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Female gymnasts prone to eating disorders


In the wake of former gymnast Christy Henrich's death, questions have been raised about the pressures put on young athletes -- gymnasts in particular -- to lose weight.

Henrich died Tuesday night of "multiple organ system failure," complications from her bouts with the eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia. She was 22.

Henrich, who missed making the 1988 U.S. Olympic team by .118 of a point, became concerned about her weight in 1988 when, at a meet in Hungary, she overheard a judge say that she was too fat to make the Olympic team. At that time, she was 4 feet 11 and weighed 93 pounds.

About 2 1/2 weeks ago, she was admitted to the hospital in her hometown of Independence, Mo., weighing 60 pounds. She was transferred 10 days later to the intensive care unit at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, where she died.

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

According to Dr. David Roth, director of Eating Disorder Services at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Baltimore, approximately 4 to 7 percent of females between 13 and their early 20s are bulimic. One to 2 percent are anorexic. "And that's conservative," Roth said. "The percentages increase from those numbers when you look at the population in ballet, gymnastics and modeling. Certain sports and job opportunities are associated with significantly higher rates. . . these are the three high-risk areas. The sport associated with the highest rates [does] tend to be gymnastics."

Roth said it is difficult to figure what percentage of individuals in the high-risk activities are afflicted by eating disorders. But, he said, "It's reasonable to predict that in gymnastics, ballet and modeling, conservatively, 15 percent or more are going to have eating disorders."

Roth said 85 to 90 percent of persons with eating disorders are women.

Jean Weber, owner of Rebounders Gymnastics in Timonium, said: "We don't harp on weight. It's something we don't do because of that [eating disorders].

"But I know we've had one or two girls that have had that problem after going to college."

Steve Hass, a coach at Rebounders, said he has seen a few cases of eating disorders in his 10 years of involvement with the sport.

"There's a typical profile of athletes [who can become affected]," Hass said. "They are highly motivated individuals who are perfectionists. Anything short of perfection bothers them tremendously. They have good grades, they get along well with their friends, but they have a poor self-image; their self-confidence is low. From their outward appearance, you'd say, 'This kid's got everything going for them.' "

Henrich was characterized as a perfectionist.

Hass came in contact with eating disorders when he noticed a gymnast at a gym he worked at in Pennsylvania getting thinner and thinner. Soon, he said, she was unable to perform skills she was once able to do. Hass said the parents were notified and the gymnast was excused from the team until she was able to recover. In a conversation with another coach, Hass said, "I feel like I'm going to break her in half when I try to spot her."

The gymnast came back 25 pounds heavier and was able to return to gymnastics, but only at the high school level.

"I'm no doctor, but I've been made aware," Hass said. "It can be a problem in our sport, I'm not denying that. It's more prevalent at the college level where it's more team-oriented."

Hass said that USA Gymnastics has taken steps to make coaches more aware of warning signs of eating disorders.

According to Roth, treatment for eating disorders begins with an evaluation of the patient and a determination of what caused it. Some causes include depression, anxiety, trauma, physical or sexual abuse and substance abuse. Patients undergo therapy that can range from 24-hour constant care in the hospital to once-a-week outpatient sessions.

The Therapy Referral Service number at Sheppard Pratt is 938-5000.

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