Sports

When it comes to injuries, gymnasts don’t want to hurt their chances

Boston MA 8/17/18 Ragan Smith on the vault during the US senior women's competition at US Gymnastics at TD Garden. (photo by Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff) topic: reporter:
Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff
Fans at TD Garden had no idea how banged up Ragan Smith was when she competed on the vault Friday.

At the gymnastics world championships last October, US champion Ragan Smith tore three ligaments in her right ankle during warm-ups, the result of a shaky vault landing.

That was significant, a quote-unquote real injury, as was her fractured back in 2016.

She has little time for the rest of it.

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Smith, 18, has three broken toes right now, maybe four. She doesn’t actually know, because in her words, “I don’t like getting checked out before competitions.”

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She doesn’t plan to see a doctor until after Worlds end in November, which may give USA Gymnastics a bit of pause, especially with the increased focus on athlete safety.

“I definitely can push through it,” said Smith, 18, who estimates she hasn’t practiced a day without pain the last year. “I feel like I’ve been through so much. It’s not a sudden injury. You have to forget about it, even if you’re hurting. It’s my decision. I’m very determined to get what I want. I’m not going to let this push me back.”

Friday night at the US Gymnastics Championships at TD Garden, the Lewisville, Texas, native wore a heavy, flesh-colored wrap around her right ankle and foot. The chalk on her legs obscured it, lest the judges be distracted. She showed nary a wince as she twisted her feet and ground her toes into the mats and beams, taking off and landing.

Any gymnast who has competed at a high level would sympathize.

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As a gymnast, 2008 Beijing all-around gold medalist Nastia Liukin said, “You’re just jamming [broken] fingers into the bar. Toes are weird — you don’t realize how much you use them until you break one and it really much it hurts. I guess it’s just having a high pain tolerance from an early age.

“That being said, when you have something serious, you need to take time off. But also, when there’s world championship selections right around the corner, you’re not missing it for your pinkie toe.”

Smith heads into the final day of women’s competition tied for ninth place (53.750 points). With a selection camp for worlds in a few weeks, she is a near-lock to be on the national team — if mostly healthy. Spring-loaded superstar Simone Biles, Morgan Hurd, and Riley McCusker, who finished 1-2-3 on Day 1, will assuredly be in the mix.

Simone Biles, who led after the first day of the US Gymnastics Championships, did so with a toe she said was “shattered in like five pieces”.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff
Simone Biles, who led after the first day of the US Gymnastics Championships, did so with a toe she said was “shattered in like five pieces”.

Biles, who on Friday put up the highest score (60.100) of any gymnast in the world since Rio 2016, did that despite one toe she said is “shattered in like five pieces” and another cracked digit.

Some gymnasts are forced to do without working toes, like football linemen who accept gnarly knuckles. Ripped shoulders, cracked ribs, and face-plants are occupational hazards.

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In training on the uneven bars Wednesday, one teaspoon-sized junior face-planted four times in a row, trying to nail a catch. She got up every time and tried again.

Had it been live competition, she would have felt no sympathy from the judges.

“They don’t feel sorry for kids,” said Laurie DeFrancesco, a nationally rated judge. “They can’t really do that. They have to judge what they see.”

As with any sport, overcoming injuries leads to made-for-TV glory stories (certainly you recall how Kerri Strug won gold in 1996). They are legion in this discipline, so let’s blow the chalk dust off an old one:

At Montreal 1976, Japan’s Shun Fujimoto, competing at his first Olympics at age 26, broke his leg on a tumbling pass.

His team needed more, so Fujimoto attempted a rings routine, leaning on his healthy shoulders. Naturally, he shattered his already-broken leg on the dismount, but landed without as much as a yelp. When the Globe’s Leigh Montville interviewed him the next day, in his room at the athlete’s village, he wore a team gold medal around his neck and a plaster cast on every inch of his right leg.

“I wanted that gold medal,” Fujimoto said through a translator, all those years ago. “I have been working toward it for 11 years and now that I have it, the pain is not bad. No, I have the medal and the pain is gone.”

With a handful of spots on the national team and exactly three on the medal stand, injuries can create opportunity. Winchester’s Alicia Sacramone, captain of the Beijing 2008 team, tore her Achilles’ tendon at 2011 Worlds. It was essentially a career-ending injury. It also gave Needham’s Aly Raisman a shot at Olympic glory in London the following year.

On the men’s side, top dog Sam Mikulak’s streak of four national titles in a row ended last year when he tore his Achilles’. Mikulak was in fine, fist-pumping form Saturday, winning his fifth all-around title.

Smith sees success as much a matter of survival as skill.

“It’s definitely who’s in the game the longest,” she said. “It’s who’s not injured. That’s who they pick [for national teams], I feel like. You’re training your whole life for one year, when you have to be at your highest peak . . . It’s not the end of the world. It definitely hurts. But it is what it is.”

Eventual US champion Sam Mikulak dismounts at the end of his parrellel bars routine Saturday at TD Garden.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff
Eventual US champion Sam Mikulak dismounts at the end of his parrellel bars routine Saturday at TD Garden.

As Bela Karolyi once told the Globe about his sport: “Is not golf.”

Which is soon understood by anyone with an eye toward winning a ribbon in gymnastics, to say nothing of a medal.

During a break in the action Friday, one pink-shirted hopeful named Skyler wore a splint on her left middle finger as she was interviewed on the video board.

“I broke it doing a back handspring,” she told the enthusiastic host.

She was grinning.

Matt Porter can be reached at matthew.porter@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattyports.