It takes one tiny misstep, as small as a misplaced hand or an improper landing, to end a gymnast’s career. Forget the wear and tear that years of an intense, heavy-impact sport leave on a body. Even with all the skill in the world, a gymnast can make a single slip-up, and a season — or even a career — is all over. For this reason, the injury rate for gymnasts resembles that of contact sports, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians.
Ask a Yale gymnast, and she can say the same thing. Every season without fail, the team battles both chronic and new injuries.
“In gymnastics, the injury rate is 100 percent,” Camilla Opperman ’16 said.
The last few years, however, have seen Bulldogs bounce back from moderate to severe injuries.
On a team with 14 athletes, health is a vital component in the gymnastics season. Six athletes compete on every event, and although only five scores count in the final total, injuries quickly take their toll on the team scores.
“There’s such incredible talent on this team, and I wish I could see what we could accomplish if everyone is healthy and injury-free,” Opperman said. “If we were an injury-free team, we’d all be champions on our respective events.”
Opperman, for example, sat out her entire freshman year after a torn ulnar collateral ligament necessitated season-ending Tommy John surgery on her elbow. The injury occurred on the second day of practice, wiping out her season before it began.
A year after Opperman’s injury, teammate Kacie Traina ’17 also tore her UCL, eventually undergoing Tommy John surgery as well, after falling on the same skill. The accident marked Traina’s first major injury and first surgery.
The skill, called a Toe Hecht, is a release element on the uneven bars that requires a gymnast to swing from the low to high bar. The gymnast plants her toes on the low bar, swinging under the bar in a piked position, and then lets go to soar between the bars, catching the higher one. Both Opperman and Traina missed the high bar.
Traina said it was difficult to watch the team do well and know that she was unable to contribute. For Opperman, the same feelings applied.
“Coming in and on the second day, tearing my elbow, then getting a call a week later from the doctor saying I was out for a year, was really hard,” Opperman said. “I felt like I had let the team down, especially because I was close with this group of girls. So that sucked.”
Sloane Smith ’18 was one of three freshmen who came into Yale injured this year. After breaking an ankle earlier in the summer, her recovery slowed when she overcompensated and injured the knee on her opposite leg, she explained.
In the past few weeks, Smith began to work her way into the floor and vault lineups. She made her official debut on March 15 against Brown, contributing a 9.425 on vault and 9.625 on floor.
“In the beginning it was really frustrating. Watching the rest of the team do so well just made me want to be part of it,” Smith said. “In the last few weeks, I’ve been working harder and doing extra numbers in order to make [the] lineup. It’s mostly of my own volition, because it’s just a way to get up to speed.”
This, according to the gymnasts, is common, since even athletes who are unable to compete attend practice. The coaches, Barbara Tonry and Jason Vonk, are very responsive to the gymnasts’ needs and are prepared to adjust training regimens according to those needs, Traina said.
Injured gymnasts go to the gym and run through predetermined conditioning exercises and practice on apparatuses if they can. Gymnasts with impact-related injuries will avoid “punching” events, or events that require heavy landings, like floor or vault. Those recuperating from arm, elbow or shoulder injuries will stick mostly to beam.
Opperman, while recovering, said she trained floor but used either one or no arms. But as creative as these protective techniques are, there is no way to accurately simulate full participation in practice.
“It’s really hard to stay motivated, especially when you’re injured for a long time,” Traina said. “You get bored, you get anxious, you want to do something. So that was rough. This fall was kind of hard.”
Although the team is close-knit, Traina has the advantage of competing alongside her sister, Morgan Traina ’15, this year’s captain.
In high school, the sisters were not on the same team, Kacie Traina explained, because they were at different levels. Additionally, club gymnastics is less team-oriented than college gymnastics.
“Morgan’s always there for me,” Traina said. “All of last year, I was hurt and I got to be her cheerleader. Now this year, she’s definitely been my cheerleader. She comes up before every routine I’ve done and makes sure I’m calm. It’s been incredible having her in the gym.”
While recovering from last year’s elbow injury and this year’s stress fractures in her shin and torn ligaments in her thumb, Traina began working on her beam and bar routines. She made her career debut in Yale’s senior day meet on Feb. 7, exhibitioning beam in front of both her sister and their parents.
Although she usually gets nervous before competing, Traina said, she was not as affected by nerves because she was so excited to finally compete for her team.
Traina built on her exhibition and gradually worked her way into the official lineup. In her third official performance, which took place in the ECAC Championships, she scored a 9.750 on beam, the Bulldogs’ third-highest score on the apparatus.
“I’m slowly getting to be the gymnast I was before the injury,” Traina said. “The team has supported me so much through all of it. It’s the little things, like telling me ‘good job’ after a routine in practice, and it’s constant. It really helped keep me motivated. We build off of each other in that way.”