Gymnastics deaths are rare, but previous disasters have prompted safety changes
Updated 6:50 PM ET, Wed November 13, 2019
(CNN)In this sport, a tiny miscalculation can mean the difference between victory and catastrophe.
And as difficulty levels soar to new heights, so do the risks of serious injury.
When Melanie Coleman, a gymnast at Southern Connecticut State University, died after falling off the uneven bars, veterans of the sport were stunned.
"It's just not something that anybody can process," her longtime personal coach Thomas Alberti said.
While a death in gymnastics is extremely rare, it's happened before.
An Olympic hopeful's tragedy helps change the sport
At 15, Julissa Gomez was on track to pursue her dream of competing in the Olympics. But just months before the 1988 Seoul Olympics, she slipped on a springboard that was supposed to propel her over the vaulting horse -- the table that vaulters bounce their hands off of before flipping in the air.
Julissa's head smashed into the horse, paralyzing her from the neck down. Three years later, the 18-year-old died of complications stemming from her injury.
After Julissa's crash, the International Gymnastics Federation started allowing U-shaped mats around the vaulting springboard, wrote Joan Ryan, author of the book "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes."
Yet more gymnasts suffered catastrophic injuries on the vault, leading to paralysis.
In 1989, Puerto Rican gymnast Adriana Duffy was paralyzed from the waist down after she crashed onto her neck.
In 1998, Chinese gymnast Sang Lan suffered a similar fate on the vault.
Widespread concern about these vaulting disasters helped lead to a major change in the future of gymnasts' safety.
The thin vaulting horse that was easy for gymnasts to miss mid-air was replaced with a much broader vaulting table, giving gymnasts more room for error if their hands miss the mark.