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Christy's Death

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years ago

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Christy's Death - July 26, 1994

 

Return to Christy Henrich main page.

 

 


 


 

Christy Henrich is dead at 22

 

DeArmond, M. (1994, July 27). Ex-star gymnast is dead at 22. Kansas City Star, p. A1.

 

 

Christy Henrich, a one-time world-class gymnast from Independence who had battled eating disorders for several years, died Tuesday. A member of the gymnastics community said Henrich was dead.

 

Relatives would not comment Tuesday night. She had battled anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

 

She had been hospitalized in Independence earlier this month.

 

Henrich came within 0.118 of a point of qualifying for the 1988 U.S. Olympic team. The next year she took fourth on the uneven parallel bars at the 1989 World Championships.

 

But by fall 1990, Henrich was so weak that she was pulled from the USA-USSR Challenge meet in Oregon. She retired from gymnastics in January 1991.

 

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that mainly affects young women and is characterized by an obsession with weight loss and an aversion to eating. Bulimics eat but then purge their food by vomiting or using laxatives.

 

By midsummer 1993, Henrich publicly admitted the depths of her problems. Her weight had plunged to a mere 63 pounds. She had been admitted to an Independence hospital in critical condition, then transferred to a psychiatric center in Shawnee for counseling to overcome the twin eating disorders.

 

"My life is a horrifying nightmare," she said. "It feels like there's a beast inside of me, like a monster. It feels evil." In August 1993, Henrich had recovered enough to attend a sold-out luncheon at the Kansas City Club aimed at raising money for her continuing medical bills as well as for emotional support.

 

Her medical expenses topped $100,000.

 

Gail Vaughn, a counselor who had volunteered her services, said Henrich was getting better but that she had a long way to go.

 

Shortly after that, Henrich quit seeing Vaughn.

 

"I told her that she had to want this as much as everybody wanted it for her," Vaughn said this month, shortly after Henrich returned to the Medical Center of Independence when her mother could not fully rouse her at their home.

 

Family friends said Henrich turned at some point to alternative methods of treatment, including hypnosis.

 

She was known in gymnastics as E.T.--Extra Tough. That toughness helped her climb to the elite level of her sport.

 

In March 1988, Christy Henrich stood 4 feet 10 inches and weighed a muscled 100 pounds. She was among the top women gymnasts in the country and stood on the verge of realizing an Olympic dream.

 

During a critique session during a national-team trip to Budapest, Hungary, Henrich heard a gymnastics judge tell her that she'd have to watch her weight if she intended to fly as high as she hoped as a gymnast.

 

"I know that judge," said Al Fong, then Henrich's coach at the Great American Gymnastics Express in Blue Springs.

 

"She isn't mean. I can't believe she came right out and said, 'Christy, you're fat.' But that's the way Christy took it. She took it to heart, way down deep, and she could never get rid of it.

 

"Every five minutes the rest of that trip it was, 'Al, do you think I'm fat? '" Henrich lost seven pounds in the next three months, apparently by paying closer attention to diet and by stepping up an already Olympian workout schedule.

 

It was almost good enough. She finished second in the all-around at the U.S. Championships in 1989.

 

She still kept her eyes focused on the dream of the next Olympics in 1992. She finished fourth on the uneven parallel bars at the 1989 World Championships. But some time around then the vision became dangerously blurred by what Fong came to refer to as "her personal demons. " She looked at food no longer as sustenance but as temptation.

 

She skipped meals. She pretended to eat others. When hunger made demands too insistent to ignore, she ate and then vomited.

 

No one seemed to notice it all back then, including Christy Henrich. Gradually, her coaches, her friends, her family suddenly seemed estranged.

 

"A lot of times I feel separated, like I'm not with them," she said in an interview about that time. "A lot of people probably think that's crazy. It's probably not that way." In fall 1990, at a USA-USSR Challenge meet in Oregon, Fong pulled her from a bars competition

when it became apparent in practice that Henrich didn't have the strength to compete safely.

 

Fong talked to Henrich and her parents about seeking psychiatric counseling, and Sandy and Paul Henrich agreed. Fong also helped the family arrange that, as well as nutritional therapy.

 

Photo CAPTION: Christy Henrich reached the peak of her gymnastic career in the late 1980s. She died Tuesday at the age of 22.

 

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Anorexia, bulimia rise in athletics

 

Bavley, A. (1994, July 28). Anorexia, bulimia rise in athletics. Kansas City Star, p. A1.

 

 

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia, the eating disorders that claimed the life of world-class gymnast Christy Henrich Tuesday, are an increasingly recognized hazard among female athletes, experts say. Driven to succeed and to maintain what coaches and judges consider an ideal weight or body shape, many female athletes are falling prey to a triad of potentially deadly conditions: disordered eating, loss of menstruation and osteoporosis.

 

"Christy Henrich is an example of how serious it can be," said Aurelia Nattiv, a Santa Monica, Calif., physician who treats many female athletes for eating disorders. "It can really be a downward spiral to death." Henrich, an Independence resident who came close to qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team in 1988, died after battling eating disorders for several years. She was 22.

 

Though Nattiv emphasized that Henrich's case was an extreme, numerous studies of female athletes reveal striking evidence that they are driving themselves to unhealthy degrees: As many as 62 percent of female college gymnasts suffer from disordered eating patterns, one study found.

 

These eating patterns include anorexia, the severe self-denial of food that can lead to malnutrition and even starvation; bulimia, a pattern of binge eating followed by purging by use of laxatives or by self-induced vomiting; and other less serious conditions that still can lead to inadequate nutrition.

 

Various studies show that up to 66 percent of female athletes experience amenorrhea, the absence of three to six consecutive menstrual cycles. The condition can occur on its own, but it is often the direct result of eating disorders. About 2 to 5 percent of the general population experiences amenorrhea.

 

When amenorrhea occurs, the level of the female hormone estrogen drops and there is rapid loss of bone mass, a condition called osteoporosis. According to some studies, the spinal density of some young female athletes is similar to that of women in their 70s and 80s. The studies indicate that these athletes' bones may never recover and that they may be more susceptible to fractures of the hip and spine.

 

"Potentially all adolescent and some adult female athletes are at risk, particularly at the elite level," says a 1993 report on these problems by the American College of Sports Medicine.

 

"The pressure to perform in modern athletics has never been greater. Athletes appear to be willing and eager to attempt any measure to achieve an advantage. " Among star female athletes who have gone public with their eating disorders are Olympic gymnasts Cathy Rigby, Nadia Comaneci and Kathy Johnson; diver Megan Neyer; and tennis player Zina Garrison.

 

Although eating disorders may also affect some male athletes, the conditions generally are far more common among women.

 

As many as one in every 100 girls and young women may be afflicted with anorexia, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

 

And eating disorders may develop in girls as young as 7, experts say.

 

These girls and young women are often perfectionists who use discipline over their eating habits as a way to gain control over their lives, said Ann Gabrick, program director of the eating disorders unit at Baptist Medical Center.

