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'Beasts' of Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Ravaged Gymnast's Body : Health: Christy Henrich was 22 and weighed less than 60 pounds when she died. Her family hopes her story will save others.

August 21, 1994|STEVE WILSTEIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Vaughn said she normally would never reveal discussions with a patient but felt it was important to disclose details of Henrich's ordeal.

"Christy and her mom, Sandy, told me I should talk about it if what they had gone through could help some other family," Vaughn said. "Her feelings of shame are more common than they are specific to just Christy."

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A week after her death, Henrich's bright red Toyota, with the license plate GMNAST, straddled the sidewalk in front of her parents' home on Wigwam Trail. Sandy and Paul Henrich, and Joseph (Bo) Moreno, almost their son-in-law, had agreed to talk with a reporter. But answering the door, the Henrichs apologized and canceled the interview on the advice of their lawyer.

Attorney Ralph A. Monaco said the grieving family would respond soon to the many requests for interviews. He asked about "remuneration," saying the family was badly strapped by medical bills. Eating disorders, categorized as psychiatric ills, receive limited insurance coverage.

In a statement, Monaco said the family hoped "Christy's death will help lead to a greater public awareness of her illness and the difficulties and pressures encountered by young gymnasts in this country."

Few reliable studies gauge the extent of the disease in the United States: estimates are that 1% of teen-age girls have anorexia nervosa, that 5-9% of college women have bulimia. One limited study by the American College of Sports Medicine found that up to 62% of female gymnasts have an eating disorder. With secrecy and denial part of the syndrome, those figures are probably low, researchers say.

The U.S. Gymnastics Federation conducts seminars for gymnasts, coaches and parents, and it has professionals available for counseling. None of that enabled Henrich to escape the traps pulling her down.

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Henrich was so clever at concealment that neither her coach nor her parents noticed anything wrong for about a year and a half after she began virtually starving herself.

She had always been spunky and quick, popping back up on the bars as soon as she'd finished, practicing three routines for everyone else's one.

"She had a determination about her," Fong said, "that fire in her eyes, that attitude that said, 'Hey, I can do this. Just watch me.'

"She had a poor back alignment, just born with it. And . . . she was not a very talented athlete. She didn't learn skills very quickly. She almost had a dyslexia about instruction. I'd say up, she'd think down. . . . It was very difficult working with her. But those are the kinds of obstacles she overcame through sheer hard work that allowed her to be as good as she was. And she was really good."

Her tolerance for pain allowed Henrich to overcome her body's decay for a while, even compete with a stress fracture at the 1989 World Championships. She was still the one the hundreds of kids at Fong's gym loved and looked up to, an apparently perfect leader who worked out before and after school, got up at 4:30 a.m., went home at 9:30 p.m. What they didn't see was her bingeing on fast food or eating nothing at all.

"I started noticing hints of a problem in 1989 when she was struggling, having trouble finishing skills that six months before she could do without even blinking an eye," Fong said.

When she returned from the World Championships, "her temperament had changed, where she was having fits of rage and frustration. It got real strange," he said. "It was really not good for the rest of the kids, but especially not good for Christy because she was going to hurt herself physically, the way she was throwing herself around. She'd say, 'I can't do it,' and she'd jump down, start crying, slam herself down on the ground in a rage."

Fong, "searching for everything and anything that might solve the problem," found research on eating disorders in which symptoms mirrored some of Christy's behavior. He began closely observing her when the team ate out.

"I started seeing that she was only eating an apple while the rest of the kids were eating potatoes and pasta," he said. "That's when I started saying, man, we've got a problem here."

Fong knows he wasn't blameless. When Henrich began losing weight, he offered compliments.

"We started seeing her really trim up, and we kept saying, 'Wow, Christy, you look great!' " Judges and other gymnasts echoed the praise.

"That was all the kind of reinforcement that would keep encouraging this type of behavior," Fong said. "But we didn't know. We had no idea."

When he did have an idea, Fong approached Henrich and her parents. The Henrichs "were shocked. They had no idea this was taking place," Fong said. They were also fiercely resistant, the coach added.

"The parents are looking for every excuse in the world, but plain and simple, they went through a period of denial."

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