By Zoe Collins Rath
Despite hours in the gym and weight room, practices and taking good care of their bodies, elite athletes still sustain physical injuries that can take them out of their sport for as much as a year.
One of the most common injuries is a torn ACL, one of the four crucial ligaments to stabilize the knee. Girls of all ages and women are more prone to ACL tears. The focus for these injuries are often seen in basketball and soccer players, but gymnasts need to be included more in the conversation.
“My concern is watching a kid who doesn’t fully understand their body and the way to properly land,” said gymnastics coach DeAvera Todd a coach in Atlanta but a former UIC Flame. “They could blow their knees out because there is no strength in the quads and glutes to protect them from extremely hard skills.”
Coach Dee, as she is called, is a former gymnast at the University of Illinois-Chicago and is currently teaching in Atlanta. She says that ACL injuries are very common in gymnastics and are often seen in two events — performances on floor because gymnasts do the most difficult skills and vaults landing and landing mechanics pose risks.
In order to do her part as a coach to prevent ACL tears, Todd focuses on conditioning and strength every day to keep bodies strong. To have strong muscles in the legs, such as the quads and glutes, is something that can help gymnasts land with stability because the muscles will protect the athlete while they do hard skills. She sometimes receives push back from parents that she conditions girls “too hard’’ but it is a form of preventative care, she said.
“I am going to make sure you recover in case you do have an injury,” she said. “If we can do preventative training I can do that.”
If more work needs to be done outside of the gym, Todd said, she will bring a parent aside and mention that their athlete needs to see a physical therapist. This is where someone such as John Denlinger comes in to help.
Denlinger is a physical therapist at the Athletico in Evanston and works with athletes who have torn their ACLs. The approximate recovery time with a torn ACL is roughly one year.
“In sports anything can happen but we can do our best to avoid it as much as we can,” he said.
There is no way to easily prevent ACL tears from happening because whenever they occur, it is always a freak accident. Specifically what happens is the force driving the tibia, a bone in the leg, goes forward a bit too much for the ligaments to handle.
Patients with an ACL tear typically have their leg, locked in a brace for months, allowing it to heal with minimal range of motion. Denlinger works on getting the range of motion of the leg back with his patient along with strengthening the glutes and other muscles. But the part that will take time is activating the quad muscle, one of the leg muscles that can protect a gymnast when they land. With time the athlete will be able to jump, cut and land like they used to.
When working with Todd on landing from a trick, finding the space to land and absorbing the contact with the feet is important to the athlete when coming back from an injury. It takes months to perfect this and, if not done correctly, another injury can occur.
“You sometimes have to paint a scary picture to show what could happen,” she said.