 

"They feel they're the only one in the family who has to take care of everything," she said. "Christy Henrich was certainly a good example: 'I've got to be all and do all for the family.'" In many cases, women who develop eating disorders come from homes where family members suffer from alcoholism or depression, or where other great stresses are placed on them.

 

For example, some years ago when a financial crisis hit agriculture and many families lost their farms, Gabrick says she saw more patients coming from the farming regions of western Kansas.

 

While eating disorders are common among athletes, "compulsive athleticism" is a problem among many people who have eating disorders, said Timothy Brewerton, a psychiatrist and director of the eating disorders program at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

 

Brewerton's study of his own patients showed that 25 percent were compulsive exercisers, exercising every day for at least an hour.

 

"Many exercise up to several hours a day," Brewerton said. "This can be a tremendous strain on the heart." The danger is especially great, he said, among persons with bulimia, because when they purge they lose potassium, which is essential to proper functioning of the heart and other muscles.

 

"This is a real setup for death," he said.

 

Treatment of eating disorders may involve outpatient care or, if the physical damage is severe, hospitalization.

 

Gabrick said she uses a team approach with patients, providing them with individual or family counseling, visits to a physician for psychiatric medications, and advice from a dietitian.

 

In treatment, these women are asked to examine their distorted body images and their obsession with food, which they've often used to avoid dealing with painful emotions, Gabrick said.

 

"Many (bulimic) patients say eating is the only way to numb their feelings," she said.

 

 

CAPTION: Christy Henrich competed at the 1988 Olympic trials and missed qualifying by 0.118 of a point. The gymnast died Tuesday of complications arising from eating disorders. Coaches' and gymnasts' remembrances of her are on Page D1.

 

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Henrich was a hero in the gym

 

DeArmond, M. (1994, July 28). Henrich was a hero in the gym: Her all-out effort impressed those she trained for and with. Kansas City Star, p. D1

 

 

Diane Stockard gazed across the heads of tots prancing across the mats at the Great American Gymnastics Express and in her mind saw Christy Henrich. "There's still some of Christy out there," Stockard, one of Henrich's former coaches at the club in Blue Springs, said Wednesday. "She was very hard on herself in her failures. She showed her anger. She showed her frustration. She showed disappointment very openly.

 

"She did everything whole-heartedly, all the time." On Tuesday, in the Intensive Care Unit at Research Medical Center, Christy Henrich died of the effects of anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

 

The cause of death was listed as multiple organ system failure.

 

"Basically, everything shut down," said Clara Scott, a spokesman at Research Medical Center.

 

Henrich's well-muscled body dwindled from 93 pounds at the 1989 world championships to about 50 pounds when the eating disorders held her in their firmest grip. She was 22.

 

Sandy and Paul Henrich made funeral arrangements Wednesday and kept memories of their daughter private. (Obituary in Deaths, Section C.) Paul Henrich said they preferred not to talk to reporters.

 

Their daughter retired from gymnastics in 1991. Her health had deteriorated so badly by May 1993 that her mother said she feared Christy might die.

 

Christy rallied, underwent extensive treatment and brought her weight back up to 65 pounds before suffering a final relapse.

 

"Everybody can blame themselves and say, 'I didn't help her enough,'" former teammate Gwen Spidle said at Great American's south gym, where she worked out Wednesday morning. "We did. But it had to come from her, to heal herself. She'd say she had it under control. And then she'd just go back down.

 

"It's really sad."

 

Officials at USA Gymnastics in Indianapolis, the organization that included Henrich on five U.S. women's national teams, reacted with regret.

 

"Our deepest sympathy goes out to those who knew and loved Christy," said Sandy Knapp, USA Gymnastics chairman of the board.

 

Relations between the Henrich family and USA Gymnastics often were strained by finger-pointing the last few years. Sandy Henrich has at times been vocal in her criticism of what she believe the sport had done to her daughter.

 

However, she thanked the national governing body for its support within the last year.

 

USA Gymnastics, the local gymnastics community and the Kansas City Sports Commission all cooperated on a fund-raising luncheon last August attended by former Olympic gymnasts Kim Zmeskal, Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner.

 

Kathy Kelly, USA Gymnastics women's program director, remembered Henrich as "a dedicated athlete and respected team member. She will be sadly missed."

 

Spidle remembers learning from Henrich's competitive influence.

 

"When I first came, I was like these little kids here now," Spidle said. "They know me, but not real well. Toward the end, I worked out with the elite group. She kept me under her wing and took me along with her.

 

"Everybody always looked up to her. One of the other girls was saying, 'When I'd go home, I'd say I saw Christy do this today. And she talked to me.' She was No. 1 in the gym." Today, the tykes of Kansas City's gymnastics world - barely older than Christy when she began her training in the sport at the age of 4 - revealed how fleeting that influence can be.

 

"I think I've heard of her," said Ashley Evans, 9. "But I'm not sure. " Jackie Flanery, 6, merely shook her head back and forth.

 

Al Fong, Henrich's main coach at Great American, had prepared himself for her death.

 

"You change physically, you change emotionally, you change mentally," Fong said. "If you have a distorted picture of yourself physically, it just carries right along that you're going to have a distorted picture of reality.

 

"It's been a long time coming. It couldn't possibly be a shock to anybody that the inevitable came yesterday." Fong remembers the young Christy, who stayed in Kansas City to carve out her place in U.S. national gymnastics. She placed fourth in the uneven parallel bars at the 1989 world championships and came within 0.118 of a point of making the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.

 

"She was a great kid, a great gymnast," Fong said.

 

"She was driven from an early age, to the point that she had blinders on. She worked five times as hard as anybody. She didn't become good because she was talented. She became good because she worked so hard and she had this kind of focus. She could only see one thing.

 

"When she came back to the gym after the '89 world championships, she couldn't do a lot of her skills. She would get so mad, she would throw herself off the bars, throw herself off the beam. She'd come crashing down on the floor. It got to be so dangerous that I had to ask her to leave. I said, 'Christy, we can't do this.'" Henrich came back, but she never again competed at the world-class level.

 

In late 1990, Fong said, after Henrich was so weak she couldn't complete a bars routine safely, he gave her an ultimatum.

 

"I had to say, 'Christy. You can't come back. I love you. I will help you. I'll jump through hoops of fire with you. But you can't come back until you work with the professionals, get healthy. You've got to do it first.'" Even after the disorders forced her into retirement, Fong remembers an incident that showed how strong Henrich's drive to try was.

 

The 1992 Summer Olympics had concluded in Barcelona. A week later, Fong said, he received a telephone call from Christy, asking him to meet with her.

 

"She says, 'Al, I'm really jazzed. I want to train for '96 (the Atlanta Olympics). I know I can do it. I'd like to start training.'" Fong said he told her that was a great goal, that he would help, but that she had to whip the eating disorders.

 

"She never called back," Fong said Wednesday.

 

Fong characterized his recent relationship with the Henrichs as horrible.

