Jacoby Miles, a 15-year-old competitive gymnast from Puyallup, Wash., stepped up to the uneven bars on Friday to practice a move she'd done successfully a thousand times. As she spun through the air, she later told her coach, Melanie Roach, she remembered "getting lost" before completing her second flip. Disoriented, she landed on her neck, with only an 8-inch mat to break her fall.
Miles was immediately taken to St. Joseph Hospital in Tacoma, where a CAT scan showed her C4 vertebrae had been dislocated, though not severed. That leaves the door open for recovery, but doctors have told the family that the chances of using her legs again would be in the "miracle category."
"I think this is one of the worst nightmares for a parent," said her father, Jason Miles. It's definitely up and down emotionally and you have moments of grieving, but rely on the hope and the support we've been shown."
When most people think of gymnastics, they think of the breathtaking flips, leaps and spins that won gold for America's "Fierce Five" at this summer's London Olympics. But it can be a dangerous sport.
Of the three million children between the ages of 6 and 17 who do gymnastics, more than 25,000 of them are treated for gymnastics-related injuries in U.S. emergency rooms each year, according to a report by the Center for Injury Research and Policy in Columbus, Ohio. That's on par with the injury rates from hard-hitting contact sports like lacrosse and hockey.
Aches and pains of the shoulders, wrists and other upper body extremities dominate the list of gymnastic-related injuries. Ankle, knee and spine injuries are also common. Some are the inevitable trauma of overuse. Others, like Miles' accident, are the result of a misstep or a short landing.
Melanie Roach, Miles' coach and owner of Roach Gymnastics in Sumner, Wash., where the teen worked out, said that catastrophic accidents such as Miles' are an uncommon occurrence.
"Millions of gymnasts work out all over the country every day and after this happened I had to scour gyms all across the country to find three other similar incidences," she said. "I think the chances of winning the lottery are actually more likely, that's how rare this is."
"Safety is the number-one priority for USA Gymnastics, its members, and the industry," said USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny. "Over the years, we have taken numerous steps to promote a safe environment for gymnastics activities."
Penny said that USA Gymnastics coaches and facilities have consistently emphasized safety and training over the years. And the Center for Injury Research report does say that only about 40 percent of injuries take place while athletes are training at a gym under the watchful eye of a coach. Another 40 percent happen during school recreation programs and the remaining 20 percent are home mishaps.
The injury report also noted that for gymnasts between the ages of 6 and 11, sending them to the gym is likely to prevent harm. A much higher percentage of accidents for kids in this age group are the result of jumping off coffee tables and bouncing on couches without the benefit of a mat or coaching.
Coach Roach's own daughter is a budding gymnast, and though this has been a devasting experience for her, she said she has no plans to pull her 7-year-old from the sport.
"I certainly understand the fear that is involved as a parent. But I know the qualities and attributes that gymnastics teaches, kids can't get anywhere else."
Miles' father also said he would also not discourage other parents from allowing their kids to participate in gymnastics. He said he believes his daughter's injuries were a freak accident.
"I don't think it is anything you can really plan for. An inch this way, an inch this way…. It's something you can't make not happen," he said. "God has a purpose for everything that does happen."