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Haven't Got Time for the Pain

Why is it elite athletes seem to tolerate injuries more easily? Intense training helps, but sometimes when you're pumped, nothing can keep you from 'the zone.'


Like many Americans, Bob Richards was teary-eyed as he watched gymnast Kerri Strug vault on a severely sprained ankle to help win the first Olympic gold for U.S. women gymnasts in team competition.

"My wife and I bawled like babies," he confessed on Wednesday, the day after the drama unfolded in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

Behind his tears was much more than a spectator's sympathy.

In 1952, Richards competed in Olympic pole vaulting with a pulled left hamstring. Four years later he sprained the Achilles tendon on his left foot--his takeoff foot.

Like Strug, he bit the bullet, and in his case took home the gold both times.

Stories of Olympians and other elite athletes competing in pain are legion:

* In the 1964 Games, Joe Frazier won the gold medal in heavyweight boxing with a broken left thumb.

* Dodger Kirk Gibson had injuries to both knees, but smacked a home run in the 1988 World Series and then limped around the bases, giving us one of the greatest moments in L.A sports history.

* Despite severe dehydration, Gabriele Andersen-Scheiss, a Swiss marathon runner, staggered across the finish line at the 1984 Olympics in L.A.

* Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath led the New York Jets to the 1968 NFL championship even though he suffered from deterioration of the knee joints and loss of stability.

* Shun Fujimoto broke his leg at the knee during his floor exercise routine during the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, but continued to compete and helped the Japanese men's gymnastics team take the gold.

Are these high-caliber athletes innately more capable of dealing with pain during physical activity than the rest of us?

There are individual differences and cultural variation in the ability to deal with pain, experts concede. But the ability to perform despite the pain is a byproduct of training, coupled with the realization that the opportunity to win an Olympic medal or other prestigious athletic event is often just once in a lifetime.

"Their lives are basically geared to this one or two events," says Dr. Peter Bruno, a New York City internist and team physician for the New York Knicks. "When they finish and get the gold, silver or bronze, it's the pinnacle. For that reason they are willing to sacrifice everything for the moment of glory to bring it home for the U.S., themselves, whatever. They can become good at ignoring pain."

Indeed, a little denial can go a long way.

"These are very highly disciplined people who have an ability, in some instances, to disassociate their mind from their body when other people would quit," says Dr. Larry Gibbons, president and medical director of the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, who often works with elite athletes.

Dr. Thomas Schmalzried, associate medical director of the Joint Replacement Institute at Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles, agrees. "What's extraordinary about these people is attitude and motivation. They may have exactly the same level of sensitivity to pain as you or I, but what they also have is tremendous mental fortitude.

"One of the byproducts of the discipline, of the hours of training, is the ability to focus--to get 'in the zone' where you are able to concentrate, to focus your mind," says Schmalzried, who played basketball at Stanford University from 1976-'80 despite recurrent ankle sprains. "The focus is so intense I don't want to say you don't notice the pain, but the pain is not your focus."

Pain management is also what separates the weekend warriors from the pros. While amateurs would focus on the pain, a highly trained athlete focuses on the performance and doesn't allow the distraction to take over, says Toni Farrenkopf, vice chair of psychology for the Legacy Health System in Portland, Ore.

"When Strug came off that first vault and was limping back and it was a choice, by that time she was running on pure pre-programming," he says. "We would probably fold at that time."

Adds Dr. Lewis Yocum, a physician at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic at Centinela Hospital Medical Center and team physician for the California Angels: "The amateur will obviously back off faster because the rewards are different."


Medical literature also suggests it's the training that helps athletes cope with the pain.

In a study to determine pain sensitivity in habitual runners compared with normally active control subjects, researchers from the New York State Psychiatric Institute found that the runners' threshold for cold temperatures was higher than that of controls. But they also found no difference between the groups in their heart rate and blood pressure responses to cold, suggesting the differences in response were not due to autonomic nervous system reactions. Rather, as the researchers conclude in a report published in the journal Pain in 1994, the runners' higher threshold was a result of their adaptation during regular training.

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