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Gymnast dies three years after accident

HOUSTON -- Julissa Gomez, a gymnast once considered a top contender for the Olympics, has died three years after breaking her neck in an accident during competition. She was 18.

Gomez died Thursday, three years after the accident at a meet in Tokyo that later resulted in her slipping into a coma. Services were scheduled Saturday.

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A spokeswoman at Julissa's church said Friday her family had gone into seclusion. Information on what caused her death was not immediately available.

Gomez was left paralyzed as a result of the accident during the World Sports Fair in Tokyo May 5, 1988. The gymnast, ranked 13th in the nation, missed the bounce board on her mount and slammed into the vault.

The broken neck damaged Gomez' spinal cord and she was hospitalized on a respirator. She communicated by blinking her eyes as her mother pointed to letters on a board.

'The first thing she asked is if she'd walk again,' Gomez' mother, Otilia said in an earlier interview with United Press International. 'She was very optimistic. She would ask to pray and we'd all pray together. I don't know at that time if she knew the extent of the injury.'

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But an oxygen hose to the respirator became disconnected after doctors at the Tokyo hospital performed a tracheotomy on Gomez, and the problem was not discovered for 15 hours. The 15-year-old athlete suffered cardiac arrest and fell into a coma.

Gomez became interested in gymnastics at age 3, while watching Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci on television during the 1976 Olympics. Too young for gymnastics classes, she settled for studying ballet and tap dance.

But by the time she was 5, Gomez was a member of the San Antonio gymnastics club. Five years later, her family moved to Houston, where she studied under famed coach Bela Karolyi and trained with 1984 Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton. In 1985, Gomez was invited to join Karolyi's elite team.

But Gomez decided in 1988 that she wanted more individual attention, and in February joined Al Fong's program in Blue Springs, Mo. The Tokyo competition was her first under Fong.

'I have no regrets because she was doing what she loved,' Otilia Gomez had said. 'She had a goal of wanting to go to the Olympics.'

Gomez was a member of the U.S. national gymnastics team in 1986 and 1987. She is survived by her parents and one sister.

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