As awareness about the dangers of head trauma in youth and high school football have increased, the use of standard protocols has increased in kind. It’s the silver lining of the dramatic dangers that have driven serious concerns about mental and physical health in football and the decline in participation that has subsequently followed.
That’s not necessarily the case in gymnastics, which was laid bare on the international scale on Sunday night in Brazil.
With Great Britain’s women’s gymnastics team chasing a spot in the women’s team qualification round, one of the squad’s star gymnasts, 17-year-old Elissa “Ellie” Downie, was injured in a scary tumbling crash. She popped up from the head-roll quickly and attempted to continue her artistic routine, but thought better of it moments later and walked off the mat. Notably, when interviewed after Great Britain was done competing, she told journalists, “I heard a crunch and they put me in a wheelchair.”
Hearing a crunch and being forced to sit in a wheelchair would certainly indicate a potentially serious neck or head injury. In the end, that didn’t keep Downie from returning to competition, and playing a critical role in helping land Great Britain a spot in the team finals, competing a pair of vaults as the team’s strongest vaulter.
Whether she should have been able to return so quickly is a viable question. Unlike football, hard and fast head trauma rules are less regimented in most other sports. To that end, the gymnastics-focused website Gymnastics Zone published an assessment tool for concussions and head trauma which includes a section on returning to competition or practice following any injury of potential severity. That section includes the following directive in bold type:
Gymnasts should not return to practice or competition the same day of the injury.
By those standards, Downie should not have continued regardless of her initial reaction; according to USA TODAY colleague Rachel Axon, Downie said she was dizzy but didn’t think she had a concussion: “I think it’s more of just a panic thing, initially,” she said. “You just panic. You think the worst.”
Of course, it’s possible that Downie was given a quick head trauma baseline concussion test away from the floor, but given Downie’s sister Rebecca “Becky” Downie’s reaction, the sisters would have been surprised to need such a test at all.
“It was pretty scary, and I’ve never really seen her do that,” Rebecca Downie told Axon. “If she does it like that, she manages to at least get over and land on her back. So it was a bit of a shock to the system, and I’m just really glad she’s OK.”
Just how OK remains to be seen: Ellie Downie has qualified for the all-around final, provided she receives medical clearance to do so.
“I’m still a fighter in every competition whether it’s the Olympics or not,” she said.