It was 6 a.m. and the sun was slowly rising over the horizon. The birds began to chirp as the black sky turned bluer with every passing minute. For everyone else, it was a beautiful sunrise on Wednesday morning in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For Susan Jackson, it was a nerve-wracking Wednesday morning that determined her livelihood.
Jackson walked into the building that read “Bone and Joint Clinic of Baton Rouge.” With every step she took, she remembered each memory from her childhood, her college years and her professional years. She arrived at the imaging service desk and lay on the MRI table. She knew her neck was broken from age 12, and now at 32, she knew she had arthritis in her neck. The MRI showed another issue from her past: two bulging discs in her C3 and C4 spinal cord. However, not only did she suffer from physical pain, but Susan endured emotional pain from eating disorders that were forced upon her.
“We all know how to throw up on command."
During her days as an USA National Team Member, Susan remembers the time her mother told her, “You’re going to eat your way out of gymnastics.”
She was around the age of 12 when she left the dinner table to serve herself seconds.
“My mom believed what the national coaches were telling us,” Susan said. “The national coaches had a preference on body types, and they viewed me as fat because I was bulky and strong.”
Despite the physical pain gymnastics left on Susan, she remembers the deeper pain of being forced to throw up after every meal and the emotional toll of hating her body.
“Body image is a big role for gymnasts,” she said. “At age 11 or 12, I was told to throw up after every meal. There was even a coach who showed us how to throw up.”
Susan was at the Bela Karolyi’s Texas ranch where USA National gymnasts train. She was sick with the flu, running a fever and feeling weak from vomiting. She didn’t have the energy to train, but, at age 14, she was forced to anyways.
“I lost five pounds from being sick,” she said. “I was so sick and weak and just finished my floor routine. It went terrible and I landed on my head, and one of my coaches came up to me and said, ‘This is the best you’ve ever looked.’”
Susan explained that eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia are heavily involved in the sport of gymnastics, and national coaches fuel the gruesome mental illness. In 1992, the NCAA discovered that 93 percent of college programs reporting eating disorders were in women’s sports, but gymnasts suffer from eating disorders at a greater risk.
Vice President of Communications Leslie King was asked why national coaches pressure gymnasts into throwing up. King said, “I can’t answer that right now.”
The NCAA reported in 1992 that 51 percent of gymnastics programs reported the illness as a, “far greater percentage than in any other sport.” The reason is because gymnastics emphasizes on the appearance of being lean and skinny. Female gymnasts try to avoid the natural process of becoming adults by using extreme measures to maintain a small and petite frame, according to Women and Sports in the United States: A Documentary Reader.
“It’s just crazy,” Susan said about the pressures from national coaches. “We all have messed up body images, we are all depressed and we all know how to throw up on command.”
“Your body will breakdown."
Former LSU gymnast and current Graduate Coach Ashleigh Gnat spoke about the injuries related to eating disorders.
“There is a correlation between eating disorders and girls being injured,” Gnat said. “We constantly ask our gymnasts how they are feeling and have nutritionists prepare meals for them. We want to make sure they are eating, but we also want to make sure they don’t eat too much because both are extremes and can lead to injury.”
Collegiate gymnasts typically compete in 14 or more meets in a season, which places a lot of pressure on joints and muscles. Gnat explained there is a balance between being healthy and handling excessive amounts of pressure on the body.
“If your body can’t handle it, your body will break down if you don’t have the nutrition you need,” Gnat explained. “There is definitely a balance of being healthy and staying fit for this sport.”
The Physical Pains
In 1993, Susan began her gymnastics career at age 6, quickly mastering basic skills for floor, bars, beam and vault.
“I was super hyper as a toddler,” she said. “I was a monkey. I’d climb and hang on everything. To save my house from destruction, my parents put me in gymnastics.”
Seven years later, she became an international elite gymnast and a team member of the USA National Team at age 13. She showed a promising future and had the potential to achieve her lifelong dream: becoming an Olympic gymnast.