 

"Christy was really bitter," Fong said. "She basically told everybody over the last month or so what a bad guy I am and how I mistreated her."

 

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associate Disorders in Highland Park, Ill., an estimated 8 million people in the United States suffer from eating disorders. Among those, ANAD estimates 3 to 6 percent of the most serious cases will die.

 

Christy Henrich fell into the range of that terminal statistic Tuesday.

 

"It makes me cry," Gwen Spidle said, "to think about how strong and healthy she used to be."

 

 

Photo CAPTION: Christy Henrich just missed making the United States Olympic team in 1988.

 

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Christy Henrich, Devoted Gymnast

 

Associated Press, The (1994, July 28). Christy Henrich, devoted gymnast. Newsday, p A65.

 

 

Kansas City, Mo. - Christy Henrich, a gymnast who barely missed making the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, died after a long battle with eating disorders that had reduced her to just 60 pounds. She was 22.

 

Miss Henrich, who suffered from anorexia nervosa and bulimia, died Tuesday in the intensive care unit at Research Medical Center, said spokeswoman Clara Scott. The cause of death was listed as multiple organ system failure.

 

"Basically, everything shut down," Scott said.

 

Miss Henrich, a fierce competitor whose nickname was E.T. for Extra Tough, missed making the 1988 Olympic team by 0.0188 of a point. She placed fourth on the uneven parallel bars in the 1989 World Championships. But she was so weak by the fall of 1990 that she withdrew from the USA-USSR Challenge meet in Oregon. She retired from gymnastics in January, 1991.

 

The 4-foot, 10-inch Miss Henrich, who once overheard a judge saying she needed to watch her weight, weighed 93 pounds at the height of her competitive career. She had dropped to 60 pounds when she was hospitalized a year ago. Miss Henrich began training when she was 4 years old.

 

"She was always hopping around, hanging onto things," said her mother, Sandy Henrich, as she recalled the girl's childhood in an interview with The Kansas City Star in 1989. "She couldn't get enough of it."

 

Miss Henrich gave up the normal life of a teenager and devoted herself to gymnastics.

 

"What's a [high school] dance compared to the Olympics?" she said when she was 15. "It's what I want to do. I want it so bad."

 

She said at one time she wanted to be a sports therapist when her career was over.

 

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Gymnast loses eating-disorders battle

 

Knapp, G. (1994, July 27). Former world-class gymnast loses eating-disorders battle. Philadelphia Inquirer, pp. A1, A8.

 

 

She was touch. But the lure to be thinner was tougher.

 

Christy Henrich, a world-class gymnast, once broke her neck and returned to competition three months later. She was nicknamed "E.T." for extra-tough, and she seemed to be able to handle anything--except for the sight of herself in a mirror.

 

She dieted and vomited and starved herself until her body, which had twirled and tumbled through a world-championship meet and brought her within a hair of the 1988 Olympic team, dwindled to 52 pounds. On Tuesday night in a Kansas City, Mo., hospital, Henrich's body shut down, her internal organs ravaged by the effects of two pernicious eating disorders. She was dead at 22.

 

"This is just devastating news," said former Olympian Cathy Rigby, who also battled eating disorders during her gymnastics career. "And, as much as it makes me sad, it makes me angry, because this sort of thing has been going on for so long in our sport, and there's so much denial.

 

Many coaches and gymnasts defended their sport, saying that athletes had to remain slender but not starve themselves. But Rigby and others--including Henrich before her death--have argued that the sport idealizes emaciated pre-adolescents and encourages hazardous eating patterns.

 

Henrich spent the last days of her life in a hospital bed. She entered the medical center in her home town of Independence, Mo., about 2-1/2 weeks ago, and was transferred to the intensive-care unit at the Research Medical Center in Kansas City 10 days later.

 

IMAGE: "Christy Henrich" performing in 1989, just a year after she barely missed making the U.S. Olympic Team. She retired from gymnastics in 1991.

 

Hospital officials declined to say how much Henrich weighed at the time of her death. Last year, Henrich said that a combination of bulimia and anorexia nervosa had driven her weight as low as 52 pounds.

 

The cause of death was listed as multiple organ system failure, hospital spokeswoman Clara Scott said.

 

Both Henrich and her mother, Sandy, have said that the eating disorders began in 1988, when Christy was competing at a meet in Hungary and overheard an American judge suggesting that she was too fat to make the Olympic team.

 

As soon as the young gymnast returned home, her mother said, she insisted on dieting.

 

"And there she was, 4-foot-11 and 95 pounds, without an ounce of fat on her body. She was beautiful," Sandy Henrich told the Washington Post last December. In the same interview, Christy said she often ate nothing more than an apple a day. She recently had spent several months in a psychiatric hospital, raising her weight to 70 pounds.

 

She had retired from gymnastics in January 1991 after fatigue forced her to withdraw from a meet the previous fall. The Henrich family declined to comment publicly on the death yesterday, the hospital spokeswoman said.

 

But in the last year, Sandy Henrich repeatedly has criticized the sport of gymnastics for pressuring young girls to maintain impossibly low body weights. "I would say 99 percent of what happened to Christy is because of the sport," her mother told the Houston Chronicle a year ago. "...Christy was raised in gymnastics, not at her home...All the focus is on the body."

 

Christy said that her coach, Al Fong, taunted her about her weight, calling her the "Pillsbury Dough Boy" and telling her that Russian athletes were thinner and, therefore, better gymnasts.

 

Fong has denied making such comments, and he said yesterday that he tried to discourage Henrich's compulsiveness.

 

"I kicked her out of the gym for her own good," he said. "I said, 'You're going to kill yourself.' She was throwing herself into the equipment because she couldn't do the routines. I set up all these appointments with the nutritionists, and then I found out she wasn't attending those sessions."

 

USA Gymnastics, the sport's national governing body, issued a statement yesterday, expressing sorrow over Henrich's death and detailing its efforts to educate coaches and athletes about nutrition and eating disorders.

 

"USA Gymnastics is painfully aware of the eating-disorder problem in society and are committed to assist, educate and protect the athletes involved in the sport," the released said.

 

Last summer, when the Henrich family asked for help in paying Christy's medical bills, the organization staged several fund-raisers, spokeswoman Luan Peszek said.

 

The USA Gymnastics statement, quoting experts on eating disorders, said: "An estimated 8 million people in this country are suffering from eating disorders. Among these, an estimated 3 to 6 percent of the serious cases will die--far higher death than for any other mental illness."

 

Several other experts said that female athletes--particularly gymnasts, figure skaters, and swimmers--appear to be disproportionately afflicted. More than 90 percent of those affected by eating disorders are women, they said. Models and dancers also are believed to be especially prone to the illnesses.

 

Bulimics tend to purge themselves of food, usually by vomiting or taking laxatives. Anorexia nervosa is a starvation disorder.

 

Anorexics tend to see themselves as obese, even when their bones protrude from their chests. Singer Karen Carpenter's death from a heart ailment caused by anorexia brought national attention to the disease in 1983.

