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SHATTERED : For Tim Daggett, His Broken Leg Is Only the Latest Setback to Be Overcome

Times Staff Writer

ABC Radio’s Vic Holchak was sitting in the mezzanine level, about 25 rows from the floor in Rotterdam’s Ahoy Sports Palace, when he heard a loud popping sound. Then he saw American gymnast Tim Daggett crumple to the mat, his face twisted with pain.

“I turned to the reporter from International Gymnastics (magazine), and she had her hand over her mouth,” Holchak said. “I said, ‘Oh God, did we just hear a bone snap?’ She just closed her eyes.”

Mary Lou Retton, who was in the Netherlands for NBC, said she could hear the sound of bones breaking from the network’s booth, also in the mezzanine level on the other side of the arena from where Daggett fell.

“I just ached all over,” she said.

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Daggett would have been all too glad to trade his ache for hers. On the opening day of the World Championships five weeks ago, in the team competition, he attempted a piked Cuervo vault, handspringing into the air with a half-twist, then backflipping. But he strayed off course and landed crooked.

Daggett knew immediately that his left leg was broken and, characteristic of a world-class athlete, already had begun to wonder during a frantic ambulance ride to the nearest hospital how long it would take him to recover this time. Only eight months before, he ruptured a disk in his neck during a workout on the horizontal bar and was advised by several doctors to quit the sport.

He had heard that before. Even before the neck injury, relatives, friends, casual acquaintances and sometimes even people who had just met him told him that he should retire.

“What more can you do, Tim?” they would ask. “You’ve already won an Olympic gold medal. You’re 25. Get on with your life.”

Yet, he was determined not to let an injury force him out of the sport. It was not for timidity that his former UCLA teammates nicknamed him Raging Bull. He returned to competition in June at the national championships, finishing third in the all-around, first on the pommel horse and third on the horizontal bar. In August, at the Pan American Games in Indianapolis, he won three more medals--golds in the team competition and on the pommel horse and a bronze in the all-around.

Now, in the emergency room at Rotterdam’s Dijkzigt Hospital, the doctors, who fortunately spoke English, told him that the tibia and the fibula in his left leg were broken. But that, they said, was the least of his problems. Their concern was a severed artery in the leg.

When they told him that an operation was necessary, Daggett, still not grasping the severity of the injury, said he would rather wait until he returned home to Los Angeles. They said the surgery had to be done immediately or he would lose the leg.

“It’s not fair,” Daggett thought. “Why me?”

Connie Daggett told her son that his tumbling would lead to ruptured disks and broken legs, although, in all fairness to him, it should be pointed out that most of her warnings came before he was a teen-ager. She did not know what she feared most, him climbing the tall trees behind their house in West Springfield, Mass., or him raking the leaves from the trees into a pile and leaping into them from the top of the garage. Him? He seemed to fear nothing.

He found his place one afternoon when he was 11, his mother having taken him to the gym at the Parks and Recreation Dept. to pick up a younger daughter who was enrolled in a gymnastics class.

“The first thing I saw as soon as I walked in the door, was a guy on the high bar,” Daggett said one afternoon recently at his Palms apartment. “He was doing giant swings. He let go, and he did this thing where he was flying through the air, did a backflip and landed right on his feet.

“I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘This looks like unbelievable fun.’ I usually got yelled at for doing things that were fun. This was something I wouldn’t get yelled at for. The next week, I signed up, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Daggett sighed, acknowledging that backflips are not something he will do again in the immediate future.

He came to UCLA as a scholarship athlete in 1981 and emerged as one of the nation’s best gymnasts with his first international competition in 1982. At the NCAA championships in 1984, he finished second in the all-around and won the pommel horse, the rings and the parallel bars as UCLA won its first national championship. But it was at the Summer Olympics that he had his greatest competitive moment, scoring a perfect 10 on the horizontal bar to clinch the first gold medal ever for the United States in team competition. Four days later, he won a bronze medal on the pommel horse.

