The Unthinkable Happens : Gymnast Gomez, 15, in Coma After Suffering Broken Neck During Warmups

Times Staff Writer

Julissa Gomez, 15, lies in a coma in a Houston Hospital, her neck broken, her body paralyzed.

More than a month ago, the top-ranked American gymnast and Olympic hopeful boarded a plane with her peers for a meet in Tokyo. She returned, unconscious, by U.S. military transport, surrounded by doctors and her parents, Otilia and Ramiro Gomez, who had flown to Japan to be at their daughter's side.

She suffered a spinal injury May 5 while practicing a vault at the World Sports Fair in Japan. It was a routine maneuver for a world-class gymnast--a round-off onto a springboard, a back handspring onto the vaulting horse--one Julissa had been executing for three years.

But this time, she missed. Her foot slipped on the springboard and she didn't get the necessary lift, said her coach, Al Fong. She hit the the vaulting horse with her head.

Julissa lost consciousness and stopped breathing momentarily. When she regained consciousness, she couldn't move. She was taken to a Tokyo University hospital and when her parents arrived from the United States, was able to communicate only by blinking her eyes. Soon afterward, she slipped into a coma.

"While I was waiting for Julissa's parents to arrive in Japan, I sat in my hotel room and questioned why I am in the sport and what my motivation is," Fong said. "Is it worth risking someone's life for a life-risking skill?"

Things have settled down a little at the Great American Gymnastics Express, Fong's gym in Blue Springs, Mo., where Julissa had trained since February of this year. Her teammates, two of whom have a chance to make the Olympic team, decided that Julissa wouldn't want them to quit, so they have dedicated the season to her.

The community has also rallied--donations to Julissa's medical fund have grown to $14,000 at the Blue Springs Bank.

Julissa's parents will not talk with reporters and have ordered the hospital and doctors to give out no information on her condition. The parents of Julissa's teammates have followed suit.

Fong said it took him "more than a while" to get a grip emotionally and mentally after the accident.

"It affected everybody, and the gymnasts had to sit back and analyze what they are doing," Fong said. "Moreso the parents then the children, because the children are more resilient.

"In looking back, I can't think of any one gymnast who contemplated quitting because of this, they all wanted to keep going. They were far more concerned for Julissa than themselves. At that age, kids think they are invincible."

Fong said there were a few parents who had considered pulling their children out of the sport, but changed their minds.

"One thing is certain," Fong said. "Julissa certainly wouldn't want national team members to stop competing, or want me to quit being the coach that I am."

This is the first time a catastrophic injury of this nature has happened to a U.S. team member in world competition, said John Arends, spokesman for the U.S. Gymnastics Federation.

"We don't have fractured necks," Arends said. "Most injuries are in ankles, knees, wrists, elbows and twisted joints, and those injuries are usually sprains."

Bela Karolyi, with whom Julissa trained for three years in Houston, agreed that Julissa's is a very rare injury for gymnastics.

"Periodically you hear of other kinds of injuries in gymnastics--a broken knee, broken leg, arm. Very seldom you hear of a spinal column," Karolyi said.

He said that the vault Julissa was attempting had just recently been approved for competition. Previously, only direct vaults--those involving no tumbling movements between the springboard and the horse--were allowed. Karolyi said it wasn't because other vaults weren't safe, but that nobody was performing them.

"The way things are going in gymnastics and athletics, skills are getting more difficult and more spectacular," he said. "People are experimenting and trying all kinds of new skills, and that vault was one of them."

Gomez, however, is the second of Fong's students to suffer a neck injury. Attempting the same vault, Karen Tierney, ranked fourth on the junior national team, broke her neck in competition last July when she missed the vaulting horse and fell on her head behind the horse. But Tierney is back in competition and, in fact, placed second in a recent international meet.

"There is something about a really good athlete, and it doesn't matter what sport they're in," Fong said. "If it is in their blood, it is hard to get it out of their system. In Karen's case, her parents and I have been real patient and tried to slow her down, but she was anxious to get back in competition.

"Everyone knows the risks going into this sport, but you can't dwell on it. You need to go into it with your eyes open, but you can't have that type of thought process or you don't belong in the sport."

In competition, if a coach spots a gymnast--watches carefully and assists if the gymnast falters--there is an automatic .5 deduction. Julissa, however, was injured in her second warmup, and Fong was spotting her.

"In Julissa's case, she has always performed this vault very well--and I was spotting her on the back side of the vault, not the front where the springboard is, just in case she had problems coming out of the twist," Fong said. "But, even if I was on the front side of the horse, if she had missed with her foot I wouldn't have known it.

"This vault has been performed by gymnasts for the past five years. It is a routine vault for world-class gymnasts, but there is a risk."

Julissa was like most gymnastic students who dream of applause and stardom, but her belief in herself and in her ability to achieve set her slightly apart. Julissa's mother said in a letter to the gymnastics community after the accident that her daughter was almost naive in her belief that Olympic glory was her destiny.

Julissa began tumbling at the age of 5, progressed to gymnastics and then moved from coach to coach in pursuit of betterment.

She began training in San Antonio, where she was born. Eventually, though, her family, which includes a younger sister, Christina, moved to Houston, where Julissa trained with Karoyli and later, Steve Crouse. From there, Julissa and her father moved to Blue Springs, where he took a job as a chef in a Kansas City restaurant. Julissa's mother, a schoolteacher in Houston, had plans to join them soon in Blue Springs.

Karolyi said that Julissa was extremely hard-working, noting that she went from virtual unknown status to the national team in a little more than a year.

"She wasn't the type you would say, 'Oh my God!' about when you saw her perform," Karolyi said from his gym in Houston. "She didn't have that star effect, not in personality or physically.

"But she was working all the time, trying to do the skills, not asking too many questions, what we call a good kid."

Crouse, who worked with Gomez last year, said she was a very dedicated competitor.

"She had tremendous work habits," Crouse said. "If you were to tell her to go and work on a skill, and, if the phone rang, and you were gone a half hour, when you got back she would still be working on it. She just wouldn't deviate.

"She wasn't flashy or dynamic . . . she wasn't an introvert, she was just quiet. So our job was to bring that personality out on the competitive floor. And in one year's time we really saw her come around."

Crouse said that Julissa's improvement, both in level of difficulty and execution, since last year's national championships gave her a very good chance to make the Olympic team. She finished 13th at the national meet, where she competed with an injured knee.

After that, Crouse said, she won the Reno Invitational, the Aloha Festival and was a finalist in an international meet in Barcelona, Spain. In those meets, she won the vault several times.

At the meet in Tokyo, Julissa was leading the U.S. team going into the second day of competition, the day the accident occurred.

Otilia Gomez wrote a letter to the gymnastics community after her daughter's accident. In essence, she urged gymnasts to continue their quest for Olympic victory with the same spirit Julissa had shown.

"Whether you are an Olympic contender or one that is waiting and hoping to be noticed, don't give up the fight," she wrote. "If your spirit is true and your dream sincere, you will achieve greatness for giving it your all."

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