 

"In gymnastics, it's a very high-risk population," said Deborah Kauffmann, a registered nurse at the Mercy Center for Eating Disorders in Baltimore. "I've counseled several gymnasts," she said, "and personally I'm appalled by some of the things they go through--the public weight-ins and the pressure to be at an unreasonably low body weight."

 

But some gymnasts and coaches say that the problem is simply pervasive in American culture.

 

King of Prussia's Kim Kelly, a nationally prominent gymnast who weighs about 110 pounds, said she has never felt an urge to starve herself or take extreme measures to reduce her weight.

 

"I think it's a mental thing," she said. "I don't think it's just the sport. You have to keep weight under control, and some people aren't strong enough, I guess, to do it without going overboard."

 

But Rigby, an Olympian in 1968 and 1972, said the sport of gymnastics encourages excessive thinness. She said she learned about throwing up food from a fellow Olympian in 1968. Another teammate introduced her to laxatives, she said, and her eating disorders continued for 12 years.

 

"Let's face it," she said. "You turn on the TV, and your image of an Olympic gymnast is a little girl, with no body fat."

 

The heaviest woman on the seven-member U.S. Olympic team in 1992 was Wendy Bruce, who weighed 98 pounds. She was 14 pounds heavier than anyone else on the team. The lightest was all-around silver medalist Shannon Miller at 69 pounds.

 

Christy weighed in the low 90s for most of her career, and she missed making the 1988 Olympic team by just .118 of a point. Less than a year later, she fractured a vertebra on a missed dismount from the balance beam.

 

She returned to the gym, as a spectator, four days later in a neck brace and started training a month later.

 

Within three months, she had taken three seconds and a third place at the national championships.

 

IMAGE: "Christy Henrich, with fiancé Bo Moreno at a luncheon in August 1993. The fund-raiser helped pay some of Henrich's medical bills."

 

"She was an extremely strong person. She was a bull, just a tank," Fong said of his former pupil.

 

Rigby, though, thinks that some young women push themselves too hard, trying desperately to satisfy parents, coaches and their own need for perfection.

 

"I can't just blame the coaches," she said. "I know they have a passion for the sport. You have to look at what the parents are doing, too...I know I sound harsh, but I can't stand the thought of someone else succumbing to this."

 

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

 

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Public's skewed image of female athletes takes a costly toll

 

Pucin, D. (1994, July 27). Public's skewed image of female athletes takes a costly toll. Philadelphia Inquirer, pp. D1, D6.

 

 

Here's the problem. We like our female athletes young.

 

We like them tiny. We like them with innocent smiles and bright bouncy ponytails. We like them with braces. We like them in tights or we like them in spangles. We like them to giggle. We like them to do somersaults during which they roll up their tiny bodies tight as the dot that makes a period, or we like them to twirl on ice until we get dizzy watching, or we like them to hit a tennis ball really hard, then talk about going to the mall.

 

Christy Henrich dies at 22 and she weighs less than 60 pounds. If your 10-year-old daughter weighed 60 pounds, you'd stock up on milkshakes and cake and work like crazy to fatten her up.

 

Henrich was almost an Olympic gymnast in 1988. She didn't make the team--missed by less than [2 tenths of] a point--and nobody ever heard of her again. Until she died, because her organs shut down. Because she didn't eat. Because she thought he was fat.

 

Bela Karolyi is this country's most famous gymnastics coach--some would say the best. He coached Mary Lou Retton and Kim Zmeskal. Two years ago, Zmeskal talked about how Bela would call her fat or point out any tiny bulge when she'd put on her workout tights.

 

Kim Kelly, from King of Prussia, who scored higher in the 1992 Olympic trials than some gymnasts who made the team, had her own idea why she didn't compete in Barcelona, Spain. Karolyi was the coach. He didn't like Kelly's "body type." Kelly knew what that meant. She was 18, and she had a grown-up's body. Unacceptable.

 

If you want to be a female athlete and make money--real money--you have three choices. You can be a gymnast, win a gold, smile big, cash in. Or you can be a figure skater. Win your medal young, be pretty and feminine, and join the ice shows. Or you can be a tennis player. In women's tennis these days, you'd better be ranked in the top 10 before you are 20 or you are a has-been.

 

This hasn't been a good year for female athletes. Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding became a horrible soap opera about two young women who had done nothing but skate from the time they were toddlers. Harding had been told she was too muscular, too masculine. Kerrigan was the pretty one. And then people associated with Harding bashed Kerrigan's leg.

 

Jennifer Capriati became a professional tennis player before she turned 14. Now she's 18 and has been arrested twice in sixth months, on charges of shoplifting and of drug possession. Two years ago Capriati was ripped in print for being fat. The British press would mock Capriati for having acne as if, because she could hit a forehand and win tennis matches, she should be immune from acne.

 

Steffi Graf has said she sometimes locks herself up in dark rooms and thinks about how ugly she is and how big her hips are. Graf worries about this, yet she is nothing but strong and athletic.

 

Our national figure-skating champion, now that Harding has been stripped of the title, is a 14-year-old named Michelle Kwan. Here is the big fear at U.S. Figure Skating: that Kwan will "mature" too much by the 1998 Winter Olympics. Then she won't be able to jump so high or spin so fast. The reigning Olympic champion is 16 years old. Oksana Baiul skates like cotton because she is as fragile as the stuff. This is good.

 

If you are a tall, strong, talented female basketball player you might be lucky and get a college scholarship, and then you can move to Europe or Japan and make some money playing professional basketball. Not a lot.

 

And you must leave your home and nobody will hear of you or talk about you. You will not become Michael Jordan, for sure.

 

TV ratings show that women's gymnastics and women's figure skating are the most-watched parts of any Olympics. We love to watch tiny girls stand up to amazing pressure, and we want them to charm the pants off us.

 

Baiul was 16 when she won the gold medal. She had been skating on teams, traveling internationally, practicing hours and hours a day, for at least three or four years, and she had been taking lessons for three or four more years. We don't see the tired 12-year-old coming to some freezing rink at 5 in the morning or the fluish 14-year-old flying halfway around the world so she can get crucial international experience before those Olympics. We don't see it; we don't care.

 

We don't hear Bela Karolyi yell at some 13-year-old who ate a Big Mac. Zmeskal's father talked about how he couldn't believe how little his daughter ate every day.

 

But here's the thing. What if you couldn't compete in the Olympics until you were, say, 18? What if you couldn't take part in international competitions until you were 16?

 

Would we want to watch our female figure skaters if they were 20 years old instead of 16, if they were 5-foot-5 instead of 5-foot-1, if they weighed 120 pounds instead of 90 pounds, if they looked like women instead of boards?

 

Would we like it if our female gymnasts could do only one twist instead of two? What if our figure skaters could do only a double axel instead of a triple?

 

Would we watch?

 

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Illness Attacks Mind and Body

 

Illness attacks mind and body: Eating disorder killed world-class gymnast. (1994, July 29). St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 05B.

