This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.
Before discovering gymnastics, Kathy Johnson ran track and was quite good at it. She was so good, in fact, that for a time she thought she might become a track and field Olympian.
It’s not unusual for athletes to explore other hobbies and interests before settling on their specialty. But for most elite gymnasts, the period “before gymnastics” isn’t long enough to do much else. They typically start very young and specialize very soon — as early as 4 years old, with more advanced training and competition around age 7 — and devote all their time outside school to the sport, to the exclusion of essentially everything else.
But Johnson started artistic gymnastics at the ripe old age of 12, and within four years, she was vying for a spot on the 1976 Olympic team. Ludivine Furnon, a French gymnast who competed through the 1990s into the early aughts, went from preteen novice to 15-year-old world bronze medalist on floor in about the same amount of time it took Johnson to reach the highest echelons of American gymnastics. For Daiane dos Santos of Brazil, it took a little longer — though not much — to climb to the top of South American gymnastics: She began at age 12, and in 2003, she won a world gold medal on floor at age 20.
All three of these athletes started gymnastics quite late for the current version of the sport, and all three managed to zoom up the ranks and enjoy successful gymnastics careers. Furnon was the first French woman to win a world championship medal. Johnson won a bronze at the 1978 World championships and made two Olympic teams, in 19801 and 1984.2 At the 1984 Los Angeles Games, she picked up a team silver and bronze on the beam. Dos Santos has two floor skills named after her in the Code of Points. The Dos Santos II, a laid-out Arabian double front, is one of the most difficult skills in the women’s floor repertoire that’s not named for Simone Biles.
These athletes’ accomplishments were exceptional, but it’s tempting to see their unusual career timelines as exceptional as well — that their experiences are not replicable for the vast majority of gymnasts. But that’s not true. In fact, there’s no evidence that girls in gymnastics need to specialize quite so young. And there are pressing reasons to rethink the entire early developmental timeline of female gymnasts.
Over the past five years, women’s gymnastics has faced a reckoning with itself that started with the horrifying revelation that for more than two decades, longtime USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar had been sexually abusing hundreds of girls and women under the guise of medical treatment. Gymnasts spoke out, not just about sex abuse, but also about other forms of trauma that the sport had inflicted on them: psychologically abusive coaches who demeaned them at every turn and forced them to train while injured; officials who commented on their weight, leading them down the path to eating disorders; and institutions that knew enough to intervene but ignored the problem.
This long-overdue reckoning has forced all the interested parties in the sport — coaches, athletes, parents, judges, officials — to question everything about how gymnastics is practiced at all levels, including the age of the athletes. Though older athletes can and have been abused, the youthfulness of many elite gymnasts makes them particularly vulnerable. They start young and quickly specialize, which means they’re spending long hours in the gym, away from non-gymnast peers who might be able to offer an outsiders’ perspective. Many gymnasts are also homeschooled, so almost all the trusted adults in their lives — coaches and parents — have ties to the sport. This isolation contributes to the normalization of abusive behaviors. The gymnasts are like a frog in a pot of water with the temperature rising slowly, almost imperceptibly, and there’s no one around to cannonball in and yell, “This is hot!”
How an Olympic climber manages her anxiety to get in the zone | FiveThirtyEight
In the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics, stories were being written about the increasing age of female gymnasts, pointing out that the sport, once thought to be the exclusive domain of young teens, can be done — and done exceptionally well — by gymnasts who are in their late teens or even their 20s. After all, the average age for a female gymnast in these Olympics is just under 22 years. But the focus has been almost exclusively on the end of a gymnast’s career. Far less attention is being paid to how early a gymnast’s specialization starts and how that has the potential to affect how one’s final years look. There’s even less focus on how the sport can better accommodate gymnasts so they may extend their careers beyond what had long been thought impossible.
