Several men's stars nursing serious injuries

Updated: June 24, 2004, 1:58 AM ET
Associated Press

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The strangest thing happened when Jason Gatson finished one of his gymnastics routines last week.

He could walk.

For the first time in weeks, he didn't need ice or a massage just to be able to move after a hard landing. He didn't have to lie on the floor until the pain from the fracture in his back subsided.

"I was so happy," Gatson said Wednesday. "I actually did a landing and I'm like, 'Hey, I can walk. Move onto the next event without laying there getting it rubbed down and putting an ice bag on. We're making progress."'

With not a moment to spare, either.

The Olympic trials begin Thursday with the men's competition, and several of the United States' brightest hopes for Athens are nursing injuries as well as nervous stomachs.

Gatson will compete in four events, hoping that will be enough to convince the men's selection committee that he deserves a spot on the Olympic team. Five-time national champion Blaine Wilson plans to do all six events a mere four months after tearing his left biceps muscle completely off the bone.

Hollie Vise, a double gold medalist at last summer's world championships, is back after back spasms knocked her out of nationals earlier this month, but only plans to do two of the four events. And Chellsie Memmel, another double gold medalist at worlds, had to petition for a spot at next month's selection camp because a broken bone in her foot still isn't healed.

Hardly the most ideal conditions for trying to make an Olympic team.

"It's really frustrating," Vise said, "because you don't know how fast your body can heal and you don't know what you're going to be able to do."

But with the Olympics less than two months away, they don't have much of a choice.

"These things take time, that's basically all [the doctors] said," Gatson said. "But right now, I don't have any time."

Gymnastics is one of the most physically demanding sports, with athletes putting their bodies through intense pounding and doing tricks that defy physiology. On the still rings, for example, the men have only their arms and upper-body strength to support them as they hang, spin and balance several feet off the floor. On the balance beam, the women contort themselves in positions Gumby wouldn't dare try.

Injuries are common, and there's not a gymnast around who doesn't have something that bothers them. Especially now, when training is at its most intense.

"It's part of our sport," Gatson said. "We've been doing it for so long and all the pounding, it takes a toll after a while."

So they do whatever they have to to get by.

Wilson, hoping to make his third Olympic team at the ancient age of 29, had surgery three days after he was injured, with doctors using a titanium wire to reattach his tendon. He's been rehabbing with a vengeance since then, all so he could be here.

"You can't gain anything unless you get out there and give it a shot," Wilson said. "That's the way I look at it. I feel like I'm ready. I've done more than I assumed I'd get to do prior to this trials process, so I'm ready."

Vise has had two cortisone shots since nationals. She still feels pain in her back when she tumbles, so she'll only do her balance beam and uneven bars routines here, hoping that will be enough to earn her a spot at the selection camp.

"If I did make it to the Olympics, I'm most likely not going to do floor and vault, anyway," Vise said. "So I just need to show my two events and prove to them I can do them. I think at this point, they understand."

Gatson is feeling like a pin cushion after six cortisone shots and two epidurals in just the last three weeks. He hasn't trained on floor or vault for a month, either, hoping that would speed the healing.

"It's not totally gone, but the extremity of it, it's not as intense," he said. "I want to be there with those guys on the floor. Regardless of what happens, I'm going to do everything I can to get myself there."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press