Blood, Drugs, & Cheating: 5 R-Rated Realities Of Gymnastics
Years of preparation and strained parent-child relationships will often only result in about 15 minutes of fame, at best, for most gymnasts. Medals and nationalism are all well and good, but we wondered what it was actually like to train and compete in a system that takes away both a person's height and free time. We sat down with Charles and an anonymous source, two American gymnasts who had to stop in their teens due to injuries, and Lexi, who retired at age 20 after making it to the higher levels of Canadian tournaments. And they told us ...
Training Starts At Age 2 And Careers Can Be Over By 20
In most sports, an athlete will hit the big show in their mid-20s, but gymnastics operates under the premise that you might die before hitting the legal drinking age ... in Canada. Most gymnasts will hit their peak between ages 15 and 18, while they're still lightweight and flexible, like human Silly Putty. But, in order to be in peak physical condition while still wearing braces and worrying about prom, training has to start within about a year of learning to walk.
"I started at age 4," recalled our anonymous source. "But those gymnasts you see in the Olympics or in televised competitions? They started at age 2, and can go max hours before they are 10. A lot of [toddlers] don't pick up what they learn, but they build up the muscles and balance. By the time kids doing it casually come in at age 5 or 6, they are light years ahead."
She is 2 years old.
As you can imagine, you're not exactly capable of choosing a fitting career path at age 2. "I don't really remember my mom asking me if I wanted to do it," said Lexi. "It's what I grew up with. All my friends started that young too.
"After a certain point, you are chewed out." said Lexi. "I made it to nationals a few years, but the year after I moved down on my rankings from the previous year, they would not invite me back, despite having pretty much the same scores. They always want the best and, as soon as you start to falter, you're seen as 'over the hill'. I was 20 when I wasn't allowed back."
This girl has five years, tops, before losing her spot to someone who can balance on nothing but their ponytail.
Jesus. Two decades? That's practically dead. Enjoy your HGTV in peace, Grandma, and leave the real athletics to the prepubescents.
The Injuries Are Brutal
Gymnasts will get a horrific injury a some point. Just like riding a motorcycle, playing for the Cleveland Browns, or exchanging sexual favors for money, it's not if you're going down, but when.
"I had surgery on my feet twice," our anonymous source remembered. "I even had to walk on the balls of my feet for awhile, because my callouses I got from doing the floor exercises over and over again were so built up, I had trouble walking."
We can't imagine why.
Pretty much every joint-related injury happens in gymnastics. Gymnasts almost single-handedly dominate Osgood-Schlatter disease -- a condition that affects kids who overuse their joints. "I have terrible joints, specifically my wrists, thanks to years of rings and the [pommel] horse," said Charles. "I've also gotten rips [calloused hands being ripped open] a few times. It's really jarring and really painful."
Rips, by the way, look like this:
8.0 for difficulty, 7.5 for execution, and 10.0 for stigmata.
On the less gross but actually more horrible side, getting paralyzed totally happens, and the accident rate is pretty high. In fact, the 4.8/1,000 injury rate is about the same as "rougher" sports like soccer and hockey. And all this in a sport dominated by kids who haven't lost all of their baby teeth yet.
"Oh, your hundred pounds of pads failed to protect you from a bruised shinbone? That's adorable."
There's Cheating And Drugs Galore
Between baseball, Lance Armstrong, and the WWE, nothing surprises us anymore, and gymnastics is no different. As a matter of fact, Lexi claimed that "for many gymnasts, the drug testing can be the most stressful part of some of these championships."
Risking landing on your neck and never walking again is downright quaint in comparison.
A single positive test is enough to thoroughly wreck a career -- prominent 15-year-old gymnasts who were clearly innocent and had tons of evidence against drug use have been banned during their prime. That's not to say that real performance-enhancing drugs aren't out there. Lexi remembered hearing about it at her last few competitions:
"European countries and the Americans were pretty thorough, but one of the gymnasts from Hungary suddenly pulled out right before the drug and gender testing -- seriously, they test your gender in bigger competitions. ... My [Russian] coach just shrugged it off. It was no surprise to him."
