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The irony is that gymnast Christy Henrich starved to death right smack dab in the middle of the Land of Plenty. She wasn't in Rwanda or Somalia or Croatia; she was in Independence, Mo., USA, surrounded by grocery stores and 7-11s and pizza to go and Haagen-dazs. And she starved.

Her death was a testament to . . . to what? All sorts of things. The incredible willpower and determination of a human being and an athlete, however misguided and self-destructive. The sad evolvement of elite gymnastics into a stage welcome only to little girls and anyone who looks like one. The failure of the sport's overseers to more openly acknowledge and address a widespread problem of eating disorders among their athletes - a problem that has been restricted largely to rumors and back rooms. And finally, the absolute shame of coaches and judges who not only allow, but encourage and pressure impressionable teenagers essentially to starve themselves.Henrich was a world-class gymnast whose body wanted to become something else: a woman. She wouldn't allow it. Not quite five feet, she starved herself until, by the time she came to grips with her obsessive behavior, it was too late to reverse matters. She died on July 26, weighing less than 60 pounds. She was 22.

Predictably, there is plenty of blame to pass around. There is the story of one judge who told Heinrich she was too big, thus triggering her obsessive dieting. But, in a broader sense, what of the coaches who have flooded the sport with pre-pubescent girls against whom their older rivals are measured? And what of the federations that have allowed it? What of the judges who have demanded it?

They all should have seen the Henrich tragedy coming. According to one report, in 1976 the average size of a gymnast on the U.S. Olympic team was 5-foot-3, 105 pounds; in 1992, it was 4-foot-9, 88 pounds. Last year's world champion, American Shannon Miller, is 4-foot-10, 79 pounds.

The sport has been overrun by little girls, whose lean body mass and body composition give them big advantages over developed and developing girls/women. Even when a girl doesn't outperform a woman or mature girl, judges prefer the former's appearance and score accordingly.

None of which is lost on coaches. Sandy Woolsey, a stocky NCAA champion at the University of Utah, finished second in the all-around at the 1991 national championships to earn a berth on the U.S. world championships team, but she was cut from the team because she was considered by coaches to be too heavy. She was 5-foot, 100 pounds.

"A gymnast peaks when she's 16 or 17, but they want you to continue to look like you're 12," says Woolsey, who battled her own eating disorders before quitting international sport two years ago to recover.

"It happens all the time," says Utah coach Greg Marsden, who was head coach of the 1987 U.S. world championship team. "It happened to Kim Kelly a couple of years after Sandy. She made the Olympic team by score, but was replaced by someone who was littler. It's easy to judge those coaches, but they were doing what they thought was best for the team because the littler kids score better internationally. The judges are as much to blame as anyone. They're the ones who reward kids based on appearance."

For the most part, eating disorders are unique to women's sports (excepting men's wrestling). Male and female athletes face entirely different athletic problems. When a boy turns into a man, he becomes stronger, leaner and more muscular. When a girl turns into a woman, she develops more body fat and her weight is redistributed in ways that alter the mechanics of speed, balance, power and athleticism (not to mention the preferred little-girl lines). For that reason, puberty can and often does mark the end of a female athlete's prime years, especially in gymnastics.

Some accept it and move on; some fight it. They choose their method. Starvation diets. Vomiting. Laxatives. Obsessive training.

"People cannot go through puberty and still meet the current expectations without really extreme behavior," says Marsden. "To fight that change, they become obsessive with their eating and exercise habits trying to maintain that little-girl look. It's so prevalent in international gymnastics . . . Many of our athletes appear to postpone their maturation process."

There are all sorts of side effects from such behavior, aside from the bodily failure you would expect from starvation. Puberty is postponed (Henrich reportedly never reached puberty). Menstrual cycles cease. It is likely that the laying down of bone is altered, thus setting the stage for osteoporosis later in life. And this ironic side effect: obsessive dieting actually can create a starvation reflex in which the body gloms onto calories to protect itself, thus producing the opposite of its desired effect. One can only guess about the other long-term effects of severe dieting during prime growth years.

