The show must go on.
The saying had its origins in circuses back in the 1800s. If an animal got loose or the high wire broke under a performer’s feet, it was the job of the ringmaster and the band to keep things going.
It has often been the same mantra in gymnastics.
“It’s a performance,” said former LSU gymnast Ashleigh Gnat, the 2017 NCAA floor exercise champion.
When Sarah Finnegan was 15, she started experiencing discomfort in her elbow. It was 2012, an Olympic year, and Finnegan was trying to make the U.S. team for the London Games. The show had to go on, and she was determined not to miss it.
“You’re always told to push through the pain and have a tough mind,” the LSU junior remembered. “If you can do your gymnastics, you’re fine.”
Finnegan ended up as one of three alternates, training in England at an auxiliary site, waiting for the call in case one of the “Fierce Five” was felled by an injury. She never even saw a doctor until after the Olympics.
An X-ray revealed the growth plate in Finnegan’s healthy elbow was closed, but that she had separated and broken the growth plate in the other. She also had a torn ligament that had healed completely out of place.
“The doctor said, ‘I don’t know how you competed on that,’ ” Finnegan said.
The result was surgery with a bone graft and “hardware,” as Finnegan called it, to hold everything in place. She spent three months in a cast. Rehab took another six.
“It was a pretty big surgery,” Finnegan said matter-of-factly.
Virtually every collegiate gymnast has a similar story to tell.
LSU junior Lexie Priessman has had eight surgeries and may require another on her shoulder in the offseason. Senior Myia Hambrick broke the growth plate in her ankle when she was 11 or 12.
Junior Julianna Cannamela tore the labrum (the lining of the shoulder socket) as a sophomore and has had to accept the “new normal” — a loss in range of motion in that joint.
McKenna Kelley is sitting out her junior season after suffering an Achilles tendon tear in November. She is the daughter of Olympic great Mary Lou Retton, the 1984 all-around champion at the Los Angeles Games, who has had at least 16 orthopedic surgeries in her lifetime, including dual hip replacements.
LSU coach D-D Breaux has no doubt her gymnasts are pound-for-pound the best athletes the school has.
“It’s a very fine line of timing and preparation,” she said. “You’re going to teach somebody to catapult their bodies into the air, flip and twist multiple times and have a pinpoint landing — yes, there’s a risk there. Probably more than some other athletes have at honing their particular skill to the highest level.
“There’s not another athlete on this campus who could walk into the gym and not only flip on the balance beam but walk down the balance beam. There’s not another athlete on this campus who could hang on the uneven bar, swing themselves and pull over the top and make it look easy.
“What we do is extremely difficult and requires a lot of training and a critical eye.”
It also requires dealing with an exceptional risk of injury.
As LSU associate head coach Jay Clark is quick to point out, gymnasts have the second-highest rate of injury among college athletes behind only football players. And according to a 2015 study compiled by the National Institutes of Health, 24.4 percent of injuries in women’s gymnastics eventually require surgery, compared to 9.2 percent for male gymnasts.
“We’re not blocking and tackling,” Breaux said, “but it’s high-impact landings and falls. If it’s not a good landing then it’s a risky landing. It’s a fine line.”
A line that gymnasts are all but certain to cross at some point in their careers.
Gnat, now LSU’s student assistant coach, considers herself lucky. She said she has never had a stitch, surgery or been under anesthesia.
“I’ve been very blessed,” Gnat said.
She did suffer a broken bone at 11, a similar age to Hambrick. And toward the end of last season, LSU’s coaches became increasingly concerned that Gnat would have a problem with her calf muscles that would hinder or prevent her from competing.
They did not. Gnat found a way to play through the pain, as many gymnasts do.
In a story that may one day become a legend, Priessman competed on torn meniscus cartilage in he right knee at the 2017 Southeastern Conference Championship meet. It was an injury that required surgery this past summer but didn’t stop the talented gymnast from winning the 2017 SEC bars title.