This change — which really has been underway for more than a decade, if not longer — is welcome, but it doesn’t signify a fundamental shift in how we approach training gymnasts. It doesn’t challenge the timeline that puts gymnasts on pace to being at their “peaks,” or at least a first “peak,” when they’re just 15 or 16 years old. It doesn’t question what is generally taken as an article of faith in the gymnastics community — that gymnasts have to train upward of 20 hours a week before they even hit their teen years just to have a shot at an Olympic team or a college scholarship. It is this timeline, which was built around the erroneous belief that female gymnasts had a narrow competitive window in their teens, that needs to be dismantled and rebuilt. If we want adult women to thrive in gymnastics, we have to change how their preteen and early teen years look.
The story about the declining age of female gymnasts in the 1970s goes something like this: The big bad Communists figured out that young girls could better perform complex acrobatics that the sport increasingly demanded, and so they started training girls at younger and younger ages, practically from the moment they took their first steps. And then, when these youngsters started winning everything in sight, say around the early ’70s, other countries had no other choice but to follow suit if they wanted to have a shot at the medals.
The real story, of course, is far more complicated. The decreasing age of female gymnasts started before Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut made her Olympic debut in 1972 at age 17, and certainly before Nadia Comăneci of Romania scored the first Olympic perfect 10 in gymnastics in 1976, when she was just 14. The sport’s first age minimum, 14, was instituted in 1971, before either gymnast had made her mark on the sport. The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) made this particular move because the ages of female gymnasts were already on the decline and young girls threatened the image of the sport as one that was appropriate for women. In 1964, two 15-year-olds won Soviet nationals. And in 1968, two 15-year-olds were on the USSR Olympic team. Though Czechoslovakian Věra Čáslavská, often considered the last of the adult female champions, ultimately prevailed at those Olympics at age 26 — despite Soviet judging shenanigans — the tide was starting to turn in favor of younger athletes and more complex acrobatics.
But according to Georgia Cervin, a former gymnast and author of “Degrees of Difficulty: How Women’s Gymnastics Rose to Prominence and Fell From Grace,” though this trend was happening in countries behind the Iron Curtain like the Soviet Union, they actually held out longer than most in resisting it. The true innovator of the “child gymnast” was not the Communist Eastern bloc but the capitalist West.
In the U.S., amateurism prevailed over Olympic sports during the postwar period, though male athletes in the NCAA still received support through scholarships — leading to a culture of “shamateurism.” But female athletes didn’t have opportunities to train full-time, especially in sports that demanded speed, power or aggression — qualities that were deemed masculine. Sports took women away from what was considered their main purpose: giving birth to children and raising families. For the few women who were in athletics, sports were seen as more a hobby than a vocation.
related: Which Countries Are Doing Better — Or Worse — Than Expected At The Tokyo Olympics? Read more. »
Gender norms and expectations were very different in the USSR, which largely shunned athletic competition with the West, particularly the Olympics, though the Soviets started to participate in the Games again in 1952. Soviet women, who resisted the Nazis in World War II, were fully backed by the state in their pursuit of athletic excellence. “The Soviet Union had a well-devised medal-winning strategy, supported by serious investment into developing and training athletes,” Cervin wrote. “Moreover, it didn’t practice a gender differential, instead devoting as much attention to women’s sports as to men’s. Soviet traditions of physical culture combined with communist notions of gender roles to support their female gymnasts.”
As a result, the Soviets crushed countries that didn’t invest in female athletes. And if the West wanted to challenge the Eastern bloc in the medal race, they were going to have to find a way around those pesky amateurism rules, short of providing women with scholarships and other kinds of material support. For American women, the answer was simple: Use child athletes.
“US women’s artistic gymnastics drew on those who had all the trappings of professional athletes: young athletes with no work or family commitments, who were supported to sleep and train, whose every meal and every need was taken care of [by their parents],” Cervin wrote.
“It’s not even really a conscious effort to go towards girls,” Cervin told me. “Everyone else is excluded” on the basis of amateurism rules and the way that sport is organized and funded in the West.
So while the U.S. and USSR entered the postwar gymnastics era with gymnasts whose ages averaged just under 28 for the 1952 Olympics, “the average American age quickly declined to under 20 from 1956 onward,” Cervin wrote. “Meanwhile, the USSR also saw a decrease in age, although much slower, with the average age remaining in the mid-20s until the end of the 1960s. The average (mean) age for gymnasts from the United States was 18.3 in 1960, decreasing to 17.5 by 1976. By comparison, gymnasts from the USSR averaged 24.5 years of age in 1960, dropping only to 19.5 in 1976.”
