Bruin Gymnast Brothers Make 'Played in Pain' Sound Like a Walk in the Park

Times Staff Writer

So many athletes have "played in pain" that the phrase has become permanently fixed in the lexicon of sports.

Yet the Caso brothers, gymnasts Mark and Chris, seem to have explored new realms of pain and yet continued in their sport. Their experiences have been unusual enough to add a new phrase--maybe "badly wounded but not slain."

Both have returned to competition after injuries that would have kept lesser men on the sidelines.

The story of Mark, 23, who performed on UCLA teams with 1984 Olympic gold medalists Peter Vidmar, Mitch Gaylord and Tim Daggett, has been celebrated before in all the news media.

There was the story about how Mark broke his neck in 1980 while trying to perform a next-to-impossible trick called a 1 1/2 twisting flip and 1 3/4 Arabian in floor exercise and was temporarily paralyzed. Coming out of the trick, which gymnasts apparently no longer attempt, he under-rotated and landed on his head instead of hitting on the nape of his neck and rolling. Two gymnasts had tried the trick before him and died.

Surgery and Comeback

And the report about his return to competition just five months after spinal fusion surgery. And about his return to top form with last year's UCLA team that won the NCAA championship, and how he just missed making the U. S. team in the trials for the 1984 Olympics. The top eight gymnasts made it; he finished 10th.

If the case of Mark, a member of the U. S. national team, is remarkable, that of Chris, a senior on this year's UCLA team, is not much less so.

Chris, 22, didn't break his neck--but not from want of trying.

While working out before last season, he was doing a double layout, a double back flip that calls for a straight-up landing on the feet. But Chris landed at an oblique angle and badly injured the Achilles' tendon in his left heel. "I couldn't walk in the morning without limping," he said.

But the limp and the pain didn't keep him from competing. In the second meet of the year, against Cal State Fullerton, he was in his routine on the high bar, considered his best event, but made a mistake, hurtled to the floor and landed on his elbow. "When I hit I must have been going 100 miles an hour," he recalled.

He Wouldn't Quit

He knew something was badly wrong with his foot and elbow but kept competing, even scored a career-high 56.80 in the all-around against Iowa. "My coaches knew I was having problems, but it was my decision not to check those things (his injuries) out."

He didn't until his team had won the NCAA championship, the Bruins' first, and until he had placed 20th in the Olympic Trials. When he did, he was told he needed operations on his foot and elbow, and he had the surgery last October.

Apparently the elbow operation was the more serious. To remove a quarter-inch bone chip on the inner side of the elbow, Caso said that Dr. Gerald Finerman of the UCLA Medical Center had to cut through muscles. He also found what Caso called "a knuckle (of bone) growing on the capsule of the socket and scraped that down."

"I lost all the muscle in my arm and was told that maybe I wouldn't be able to straighten my elbow. I didn't think I was going to be able to come back this season. No way. I thought I was going to be redshirting."

But the day after his surgery he went back to the gym, "trying to get myself in shape."

'Tiger' Comes Out

But going to the gym every day, mostly for therapy, was upsetting. "To see my teammates getting better than I was extremely disturbing and drove me nuts. I have the eye of the tiger, that intense competitive drive."

It drove him to return Jan. 13 in a meet at Arizona State, where he competed in three events, and to hit a 56.30 in the all-around (11th place) in the seven-team UCLA Invitational on Feb. 22.

He is one of four Bruin gymnasts this season to score better than a 56 in the six events of the all-around, which is something like hitting .300 in baseball. The others are Tony Pineda (a personal high of 58.30), Rob Campbell (57.2) and Luc Teurlings (56.95).

Chris is back competing but is not back to normal. His assessment: "My ankle still gives me pain, but I am doing all the tricks I was doing before I got hurt. My elbow is almost 100%, but I still have bad days and still have trouble supporting myself on it." So in nailing a 56, Caso was like a one-arm batter going 3 for 4 with a home run.

He said he was driven to return early because of two things:

"I think of how my brother came back from major surgery, and I feel that my problems are nothing.

Facing Challenges

"And the world championships are coming up this winter, and there are new compulsories to learn. I was just learning them before my operation, but my physical problems put me right back to the bottom."

The bottom is not the goal that Mark and Chris Caso aimed for when they began to get serious about gymnastics as youngsters in Syracuse, N. Y. Their father, Ron, is director of physical education at East Syracuse Minoa High School and runs a gymnastics club where he has coached his sons at times.

Mark and Chris were New York state prep champions in the all-around. Though Mark is older, he is 5-4 1/2 and is actually the little brother of Chris, who is 5-10 1/2, big for a gymnast.

Mark, who is finishing work on a degree in psychology at UCLA, said he thinks the practices run by UCLA Coach Art Shurlock provide "a lot of encouragement" for gymnasts trying to come back from injuries.

"It's a real positive atmosphere," Mark said. "There is a big support system, and everyone tries to help someone who is injured. It's a good comeback environment."

Inspired by 'Rocky'

Both brothers say they were also inspired by the "Rocky" films. Chris said that is where he got the phrase "eye of the tiger" to describe his competitive desire. Mark was quoted: "I look around and I think of Rocky when he was just about to fight Apollo Creed and he knew he wasn't going to win. He was just going to go the distance. And that's how I feel."

As for their agonizing victories over pain, Mark said that he and Chris feel pain as much as anyone else "but were raised pretty tough. We know how to deal with pain and keep going."

Whether both will keep going long enough to qualify for the 1988 Olympics in Korea is anyone's guess.

Mark said he is not thinking that far ahead but does not rule out a try for a berth on the U. S. team at Seoul. "I'm still improving and still having fun. Gymnastics is good, clean fun, and I do what I like one day at a time, year by year. . . . I'll be 27 in '88."

Driving Toward Goals

Chris is more specific: "I have got to reach my goals. I want to be in the world championships and to be an Olympian. I'll worry afterward about winning medals."

Helping UCLA win another NCAA team title is another goal, and he thinks the Bruins have a good chance of doing so, even though the team no longer has Mark, Mitch Gaylord and Tim Daggett.

"We're a young team," Chris said, "but I know we have the talent. The NCAAs are a team struggle. If everyone works together, we can do it. You have to be really together to win."

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