It happens at the international level a lot. Gymnasts from Uzbekistan to Romania have been banned from the Olympics and had their medals stripped for steroid use or not being completely one sex. And that's nothing compared to the North Korean team. "During those big competitions, the North Koreans were never there," Lexi remembered. "Not because they didn't want to go, but because the entire team was banned."
According to North Korean newspapers, the Supreme-Leader took their place and set records in every event anyway.
It turned out that the entire team had lied about their ages. They were banned from international competition for several years, including the 2012 Olympics, and some are still banned here in 2015. It's a common occurrence for gymnasts from the wackiest lil' horrific dictatorship around to get banned, because they frequently put severely underage kids in competition. Frankly, we're surprised there aren't more wee super gymnasts tumbling through the DMZ to freedom.
There Is A Weird Gender Divide
In most sports, the differences between the male and female versions are largely aesthetic. Not so in gymnastics -- men and women have it very different.
"Men's events are based on strength, while women's are more on grace," explained our anonymous source. "Some of the men's events require them to pull up their own body weight. For the women's events, that doesn't happen. Even on the bars, gravity and momentum are doing a lot of the work, where on the pommel horse and rings, it's all strength."
Weak triceps equal squashed babymakers.
Lexi didn't realize this when she was younger, and got yelled at for it. "When I was around 6, I started doing the rings," she remembered. "One of the coaches wasn't teaching me -- it was a few of the boys. They taught me the rings, and I showed them how to balance on a beam well. These rings were inches off a thick mat, so they weren't dangerous, but once the male instructor saw me, he yelled at me and sent me crying back to the girls' side. A few years later, I asked to do it formally and was denied -- it wasn't part of the routine. I forget exactly what my instructor told me, but she said something like, 'Muscle adds weight, and you have enough.'"
"Shit, your flexors are getting firm. A week of nothing but celery ought to fix that."
This is the reason why young female gymnasts are so slight -- it's the body type that can do the events. And if you start young enough, gymnastics training can ensure that you stay small. Bone development and natural growth occur in the early years, and by training to be as small and light as possible, well, you'll get your wish. Possibly for life.
"You don't learn [that stunted growth is] a possibility until you are 8 or 9. I learned it in third or fourth grade science class," said Lexi. "At that point, it already started to stop my growth."
The weird thing is that women used to compete in the exact same events as the men, including the rings. What happened? It's been all but openly said, but the events likely separated to show off what people associated with each gender, or as the BBC put it, "peacocking for both sexes."
Which is even more ridiculous when you realize they used to make them wear this.
Which is strange, because it means ...
Women Have The Harder Events
All three of the gymnasts we interviewed agreed: Women have the harder and more intense events.
How so? For one, there is flexibility. While men certainly need it for events, it is actually one of the things being judged for women. Due to the women's lighter frames, they have to push their bodies over the limit, upping their chances of injury and the need for tighter focus. Remember, these are teenage girls who don't yet have the foresight to see that Chad really likes Madison instead of them, let alone that they're at a higher risk for paralysis.
"But hey, you only walk once and shit. #YOWO"
Because women are used to harder events, it's easier for them to switch roles and do the men's stuff very well. In a more modern context, Lexi had this to share: "For fun, our gym had the guys and the girls switch up for a week on what we trained on. At the end of the week, the guys kept falling flat on their ass in uneven [bars], and many of them couldn't do the balance beam. Our side, although poorly, had everyone completing the rings and pommel horse in beginner routines, with all the other ones being done even better."
Stick It, a 2006 movie about gymnastics, showed how hard it actually is for female gymnasts, and changed a lot of minds about the preconceived notion of women's gymnastics being "easy." But, just like men's gymnastics' acceptance in the mainstream, it still has a long way to go.
For more insider perspectives, check out Ballet Is Hell: 5 Nightmare Realities You'd Never Guess and 5 Brutal Realities Of High School Football (From A Coach).
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