The reason why people blame the Eastern Bloc almost exclusively for the declining age of female gymnasts worldwide is that, well, these American youngsters weren’t yet winning medals, so they didn’t come to define the sport as Korbut and Comăneci later would. This was likely due to a confluence of factors. The rules didn’t yet favor these young gymnasts and their acrobatics; it was still a woman’s sport through most of the ’60s. In addition, the Soviets exerted a lot of control over the judging panels, which made it difficult for Americans to get onto the podium. For example, at the 1966 World championships, American Doris Fuchs performed what is now viewed as a revolutionary uneven bars routine, but she didn’t even make it to the apparatus final despite the best efforts of the crowd, who booed what they thought was an unfairly low score for more than an hour according to an Associated Press report. It wouldn’t be until 1970 that the U.S. had its first major breakthrough, when Cathy Rigby won a silver on balance beam at the World championships at 17, two years before Korbut became the darling of the Munich Olympics at the very same age.
The other reason why American youngsters didn’t rise to prominence during the ’60s is that they simply weren’t as good as their counterparts in the USSR. Soviet gymnasts won because they were usually better.
With almost no medals or international accolades, it’s not surprising that the very young American gymnasts didn’t attract much attention, not to their gymnastics and not to their ages.
At the same time, other factors were also reshaping the game. “The limits of women’s gymnastics as a non-acrobatic sport had been reached” in the ’60s, Cervin told me. “There’s only so many leaps and turns and walkovers you can do before you need to start getting airborne.” The equipment had also improved, allowing gymnasts to attempt more complex skills.
And men’s coaches started migrating into the women’s ranks. It’s probably difficult to imagine this now with the image seared into our collective memory of coach Béla Károlyi urging Kerri Strug to vault on an injured ankle at the 1996 Olympics, but for the first few decades of women’s gymnastics, the sport was administered by women, for women. FIG’s Women’s Technical Committee, which creates the rules that govern the sport, was composed entirely of women. Only female coaches were allowed onto the floor with the team or into the training halls at competitions.
The influx of male coaches, either former gymnasts themselves or coaches who had previously worked with young men, had a significant impact on the development of women’s gymnastics. Male gymnasts of this time were already performing complex acrobatics in their exercises, so when they became coaches for women or when coaches for men started training women, they brought that technical expertise with them and started teaching them to the women. Or, as it turned out, girls.
Korbut was trained by Renald Knysh, who she and others later said had sexually abused them. (Knysh, who died in 2019, denied the allegations.) Comăneci was trained by Károlyi and his wife, Márta Károlyi. And Vladislav Rastorotsky — perhaps one of the most innovative coaches of the 20th century, and by reputation a patient one — trained a whole bevvy of gymnasts, including Lyudmila Turischeva, Natalia Shaposhnikova and Natalia Yurchenko. Cervin pointed out that Rastorotsky drew on the tradition of the Soviet circus for inspiration. If the names “Yurchenko” and “Shaposhnikova” sound at all familiar, it’s because those gymnasts performed skills that are still in use to this day.
“There’s been this argument that as male coaches began working the [women’s] sport, they preferred working with young girls because they have a more neutral body. It’s the same as a boy’s body — no breasts, no hips,” Cervin said. “Working with an adult woman is an entirely different thing.”
By working with young girls rather than women, the male coaches don’t have to do much by way of changing their training techniques to teach complex acrobatics. The argument that fully grown women can’t learn the new acrobatic elements is one of lazy coaches who don’t want to work too hard. Add to that the fact that kids are also easier to control and manipulate and, well, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
How an armless archer trains his brain to win Olympic medals| FiveThirtyEight
And that disaster was entirely predictable. In FIG archives, Cervin found bulletins warning against this trend, including this one from 1971: “Medical reports have given a warning and pointed out the dangers of abusive training without necessary control … how much surer it is to obtain high-class gymnastic champions whose fullness is manifested in their psychic and physiological ‘flowering.’” In 1971, that group instituted the first age minimum. “Let us hope that we shall see less of these children,” FIG said. It’s important, however, to contextualize FIG’s concern with the fact that, as Cervin observed, science (or pseudoscience) has often been weaponized against women in sports. Most famously, the belief in the “floating uterus” was used to keep women out of the marathon for decades. And it’s also important to note that while FIG was fretting over the declining ages of gymnasts, it was also fretting over the increasingly acrobatic nature of the sport, which to many seemed to be at odds with the original mission statement of women’s gymnastics.
