Healing Gymnasts with Hart
Updated: May 8
By Cindy Dick
May 3, 2023
Some injuries in sport are unforgettable... Joe Theismann's leg break, Greg Louganis' head splitting dive, or Kerri Strug's vault landing. Within practice and competition, sport carries risk and almost every athlete has to deal with an injury at some point. This story is about Dr. Elly Hart, a dedicated practitioner for the prevention of injuries who has created innovative treatments and educational resources, particularly for gymnasts.
Dr. Hart’s varied pursuits are fueled by her boundless, positive energy. She’s motivated by a love of sport and a desire to help the entire person heal. Dr. Hart is a Physician Assistant, a non-profit founder, and a Ninja Warrior (we'll get to that!). She shares her expertise as a medical provider at Boston Children’s Hospital (where she leads the Gymnastics Medicine and Ninja Medicine Clinics), her non-profit (Gymnastics Medicine: Education and Research), works part time as one of the medical staff members for USA Gymnastics, and she is one of the top female Ninja Warriors in the country. Wherever she goes, Dr. Hart is one of those exceptional people that truly makes the world a better place.
As a former gymnast, she understands what it is like to be injured, the frustration of not being able to communicate to a health care provider how the injury happened, and not being treated properly or treated as a whole person.
Dr. Hart began her journey as Elly, a talented tot that started gymnastics at age three. The rigors of the sport led to her first injury by age eight, and that experience introduced her to the world of Sports Medicine/Orthopedics. Elly continued with gymnastics and was competing with the Junior Olympic team at level 10 in Region VI (Massachusetts) for three years when her performances caught the attention of James Madison University.
She was recruited for their Division I Gymnastics Program and made the most of her time at JMU by
being a Division I gymnast, Division I cheerleader, a member of Alpha Phi sorority, and earning her degree in Athletic Training and Sports Medicine with a minor in Biology.
After graduation, she continued participating in gymnastics at level 10 for the Junior Olympic National Championships (she was one of the oldest competitors at 23 years old). As her professional career started to flourish, she decided to pursue a Masters degree in Physician Assistant Studies, and later a Doctorate Degree.
Today, she works for Boston Children’s Hospital in the Division of Sports Medicine, where she focuses on diagnosing and treating all sports injuries with a focus on gymnasts, ninjas, and cheerleaders. She also started the first ever Gymnastics Medicine Clinic which is a Sports Medicine clinic focused exclusively on the diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and research on gymnastics specific injuries and injury prevention. There, she also developed gymnastics specific ‘return to play’ protocols where she helps gymnasts progress back to the sport in a safe and healthy manner after injury with the goal of not reinjuring themselves. Due to the apparatuses in the clinic, her multi-disciplinary team is able to test biomechanical skills and assess if the athlete is at an increased risk of injury. They are not only recreating movement patterns, they are also looking at the whole person in regards to other factors that can contribute to injuries such as sleep, hydration, nutrition and stress levels. Because there are no other facilities like it in the country, Dr. Hart sees gymnasts from all over the country.
To reach more patients, Dr. Hart founded Gymnastics Medicine: Education and Research in 2022. The non-profit clinic is the only one of its kind that provides athlete-first holistic education specializing in gymnastics injuries and prevention. She assembled an all-star, all-female squad of medical providers from various professions including: sports nutritionists, physical therapists, physician assistants, strength and conditioning coaches, surgeons, athletic trainers and sports psychologists. The goal is to not only educate gymnasts, parents, and coaches but also medical providers. They share tips, tricks and evidence-based educational resources on injury prevention, sleep deprivation, nutrition, and hydration as they relate to injury prevention, recovery and how to have a healthy re-entry into competition. Their approach is to keep the athlete at the center for the best care possible.
As a former high level gymnast, and Sports Medicine provider, Dr. Hart wanted to contribute and help the best athletes in the country and thus she contacted USA Gymnastics. In 2017 she reached out to the head athletic trainer and staff and told them she’s a former gymnast, a current Certified Athletic Trainer and Certified Physician Assistant, and that she was working towards her Doctorate degree and wanted to be a part of the medical staff. They asked her to volunteer at a competition called US
Championships (the biggest competition for elite gymnasts and where a gymnast qualifies to be a National Team Member for USA Gymnastics). Her goal was to help the women stay injury free, happy and healthy. Also in 2017 USA Gymnastics was going through terrible times (upheaval). Dr. Hart decided to stay part of the medical staff as she saw she could be a positive role model, and use her “athlete first” philosophy which she has already developed in her Sports Medicine Clinic back home in Boston; she explained that she does what’s best for the athlete now and into the future. She wanted to ensure the bad situation of the past never happens again, not just now but 100 years from now. “You have to be a functioning adult when you finish gymnastics.”