 

 

The final telephone call from former national team gymnast Christy Henrich to USA Gymnastics official Kathy Kelly came less than a month ago. "How are you doing?" Kelly asked Henrich, who had withered to 52 pounds last year from her normal weight of 95 because of eating disorders from anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

 

"Sometimes I have good days. Sometimes I have bad days, but I'm doing better," Henrich said from her home in Independence, Mo. "She sounded good," Kelly said Wednesday from her office in Indianapolis. "God, she must have been really smart, because she was so good at hiding it...I believed her, because she was home and not in the hospital. I thought she was on the road back, maybe because I wanted to believe it. "Then, I got a call that she was back in the hospital. And I said to myself, `How can this be?' " On Tuesday night, Henrich, 22, died in the intensive care unit at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo. The cause of death was listed as multiple organ system failure.

 

Judge Called Her Fat

 

Henrich was one of the best gymnasts in the United States in the late 1980s, qualifying for the U.S. national team every year between 1987-1990. She missed making the 1988 Olympic team by 0.188 of a point, but she did earn a place on the 1989 U.S. team at the world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, finishing fourth on the uneven parallel bars.

 

Even as she was competing at the highest levels of her sport, though, Henrich was beginning to be consumed by compulsive eating disorders. She said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post last December that she often ate nothing more than an apple a day. "And then," Henrich said, "it got down to an apple slice a day." All the while, she was training up to nine hours a day in the gym. "I would never wish this upon my worst enemy," she said in the interview. "Just to think about what happened is disgusting. But it did happen."

 

At the time she spoke, Henrich said she weighed about 70 pounds and was recovering slowly. She and her mother, Sandy, said her problems began with a comment from a gymnastics judge, who told Henrich on an international trip that she was fat and wouldn't make the 1988 Olympic team if she failed to lose weight. Sandy Henrich said her daughter began talking about her weight the moment she stepped off the plane at the end of that trip. "She said, `Mom, I've got to lose weight,' " Sandy Henrich said in December. "And there she was, 4 feet 11 and 95 pounds, without an ounce of fat on her body. She was beautiful."

 

Several years later, after she and her family learned about eating disorders, Sandy Henrich said she realized all that mattered was what Christy thought of herself. "Christy's a perfectionist," Sandy Henrich said. "She was going to do whatever it took, no matter what the price. "She could endure any pain. And she was hearing this from a judge, an official of her sport. Why wouldn't you listen?"

 

Obsessed With Not Eating

 

Henrich said last year that she basically stopped eating in 1988, and when she did eat, she forced herself to vomit. She cut back on her normal, balanced breakfasts to just an apple slice, then often would eat nothing else the rest of the day. This, she said, went on for three years. Sandy Henrich said she noticed her daughter was getting thinner in 1990 and 1991, but when she asked her about it, Christy denied anything was wrong. "I don't think she knew I wasn't eating," Christy said. "How could she know? She didn't see me all day. I'd get up at 4:30 and drive to my 6 a.m. workout, and I wouldn't get home from school and training until 9:30 p.m."

 

During their last phone call, Henrich told Kelly she was writing some articles on her troubles, which Kelly, women's program director for USA Gymnastics, planned to circulate to all young gymnasts. In the past couple of years, USA Gymnastics has dramatically stepped up its efforts to inform coaches and athletes about anorexia and bulimia, including hiring a nutritionist and sports psychologist. Anorexia affects mainly young women and is characterized by an obsession with weight loss and not eating. Bulimics eat, then purge by vomiting or using laxatives.

 

You Look Great

 

Kelly said coaches have been warned to make no comments about a gymnast's weight or body. "When people saw Christy at a meet, and she had lost five pounds, everyone walked up to her and said, `You look really great,' " Kelly said. "Wrong thing. We have to eliminate all comments like that." The hard part is knowing who's in trouble, she said. "Christy was a loving, giving girl," she said. "When I sat down and talked to her, she was so smiley and happy. I had no inkling what was going on. It blew me away when I found out. She was a lovely, lovely, lovely person."

 

"I'm very sad, I'm angry, I have sense of helplessness," said Al Fong, Henrich's long-time coach. "I've been watching something happen for several years, and even with everyone knowing about it, and all sorts of medical and psychological help, you knew this day was inevitable, and it happened. We've got people starving all over the world, and here we've got a girl who's starving herself. And she can't stop. How awful is that?"

 

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Family, friends bid farewell to gymnast

 

DeArmond, M. (1994, July 30). Family friends bid farewell to gymnast. Kansas City Star, p. D10.

 

 

In the same church in which Bo Moreno had hoped to marry Christy Henrich, he said goodbye to her on Friday. In front of family, friends and dozens of former and current female gymnasts at St. Mary's Church in Independence, Moreno repeated the words of the song he had recorded for his high school sweetheart and fiance last summer, "I Believe In You." And then, he added: "Until I hold you again Christy, goodbye. I love you." Among those who filled the church to near capacity and drove to St. Mary's Cemetery for graveside services were Erica Stokes, former U.S. national gymnastics teammate who once lived in Olathe, and USA Gymnastics official Kathy Kelly.

 

Kelly related her shock at the news of Henrich's death on Tuesday, after speaking with Henrich on the telephone less than a month ago.

 

"I thought she was on the road back," Kelly said.

 

Henrich, 22, died Tuesday at Research Medical Center in Kansas City after a lengthy battle against the eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia. In 1988 she missed by 0.118 of a point making the U.S. Olympic team. In 1989, she finished fourth at the World Championships on the uneven parallel bars. She had retired from elite gymnastics in January of 1991.

 

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Goodwill Games: EDs, gymnasts

 

Maisel, I. (2994, August 1). Goodwill Games: Eating disorders can harm gymnasts. Newsday, p. A39.

 

 

St. Petersburg, Russia - The most successful female gymnasts in the world, some of whom are competing in the Goodwill Games, are small teens with bodies pliable beyond imagination.

 

The struggle to achieve can turn into a battle vs. nature, which rarely loses.

 

The death last week of former United States National Team member Christy Henrich of complications wrought by anorexia and bulimia has refocused attention on the demands put upon girls at an emotionally vulnerable stage of life.

 

Henrich, a national team member from 1987-90 who narrowly missed qualifying for the 1988 Olympics, died Tuesday at age 22 of "multiple organ system failure."

 

Henrich, who weighed 95 pounds when she competed, weighed little more than half that when she died.

 

Henrich went public with her illness as she fought it.

 

Recently, 1991 world champion Kim Zmeskal was quoted describing belittling remarks made to her about her weight by her coach, the famed Bela Karolyi.

 

Officials at USA Gymnastics, the national governing body of the sport, have taken measures to educate coaches, athletes and parents about proper nutrition.

 

The officials deny that eating disorders are peculiar to gymnasts.

