What it means to be a fan of a risky sport — Other gym news — Thoughts from Savannah Schoenherr
The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, Jan. 7, 2023
Happy New Year!
And happy gymnastics Saturday! I’m looking forward to covering the sport this year as we shift out of a rebuilding year into a pre-Olympic year. Both elite and college gymnastics will be affected by this change in tone, and things will get exciting around here.
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Now, football is not a sport that gets covered here, or even mentioned much, which is the perk of working for The IX. I would classify myself as whatever the football equivalent of a Christmas-and-Easter churchgoer or a four-year fan of Olympic sports is. A Super Bowl viewer with a few college games thrown in for kicks, pun intended. I understand the game just fine, but the issues around concussion safety in the sport and the NFL’s longstanding disregard for victims of domestic violence at the hands of its players keep me away. Tuning in always feels like I’m seconds away from seeing death on the field.
And then, Monday, we did see death on the field when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin tackled Cincinnati Bengals receiver Tee Higgins toward the end of the first quarter of the Monday Night Football game between the two teams. That same quarter had already seen cornerback Taron Johnson’s exit from the field after Johnson reportedly suffered a head injury during a block.
I watched a replay before the direness of the situation was made clear. Hamlin took the weight of the tackle to the chest. He stood up after the play is called, but immediately collapsed and did not move. His heart stopped and he was not breathing.
Accounts of what happened next say that Hamlin received CPR for 10 minutes and an automated external defibrillator (AED) was deployed, shocking his heart and restarting it. He was loaded into an ambulance and taken to the hospital, where he is in critical condition.
And then the chaos started. Pleas to see, or pleas to avoid, the replay of Hamlin collapsing. Sportscasters protesting the postponement of the game even as players left the field following a brief coaches’ meeting.
Gymnastics NCAA season has kicked off, as of last night. And as Damar Hamlin’s injury and its repercussions unfolded in real time, I thought about the times I’ve watched gymnastics meets where someone is critically injured and leaves the arena. I wonder if there should be a protocol around these events.
Too often I think people demand a level of detail when something terrible and shocking happens because they cannot believe their own eyes and ears, and it happens a lot with sports injuries. If you recall Auburn gymnast Sam Cerio’s season- and career-ending injury during NCAA regionals in 2019, then you know.
Video of Cerio’s devastating injury — two dislocated knees and a broken leg — went viral, disturbingly so. Discussion around it lasted longer than Auburn’s season that year. So long that Cerio herself tweeted a response to people making light of her injury. “My pain is not your entertainment,” it finished. Cerio’s Twitter account is now private, but she discussed that post in a 2019 interview on the Today show.
I’ve watched many NCAA meets, and a few elite ones, where the action is suspended due to an athlete’s injury. I’ve also seen way too many cameras linger on an injured gymnast’s face or on the treatment she’s receiving. I’ve seen gymnasts leave the floor, citing the need to protect their mental health, leading to endless speculation on the part of the broadcasters as to her emotional state.
Gymnastics, unlike football, is not generally considered a violent sport. But college gymnasts endure more ankle and knee injuries per capita than do football players, according to a 2007 study of 182,000 injuries in 15 collegiate sports over 16 years. Gymnastics is not a contact sport, at least between competitors, but the injury rate in the sport is comparable to two men’s contact sports, ice hockey and wrestling, the study said.
A study conducted in 2018 and published in Sport Health in 2022 said that the risk of Achilles tendon rupture is 10 times greater in women’s gymnastics than in other sports.
And perhaps more impactfully, we know much more now than we did even a decade ago about the horrors that some gymnasts suffered behind the scenes at certain gyms or at the hands of certain adults tasked with their well-being, or both. We got the idea of what was at stake for many gymnasts, and what they risked, physically and emotionally.
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Nathan Kalman-Lamb, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick, studies the sociology of sports. In a New York Times column about violence in ice hockey in 2020, Kalman-Lamb told reporter Kurt Streeter (he of the infamous Livvy Dunne column! I bet Streeter never thought he’d see his name in a gymnastics newsletter twice) that “What fans get out of suffering in sports is meaning.” Streeter repeated Kalman-Lamb’s words in a column Tuesday about Damar Hamlin.
If we are watching a sport where death is on the line, Kalman-Lamb theorizes, it makes for a more profound experience. Streeter says that violence is at the heart of the sport of football. I do not believe that is true of gymnastics, but I do think that part of what makes the sport thrilling to watch is that we know the injury stakes.
