Haven't Got Time for the Pain

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like many Americans, Bob Richards was teary-eyed as he watched gymnast Kerri Strug vault on a severely sprained ankle to help win the first Olympic gold for U.S. women gymnasts in team competition.

"My wife and I bawled like babies," he confessed on Wednesday, the day after the drama unfolded in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

Behind his tears was much more than a spectator's sympathy.

In 1952, Richards competed in Olympic pole vaulting with a pulled left hamstring. Four years later he sprained the Achilles tendon on his left foot--his takeoff foot.

Like Strug, he bit the bullet, and in his case took home the gold both times.

Stories of Olympians and other elite athletes competing in pain are legion:

* In the 1964 Games, Joe Frazier won the gold medal in heavyweight boxing with a broken left thumb.

* Dodger Kirk Gibson had injuries to both knees, but smacked a home run in the 1988 World Series and then limped around the bases, giving us one of the greatest moments in L.A sports history.

* Despite severe dehydration, Gabriele Andersen-Scheiss, a Swiss marathon runner, staggered across the finish line at the 1984 Olympics in L.A.

* Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath led the New York Jets to the 1968 NFL championship even though he suffered from deterioration of the knee joints and loss of stability.

* Shun Fujimoto broke his leg at the knee during his floor exercise routine during the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, but continued to compete and helped the Japanese men's gymnastics team take the gold.

Are these high-caliber athletes innately more capable of dealing with pain during physical activity than the rest of us?

There are individual differences and cultural variation in the ability to deal with pain, experts concede. But the ability to perform despite the pain is a byproduct of training, coupled with the realization that the opportunity to win an Olympic medal or other prestigious athletic event is often just once in a lifetime.

"Their lives are basically geared to this one or two events," says Dr. Peter Bruno, a New York City internist and team physician for the New York Knicks. "When they finish and get the gold, silver or bronze, it's the pinnacle. For that reason they are willing to sacrifice everything for the moment of glory to bring it home for the U.S., themselves, whatever. They can become good at ignoring pain."

Indeed, a little denial can go a long way.

"These are very highly disciplined people who have an ability, in some instances, to disassociate their mind from their body when other people would quit," says Dr. Larry Gibbons, president and medical director of the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, who often works with elite athletes.

Dr. Thomas Schmalzried, associate medical director of the Joint Replacement Institute at Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles, agrees. "What's extraordinary about these people is attitude and motivation. They may have exactly the same level of sensitivity to pain as you or I, but what they also have is tremendous mental fortitude.

"One of the byproducts of the discipline, of the hours of training, is the ability to focus--to get 'in the zone' where you are able to concentrate, to focus your mind," says Schmalzried, who played basketball at Stanford University from 1976-'80 despite recurrent ankle sprains. "The focus is so intense I don't want to say you don't notice the pain, but the pain is not your focus."

Pain management is also what separates the weekend warriors from the pros. While amateurs would focus on the pain, a highly trained athlete focuses on the performance and doesn't allow the distraction to take over, says Toni Farrenkopf, vice chair of psychology for the Legacy Health System in Portland, Ore.

"When Strug came off that first vault and was limping back and it was a choice, by that time she was running on pure pre-programming," he says. "We would probably fold at that time."

Adds Dr. Lewis Yocum, a physician at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic at Centinela Hospital Medical Center and team physician for the California Angels: "The amateur will obviously back off faster because the rewards are different."

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Medical literature also suggests it's the training that helps athletes cope with the pain.

In a study to determine pain sensitivity in habitual runners compared with normally active control subjects, researchers from the New York State Psychiatric Institute found that the runners' threshold for cold temperatures was higher than that of controls. But they also found no difference between the groups in their heart rate and blood pressure responses to cold, suggesting the differences in response were not due to autonomic nervous system reactions. Rather, as the researchers conclude in a report published in the journal Pain in 1994, the runners' higher threshold was a result of their adaptation during regular training.

In another study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers found that competitive swimmers had enhanced pain tolerance compared with noncompetitive athletes but speculate it stems from systematic exposure to brief periods of intense pain during training.

Besides adaptation, there's the adrenaline boost to help cope with the pain. The more pumped you are, experts concur, the less you feel the pain.

"If you are so intense, if your adrenaline is so high because of the spotlight and this major competition," Gibbons says, "that in itself will help you to compete through the pain."

Aside from the hormonal effect, Gibbons adds, just the desire, the excitement, the competitive thrill, helps distract you from the pain.

"It's the old story of the mother going into the burning building and lifting an object off her child that she could never lift at another time, just because of the excitement and adrenaline rush of the moment."

Or it's the 1976 story of that guy from Philadelphia who goes the distance.

Americans, Bruno finds, "will suck it in and do what has to be done to get the job done. The 'Rocky' movie image is what we all carry inside of us."

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Whether the message sent to the masses by athletes who play through the pain is a good thing is a matter of opinion.

"We don't want to encourage the average person to play in pain," Bruno says.

But to Schmalzried, the lingering image of Strug performing in pain "isn't so much a message that is specific for sports but as a wonderful example of what a human can accomplish. While everyone was focusing on that moment when she took the second run, that was the culmination of her life's work. She came up to the wall and after 18 years she was going to go over it or go home."

Joel Fish of the Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia says athletes should not be viewed as weak if they don't compete in the face of injury, especially if they follow medical advice to bow out.

But bowing out simply does not occur to most elite athletes, as Bob Richards can attest. Now a motivational speaker, Richards (who was on the Wheaties cereal box until 1971) can still recall in detail how he won out against the pain: "I prayed, 'Oh, God, help me do my best.' It was like the inside of my being yelled out: Push!'

"It's the war psychology," he adds. "Wounded people sometimes manage to get their arms and legs to function. I think there is a subconscious thing in the brain that blocks out pain for the moment."

Does he remember the pain before and after?

Oh, yes.

But to this day, Richards dwells on the outcome of that moment in '56.

"It was the greatest jump of my life."

* Times research librarians Steven Tice and Joan Wolff contributed to this story.

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