Strong, lithe and vivacious, Christy Henrich spent years spinning, leaping and vaulting across balance beams, around parallel bars and over padded mats, a muscular sprite nicknamed “E.T.” for Extra Tough.
That seems impossibly long ago.
On July 26, withered to little more than a fragile skeleton, her papery skin a ghostly gray-white, her gums and kidneys bleeding, her throat ulcerated, her heart barely pumping, Henrich died of multiple organ failure.
She was 22 and weighed less than 60 pounds.
Engaged to be married, she had never reached puberty. A starvation diet had tricked her emaciated body into perpetual childhood.
Many saw the tragic wasting of her body caused by bulimia and anorexia nervosa, but few saw inside to the torturous shame she hid away, until it was too late.
She had been hospitalized more than 15 times since 1990, her final year of competition as one of America’s top gymnasts. She once yanked out an intravenous tube and let it drip into a wastebasket, worried the sugar water would make her fat.
If such details of Henrich’s struggle are to help any of the thousands afflicted by eating disorders, as her family hopes, the depth of the degradation she imposed on herself must be understood.
“My life is a horrifying nightmare,” she once said. “It feels like there’s a beast inside of me, like a monster. It feels evil.”
Henrich grappled with shame--intense, insidious, impossible to shed--throughout therapy last summer. It was a desperate time, perhaps her last real chance to save herself, and she ultimately quit in exhaustion.
“She felt shame toward everything in her life and it drove her obsessive-compulsive behavior, her perfectionism, her self-punishment,” said Dr. Gail Vaughn, a psychotherapist for addictive disorders who counseled Henrich and her family for four months. “She was afraid of failure. She was terrified of being fat.”
Much has been made of an offhand comment by a judge at a 1988 meet in Hungary. No one is sure what the woman said to Henrich, but the gymnast, at 4-feet-11 and 95 pounds, took the remark to mean she was fat. She’d long believed the Soviet and Romanian girls were beating her because they were thinner; Henrich was more muscular, like Mary Lou Retton.
That night, Henrich pulled coach Al Fong into her Budapest hotel room and asked him repeatedly if he thought she was fat. Fong failed to reassure her.
After that, Henrich ate only small salads and apples--apart from binges of fast-food burgers and fries she threw up.
But Vaughn noted that Henrich had paid extraordinary attention to food since age 9, when she started training with Fong, years before the judge’s comment. In therapy, Henrich recalled reading the sides of cereal boxes as a child to check protein and fat.
But she loved to cook. For family and friends, she piled plates high with food.
“That’s one of the symptoms of people with eating disorders,” Vaughn said. “They’ll go out of their way to feed other people, but they don’t feed themselves. The sight and the smells of the food teased and taunted Christy and set up many more problems. She was constantly saying, ‘C’mon, have another piece of pie!’ And all the time inside wanting it for herself but denying it, or taking it and not being able to stop with one piece, and after eating two or three going to vomit or use a lot of laxatives.”
More significant than the judge’s misinterpreted remark, Vaughn said, was a misplaced sense of responsibility that evolved out of Henrich’s status as the center of attention in both her family and the gym.
“The amount of support and energy Christy’s family gave her was incredible. I mean, anything for Christy. But inside, she carried that as a burden,” Vaughn said. “No matter how well she did, the message she gave herself was that it wasn’t enough, it wasn’t OK.”
Henrich felt guilt for all the sacrifices her family made and for taking attention from her older brother, Paul. She wanted the attention but felt shame at getting it, Vaughn said.
She agonized over failing her coach by missing the 1988 Olympic team by 0.118 of a point.
“She felt shame about having the disease,” Vaughn said, “and that she couldn’t be the woman Bo (her fiance) wanted her to be. Yet Bo didn’t put any of those messages on her. He loved her unconditionally. She put them on herself. She put everything on herself.
“One story she told me was that her mom had a migraine headache one night and was sick while driving her to gymnastics when she was around 10 years old. Her mom had to stop the van and get out and vomit, and Christy was right there saying, ‘C’mon, Mom, c’mon, we’re going to be late, I’ve got to go.’ Christy had a lot of shame and guilt about those things.”
The therapist continued: “When you don’t feel good about yourself and you have a lot of shame . . . then a subconscious acting out of that is to punish yourself in some way.”
Vaughn said she normally would never reveal discussions with a patient but felt it was important to disclose details of Henrich’s ordeal.
“Christy and her mom, Sandy, told me I should talk about it if what they had gone through could help some other family,” Vaughn said. “Her feelings of shame are more common than they are specific to just Christy.”
A week after her death, Henrich’s bright red Toyota, with the license plate GMNAST, straddled the sidewalk in front of her parents’ home on Wigwam Trail. Sandy and Paul Henrich, and Joseph (Bo) Moreno, almost their son-in-law, had agreed to talk with a reporter. But answering the door, the Henrichs apologized and canceled the interview on the advice of their lawyer.
Attorney Ralph A. Monaco said the grieving family would respond soon to the many requests for interviews. He asked about “remuneration,” saying the family was badly strapped by medical bills. Eating disorders, categorized as psychiatric ills, receive limited insurance coverage.
In a statement, Monaco said the family hoped “Christy’s death will help lead to a greater public awareness of her illness and the difficulties and pressures encountered by young gymnasts in this country.”
Few reliable studies gauge the extent of the disease in the United States: estimates are that 1% of teen-age girls have anorexia nervosa, that 5-9% of college women have bulimia. One limited study by the American College of Sports Medicine found that up to 62% of female gymnasts have an eating disorder. With secrecy and denial part of the syndrome, those figures are probably low, researchers say.