“She could have hung it up and walked away, but she never wanted that,” said Vickie Priessman of her daughter. “She loves the gym. She’s never complained a day in her life. She always has a smile after her surgeries. As a mom you say, ‘How can you be this happy all the time?’ ”
The love of gymnastics and the desire to excel and compete trump a lot of aches and pains.
“I think it’s just the nature of the sport,” said Laurie Hambrick, a youth gymnastics coach at West Georgia Gymnastics, where daughter Myia trained under her. “You’re so goal-oriented. Your mind is focused on that goal. You don’t want to change anything or back down from that achievement.”
Laurie Hambrick said experience has taught her to watch for signs her young athletes are injured when they refuse to verbalize anything is wrong.
“My biggest struggle is girls who won’t tell me they’re hurt,” she said. “They don’t want to not do it, or have me say, ‘You can’t do that today.’ Myia wouldn’t tell me sometimes, but I know something’s up.
“It’s reading their body language: ‘OK, she’s wincing,’ or ‘She’s balked three times, what’s going on?’. ‘My knee hurts.’ ‘OK, you need to tell me that.’ ”
Being watchful a big part of coaching gymnastics, Breaux said. And being willing to rest is a big part of being a gymnast.
“The best advice I ever got was from Gene Whetstone, who was the men’s coach at Penn State. He said, ‘D-D, know when to rest.’ I think that’s critically important.
"As a staff, I know Jay is keenly focused on the rest cycle. He’s been at it a long time, as have Bob (Moore, assistant coach) and I. We believe in the power of the rest day, or two in a row, the rehabilitation, the hot, the cold. Especially at the age of our athletes. They’re at the end of their careers. The rest cycle is so important.
“Coaches and gymnasts need to pay more attention to the rest cycle the body needs to maintain this level of competition.”
From a facilities standpoint, LSU would appear to be ahead of much of the competition. Breaux, who started her LSU coaching career 41 years ago with “horsehair mats and wooden balance beams” in a cramped space in the Carl Maddox Field House, now directs her program through a state-of-the-art practice building.
“We have hot and cold submersion whirlpools,” Breaux said. “Underneath every landing surface, any place the kids are coming off an apparatus and are landing, every day time and time again, there’s a deep pit underneath those landing surfaces. So instead of landing onto cement, they’re landing on a mat, onto something that is forgiving. So for the kids, it’s much more friendly, much more forgiving. Their bodies hold up longer.
“The sheer numbers of apparatus we have, the kids can get on an apparatus, complete their assignment and not have to stand and wait and have their bodies get cold. There’s no waiting in line. It’s complete efficiency and movement from one event to another.”
Breaux said her gymnasts rarely use free weights during the season, mostly using their own body weight as part of their training regimen. It is a regimen aided by a bristling array of support staff that includes nutritionists, chiropractors, sports psychologists and even yoga instructors.
“I think that’s probably one of the smartest things we do,” she said.
“We’re way beyond what it was 10 years ago; certainly way beyond what it was 20 years ago.”
The goal is to minimize injuries and increase the longevity of their careers, Clark said.
“It makes a tremendous difference,” he said.
Finnegan said young gymnasts in their teens and 20s engage in a sort of gallows humor about having 50-year-old bodies from the wear and tear.
“This sport isn’t natural,” she said. “Your body isn’t supposed to have that hard pounding every single day.”
Still, she isn’t walking away. Neither did Hambrick, who attended gymnastics camp at Auburn the summer she broke her ankle, leg cast and all.
Kelley, despite her injury and the surgery it required to repair, is eager to return next season.
“I feel I have more in store,” said Kelley, who specialized on floor in 2017, the event she injured herself on in practice. “I was recruited by LSU for more than one event. I want to give the university what they offered me for. They deserve that.”
In other words, the show must go on.
NCAA gymnastics championship
WHEN: Noon Friday (Semifinal No. 1), 6 p.m. Friday (Semifinal No. 2); 6 p.m. Saturday (Super Six)
WHERE: Chaifetz Arena, St. Louis
TV: ESPN2 (Semi No. 1), ESPNU (Semi No. 2), ESPNU (Super Six)
LIVE STATS: NCAA.com