Dr. Hart is also engaged in research. As her first research paper, she did an extensive literature review of the past 10 years of all the articles written about gymnastics injuries and discovered what was missing in the research. (Seeing what was missing helped inform the formation of the non-profit and other research papers she has since written.) She summarized the most common injuries in gymnastics, the way that they were diagnosed and treated, along with the other external factors that contributed to injuries such as sleep, nutrition, hydration and stress levels. Her findings were published in the November 2018 edition of Current Sports Medicine Reports journal.
Another research project she is currently working on getting published is a retrospective chart review on gymnasts and concussions. In this chart review she found that gymnasts' post-concussive symptoms are similar to other athletes. She noted in this interview that there aren't studies on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in gymnasts like there has been for football but that this could be another interesting study for the future. She sees the need for more long-term studies on gymnastics and the long-term effects on a gymnast’s body.
When her competitive days in gymnastics ended, she needed to fill the exercise void. “I wanted to work out and I wanted it to be fun.” Some friends told her about Ninja Warrior training. Not familiar with the show, she pictured the classic Ninja in a Gi waving a sword. "I didn't want to hurt anyone, " she innocently said. After going to a local gym, she discovered she really liked Ninja Warrior because the movements reminded her of the elements involved in a gymnastics routine. She started three years ago, fell in love with the sport and has excelled at it.
Within her first few months of training, a teammate asked if she was applying for the show, American Ninja Warrior. The irony was that she hadn’t seen the show. Even so, she asked herself, “What is there to lose?”. She was selected for the show but COVID soon shut down the production, giving her an extra year to train. During that year, she competed in local and national events and earned a ranking of third best adult female ninja in the country. She then reapplied the next year and was invited back to season 13 and made it to the second obstacle but wasn’t selected to air on TV. She continued practicing and learning. She then applied again and was selected for season 14 where she advanced to the third obstacle and was aired on NBC. She was selected for the upcoming season of American Ninja Warrior but for the most recent competition she can’t tell us the results because it hasn’t aired but she said to be sure to watch for an exciting run!
Her Ninja work started to bring in another area of injuries, or “Ninjuries” as she likes to call them. To help reduce the chance of getting injured, she developed a warm-up for Ninja based on injury prevention. Her 30-minute warmup routine helps the adult body get ready for the rigorous demands of Ninja movements. Other adults in the gym first scoffed at the idea of spending 30 minutes to warm up but then they started to join her in this warm-up ritual and she believes this has helped decrease her gym’s rate of injuries and maybe has a little something to do with her training gym (Vitality Obstacle Fitness in Fall River, MA) being ranked as one of the best ninja gyms in the country. She also mentions her ninja coaches (Jordan Thurston) is one of the best ninja coaches in the country.
Practicing the Ninja elements in the gym strengthens the body, but competing on the TV show, American Ninja Warrior, was an entirely different experience. Every element is between 6’ to 45’ off the ground and when you fall, it’s into a pool of water. Lights bathe the elements, adding to the excitement, and then there is the crowd; screaming, cheering and chanting your name. Elly shared a revelation that most viewers don’t know about the TV show. “You don’t know the course before you compete. You know there will be balance elements and that you’ll have to transition from one element to the next with some swinging motion, there will be a warp wall at the end, but the rest is a mystery. When you first get on set for filming the TV producers have everyone gather together and they go over the rules and obstacles. You then watch “a tester” show the obstacle but as a contestant you don’t get to touch the obstacles until it’s truly your time to take on the course. Before it’s your turn you get to watch other competitors but you don’t get to practice on the course. When you go, it’s for the first time! It’s one and done. There are no second chances.”
With this new sport she’s started to specialize in Ninja specific Sports Medicine, which she calls Ninja Medicine. The clinic added Ninja obstacles so that patients can have their biomechanics assessed and be sure they are truly ready to progress back to the sport once they have healed from their injury and to prevent future injuries. At first, it was her teammates that were coming to the clinic but the client base has expanded into the New England area.
With Ninja’s explosion over the past five years we asked, “Could Ninja Warrior become an Olympic sport?” She said that there are talks of it, possibly making it a side-by-side race to add to the excitement. It has grown from the grass roots level into international leagues and the World Ninja League.
With all of these activities, we asked what was most important to Dr. Hart and she said, “When you’re an athlete, take care of yourself, inside and outside of the gym. Check in on your physical and mental health. Athletes that are healthy now are more likely to be healthy later.”