The U.S. Gymnastics Federation conducts seminars for gymnasts, coaches and parents, and it has professionals available for counseling. None of that enabled Henrich to escape the traps pulling her down.
Henrich was so clever at concealment that neither her coach nor her parents noticed anything wrong for about a year and a half after she began virtually starving herself.
She had always been spunky and quick, popping back up on the bars as soon as she’d finished, practicing three routines for everyone else’s one.
“She had a determination about her,” Fong said, “that fire in her eyes, that attitude that said, ‘Hey, I can do this. Just watch me.’
“She had a poor back alignment, just born with it. And . . . she was not a very talented athlete. She didn’t learn skills very quickly. She almost had a dyslexia about instruction. I’d say up, she’d think down. . . . It was very difficult working with her. But those are the kinds of obstacles she overcame through sheer hard work that allowed her to be as good as she was. And she was really good.”
Her tolerance for pain allowed Henrich to overcome her body’s decay for a while, even compete with a stress fracture at the 1989 World Championships. She was still the one the hundreds of kids at Fong’s gym loved and looked up to, an apparently perfect leader who worked out before and after school, got up at 4:30 a.m., went home at 9:30 p.m. What they didn’t see was her bingeing on fast food or eating nothing at all.
“I started noticing hints of a problem in 1989 when she was struggling, having trouble finishing skills that six months before she could do without even blinking an eye,” Fong said.
When she returned from the World Championships, “her temperament had changed, where she was having fits of rage and frustration. It got real strange,” he said. “It was really not good for the rest of the kids, but especially not good for Christy because she was going to hurt herself physically, the way she was throwing herself around. She’d say, ‘I can’t do it,’ and she’d jump down, start crying, slam herself down on the ground in a rage.”
Fong, “searching for everything and anything that might solve the problem,” found research on eating disorders in which symptoms mirrored some of Christy’s behavior. He began closely observing her when the team ate out.
“I started seeing that she was only eating an apple while the rest of the kids were eating potatoes and pasta,” he said. “That’s when I started saying, man, we’ve got a problem here.”
Fong knows he wasn’t blameless. When Henrich began losing weight, he offered compliments.
“We started seeing her really trim up, and we kept saying, ‘Wow, Christy, you look great!’ ” Judges and other gymnasts echoed the praise.
“That was all the kind of reinforcement that would keep encouraging this type of behavior,” Fong said. “But we didn’t know. We had no idea.”
When he did have an idea, Fong approached Henrich and her parents. The Henrichs “were shocked. They had no idea this was taking place,” Fong said. They were also fiercely resistant, the coach added.
“The parents are looking for every excuse in the world, but plain and simple, they went through a period of denial.”
When he confronted his star gymnast, “she broke down and started crying. I said, ‘Hey, Christy. It’s not too late. Let’s work together and let’s solve this thing. I don’t know how to do it because I’m not the professional. But let’s call up the people that can do something about it.’ ”
Fong contacted the psychologist and nutritionist for the national team, who phoned Henrich and her parents and set them up to see experts in Kansas City.
“Her parents went with it for a little bit, but Christy hated it, absolutely hated it. After a while, she just quit going,” Fong said. “Christy was doing a Great Impostor thing at home, eating right at the house. Her mom said, ‘Oh yeah, she’s eating good.’ But then Christy, I guess, would go to the bathroom and throw it all up.”
As long as Henrich was refusing help, Fong barred her from his gym. She retired at the end of the 1990 season.
But after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Henrich called Fong and announced, “Al, I’m really jazzed. I want to train for ’96. I know I can do it.”
Fong told her again she would have to resolve the eating disorders. She never called back.
That December, Sandy Henrich called Kathy Kelly of USA Gymnastics, which coordinates international competition for the national team, to say they were in “dire straits, physically as well as the family financially, with a disease.”
She named no disease, just told Kelly that Christy was in the hospital, that she weighed less than 70 pounds, that they “almost lost her” and that they needed help.
Funds were raised and a luncheon benefit was arranged last summer in Kansas City. Kim Zmeskal, Nadia Comaneci and other top gymnasts showed up. So, too, did Vaughn, who was making some progress with Henrich.
“At that point,” Vaughn said, “she made a core choice to live, and I said to her, ‘Now, Christy, if you choose to live, every choice you make has to support that choice to live. And that means fighting against this disease.’ ”
She had little fight left in her, but on the day of the benefit she was deeply moved by the friends who had gathered.
“They let Christy out of the hospital to come to the luncheon and she appreciated knowing that we all loved her, not just because she was a gymnast,” Kelly said. “I kind of felt that was a turning point. I felt like, ‘Good, now she understands and it doesn’t matter about her sport, it just matters about her.’ ”
A few weeks later, Henrich quit working with Vaughn.
“Christy was tired,” Vaughn said. “She was tired of therapy. She was tired of the hospitalizations, being away from home so long. She was tired of not being a ‘normal’ person. And, as I see a lot with people, they settle for better instead of well. She had some hope and was doing real well, and that’s when she said, ‘I can do it on my own now.’ ”
But she couldn’t. In December, she told Kelly she ate no more than an apple a day, sometimes only a slice. Her weight dropped to 52 pounds.
Two months ago, a reporter phoned Henrich and asked her how much she weighed.
“Well, I threw away my scale,” she said weakly. “I didn’t weigh myself this morning.”
“How much do you think you weigh?”
“Well, if I had to guess, I’d say about 65.”
The way she said it made the number sound optimistically high. She wanted to get back into shape, she said, but wouldn’t return to therapy. She was going to do it on her own.
“Is there one reason why you have these eating disorders?”
“In the back of my mind,” she said after a long pause, “food is still a poison.”
“What do you eat, then?”
“Well,” she answered, “I really don’t.”