Firstly, I am extremely fortunate to be fit and healthy today and in general, have the freedom to choose the activities that I want to. There wouldn’t be many elite sports-persons who would get through their career injury free and / or without some lasting niggles at a minimum.
I had my first training-related operation at 11 years of age (wrist). By the time I was 16 I had racked up six more. I had another two when I came out of retirement leading up to the 2000 Olympics. Throughout my gymnastics career I had over 20 MRIs alone ($$$$$$… sorry mum and dad!!), many x-rays, CT scans, ultra-sounds and countless injections (cortisone, facet joint, root sleeve, an epidural). It came to a point on several occasions where an MRI was my only option so I didn’t start glowing from radiation exposure. My physio and Sports Doctor of course loved me too… I’m sure I (my parents) were the primary funders of my physio’s beautiful house in Mosman Park.
I was generally known for my ‘bad luck’ with injuries, both in terms of frequency and timing – I think almost a third of my newspaper articles are on injuries rather than achievements (whatever gets a story right??) But my coaches also knew I could push through the day to day stuff pretty well. I’m sure a lot of this was to do with my character, but also the way injuries were framed in that environment. Time off training was bad. When that’s ingrained into you from a young age, it’s hard to shake off. I remember being too scared to tell my coaches if something was sore because the response usually wasn’t too comforting. I often didn’t tell my parents either. I’m not sure why, maybe because I thought they’d tell my coaches or they’d tell me to rest, but they didn’t understand it didn’t work like that. In the nine years of training leading up to the 1996 Olympics, the longest consecutive time off I had was 5 days. For a lot of us, anxiety around injures and time off training came from fear of putting on weight if we couldn’t train properly.
The injuries that stand out are the acute injuries that occurred before major competitions. In 1994 I won the Commonwealth Games selection trials but screwed up a tumble in my floor routine 2 days before we left for Canada (torn lateral meniscus and fractured tibia – have had two operations on this). In 1995 I made it to Japan for the World Championships but fell in a release on bars the day before competition and ripped up the ligaments in my ankle (had an operation on this 4 months later as it wasn’t healing fast enough to prepare for Olympic trials). The trifecta was at the 2000 Olympic Trials on vault (video below). I landed with straight legs and tore my calf and re-injured my knee. From memory I’m sure my tears were not so much from pain as I certainly wasn’t a princess, but more from realising my place in the Olympic team was over… especially given my position as a vault ‘specialist’.
Today, my head still struggles with injuries a bit, which is why I’ve been so hit and miss with CrossFit over the past 5 years. I’m either all in or all out, finding a happy medium is difficult. But I do feel in the past year my head’s starting to feel more comfortable letting go of the athlete identity and choosing activities that make me feel good rather than those I have to do or am expected to do.
I referenced some nutrition-related experiences in my previous blog (‘Olympic Experience’) that painted a small picture on how food and weight were approached. In a nutshell, gymnastics is an aesthetic sport. You are judged on how you look, both on and off the competition floor. We had to weigh in every day and had skinfolds every two weeks. If our weight went up (by ‘up’ I’m talking anything from 0.2kg) we were told off and sometimes had to run it off. If our skinfold wasn’t under 40mm over 8 sites we couldn’t compete. At training camps in Canberra we got to the point where we would weigh in naked as our leotards weighed 0.05kg – 0.1kg. We would go in the sauna to drop weight and we would choose food based on how much it weighed, not the benefits for performance. For example, the following provides some insight into the daily food intake I maintained for quite a while in high school on two training sessions per day (6.5 hours):
• A bowl of cereal for breakfast, minimal milk as we checked weight in the morning.
• A 250ml fruit box (fruit juice) at recess
• 4 dry Sao crackers and an apple for lunch
• 10 Jatz crackers before afternoon training
• Apple in car on way home
From one perspective, I understand why it is important to monitor weight; more weight equals higher risk of injury due to the constant loading, impact and effect on movement mechanics (i.e. rotation). On the other hand, I can also comment on the psychological impact it has from an early age. Each member of our Olympic team had some form of disordered eating behaviour and we were obsessed with food; it’s all we’d talk about (the picture below was written on the 8th July 1996 at the back of one of my journals… my wishlist post-competitions). When you’re not allowed something, you want it. We would try to sneak food into our bags when we went on trips (bag searches sucked balls) and we would plan how to sneak out of our accommodation to go to the vending machine or deli (although I think this also provided us with some form of rebellious release). I even started ‘stealing’ food from the cupboard at home and eating it in secret in my room… I’m sure mum and dad wouldn’t have cared less if I went and grabbed a biscuit! But I think food was framed as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ so it was almost a weak or shame factor eating the naughty stuff.
Has this had a lasting impact on my relationship with food and weight? Yes. I can honestly say after 20 years I still haven’t been able to shake all the demons out of my system. Going from gymnastics into boxing for 5 years probably didn’t help given it’s another weight-driven sport. Of course today I’m more educated and aware of what I should be putting into my body and CrossFit certainly demands higher quality fuel to progress without breaking. The change in my body shape with CrossFit has also been challenging after being rewarded for low weight for so many years. If I’m truthful, this is another reason on top of injuries why I tend to yo-yo in and out of competition.
In saying all of this, I feel there has been a positive shift from the waif-like norm of gymnasts in the 90s compared to what we see today. I assume a lot of this has to do with a greater proportion of mature aged gymnasts remaining on the competition scene. There may have also been a shift in culture around eating and weight over the years, which I can’t comment on. This has always been an area of interest and something that I’ve wanted to research – talking to gymnasts over time to get their perspectives on food, weight, body image etc (I’m a qualitative researcher… so no numbers or statistical analysis ). The Psych degree will happen! Of course, gymnasts aren’t alone in these types of experiences, and body image and disordered eating behaviours are not contained to athletes.
Let me finish by saying again, I am healthy and extremely fortunate to live the life I lead, full of choices. Has my childhood shaped me today? Absolutely. Some good bits and some ‘baggage’. Don’t we all…?