Playing Through the Pain
How one teen is using her tragic injury to take down the warrior culture in sports.
When Gabby Taylor, 15, woke up on December 17, 2009, she ate a bowl of cereal and headed off to school in Woodbury, Minnesota. She was especially excited about cheer practice that afternoon, which would be her team’s final rehearsal for its big competition the next day. As co-captain of her squad at East Ridge High, Gabby felt intense pressure. Her team had won every competition that season, earning glory for their clean style and eye-popping acrobatics.
Fast-forward to after school: Near the end of practice, the team was working on a new stunt, which called for Gabby and three other girls to toss a fifth girl (called a “flyer”) into the air. The flyer would flip twice, landing in the arms of the girls below. The first time they tried the stunt, Gabby remembers the flyer’s shoulder landing on her neck—hard. The pain was searing, but Gabby ignored it. She knew they needed to get the stunt right, and she didn’t want to let her teammates down.
The second time, Gabby felt the pain again. This time, though, it was worse, and Gabby sensed something was wrong. Her fingers tingled strangely, as if needles were pricking her skin.
What Gabby did not realize was that something terrible had happened inside her body. The repeated trauma had damaged her nerves—those delicate threads that communicate information to and from the brain.
And now, Gabby’s nerves were in crisis.
Push through the pain, Gabby told herself.
She helped toss the flyer up again, and BAM! Gabby’s arm exploded with pain. It would soon turn purple and swell like a balloon. The pain was so excruciating, all Gabby could do was cry.
In the days after her accident, Gabby learned that severe nerve damage had paralyzed her right arm. What’s more, she was in constant pain. After several procedures to numb her nerves were unsuccessful, she had spinal surgery that gave her some relief.
But Gabby would never cheer again. In fact, Gabby never even got healthy enough to return to school. And now, when everyday tasks, like buttoning a coat, take herculean effort, she’s reminded of her decision to keep practicing. “Doctors have told me that if I had refused to do that stunt a second or third time, I still might be cheering today,” Gabby says.
Gabby’s story is tragic, but other athletes across the country are also “playing through the pain,” despite warning signs from their bodies.
"Overuse injuries, which are caused by repeatedly straining the same body parts, are “going through the roof,” says Michael Bergeron, executive director of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute. Young athletes often ignore the symptoms of wear and tear on growing muscles, bones, and tendons until they need season-ending (sometimes even career-ending) surgery.
In more extreme cases, though, teens like Gabby have suffered catastrophic injuries—such as concussions or spinal damage—that cause brain damage, paralysis, or death. But even some of these life-altering conditions and injuries are preventable when the body is given time to heal.
For instance, some young athletes are returning to the game too soon after sustaining concussions, a behavior experts liken to a game of Russian roulette. One more bump before the brain fully heals can cause irreversible damage—or even death. “If you cross the line for a catastrophic injury, there’s no do-over there,” says Bergeron.
Sadly, research shows that risk of further injury often isn’t enough to keep hurt players off the field. In a recent survey of high school football players, more than 90 percent said that they understood the risks of getting back in the game with a head injury—but only half would actually stop if they experienced symptoms of a concussion.
Why go for one more play when you know how much is at stake? It has to do with “warrior culture,” a way of thinking that encourages members of a sports team to follow the example of soldiers in battle. Loyalty to teammates matters more than personal health. Persevering through injury is considered heroic. Nothing is as important as winning. Many experts—and teens themselves—think this mentality has become an epidemic in youth sports. Soccer players with torn knee ligaments stay on the field, and cheerleaders in agonizing pain still soar through the air.
Even though many athletes understand the devastating consequences of “no pain, no gain,” those words remain the rule rather than the exception.
The pressure to play at all costs comes from parents, who have invested time and money into their kids’ training and dream of a college scholarship. It comes from coaches, who want to win. And it comes from young athletes, who are afraid that missing even one practice will jeopardize their status on the team or at school. “There’s nothing athletes fear more than the bench,” says ESPN’s Gregg Easterbrook. “So they’ll pretend they’re not hurt just so that the coach won’t make them sit out.”
It’s normal to feel a drive to be the best that you can be—that quality is in an athlete’s blood. But when the warrior mentality takes over, you stop seeing the path to your ultimate goal clearly. “Sports is 95 percent for fun, health, and broadening your experiences,” says Bergeron. “If you stay safe, you’ll be fit and active for the rest of your life.”
Use Your Head
So how can you fight warrior culture? The good news is, a concussion doesn’t have to be deadly—and a nagging knee pain won’t turn into a career-ender—if you’re willing to give your body rest and recovery time. And while teens should be advocates for their own health, they can lead the way by looking out for their teammates, too. Both concussions and heatstroke, for example, affect the brain’s ability to think clearly, causing injured athletes to underestimate serious symptoms. So if a teammate looks confused, out of it, or just not right—speak up. It could save his or her life.
Gabby still has days she can’t get out of bed, days when she is overcome with sadness for the life she could have had. But she has also discovered her extraordinary strength. After years of grueling physical therapy, Gabby can wiggle her fingers, and she still hopes to regain full use of her arm someday.
In the meantime, though, Gabby is sharing her hard-learned lessons with others. Last year, she was crowned Miss Teen Minnesota and became a spokesperson for the National Center for Sports Safety. Now she travels throughout the Midwest, talking to kids about staying safe. Her message to young athletes is simple: “When your body is hurt, speak up to a coach, friend, teacher, anyone. You only get one body in life, and you need to honor and respect it.”