Utah gymnastics: Collegiate gymnasts competing on borrowed time
Even before the pain subsided in her torn Achilles tendon, Utah gymnast Corrie Lothrop sat on the floor of the Huntsman Center last year and thought about her future.
"I was lying there thinking that I didn't know if I could do it another year," she said of gymnastics. "I thought it was a sign my body was telling me, 'You're done.' "
Ultimately Lothrop told her body to hold off on any retirement plans and decided to tag an extra year onto her college career.
As for now, Lothrop, a senior, plans to return for the 2014-15 season because the injury she suffered was early enough in the season she received a medical hardship, although she hasn't totally committed to returning.
"I don't want to give up, but I want to see how my body reacts this year," Lothrop said.
Lothrop's dilemma is a common one for collegiate gymnasts. The wear and tear on the gymnasts' bodies from years of training adds up.
Gymnasts don't like the idea that they might be "over the hill" at the age of 20, but the fact is, despite improved medical care and more awareness of the impacts of long training hours, the clock is ticking. Gymnasts normally are in the twilight of their careers even before they have taken English 101.
Making it through an entire collegiate career can be as challenging as completing a double back somersault.
Whereas redshirt years are often valued in other sports so athletes can add strength and endurance, they can doom gymnasts.
"It is most definitely a young person's sport," Utah co-coach Megan Marsden said. "They come to us at age 18 to 22 and they are on borrowed time. It's hard to extend their careers to 23 or 24 years old. They've had so many years and so many reps on their body, they begin to wonder if they are going to make it another year or if their body is breaking down."
The latest to be in the scenario is Kassandra Lopez, a junior from Tucson, Ariz., who tore her Achilles tendon before Utah's season opener.
Lopez, still on crutches following her surgery, plans to redshirt so she'll have two years.
"This year feels like a waste for me," she said. "For me, doing what I love for so long, adding another year doesn't seem like a problem."
But then, Lopez adds she started gymnastics "late," at the ripe old age of 10 years old. Many of the gymnasts such as Lothrop who come from the elite levels started gymnastics when they were 3 or 4, which makes a huge difference in the overall training load on gymnasts' bodies.
"Corrie started when she was 2, so that adds a lot more," Lopez said. "Right now, my body feels good."
Rarely does Lothrop describe her body as feeling good. Her back aches from all the compression occurring in landings while other joints are achy and sore from repetitions.
"There are aches and pains, sometimes more than just a little," she said. "It's what every gymnast goes through."
The durability of gymnasts is such a concern that Marsden said the coaches take into account the training hours they've had when they are being evaluated as recruits.
If the Utes have a roster stacked with just elite gymnasts, then there is concern the training room might be busier than the training arena.
"We've found the ideal team for us is to have a good mix of elites who have the big names and reputations the judges know and to have good level 10s whose bodies aren't beat up and they are still hungry for winning. We've been fortunate we've had elites who have had a lot of good years ahead of them, but they've still put in a lot more numbers."
Utah does what it can to help extend the gymnasts' careers by cutting back on repetitions, using landing pits and often training below the 20-hour-limit rule set by the NCAA. The Utes also spend a good portion of their time strength training and working on cardio to become fitter and stronger overall, and more able to handle the rigors of training.
Still, there are always risks, and overuse injuries can't always be prevented.
"A doctor explained it to me that there is an accumulated effect for all the micro-trauma they have over a long period of time," Greg Marsden said. "At some point, if you bend a coat hanger 100 times, it may snap."
Additionally, gymnasts are performing tougher tricks now than they once did, adding to the strain on the bodies.
"When I was competing, we didn't talk about sticking our events at all," said Megan Marsden, who competed for the Utes from 1981-84 and is now the Utes' co-coach with her husband. "It was more about staying on the equipment. Now the focus is on sticking, and that is a lot harder on the bodies."
It all adds up to a sort of alarm clock in the gymnasts' heads. At some point or another, it will buzz and their time is up. Many just hope that buzzer won't go off until their senior year.
"It's something you think about a lot," Lothrop said. "You want to keep competing, but you don't know if your bones and your body will let you."
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More Utah gymnasts who used redshirt years during their careers:
Theresa Kulikowski • 2000 redshirt, lettered in 1999, 2001-03). Won the NCAA balance beam titles in 1999 and 2001 and all-around in 1999
Gritt Hofmann • 2002 redshirt, lettered in 2003-06. Earned All-American honors on the floor in 2005 and earned five victories as a senior
Beth Rizzo • 2006 redshirt, lettered in 2007-10. Became just second walk-on to earn All-American honors, doing so on the floor exercise in 2007
Kyndal Robarts • 2011 redshirt, lettered in 2008-10, '12. Won the 2012 NCAA Regional floor title and earn first-team All-Pac-12 honors on the balance beam