"Interest in women's sports is relatively new," says Marsden. "There's not a lot of research that has been done on how certain aspects of sport affect women short-term and long-term."

Translation: The side effects of gymnastics' eating disorders could be even worse than feared.

Eating disorders (bulimia, anorexia, etc.) are not uncommon among female athletes in track and field, ice skating, swimming and, of course, gymnastics, which might be most vulnerable to the problem. One study revealed that 62 percent of gymnasts have an eating disorder, but that figure is probably low, given the secrecy and denial in such matters. Woolsey, who competed internationally for five years, places the figure at 90 percent or higher at the international level.

"It was everywhere," she says.

Woolsey remembers an entire underworld of starving girls in international gymnastics (see adjoining column). Weighing a full 130 pounds these days, she has found refuge and sanity in collegiate gymnastics, where eating disorders are not quite as prevalent as they are on the international scene, at least in part because there is no pressure to look and compete like a 13-year-old.

"In college you're coming back from (the eating disorders)," she says. "You've done it and now you're going to stop. Your body can't take anymore. You're not going to the Olympics. You're doing gymnastics to get an education and a career."

That notwithstanding, Marsden says he must cope with major eating disorders on his team almost annually. "We've had people we wouldn't allow to train unless they weighed a certain weight," he says.

"To be honest, I assume every kid who comes into our program has had or will have something obsessive about her eating to some degree or another," says Marsden, who was one of the first coaches to address the issue of eating disorders in gymnastics and is a sought-after public speaker on the subject.

At Utah, gymnasts are taught the dangers of obsessive dieting, healthy weight control methods and good nutrition. They also have a counselor available, at school expense, for help with eating disorders.

It's a start, but education probably isn't enough (steroid abuse continues among athletes despite its much-publicized dangers). At least one major rule change is on the way. Beginning in 1996, gymnasts must be 16 to compete internationally, which, it is hoped, will relieve the pressure on older athletes to keep up with the girls and change the expectations of judges (although Marsden, for one, thinks the age limit probably needs to be older).

Marsden's wife, Megan, who also has coached at the international level, isn't certain any age limit will work. She fears that gymnasts, still looking for an edge, will continue to prevent maturation. "What needs to happen is the judges should reward the more womanly performances," she says. "The women can't do the same things girls do anymore, so they go for more grace and poise . . . The judges should recognize that."

Meanwhile, Greg Marsden also sees need for another change. "Gymnastics has sometimes been unwilling to be as open and candid about the problem as it needs to be," he says. "You can't begin to heal until you admit you've got a problem. As long as coaches and officials close their eyes and say there's no problem, then it's something behind the scenes and it won't be dealt with. We have to let kids know the risks in our sport, and it needs to be watched for."

The chronic fasting of the gymnastics underworld has proceeded relatively unimpeded for years despite the fact that anyone who has had any contact with the sport knows of its existence. It has been perpetuated by a siege mentality that is implicitly carried out at all levels to protect the sport.

"A lot of people in the gymnastics community have tried to bring this problem out in the open," says Woolsey, "but they knew the federation would try to sweep it under a rug or say it was an exception to the rule.

"Anytime we (gymnasts) talked to a reporter we were asked about eating. We tried to make the sport look good. I'd never tell him I have bulimia. It was an unwritten rule not to talk about it. And if you have an eating disorder you're trying to hide it anyway. The federation hires nutritionists and they tell you what's good to eat, but it's the pressure by judges and coaches. They want this body type."

No matter what is done, eating disorders probably will always dog gymnastics. Successful gymnasts already are driven, disciplined people; they're predisposed, Marsden believes, to taking drastic measures for success.

And, too, there always will be a fine line between healthy eating and being in top shape, both in form and function. It will remain a delicate, complex issue. An overweight athlete, for instance, tends to be an injured athlete in the high-impact sport of gymnastics, but how far will she take any suggestion to lose weight? Coaches must choose words carefully.

Will the tragedy of Henrich serve as a wake-up call? Perhaps. But as Marsden said, "It's too bad that it takes that for people to realize how much of an issue this is."