuries seem to affect performances by causing lots of little, uncharacteristic mistakes.
Gymnasts do hundreds if not thousands of repetitions of skills to create “muscle memory.” This is when they are able to perform the skill without actively thinking about it, they just do it. This allows them to perform the skill under the incredible pressure of competition. Gymnasts refer to this as “numbers.” They just need to get in the gym and do more numbers to be consistent. An injury like a stress fracture impedes this process in two ways.
The first, is a decrease in numbers performed during practice. In order to help the injury not turn into something that will absolutely prohibit them from competing, it is necessary to do less numbers so there will be less pounding on the injury. As this is the very heart of elite level training, this without a doubt affects their ability to perform the skills on demand. When an elite gymnast decreases their numbers significantly, their performance almost always diminishes as well.
The second is that gymnasts do these skills over and over again the exact same way to create that muscle memory. But even though they can grit through the pain of the break, their body is responding differently than it usually does. The ever so slight flinch on take off or landing changes the timing they are used to. It is not enough to prevent them from doing the skills, but is enough to make falls and balance checks on beam (where centimeters make all the difference) inevitable and stuck landings much more unlikely.
And don’t get me wrong. Stress fractures, a common injury in the gymnastics world, are very painful. The courage that these gymnasts show to train and compete on these injuries needs to be recognized and not brushed off. The courage of Jordyn Wieber to perform as brilliantly as she did in team finals despite her stress fracture is incredible.
At the end of the day, stress fractures have fractured many gymnasts’ dreams over the years. Let’s celebrate their courage or rail against the sports world that leads teenagers to compete on broken limbs. But let’s not diminish the role that these injuries play and claim that they are no excuse.