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.
College gymnast Melanie Coleman, 20, was a nursing student and a part-time gymnastics instructor.
"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.
Before 2001, the vaulting horse was thin, allowing little room for error when flying backward onto the horse.
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.
Julissa Gomez competed at the 1986 USFG Junior Championships, two years before a vaulting accident left her paralyzed.
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.
Sang Lan was paralyzed while performing a practice vault at the 1998 Goodwill Games.
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.
Simone Biles competes at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The vaulting table is now larger and safer than in decades past.