Disorder Consumed Her Life : Gymnastics: Former elite athlete Christy Henrich gave in to fatal disease that destroyed her.
During one hospital stay, therapists confined Christy Henrich to a wheelchair to prevent her from compulsive exercise--she would run everywhere instead of walk because she wanted to burn calories. Another time, doctors confiscated laxatives found hidden in the lining of her suitcase.
But in the end, no one could save Henrich because the former member of the U.S. national gymnastics team could not save herself. For years, Henrich suffered from anorexia nervosa and bulimia, eating disorders in which victims are obsessed with losing weight.
Henrich, 22, died Tuesday afternoon at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo., after suffering a multiple organ system failure, hospital officials said.
She weighed less than 60 pounds.
A day after Henrich’s death, the gymnastics community once again was trying to come to grips with a disease some think has become an epidemic in a sport where the average size of an elite female competitor is 4 feet 10 and 85 pounds.
Olympian Cathy Rigby has spoken out about the problem for the last 12 years. Rigby was hospitalized twice during her battle with eating disorders while she was a competitor.
“What’s so frustrating is, no matter how much you talk about it, you see it still happening and you want it to be fixed . . . and it’s not,” Rigby said. “You don’t want to believe something like that can still happen with all the knowledge that we have and with all the awareness that is out there.”
Henrich’s family in Independence, Mo., did not answer phone calls Wednesday, but others who knew Henrich said they also were searching for answers.
“I remember her as being very fun-loving,” said Susan Polakoff-Shaw, former public relations director for USA Gymnastics. “She was intense in competition, but as soon as she came off, she was the one joking around with the other girls.”
Henrich, who began gymnastics at 4, missed making the 1988 Olympic team by 0.0188 points. She placed fourth on the uneven parallel bars in the 1989 World Championships.
Henrich, 4-10 and 93 pounds at the peak of her career, became obsessed with her weight after a judge at a 1988 international competition in Hungary said she was too fat.
She dragged her coach, Al Fong, into her room.
“Am I fat?” she asked.
Fong tried to persuade Henrich she had misunderstood the judge, but the young athlete wouldn’t listen.
“You are fine,” Fong told her.
Henrich was seemingly never the same after that incident, said those who knew her.
“I think from that point on she started her bingeing,” Fong said, referring to the tendency consume mass quantities of food, only to purge it from the body immediately after eating.
Fong also has been blamed for fostering Henrich’s eating disorder by reportedly telling her to lose weight.
“He would call me the ‘Pillsbury Dough Boy,’ ” Henrich told a reporter in 1993.
Fong denies making such statements.
Fong began to notice something wrong after the 1989 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany.
Henrich had difficulty recovering from a stress-fracture and her strength decreased. She could not complete routines that once were easy for her. She began to show signs of frustration, crying almost daily.
“She would go into a tantrum over her disgust at not being able to do something,” Fong said. “(This was) totally uncharacteristic of Christy.”
Fong finally confronted Henrich and she acknowledged her problem. Fong called USA Gymnastics, which helped Henrich find counseling.
But by then, Henrich had become addicted to losing weight. According to Fong, Henrich refused to attend the counseling meetings.
Fong realized Henrich’s career was nearing an end at a 1990 exhibition in Oregon of the U.S. and Soviet national teams. Henrich could complete only about half the maneuvers in her uneven bar routine. Fong pulled her from a competition in Los Angeles the next week.
Henrich made several attempts to resume training, but it was futile.
“I said, ‘Christy, we can’t do this,’ ” Fong said. ‘You are not eating. I love you, but I can’t let you train.’ ”
So, Fong kicked her out of the gym. A week later, Henrich returned to say she was retiring.
The next three years Henrich was in and out of hospitals. Her medical bills reportedly grew to more than $100,000.
The gymnastics community rallied to Henrich’s support in August 1993, organizing a luncheon at the Kansas City Club that raised nearly $35,000 to help defray the cost of treatment.
“It was the most wonderful outpouring of affection for Christy that I could ever imagine,” said Carol Zyanka of Lee’s Summit, Mo., one of the organizers.
About the same time, Dr. Gail Vaughn, a licensed professional counselor from Liberty, Mo., saw Henrich on a TV news show.
Henrich was talking about battling her disease and said, “I really want to live.”
But Vaughn didn’t believe her.
“I could tell that she really didn’t,” Vaughn said. “I don’t even know that she knew she was lying, but I could tell that she had never made a strong, core choice to live.”
Vaughn called and offered her services free to Henrich. They worked together for four months before Henrich quit and turned to alternative treatments, such as hypnosis.
According to Vaughn, Henrich was a typical eating disorder victim. Refusal to eat often is a form of protest, she said. In Henrich’s case, Vaughn believes the protest was over a lost childhood although no one an really say.
“Even though she chose gymnastics, this girl worked all the time when other kids were playing,” Vaughn said.
And Henrich worked more than most--”Her work ethic was legendary,” Fong said.
In 1989, Henrich suffered a broken vertebra during a dismount off the balance beam but returned only three months later to place second in the all-around at the U.S. Championships at Minneapolis, Minn.
“It wasn’t going to stop me,” Henrich told reporters at the time. “You’re going to get hurt no matter what you do in life.”
But her desire to achieve in gymnastics--her lifelong goal was making the Olympic team--was double-edged. She fought too hard to attain a body size that would help her succeed in the sport. Ultimately, it was an impossible battle.
“Anorexia is also the statement of, ‘I don’t want to grow up,’ ” Vaughn said. “She looked like a 10-12 year-old girl even though she was 21 when I worked with her.”
Still, one reason Henrich’s death shocked those around her was because she had appeared to be recovering.
“We threw the scale away,” Henrich told a reporter in December. “It’s not an issue anymore.”
But it was for Henrich because the scale was everything.
Randy Harvey contributed to this story from St. Petersburg, Russia.
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.