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ONE OF LIFE’S SAD LESSONS

An 85-year-old woman was at home in her room on the top floor of a 43rd Street hotel early Tuesday morning when a concrete slab from an elevator scaffolding crashed through the roof and killed her.

More than 24 hours later, much of Midtown remained closed to pedestrians. But while more than the usual number might have been peering toward the sky for falling objects, people were still on the streets in Manhattan, going about their business.

Likewise, the Goodwill Games gymnastics competition went on Wednesday night at Nassau Coliseum, 24 hours after a 17-year-old Chinese girl, Sang Lan, was paralyzed when she landed headfirst on a routine practice vault.

“I heard a noise,” said Steve Rybacki, a coach of the Charter Oak Gliders in West Covina who was standing near the apparatus. “I figured it was her neck. It was a sick feeling.”

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Kathy Johnson, a former gymnast serving as a commentator for TBS, was so disturbed when she saw the accident that she ripped off her headset and bolted from the broadcast podium.

“Do you think she’s coming back?” the producer asked commentator Bart Conner, another former gymnast.

“I don’t know,” he said.

She did, regaining her composure before the telecast began.

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“Nobody wants to see these things happen,” Tu Mingde, secretary general of the Chinese Olympic Committee, said at a news conference Wednesday. “So, naturally, some of her colleagues are very [upset] by this incident. You can see even during last evening’s performance, that some of the best athletes did not perform very well and display their usual skillful performance.

“But they will continue to compete in the Games. They understand that gymnastics is a sport. If you aspire to the highest level, you have to pay something.”

In other words, gymnasts who have reached an elite level accepted long ago that risks are involved, just as they are in boxing, auto racing, diving, football, skiing and other sports too numerous to mention. As we now know, there are even risks to sleeping in your room on the top floor of a Midtown Manhattan hotel.

Life happens.

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That might sound like a cold assessment of Sang Lan’s tragic accident, especially to those who will use it to further their argument that elite gymnastics for young women is a form of child abuse. It can be. Evidence about the culture that sometimes produces such gymnasts has been presented by the New England Journal of Medicine and San Francisco Examiner columnist Joan Ryan’s provocative book, “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.”

There also have been severe injuries, some no doubt avoidable, although you don’t need all the fingers on one hand to count the number of world-class gymnasts who have suffered one like Sang’s in the last two decades.

Dr. Vincent Leone, the Nassau County Medical Center orthopedic spine surgeon who attended to Sang on Tuesday night, called hers “a devastating injury, a violent injury.”

But he added that he treats 16 to 30 similar injuries a year, most resulting from diving accidents at nearby Jones Beach and high-speed automobile accidents.

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This one occurred on a warmup vault so routine for a gymnast of Sang’s proficiency that it doesn’t require a spotter to catch the gymnast or break her fall.

“I don’t think this is evidence of abuse in women’s gymnastics,” Conner said. “It’s not like someone made her do this and she got hurt. It was a common routine that had a sad and unlucky result.”

Because they are competitive athletes, most gymnasts, with or without urging from their coaches, choose to try more perilous moves in every meet of their elite careers.

Kerri Strug performed one of the most difficult vaults, a Yurchenko, while already suffering from an ankle injury during the Atlanta Olympics because she believed the U.S. women’s team needed her score to win a gold medal. Bela Karolyi couldn’t have stopped her.

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Here, on the night before Sang was injured, U.S. gymnast Blaine Wilson opted for one of the riskiest vaults only moments after Peter Kormann, the team coordinator, believed he had a promise from Wilson to try a safer one.

According to the Chinese gymnastics team leader, Sang’s first question to her coach in the hospital was whether she would be able to compete again.

The answer, sadly, is no.

Leone said it’s unlikely she will be able to walk again.

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But he added that he is “very optimistic” because of advances in treating spinal injuries and also her age, fitness and courage.

Sang is not well known internationally. The only child of a father who works in government housing and a mother who works in a leather factory, she was discovered when she was 6 in her hometown of Ningbo by a coach who believed she had a gymnast’s strong legs. She became the Chinese champion in the vault last year.

The first doctor who reached her after her fall Tuesday night said she was stoic while prone on the landing mat and didn’t cry until she was moved to an emergency vehicle about 12 minutes later for the ride to the hospital. Leone said she has cried little since but has been curious, asking numerous questions through an interpreter.

One was about Leone’s background.

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He told her he competed in gymnastics as a Brooklyn high school student until he injured his back. “Now I want to become a doctor,” she said.

Life can happen like that too.


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