When Nina Fogle's back aches and her ankles swell, the West Seattle senior's mind can't help but wander back to a time when she competed without pain.
"It was sixth grade, and it was so great," said Fogle, who finished second at state in the all-around as a sophomore and junior. "Once seventh grade started, I just started getting hurt."
Since then, Fogle has suffered fractures in her knee and ankle, and had surgery to remove bone chips in her left ankle.
She is far from alone in her pain. Talk to coaches and athletes, and they all seem to have stories of horrific injuries and chronic pain. Toughness is something most expect to find on a football field, but check out this weekend's district gymnastics meets to find some of the toughest high-school athletes around.
It's a sport of brutality masked by grace.
For every spectacular flip and twist, for each high-flying dismount, there is a landing. Sometimes it goes badly, as it did for Kennedy's Abby Griebenow in 2003. She hyperextended both knees on a vault at a club meet, effectively ending her gymnastics career. Now the junior at Seattle University can't enjoy a long run because of persistent knee pain.
But even when landings go well, the pounding takes its toll.
"They take some really bad falls," said West Seattle coach Ron Young. "It's violent. It's really violent when they fall, but it can also be violent when they do things right just from the pounding they take."
West Seattle, which finished second to Bainbridge at Friday's Metro League championships, is one of many teams dealing with the high injury rate of gymnastics.
Junior Jana Oliver visits the chiropractor three or four times every week to deal with chronic neck and back pain. Her right hip is more than half an inch higher than her left thanks to years of gymnastics.
Gymnasts' incredibly high pain thresholds sometimes mask conditions that have nothing to do with the sport. West Seattle junior Corrine Wise always competed with a sore back and two years ago was diagnosed with a mild case of spina bifida.
"I thought it was just pain from being a gymnast," she said.
Fogle, Oliver and Wise aren't the only injured gymnasts on West Seattle's team, but the Wildcats aren't unique in their sport.
Bothell senior Carrie Dragland, the reigning Class 4A all-around champion, missed her entire freshman season after breaking her ankle on a release move on the bars. That same discipline led to a fractured vertebra for Kennedy's Anissa Madrid. Madrid, a senior, has recovered from the injury, and last year won Class 3A state titles in the floor and vault, and tied for first in bars.
Yet all say the thrills make the spills worthwhile.
"Some of the skills in this sport scare you to death," said Young, the West Seattle coach and a 1966 graduate of the school. "When you accomplish a skill, it's a high you can't really compare to anything else. There's a certain euphoria, that's why you come back and do it again."
Of course, coming back again and again requires an uncommon tolerance for pain.
Shaking off the pain
Before taking over as football coach at Seattle's Nathan Hale, Hoover Hopkins spent one year as the athletic director at West Seattle. The longtime football coach first started paying attention to gymnastics during that 2004-2005 school year.
"They are some of the toughest athletes I've ever seen," Hopkins said. "At the higher levels, I think the gymnasts are every bit as tough as the football players playing at the highest levels.
"I'd say that Nina Fogle is as tough or tougher than any football player I've ever known."
That toughness is a necessity for gymnasts who regularly put themselves in situations they know will be painful.
At state two years ago, Fogle landed awkwardly on her first vault attempt, injuring both ankles. Once she shook off the pain, she had to do it again.
"You just know it's going to hurt," said Fogle, who won a state title in the floor exercise that year. "You just hope it won't hurt that bad."
And when it does hurt, athletes have to fight through it until the competition is over.
"You can't show emotion," said Oliver. "You can't show that you want to run to the corner and start crying."
Pain that won't go away
Liz Grajewski considers herself one of the lucky ones.
The 2002 Kentwood graduate and 11-time state champion has had five surgeries stemming from gymnastics injuries, yet knows it could have been worse.
"I felt like I was pretty fortunate injury-wise," said Grajewski, who had two operations on her left shoulder, two on her right foot, and one on her right ankle. "I never missed a meet in club, high school or college."
Though her gymnastics career ended last year when she graduated from Iowa, Grajewski still feels the pain of her rough-and-tumble sport.
Like Griebenow, Grajewski has trouble running without pain, and her shoulder still gives her trouble.
"I love my sport and I knew that there were some sacrifices I had to make," said Grajewski. "Do I still feel the effects of it? Yes. Will my shoulder ever be 100 percent? No. I have a screw in my foot permanently. It hurts when I run and I don't look cute in high-heel shoes anymore, but it got me through my senior year of gymnastics. To me it was worth it."
Friends and family stay supportive and hope for the best.
"I hate to imagine the long-term effects on some of the kids who do it for so long," said Steve Oliver, Jana's father. "You watch what they do, hold your breath and hope for the best. It's just kind of scary sometimes, but they do it."
Most don't have any intention of stopping soon — bad back, neck, ankle, knee, shoulder, foot or not.
"My parents talk to me about it and my coach talks to me about it, but right now I'm not going to stop," said Oliver. "When I can't walk, when it gets to that point, then I'll know I need to slow down."