On the wall in the living room of his apartment are a photograph of the Opening Ceremony at the Coliseum and a lithograph of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. Even though he was in one hospital or another for two days shy of a month, and for at least a short time suffered from malnutrition, his upper body does not look that much different from those of the gymnasts in the lithograph. He is mid-sized--5 feet 6 inches, 145 pounds--but powerfully built.

As he sat on the couch, he rested his left leg on two throw pillows. It was immobilized by a metal brace called an external fixator, which looked like something that would be displayed in an exhibit on medieval torture.

It did not seem like the best time to ask him about his decision to continue in gymnastics after 1984. He talked about it anyway. Although his degree is in psychology, he was in demand for speaking engagements after the Olympics and learned that he was good at it. Like his best friend, former UCLA teammate, Peter Vidmar, who retired from gymnastics after the Olympics, Daggett believed he could make a better than average living if he devoted his time to motivational talks at corporate seminars. Instead, he chose to continue as a gymnast, not because he wanted to become lord of the rings but simply because he enjoyed it.

“A lot of people didn’t understand that,” he said. “There are so many sacrifices--personal sacrifices, social relationship sacrifices and, a major one, financial sacrifices. I sacrificed tremendously.

“But I decided to go on to ’88. Not to win more gold medals. I already did that, and it was something I never thought I could do. I did it because I wanted to do gymnastics some more. That’s it.”

With the retirements of Vidmar, Bart Conner, Mitch Gaylord and James Hartung, Daggett and Scott Johnson, a University of Nebraska graduate, were the only two men from the gold medal team attempting to repeat next year in Seoul, South Korea. Daggett became the United States’ No. 1 gymnast, winning the all-around competition at the 1986 national championships.

Bothered by increasing soreness in his ankles, caused by years of pounding, Daggett decided in October of last year to have surgery on both of them. The right one was corrected with routine arthroscopic surgery, while the other required a slightly more complicated procedure. But by February of this year, Daggett was feeling bullish again.

On Feb. 17, during a workout at UCLA, Daggett attempted a Gienger, a move on the horizontal bar that was invented a decade ago by West German Eberhard Gienger. Daggett swung in reverse, released the bar, did a backflip-half twist and reached for the bar. He missed, falling head first into the mat and rupturing a disk in his neck.

“Several doctors I spoke to didn’t know whether I’d ever be able to do gymnastics again,” Daggett said. “They didn’t know if I’d be able to regain a lot of the motion in my left side because I had a tremendous amount of nerve damage. They didn’t know at that point if that would regenerate or not. Everybody in the world except for one guy told me, ‘You’re crazy to go on.’ ”

The minority opinion came from Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, a UCLA Medical Center orthopedic surgeon.

“He really believed in me,” Daggett said. “Doctorwise, he was the only guy who said, ‘You can do this, Tim.’ ”

Daggett did it, recovering so completely that he believed he could win the all-around competition in August at the Pan American Games. Instead, he finished third because of an error on the rings caused by a weak grip. He figured he had not regained his strength from the neck injury. A blood test proved him wrong. He had mononucleosis.

When doctors would not allow him to train until two weeks before the U.S. team left for Rotterdam in early October, he believed his chances at the World Championships were non-existent. But, to his surprise, he felt strong when the team began working out in the Netherlands. With no more soreness in the ankles and the neck injury and the mononucleosis behind him, he believed he was back on the road to Seoul.

“I was finally starting to feel good,” he said, looking back to Oct. 22, the night of the team competition in Rotterdam. “I got through the rings, which was an incredible achievement for me because I hadn’t done that since the Pan Am Games.”

The next event was the vault.

Jack Rockwell, the trainer for the U.S. gymnastics teams from Santa Rosa, was on the other side of the arena when Jennifer Sey broke her leg in the 1985 World Championships in Montreal. On behalf of the United States Gymnastics Federation (USGF), he protested to the international federation (FIG), claiming that medical personnel should be allowed on the floor near the gymnasts. In their wisdom, Rockwell said, FIG officials explained that they did not want to give the impression to spectators and television audiences that the sport is dangerous.