 

"Eight million people have eating disorders [in the United States]," said Rod Davis, a USA Gymnastics vice-president and the leader of the American delegation at the Goodwill Games. "...To say, `Gymnastics, go fix this,' it's not realistic."

 

The organization is producing a 15 to 18-minute video on nutrition that will be available this fall.

 

At national team meetings, seminars are led by nutritionist Dr. Dan Benardot, who also co-writes a column in USA Gymnastics' bimonthly magazine.

 

The national team also has a staff psychologist.

 

In the current issue, Benardot and his assistant, Kyra Miller, say that when the body runs out of glycogen, the stored form of carbohydrate, "it will look elsewhere for fuel. All too often, this fuel ends up coming from the muscles themselves."

 

Which is, in a primitive form, what happened to Henrich.

 

She told The Washington Post last year that at one point, she ate an apple slice a day.

 

The extent of eating disorders among gymnasts worldwide is unknown.

 

Dr. Vaycheslav Borisov, the Russian team physician, said through an interpreter that he had heard of Henrich's death but "I have never heard of such an incident in Russia...We have a psychologist who would help to reduce that stress. I don't see any problems."

 

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Friends hope death will bring awareness

 

Riley, M. (1994, August 2). Anorexic gymnast mourned: Friends hope death will bring awareness of eating disorders. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 01A.

 

 

Three young gymnasts used to gather at the Great American Gymnastics Express to watch their hero, Christy Henrich. They watched Henrich work out, obsessively seeking perfection. They watched her barely miss qualifying for the Olympics. And bit by bit, they watched her die of self-imposed starvation.

 

The three - Jessica Kyanka, Jill Collins and Kristi Misejka, all 13 or almost so, and all from the Blue Springs area, gathered at the gym Friday afternoon, a few hours after Henrich's funeral. They were trying to deal with her death in the same place where, a few years ago, Henrich made their day just by talking to them. Although they had visited Henrich in the hospital, had seen her wither to less than 50 pounds and then had taken heart when she had seemed to improve, they could hardly believe she had died. Kristi said, "I really thought she would get well."

 

She didn't.

 

Henrich, of nearby Independence, Mo., died last Tuesday night of multiple organ failure. She was 22.

 

People close to Henrich hope her death will attune more people to the early signs of anorexia and bulimia, the eating disorders. Anorexia is refusing to eat. Bulimia, a related ailment, is eating but then purging the food by vomiting or taking laxatives. Henrich suffered from both. "People need to get it in their heads that they're not going to sacrifice their mental and physical health to be thin," says Kerrie Kelley, 22, of St. Charles, who trained as a teen-ager with Henrich.

 

Pictures of Henrich taken in the late 1980s show a healthy, full-cheeked and muscular sprite of 4 feet, 10 inches, in perfect form. But that vivacious athlete on the balance beam became a skinny apparition staring from beneath a hospital bed-sheet. The Blue Springs gym where Henrich trained draws many of Missouri's top gymnasts; they want to work with the gym's Al Fong, famous among gymnasts in this area. Young gymnasts often saw Henrich perform the same move again and again, satisfied with nothing less than perfection. To describe Henrich, one word often comes up: "driven."

 

Henrich's downward spiral seemed to start after a meet in Hungary in March 1988, when she overheard a judge saying she needed to watch her weight. Henrich then weighed about 93 pounds. To shed some, she first dropped meat from her diet. In addition to her regular workouts at the gym, she took to jogging and wearing heavy clothes to force sweating.

 

"I remember one day when she told me all she had had to eat was three apples," said Diana Stockard, an assistant coach who had worked closely with Henrich. That was about the time Stockard began to suspect something was wrong. For one thing, Henrich was starting to get injured frequently. For another, she was losing muscle tone as well as endurance. Stockard sent Henrich to a nutritionist, who quickly figured out that Henrich's problem went beyond anything nutritional counseling could handle. Stockard said, "It's as if she was proud of the three apples--proud of her control. "When you think about it, at 16, 17 years of age, Christy didn't have a lot of control," Stockard said. With every waking minute structured, her diet was one of the few parts of her life she could control.

 

The experts agree. They say control is a major factor in anorexia--at least until the disease itself gains control, as it often does. Stockard remembers the European judge's comment about Henrich's weight, but she discounts its impact. Anorexia stems from many causes, she said. "You can't blame any one thing," Stockard said. "One statement doesn't make you anorexic." Stockard said Henrich "was an overachiever, a perfectionist walking around in a leotard."

 

Some of those close to Henrich disagree. One is John Moreno, the brother of Henrich's fiancee, Joseph "Bo" Moreno. John Moreno said Henrich had been convinced that the judges were judging her as much on her appearance as on her performance. "She thought a half a pound meant more than a point," he said. Henrich retired from gymnastics in 1991. Just three years earlier, she barely missed making the U.S. Olympic team; in 1989, she placed fourth on the uneven parallel bars. Before she quit, as she focused on her dream of the 1992 Olympics, her strength was ebbing. In the fall of 1990, at a meet in Oregon, Fong pulled her from competition when he realized she was too weak to compete safely.

 

Last August, Henrich's friends and supporters held a fund-raiser and took in $34,000 to help Henrich's family pay the medical bills. Everyone took heart because Henrich was able to make a brief appearance. She was looking `less frail," if not exactly healthy, said Carol Kyanka, a family friend. The previous May, Henrich had gone public with her illness, appearing on local and national television, seeking understanding about eating disorders.

 

The dangers of anorexia and bulimia became a hot topic in 1983, when singer Karen Carpenter starved herself to death. The twin diseases have continued to claim the lives of young women, especially those in sports, theater and dance. For them, being thin--and thus making a good appearance--counts for a lot. Kathy Kelly of U.S.A. Gymnastics, the amateur sport's governing body, said the dangers of anorexia and bulimia needed to be addressed straightforwardly. Young women shouldn't be consumed with guilt over a slice of pizza or a piece of chocolate cake, said Kelly, who directs women's programs for the group. "We must come out and say, `Don't stick your finger down your throat--you're entitled to a treat.' "

 

She said her organization was trying to develop ways to raise red flags early in an eating disorder. The group is also including nutritional and psychological counseling at training camps. Sports science has made great strides, such as the development of a machine that measures bone density and the percentage of body fat. The machine can tell if athletes are limiting their food and thus risking stress fractures, she said.

 

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NPR transcript

 

Morning Edition, 08-04-1994

World Class Gymnast Dies From Eating Disorders

 

BOB EDWARDS, Host: Christy Henrich, one of America's best gymnasts in the 1980s, died last week at the age of 22 from multiple organ system failure. It was caused by anorexia nervosa and bulimia, eating disorders she had battled for years. Commentator Christine Brennan visited with Henrich and her family over the last few years. She says Henrich was well aware of her problem.

 

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, Commentator: Christy and her mother told me that her problems began when a U.S. gymnastics judge told Henrich that she was fat and wouldn't make the 1988 Olympic team unless she lost some weight. At the time she was 4'11' and weighed 95 pounds. Christy went home and told her mother what the judge said. `Mom,' she said, `I've got to lose some weight.' Sandy Henrich [sp] said later, `She didn't have an ounce of fat on her body. She was beautiful.'