“When I was 11, I started doing a headspring,” Susan said. “It’s basically a back hand spring, but with no hands because I used my head. I did my headspring on a floor routine and the national coaches really liked it.”
Her headspring later became known as “The Jackson” and used the technique later in colligate competitions. As much as Susan enjoyed doing the unique headspring, she wished she didn’t.
17 years later, then at age 28, Susan learned she broke her neck at the age of 12. She doesn’t know when or how, but she linked the shocking break to the intense pounding and her headspring technique.
“I remember a national coach coming up to me and asking me, ‘Can you do that on the balance beam,’” she said. “I couldn’t tell them ‘no’ because these are the people that make you, the people that mold you into an Olympic gymnast.”
When asked if there were any precautions or guidance for the headspring, Susan said no. The USA Gymnastics coaches never warned Susan of the dangers but wanted her to perform the routine because of its extraordinary difficulty.
When looking for more data and statistics on gymnastics injuries, there was none. The USA Gymnastics organization did not have any information on its website. When asked why there was no data on injuries within USA Gymnastics, King simply said, “I’m not sure.”
According to a 2007 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, gymnastics has one of the highest injury rates of all girls’ sports. The study called for an establishment of a national database for gymnastics-related injuries, yet there is still no database 12 years later.
“We’re screwed by the time we’re 30."
In 2004, 17-year-old Susan had her eyes set on qualifying for the USA Gymnastics Olympic team. The first step was to qualify for the Olympic trials, but only the top 12 all-around finishers at the USA Championships would advance to the Olympic trials. Jackson tied for 13th and did not qualify.
From there, Susan started her gymnastics career at Louisiana State University in 2006 and was set to compete in all four events – vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor. However, Susan only participated in one competition her freshman year.
“I fell and hurt myself at practice,” she said. “I sprained my ankle really bad and could no longer compete for the year. Once I healed, I competed my sophomore, junior and senior year.”
While at LSU, Susan was ranked the No. 1 gymnast in the country during her senior year, but she wasn’t ready to quit. In September 2010, Susan auditioned for Cirque du Soleil during her senior year and was assigned to “Alegria” in 2012.
Susan performed with Cirque du Soleil for three years, but her career ended early.
“I was done,” Susan said. “I had surgery and had one year to recover, but I didn’t want to perform anymore.”
Susan tore her Achilles tendon. She believes her injury was directly related to her ankle sprain while at LSU and the repetitive hard landings when she was on the USA National Team.
When asked what her body feels after decades of gymnastics, she simply responded, “It hurts.”
On a normal day, Susan struggles wearing high heels because of the pain that reverberates throughout her Achilles and heel.
“I feel it every day,” she said. “My Achilles hurts, but my heel hurts daily. I’m like, ‘Okay, I can’t stand anymore.’”
Susan explained those who played high level sports in college, especially football players and gymnasts, are doomed.
“We’re all going to be screwed by the time we’re 30,” Susan said. “We will have bodies of 50-year-olds.”
Dr. Brent Bankston is the head team orthopedist at LSU Athletic Training and specializes in sports related injuries, hip and knee replacement and adult reconstructive surgery. He has worked as the LSU Gymnastics team doctor for over ten years.
“Gymnastics is a sport where we see a lot of overuse injuries,” Bankston explained. “The most common injury we see is ankle injuries. This is mainly because they don’t wear shoes.”
Bankston said shoulder and back injuries are also common in the sport because of landing impacts on hard surfaces and the large amount of physical stress.
“The long-term implications of gymnastics are there is a lot of wear and tear on joints and ligaments,” he said. “These kinds of injuries do impact them later down the road in life.”
Despite the challenges, Susan explained this is the culture of gymnastics, but feels the environment is changing.
“It’s getting better and I’m happy to see that,” Susan said. “It’s finally time for a change.”