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Little Girls Lost? : Young gymnasts and figure skaters dazzle with their stunts and lithe bodies, but for some, the price of success includes lifelong health problems, psychological trauma--or simply the loss of childhood.

September 18, 1995|MARY SUSAN HERCZOG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At a recent Southland figure-skating competition, Alicia skims along on her skates and prepares to jump. As her slender preteen body leaves the ice, ponytail flying, her mother hides her eyes.

"I'm just a wimp, really," she apologizes. "I know it means so much to her."

Flashing through her head though is not just fear for her daughter's safety, but thoughts of everything that goes into landing this jump. Four hours of training a day, six days a week, thousands of dollars a year--and that's just the surface. Hidden costs could include lifelong health problems, lasting psychological trauma--or simply missing out on being a child.

Alicia lands her jump cleanly and ultimately comes in third. Her mother is relieved, but her concerns continue.

"I worry that these are her childhood years, and she's spending them on the ice," she says.

And there is something more that is making parents like her take a hard look at figure skating and gymnastics. Joan Ryan's book, "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes" (Doubleday, 1995) reveals some unpleasant truths behind what goes into making top gymnasts and figure skaters.

As the athletes dazzle us with their seemingly impossible stunts and lithe bodies, Ryan exposes the physical and mental abuse to which many of these girls are subjected: brutal coaches, the increasing demands of sports that require their bodies to remain tiny and ultra-light, the resulting eating disorders, myriad injuries, and pressure from parents who have invested too much money and too many years to relinquish their dreams.

All this is done to what can only be called little girls--a gymnast is old at 19, and a figure skater ancient by her mid-20s. Both hit their prime, after years of arduous practice involving unbelievable amounts of repetition and effort, in their early teens. Ryan says her book is not an indictment of the sports--on the contrary, she is a big fan of both. It's just at the elite level, she feels, they have lost their way.

The results can be publicly tragic: In 1988, 15-year-old Julissa Gomez broke her neck on a vault during an international competition and died three comatose years later. Gymnast Christy Henrich, 22, died in 1994 from anorexia that left her below 50 pounds. Ryan, who has written extensively about the sports for the San Francisco Chronicle, says these are just the most visible results of dramatic problems, as she discusses case after case of athletes who "are sacrificed on the road to find those who are going to make it."

"The book made me stop and really ask myself how instrumental am I in keeping this going, and it worried me that she might be abusing her body," says Alicia's mother, who asked that her and her daughter's real names not be used because it could cause her problems in the highly political world of skating. Ryan's book is the talk of this elite circle.

Predictably, the gymnastics and figure-skating communities wish it would all go away. Between the coaches and the governing bodies for the sports, USA Gymnastics and the United States Figure Skating Assn., there is at best a grudging admission of the book's accuracy and, at worst, an insistence that Ryan took one or two examples and blew them out of proportion.

"I think it deals with less than 1% of the gymnastics population," says Dwight Nornile, editor of International Gymnast magazine.

The communities complain the book is one-sided, focusing on the negative aspects of the sports. And besides, Ryan only talked to a small group of people, and what's more, none of them were champions. What about Mary Lou Retton? What about world and national champion Shannon Miller?

"I spoke to many Olympic team members," replies Ryan. "Betty Okino, Kathy Johnson, Chelle Stack--they aren't champions? Or someone's a champion if they win other titles, but don't make that team? I didn't talk to Mary Lou because we all know her story--I wanted to show the side we don't hear about.

"It's so deep and so wide that for them to say I'm extrapolating from a few girls, they are either blind or lying."

There are plenty who cheer the book's efforts. "It's unfortunate that it had to come out," says Jack Rockwell, a former Olympic team physical trainer, "but maybe it was needed. If you have a couple kids die, then it's not blown out of proportion."

Bart Connor, 1984 Olympic medalist, says he is glad the book raised these issues.

"It's a warning flag," he says. "We need to monitor more so we can provide the safest, happiest environment for these kids. I'm just afraid that it will scare people off from gymnastics."

*

"Today, Shannon Miller is more woman than child, 18 and ancient." --From NBC commentary on the 1995 U.S. National Gymnastic Championships, Aug. 19.

*

With two daughters at the Oklahoma gym run by Steve Nunno--Miller's coach--Jo was in a position to see firsthand the harsh methods used in the name of winning.

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