But, realizing that his protest was not entirely without merit, FIG gave Rockwell and other trainers in Rotterdam seats in prime locations, about six rows from the floor. It was still about a 12-foot drop from the rail to the floor, but, when Daggett went down, Rockwell did not think twice before he jumped.

“I’m lucky I didn’t break my leg,” he said.

As for the kind of medical treatment Daggett received between then and the time he was placed in the ambulance about 10 to 15 minutes later, there is confusion.

Mike Jacki, USGF executive director, said it took too long for medical personnel in the building to reach Daggett. “Maybe it was only a minute, but it seemed like a long time,” he said. Rockwell said it was only a minute or so. But both he and Jacki complained that there was no ice readily available. Ice is used to control bleeding. Dr. James Campbell, a member of the USGF sports science committee from Fulton, N.Y., said, however, that it would have taken a glacier to control the bleeding from Daggett’s severed artery.

One thing that everyone who was there agrees upon, though, is that Daggett might not have been injured, at least not so severely, if there had not been something wrong with the landing mat.

Daggett no doubt contributed to the injury with his crooked landing, but as Jacki said: “All landings are crooked. It’s just a matter of degree. Maybe he was a little more crooked. But there also was a problem with the mats.”

Campbell agreed, pointing out that at least four other gymnasts, including China’s Li Ning and the Soviet Union’s Valeri Lyukin, limped away from the vault.

“You might expect that sort of thing at a scholastic meet, where not everyone knows what they’re doing,” he said. “But when you see four or five world-class gymnasts injured on the same apparatus, you have to believe it’s not the gymnasts’ error.”

Quickly calculating in his head, using Daggett’s weight and the approximate speed and height he generated while performing his vault, Campbell estimated that there were 1,200 to 1,300 pounds of pressure on the leg when the gymnast landed.

“The mats had better be able to absorb that,” Campbell said. “This one didn’t.”

Therein lies the lesson if gymnastics is to benefit from Daggett’s injury. Campbell said the safeguards in the sport have not maintained pace with the improvements in the athletes and the equipment, an issue he said FIG should address. Daggett would be only too happy to appear as an expert witness.

“The athletes get better every year, and they’ve made improvements in the equipment,” he said. “For instance, the vaulting board is springier. This was the first World Championships where they had a spring attached to the horse itself. It used to be a static event where you hit it and recoiled off it. But with the small spring added, you can get more velocity off of it. Not a tremendous amount, but enough to give you a little more height. If you use it the proper way, you can go a foot, a foot and a half higher. But the mats themselves haven’t changed. It’s like the stunt guy who risks a little more each time, going up one more floor and jumping out, trying to land on a small bag.”

Daggett landed in a Dutch hospital, wondering if he would lose his leg.

“I got to the hospital, and the leg was hurting real bad,” Daggett said. “I was very nervous. I thought I broke my leg real bad, and I was going to be in a cast. I thought they were going to have to put pins in the leg. I had no idea that I tore the artery.

“It was unbelievable. There were so many doctors there. They were alarmed at how big my leg got so rapidly. They said to Jack Rockwell and me that they were going to have to do surgery.

“I said, ‘Oh God, no. They’re not going to cut me over here. I’m going to go home.’ As soon as I said that, they said, ‘Then you’ll lose your leg.’

“I said, ‘Jack, I guess I need to do this right away then.’ He said, ‘Definitely.’ ”

Campbell, who spoke to the surgeons later, said they told him that they were alarmed when Daggett had a loss of sensation in his left foot.

“He couldn’t feel them touching him,” Campbell said. “That told them that the pressure was very high. The situation was definitely a true emergency. In this case, if hours had elapsed before surgery, it would have resulted in permanent damage.”

Campbell said the surgeons performed a fasciotomy.