 

But, Christy Henrich was a perfectionist and, like a lot of girls her age, she took that judge's comment to heart, and to a tragic extreme. Over the next three years she told me she ate nothing more than one slice of an apple a day. After she withered to 52 pounds, Christy finally went to the hospital, but all the medical help in the world couldn't stop her awful compulsions from eventually destroying her.

 

Of course, eating disorders aren't just a problem of gymnastics. They're a serious issue facing all sorts of girls and women in our society. But, a sport like gymnastics doesn't discourage this kind of behavior either. There's no doubt that officials and coaches like their gymnasts small and thin. Talk to a gymnast, Mary Lou Retton or one of the children in your neighborhood, and they'll tell you about the time a coach yelled at them, made them cry, or told them they looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy. Little League parents and coaches obviously aren't confined to the baseball diamond.

 

Christy Henrich was not alone. Some of the sport's biggest stars--Nadia Comaneci, Kathy Johnson, Cathy Rigby, Kristie Philips--they've all acknowledged suffering from eating disorders. Fortunately, none has had a problem as severe as Henrich. Unlike sports such as football and baseball, in which athletes see tremendous rewards in getting bigger and stronger, gymnastic stars are getting progressively smaller. In 1976, the average U.S. Olympian was about 5'3' and weighed 105 pounds. In 1992, the average dropped to about 4'9' and 85 pounds. Shannon Miller, the reigning World Champion, is 4'10' and weighs 79 pounds.

 

The pressures of the sport can be devastating to young athletes. Gymnastics is supposed to be an after-school sport for children; instead, it's become a nine-hour-a-day training marathon in which women like Christy Henrich leave home at 5:00 a.m. and don't return until 9:00 at night. No wonder Henrich's family didn't realize the severity of her problem until it was too late. They never saw her for any meal.

 

In the aftermath of this tragedy, USA Gymnastics has hired a nutritionist and a psychologist to address these matters with elite gymnasts, and is producing a video to be shown to all gymnasts, coaches, and parents, on the horrors of eating disorders. The film will be dedicated to the memory of Christy Henrich.

 

EDWARDS: The comments of Christine Brennan, a staff writer for the Washington Post.

 

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Gymnasts worry EDs tarnish sport

 

Kee, L. (1994, August 8). Gymnasts worry eating disorders tarnish sport. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 01C.

 

 

It would be easy to blame the gruel of gymnastics for the tragedy of Christy Henrich. The sport's obsession with pint-sized bodies. The pressure to please. The pursuit of perfection.

 

But that may be too easy an out to explain what happened to Henrich. The truth, perhaps, is more tangled. Henrich, of Blue Springs, Mo., and once one of the top gymnasts in this country, died July 26 from multiple organ failure. She suffered from double eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia. She was 22.

 

"It was sad," Tricia Lamb, a gymnast at the Central Academy of Gymnastics in Maryland Heights, said Friday. About six years ago, Lamb first met and admired Henrich. Lamb was 10 or so and a gymnast too. Henrich, part of a gymnastics demonstration, was about Lamb's age now. Sixteen. "I saw her after that," Lamb said. "But not very much." But Henrich made a lasting impression on the starry-eyed Lamb. "She was really nice," Lamb recalled. "She was really focused. I thought, `wow.' I was so excited somebody that good was also, not only nice, but worked really hard for stuff she got. "She had a heart for gymnastics. She made me want to work harder."

 

Since then, through her own hard work, Lamb has grown in inches, independence and ingenuity. Under coach Scott Cusimano, she trains 24 hours a week at Central Academy. She recently learned that, based on her competitive finishes, she and three Central teammates (Laura Nichols, Jennifer Scholes and Lisa Klein) will vault soon from a Level 10 to elite (top) gymnast. It was Lamb's reward for 12 years of hard labor. "I was very excited," said Lamb, a junior at Hazelwood Central High who says she competes nowadays for the sport of it and a college scholarship.

 

The only thing that could infringe on her celebration was what happened to Henrich. Not long ago, Cusimano told his gymnasts that Henrich was very ill. Cusimano considers Al Fong, the coach at Henrich's Blue Springs gym, a friend and mentor. Cusimano also knew Henrich. So the Central Academy had contributed about a year ago to a fund-raiser that had taken in about $34,000 to help defray the costs of Henrich's medical expenses. Then last week Cusimano told his young gymnasts that Henrich, who had battled eating disorders for years, had died. He told them first because he didn't want them to read about it in the newspaper.

 

"I was shocked," Lamb said. "I could barely breath. I wondered `why did it happen to her?' It was a weird feeling inside of me. I had been hoping she would get better."

 

What happened is debatable. Henrich, her mother and boyfriend traced her troubles to the comment of a gymnastics judge at a meet in Hungary in 1988. The judge said Henrich, then 4 feet 11 and 95 pounds, needed to lose weight.

 

Cusimano is saddened by the news of Henrich's death. But he's worried that gymnastics will unfairly get the rap here. He pointed out that eating disorders--our obsession with thinness--cut across the whole of society. "It's our culture," the gymnastics coach said.

 

Vito Bono, an in-take counselor at St. John's Mercy Medical Center's counseling center, agreed that thin is in. Bono previously worked in St. John's eating disorders program. But the cause of eating disorders tends to be "much more personal and insidious." Anorexia and bulimia reflect the individual's need to control her bodies at a time when she may feel she has control over nothing else. "You can't blame the sport or the activity," Bono said. "A majority of gymnasts don't have eating disorders." But certain personalities may be attracted to the sport because it takes a supreme degree of discipline, Bono said. Henrich was described as "driven" and "a perfectionist." The sport may encourage them to be thin, he said, but they distort that message into something self-destructive. "They really see themselves as overweight," he said.

 

"It takes a lot of help for them to change this distortion." Most people recover. "There are also those who don't," Bono said. "They die."

 

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Hungry to win

 

Hungry to win. (1994, August 6). St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 14B.

 

 

According to an old adage, you can never be too rich or too thin. The tragic story of Christy Henrich is ample proof that at least half that claim is false. The 22-year-old gymnast from Independence, Mo., died last month of multiple organ failure caused by anorexia nervosa. At her lowest point, the 4-foot, 11-inch athlete had dropped to less than 50 pounds from her normal weight of 95 pounds. Ironically, as she withered away, in a grotesque effort to watch her weight as a judge had suggested, so too did the strength that is essential to a gymnast's art.

 

American women are obsessed with weight. Celebrity battles of the bulge are routine tabloid fare. Oprah Winfrey, one of the country' s wealthiest and most successful entertainers, once remarked that of all her achievements, she was proudest of losing weight. Ivana Trump equated feeling hungry with feeling powerful. Delta Burke reportedly was kicked off the TV show "Designing Women" for putting on the pounds. Cindy Crawford revealed the desperate lengths, including using cocaine, to which many models will go to stay super slim.

