Utah gymnast Sydney Soliski places her hand on the gymnastics mat palm side down and then puts her wrist into as much flexion as she can, illustrating what a foot and ankle looks like as a gymnast prepares to take off on a tumbling pass.
“You are looking for the recoil so everything is in extreme flexion when you come out of it,” she said. “You aren’t pushing off so much as rebounding into floor passes.”
All that pressure means there is an incredible load put on a gymnast’s Achilles tendon: studies show approximately as much as 15 times a gymnast’s body weight, as compared to 12 times the load by a runner.
If everything works as it should, the resulting power gives a gymnast enough ‘oomph,’ to complete a floor pass. Unfortunately, sometimes things go wrong. The result can be a catastrophic injury such as the Achilles tendon tear suffered by Utah’s Jillian Hoffman a week ago at Cal.
Hoffman was warming up on the floor when the tendon gave way, abruptly ending her season.
Out of all the injuries gymnasts can potentially have, the Achilles tendon tear is one of the most feared. Not only does it require a long recovery of nine months or more, but unlike most injuries an Achilles tendon tear isn’t predicated by a mistake. Sometimes, in the words of former Utah coach Greg Marsden, the rubber band just breaks.
“It’s terrifying,” Soloski said. “Some people say it’s a weird feeling before or some say their calf muscle is tight, but you never know when it is going to happen. It’s definitely scary, but at the end of the day you just have to go for it.”
Close followers of Utah’s program might think the Utes are jinxed when it comes to Achilles tendon tears because there have been so many. The most devastating and memorable one occurred in 2015 when Tory Wilson tore her Achilles taking off on a floor pass in the Pac-12 Championships. The tear caused her to land short on the pass, resulting in her breaking bones in both feet.
Other notable Achilles tears include Kim Allan (2001), Corrie Lothrop (2013), Kassandra Lopez (2014), Kari Lee (2016, Kim Tessen (2017) and Cammy Hall (2019).
But the Utes are hardly alone in suffering these injuries. In fact, a 2020 study of 16 NCAA sports from 2005-2016 found women’s gymnastics had the highest rates of Achilles injuries per exposure, at a rate of 16.73 per 100,000. Second was men’s basketball at a rate of 4.26 per 100,000 exposure.
There are a lot of factors as to why gymnastics suffers so many Achilles injuries. Chronic inflammation of the tendon and all the micro-trauma caused by gymnastics that results in cumulative damage can make the tendon susceptible.
Often, much of that damage is done before gymnasts arrive in college and at the club level, where there tends to be more repetition and longer training hours than in college.
Utah coach Tom Farden tries to do what he can to minimize risks, but clearly there isn’t a foolproof answer. Utah’s gymnasts are tested with a force plate frequently in hopes a weakness in the Achilles will be identified and a range of exercise and therapies are done to keep the gymnasts in as good a shape as possible. But as Utah fans know, there isn’t a foolproof system.
“It is beyond frustrating,” Farden said. “As a coach, I’ve always believed it is one of our jobs to prevent injuries and take as good a care of the gymnasts as possible. Every time we have an athlete get injured we always go back and look and say ‘What did we do wrong?’”
The best that gymnasts can do to prevent the injuries is train as well as they can, rest as well as they can and think positively as well as they can. The latter can be hard, Hall said, especially after an injury occurs. Like others, she didn’t have any indication her Achilles was going to tear in 2019, save for some tightness during a conditioning drill one day.
“But then it went away and I thought I was fine,” she said. “You hope for the best, but it really is out of your control.”
Even now, years later, Hall said she still struggles to keep her focus away from her Achilles.
“I worked with a sports psychologist but it still took a long time and it can still be scary,” she said.
Having gone through the rehab process herself, Hall has spoken to Hoffman and given her a rundown of what to expect, namely, a long recovery.
“I told her the boot was going to be her best friend because she is going to be wearing it for a long time,” Hall said. “It is a slow process.”
One too many gymnasts know.