“Because he was exercising at the time of the injury, his blood pressure was up,” Campbell said. “The blood rushed into the lower leg. Around that group of muscles is an envelope, called the fascia. If there is bleeding into the envelope, the pressure is increased. The pressure can build up in such a short time and to such a high degree that is squashes the tissue. It can cause nerves and muscle tissue to die.”

Campbell said that sensation returned to Daggett’s foot within 24 hours. A short time later, Campbell said Daggett was able to move his foot and toes.

Daggett had a second operation in Rotterdam to set the leg. But while he was in pain physically, he also suffered mentally and emotionally. Think about it: A world-class athlete in the hospital in a foreign country, having undergone a traumatic injury and operation, with no relatives, friends or even doctors he knew to answer his questions or calm his fears. Feed that with pain-killing, mind-altering drugs, such as demerol and morphine, and the result is a confused, even paranoid patient. Daggett felt trapped.

“I had just finished reading Stephen King’s ‘Misery,’ right before I hurt myself,” Daggett said. “It was almost scary, the parallel. It’s about a writer who has a terrible accident, and his leg is mutilated. He was held in this house by a lady who was a little crazy. When you’re doped up, you kind of think about those things. I got hurt in a place where I was uncomfortable. I was being held there. They wouldn’t let me go home. Your mind can do some funky things.”

His worst day was yet to come. Two weeks after he arrived at the hospital, the doctors were able to arrange for him to travel on a non-stop flight from Rotterdam to Los Angeles. Under normal circumstances, it is an 11-hour trip. But there was a storm over Los Angeles that day. The plane circled for an hour in the turbulent air above the airport before the pilot announced he would have to land in Las Vegas.

An ambulance was waiting there to carry Daggett across the desert to the UCLA Medical Center, where an operating room had been reserved for him. He had surgery that night for the third time as his leg was re-set. The next day, skin was grafted from his right thigh and grafted onto his left leg to cover the wounds from the fasciotomy.

“The first night he was back, I had a hard time with him,” Mandelbaum said this week. “He was so down, scared and depressed.”

Two weeks later, 29 days after he broke the leg, Daggett was ready to return home.

“Finally, we’ve got him right where we want him,” Mandelbaum said.

But will Daggett ever be where he wants to be, in the gym, training for the 1988 Summer Olympics?

“I don’t want him to think otherwise,” Mandelbaum said. “I told him we’re treating him like an athlete, that the goal is to get him to Seoul.”

But is that realistic?

“It’s too early to tell, really,” Mandelbaum said. “There are a number of factors. But I think he can get back.

“There is something intrinsic to a world-class gymnast. They have a unique ability to identify a goal, create a plan and execute that plan. That’s why Tim is successful. Adversity, no problem. A ruptured disk, no problem. A broken leg, no problem. He has a very positive attitude.”

On Monday, three days after he returned to his apartment from the UCLA Medical Center, Daggett said he had been thinking about tumbling again. He said that he knows rehabilitation will be a long process, at least three months and probably longer. But at least it no longer hurts to think about it.

“I still love the sport,” he said. “God, I will do it again some day, for sure.”

He paused and started over. It is important at this stage not to get carried away, to lose balance.

“I think I’d really like to do it again,” he said. “But I’m going to be a little more careful. I’m not going to say that I’m going to do it again at this point. But I really would love to do it again, I think.”

But why, after the personal sacrifices, the missed financial opportunities and the injuries?

“Gymnastics is very difficult,” he said. “Training to be an Olympic athlete is a tremendous sacrifice. But it’s also been very good for me. Ever since I was 11 years old, I have woken up in the morning and known exactly what I’m going to do that day. For a lot of people, that would be very difficult. But when you live that way for 14 years, you get used to that, and you like it. I wake up now, and it’s terrible because I can do nothing.

“But I’m starting to feel like doing nothing is what I have to do. It’s just like training. It seems like it’s passive, and I’m not doing anything, but it isn’t. I’m actively trying to get better. I am getting better.”


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