DALLAS — Abigail Moriearty was 5 when she watched Nastia Liukin win all-around Olympic gold in 2008 and decided that’s what she had to do, too.
Now 9 and the winner of a gold, silver and fifth-place finish in national championships, Abigail, of Allen, Texas, is more driven than ever.
“I feel like I’m flying,” she says after an impressive gymnastic flip at World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Plano, Texas, where Liukin once trained under the watchful eyes of her father, Valeri Liukin, the facility’s owner. Abigail likes to linger on the sidewalk outside the building after practice and look up at the large posters of Liukin and fellow champion Carly Patterson that don the entrance doors.
“That will be me up there,” she says softly on a warm September afternoon, grasping her wooden practice blocks as she extends into a handstand before returning to earth and wrapping her arms tightly around the blocks as she heads to her car.
Gymnastics can help inspire a child to stay fit. It’s great exercise, as long as parents understand the risks, according to experts at Stop Sports Injuries, a Rosemont, Ill.-based campaign launched by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine and other medical organizations in 2010.
More than 425,000 kids ages 6-17 were hurt while participating in gymnastics from 1990 to 2005, with 67,810 in 2011, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The average age of those injured was 11, and 82 percent of the injured were girls.
Even so, for children, gymnastics ranks well behind bicycling, basketball, football, baseball and soccer among the leading causes of sports injuries, according to the National Safe Kids Campaign and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Abigail’s doctor, Richard Rhodes, orthopedic and sports medicine doctor for Texas Health Ben Hogan Sports Medicine, says he sees interest in gymnastics peak in his patients around the Olympics and expects sign-ups to be particularly strong with a new team of American gymnasts winning the gold.
“Any time the American teams do well, it gets a lot of youngsters excited,” he says.
Some experts worry about traumatic injuries, such as head and spinal damage. Dr. Sabatino Bianco, a neurosurgeon at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital, says he’s treated athletes who have attempted unfortunate flips and somersaults, particularly on trampolines. (The Consumer Product Safety Commission lists trampolines as seventh among the top activities that send kids to emergency rooms, behind basketball, bicycling, football, soccer, baseball and skateboarding.)
Many injuries can be prevented with careful conditioning, training and safety measures, including those trained as spotters to catch athletes before they fall, experts say.
Some injuries, however, are hard to prevent even with the best care, Rhodes notes. Abigail sprained a wrist on a bad landing in June that took more than three months to heal. Olympic champion McKayla Maroney fractured her left tibia Sept. 9 when she fell on her uneven bars dismount during the second stop of the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastic Champions.
Abigail practices three times a week, which is about as much as kids should do, Rhodes and Bianco agree. Overuse and simple stress leave gymnasts vulnerable to injuries in the ankles, feet, lower back, knees, wrists and hands, they say. These injuries are rarely severe at the outset, but if untreated they can lead to chronic pain and bone fractures.
They can be of particular concern for growing children who run the risk of damaging growth plates with prolonged exercise that requires lifting or impact in the critical years before puberty when bones mature, Bianco says.
Engaging in multiple sports is not only better for the body in preventing overuse, but can generate additional pathways in the brain that lead to a more complete cerebellum, Bianco says.
Abigail follows that advice; her mother was driving her to her other passion, ballet, after gymnastics.
Here’s more safety advice from Abigail’s doctor, mother, coach and Abigail herself.
Dr. Richard Rhodes, Abigail’s doctor: • Pick your facility with care. You want the highest possible ratio of experienced spotters to students who are knowledgeable about preventing injury.
• Prepare. Improve your core strength before you try new moves — your abdominals, lower back muscles and hip muscles as well as overall conditioning.
• When in doubt, check it out. Small overuse stress injuries can become fractures or sources of chronic pain if not properly evaluated, treated and rested right away.
Alice Moriearty, Abigail’s mom: • Observe. When you have a child who won’t tell you when she’s in pain, look for subtle signs of injury, such as being extra quiet or holding a pen or pencil, fork or spoon strangely or transferring things into the other hand.
• Put your best food forward. Kids should limit sweets and carbohydrates, as they can slow reflexes and make them tired. Moriearty gives Abigail an apple and water before practice.
• Make the dreamers sleep. Abigail goes to bed by 7:30 except for the nights that practice ends at 8:30; she goes to bed right after practice on those nights.
Brandi Wren, Abigail’s coach: • Show up. Kids get injured when they don’t keep up with their conditioning and are not at classes consistently enough to learn the techniques.
• Practice makes perfect. Never do a move on the floor that you haven’t done at least 100 times successfully with a spotter.
• Listen. I always tell them, “If at first you don’t succeed, then do what Coach says.”
Abigail: • Be disciplined. Keep your body tight and not loosey-goosey.
• Bond with teammates. You have to trust your base — your partner who is catching you.
• Listen to your coach. Coach says, “If at first you don’t succeed, then do what Coach says,” but I say, “Just do what Coach says and you’ll succeed the first time.”
Dr. Grant L. Jones and Dr. Brian R. Wolf of Stop Sports Injuries (stopsportsinjuries.org) say parents should make sure that coaches:
• Have gymnasts wear safety gear, including wrist guards, hand grips, footwear, ankle or elbow braces, and pads.
• Make first aid available at competitions and practices.
• Inspect equipment to ensure it’s in good condition, including padded floors, secured mats under every apparatus and safety harnesses for learning difficult moves.
• Insist on spotters when learning new skills.