To the extent that we accept that sports are a form of entertainment, we must also remember that athletes are people. When they are injured, we must do what their teammates do automatically, which is to shield them. Instead of demanding access, let’s work on averting our eyes and ears. Allow athletes to avoid press if they say they cannot handle it, for any reason. Cease filming them if they are hurt and receiving medical attention; continue a broadcast only if the teams consent. If the teams want to end a meet, let them; networks must be willing to eat that cost. (Conversely, if they wish to go on, we shouldn’t speculate about them being coldhearted; everyone responds differently to emotional stress.) Don’t share video of a horrible injury on social media. Journalists should endeavor to cover, but not ruminate on, injuries and the impact they have on athletes and teams.
I would love to see some form of this become protocol at both the professional (or elite, in the case of gymnastics) and college levels.
And one other thing before I go and get this NCAA gymnastics season underway: Please learn CPR. Learn where the AEDs are in your office or in other public spaces you inhabit, including athletic spaces. It takes a few hours and it really does make a difference.
Other gym news
NCAA season began last night with the Super 16 meet in Las Vegas. The first two sessions – including Fisk’s debut! – began yesterday after press time, and there are three additional sessions being held today and tomorrow. So I’ll have a full update on this meet next week, along with updates on the Utah vs. LSU and Michigan State vs. Alabama meets that happened last night and the rest of the weekend’s action as well.
A great article from Will Graves about Fisk’s debut.
Unfortunately, Leeiah Davis announced Friday that she has left Fisk after allegedly suffering hazing and bullying there. I interviewed Davis for The IX back in May, just after she committed to Fisk, and I’m really sorry to hear this news.
If you want to know how to watch the three remaining sessions, as well as all the other NCAA meets happening this weekend, The Balance Beam Situation has you covered.
Jordyn Wieber offered up a preview of Arkansas’ season.
UCLA gymnasts Chae Campbell and Emma Malabuyo have launched Behind the Bruins, an Instagram account promising “behind the scenes footage of the athlete life.”
Janelle McDonald, UCLA’s new head coach, spoke to the LA Times about her rebuilding work there. She focused on basic skills but also wanted to make room for some joy.
Jordan Bowers spoke to the Norman, OK, newspaper about her freshman season at Oklahoma and what she looks forward to this season.
The Salt Lake City Tribune caught up with Abby Brenner, who transferred from Michigan to Utah this season.
Lauren at The Gymternet features every gymnast turning senior in 2023.
Konnor McClain said via Instagram that she will return to elite for the 2023 and 2024 seasons. She said that her back injury has been treated.
Catalina Ponor gave birth to a baby boy! Congratulations to Catalina and her family.
Five at The IX: Savannah Schoenherr
Savannah Schoenherr is a super senior at Florida, where she is currently pursuing a master’s in sports management (she also received a bachelor’s in sports management in 2021). Schoenherr is a three-time All-American and a three-time Scholastic All-American. At the end of her sophomore year in 2020, she came out in a video that immediately went viral; the next season, she appeared during the team intros at Florida’s first Pride Meet wrapped in a rainbow flag. Her vault and bars have been consistently solid for Florida over the years and she finished the 2022 season with the team’s second-highest score on the former and the third-highest on the latter.
I received Schoenherr’s answers to my questions on Tuesday. On Thursday, Schoenherr posted on Instagram that she had broken her foot away from the gym and will be out of competition for the foreseeable future. Devastating news for Schoenherr, Florida, and gym fans alike.
We wish Schoenherr all the best in her recovery!
What are you most looking forward to during this NCAA season?
SS: I am most looking forward to enjoying every single moment with my teammates, considering this is my last year. I really just want to make the most of it in every single thing that I do and really just enjoy the present moment with all of my sisters.
If a headline about you began “Florida Woman…”, what would the rest of the headline be?
SS: Florida Woman Saves Her Teammate From Drowning in the Pit.
What’s your favorite thing about Florida that those of us who don’t live there might not know about?
SS: The closest beach to Gainesville is only about an hour drive or so, so that’s really convenient. And it’s only about two hours out from Disney and all of the parks there, so I’ve gone there a few times. And it is super fun to do for a little weekend getaway.
You can design your own leo. What would it look like?
SS: I really like neutral colors, and I feel like black is a good color that kind of goes with everything. So a black base with a little blue and orange incorporated into it, unique designs and sparkles coming up the chest, like fireworks.
Your favorite skill, and favorite apparatus?
SS: My favorite skill is my bar dismount, which is a double front half-out. My favorite apparatus is the uneven bars. Go Gators!
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