SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE SPORTS writer Joan Ryan, 35, spent 15 months interviewing past Olympians and present hopefuls for this book. "I can't even watch gymnastics anymore," she says.
What were the worst things you saw?
The incessant name-calling—the belittling of the girls by the coaches is shocking. It's crazy to see what kinds of injuries these girls train with; it's not uncommon to take eight to 10 Advils a day as well as cortisone and Novocain and other painkillers. In 1992 every girl on the Olympic gymnastics team performed with injuries; it's like the NFL for 15-year-olds."
For most girls, what are the emotional costs?
These girls are obsessed with weight and how they look. A 1994 University of Utah study of elite gymnasts found that 59% admitted to some form of eating disorder. The sad thing is that they achieve so much, but they can't see that. They are not taught to be proud of themselves. Physically, they begin menstruating late because of strenuous exercise coupled with poor eating habits. Then they don't get enough estrogen, and that can lead to infertility and weak bones.
How do the parents get sucked in?
They want to give their kids every opportunity to be happy or succeed, so they support them without question. But gradually training builds to 8 hours a day, abuse starts, and it becomes normal because the coach is abusing everyone. Parents of elite gymnasts tell me they imagine themselves cheering in the stands at the Olympics. It's a huge fantasy