 

Somehow, though, athletes have been perceived by the public as immune to this unhealthy preoccupation. After all, athletes are by definition physically fit--slim and trim because of training and diet. But Christy Henrich's death has revealed an ugly fact about some women's sports. Having a fit and healthy body isn't enough. To be successful, a woman athlete also has to be thin. Too often, appearance is as important as performance.

 

So Ms. Henrich was told by a judge to lose weight, although her mother, Sandy Henrich, vividly recalls, "And there she was, 4 feet 11 and 95 pounds, without an ounce of fat on her body. She was beautiful."

 

And she wasn't alone.

 

Elaine Zayak, a champion skater, apparently had problems because judges paid more attention to her figure than her figure skating. Tennis star Jennifer Capriati was criticized for being overweight during the Italian Open. Cultural conditions cannot be changed overnight. But parents and coaches can teach girls that the goal is to be healthy and fit. They can also be more aware of dramatic changes in eating habits or weight. In this regard, everyone should remember the old saying about the ounce of prevention.

 

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Timeout: Girls dying for success

 

Ellis, E. (1994, August 7). Timeout: Girls dying for success. Newsday, p. 18.

 

 

IMAGINE EATING only an apple a day. Nothing else. Now imagine eating only a slice of an apple a day and working out nine hours a day in the gym. That's what gymnast Christy Henrich did.

 

Henrich, a former United States National Team member who narrowly missed qualifying for the 1988 Olympics, died last week at the age of 22 from "multiple organ system failure." She weighed less than 50 pounds in July, and just over 60 when she died. The cause of death was two eating disorders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia, which prey like an epidemic on female athletes.

 

Who in our society is likely to fall victim to eating disorders?

 

According to Dr. Jean Rubel, one of the nation's leading experts, the anorexic is "ambitious and competitive but also a people pleaser."

 

A person driven to please others, to be thin, and to strive for perfection. A job description for a world-class female gymnast. The young girl who wins gymnastics competitions is a people pleaser--a perfectionist involved in a sport preoccupied with body image that compares its competitors to perfection, the elusive "10."

 

Our society glorifies thinness, especially for women. From an early age, the young female, competitor or not, learns that "you can never be too rich or too thin." And that the achievement of the former--endorsement contracts and fame--is the reward for perfection of the latter. The female athlete knows all about perfection. Listen to your teacher. Let your teacher assist you. Be docile, polite and quiet. Praise for perfect handwriting and perfect behavior--prized attributes for females in grade school--become harmful messages for the young woman who takes perfection literally and external judgments as the standard for excellence.

 

Why are we surprised that a young female athlete, although often a high achiever, has low self-esteem? Why should we be surprised that she soon learns that "if thin is good, thinner is better?" In certain individual sports, the competitors are judged for their charm as well as athleticism and thinner is better.

 

"Gymnasts are at high risk for anorexia because they are encouraged so strongly to pare their body weight and body fat lower," Dr. Rubel said. "For many, these instructions come at a time when physiology demands that they should be gaining weight."

 

Diets start in any number of ways. A body description in the newspaper. A team picture. A loss. A coach's comment. The young female athlete wants to please her coach, who is usually male. A pat on the behind from your coach may mean nothing until you don't get it. Female athletes take instruction too well. They perfect dieting as they do their sport. The legacy of Eden. A slice of apple a day.

 

Athletes in individual sports such as gymnastics and figure skating are well aware that their bodies, as well as athletic ability, are judged. In 1988, Christy Henrich was 4 feet, 11 inches and weighed 95 pounds (an ideal weight for that height, according to Dr. Rubel). A gymnastics judge told her that she was fat and wouldn't make the Olympic team unless she lost weight.

 

No wonder Christy's mother has said, "...99 percent of what has happened to Christy is because of the sport. All the focus is on the body."

 

Seventeen-year-old Russian gymnast Dian Kochatkova, who won the bronze medal at the 1994 World Championships and the gold at the Goodwill Games, is 4 feet 10 inches and weighs 77 pounds. U.S. Olympic gymnastics star Shannon Miller, also 17, now stands 5 feet, 3/4 inches and weighs 88 pounds. And this is after a growth spurt. In such Lilliputian company a normal-sized 17-year-old must feel Brobdingnagian.

 

It would be a mistake, however, to point fingers only at sports such as gymnastics, figure skating and distance running. Female athletes as different as tennis players Zina Garrison-Jackson and Carling Bassett Seguso and diver Megan Meyer as well as gymnastics stars Nadia Comaneci, Cathy Rigby and Kathy Johnson also suffered from eating disorders. The Women's Sports Foundation recognizes eating disorders as so prevalent among female athletes that it stands ready to answer requests for information with prepared packets. Female athletes who compete in team sports are also at risk. Some have even started a new ritual, group binging and throwing-up sessions.

 

Female athletes shoulder the burden of our culture's preoccupation with female thinness because, for them, thinness becomes a requisite for their femininity. Media guides list weight and height information to brag about how big and strong the male athletes are--and how small and thin the female athletes are. Let's end our participation in this assault. Let's kill our glorification of excessive thinness for women--wipe out the confusion between thinness and femininity--and tell advertisers to give endorsements to visibly strong females. Let us protest comments on players' weights by coaches, parents, broadcasters and fans. And let us complain to sports associations such as USA Gymnastics, the national governing body of the sport, when we see competitors who look like inmates from Auschwitz.

 

Otherwise we perpetuate the belief that a girl "can never be too rich or too thin." That belief is wrong.

 

As Christy Henrich showed us, dead wrong.

 

 

Eve Ellis is a writer living in Manhattan. Her forthcoming book, "Benched: From the Ballfield to the Bedroom, How Sports Affects the Lives of Women and Men," will be published by Villard, a division of Random House.

 

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Milestones

 

Milestones: Christy Henrich. (1994, August 8). Time, pp 21.

 

 

DIED. CHRISTY HENRICH, 22, former gymnast; of multiple-organ failure stemming from anorexia nervosa; in Kansas City.

 

In 1988 Henrich missed immortality by 0.118 points -- the all but immeasurable gap between the young gymnast's performance and a berth on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.

 

Henrich, who started training at age four, was a competitor so obsessive that she was nicknamed E.T. -- Extra Tough.

 

But she suffered from a secret obsession as well: the compulsive conviction that she was always too fat. Henrich's anorexia grew so severe that by 1991 she was too weak to compete.

 

At her death, she weighed 60 lbs.

 

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Magazine articles

 

Special Report/Eating Disorders: Christy Henrich's fiancĂ©, Bo Moreno, loved her for her sweet side

Sports Illustrated Aug 8, 1994

 

Up Front/Dying for a Medal: Gymnast Christy Henrich Starved Herself in a Quest for Perfection

People Aug 22, 1994

 

International Gymnast Obituary

October 1994

 

Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: Christy Henrich excerpt

Cosmopolitan Sept 1995

 

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