The new age minimum did little to stymie the decline in the ages of female gymnasts, whether they were from the capitalist West or the Communist East. And things got notably worse after Comăneci’s arduous regimen was adopted worldwide. Training more than five hours a day as a preteen became a norm in the sport that persists to this day. Comăneci’s success, and the success of others to come, crystallized the narrative of the female gymnast: Start young, work hard and retire once you hit puberty.
“It was Nadia,” said the former gymnast Kathy Johnson, who is now a sports commentator known as Kathy Johnson Clarke. “That was the turning point.” After 1976, despite narrowly missing the Olympic team, Johnson Clarke continued on in her elite career. And she remembers a sudden increased focus on very young talent.
“The emphasis was on youth and developing youth,” she told me. “My coach used to say this — and it sounds horrible. He said, ‘We’re into these phenoms. They’re unbelievable at 10 and 11. Then what happens? Do all phenoms die at 12? Where do they go?’”
“These were questions that nobody had answers for,” Johnson Clarke continued. “But we stayed on the path of starting younger and younger.”
Starting younger doesn’t mean taking an hourlong Mommy and Me class or a recreational gymnastics lesson a couple of times a week, though. For certain talented youngsters, the hours start to ramp up quickly so that they will be at an athletic peak by the time they hit 14 or 15, if not earlier, either to start moving down the elite path or to get the attention of college recruiters. The leap from junior elite to senior is a perilous one, and few junior standouts end up having great results at the senior level. And in many cases, they end up leaving the sport, citing injury and burnout, if they even bother explaining their departure at all.
“We should train the future, not compete the future,” Hardy Fink told me. The former president of the Men’s Technical Committee also headed FIG’s Education and Academy Programs, where one of his jobs was to help create an age group progression program, which specifically advised against very young athletes performing difficult, potentially injurious skills in competition. The problem is that few countries use these guidelines, as they’re completely voluntary — certainly not the top countries for gymnasts like the U.S., Russia and China.
related: The Black Women Who Forged New Paths And Set Records At The Olympics Read more. »
While Fink thinks it’s OK for gymnasts to train complex skills while they’re still young, he stresses that this should be done only under safe training conditions and not with the purpose of bringing them to competition while they’re still going through puberty. It’s one thing to tumble on a forgiving, spring-loaded surface to learn air awareness, timing and technique. It’s quite another to take it to the comparatively harder floor, which is what you have to do if you want to prepare to do that skill in a meet.
Fink objects to classifying gymnastics as an early-specialization sport. “What does early specialization mean in a sport such as gymnastics, which is so multifaceted?” he asked, citing the different apparatuses, which have different physical requirements. “When they talk about early specialization, what they really mean is exclusive, high-intensity, highly structured training from a young age. I don’t think that is necessary when what you want is [that] the kids have a huge movement vocabulary.” Fink said it’s ludicrous to keep young gymnasts from participating in other activities, such as skiing — one that many coaches discourage or even forbid their athletes from doing lest they get injured on the slopes. The thinking is that if you’re going to get injured, you should get injured in the gym or on the competition floor. (And it’s not so much “if” as “when,” unfortunately.)
Brehanna Showers, a former University of Oklahoma gymnast, began to specialize at around age 9 — relatively late according to the standards of gymnastics. When she shifted from recreational gymnastics and a handful of other sports to a more regimented gymnastics schedule, she recalls that her new teammates, many of them between 8 and 10 years old, were already nursing injuries. “You start seeing girls wearing knee braces or ankle braces,” she said. “These girls trying to use anything that they can to try to keep themselves together and we’re 10 years old. It is kind of crazy.
“It was a shock, I think, for my parents when I switched to the competitive side of things just to see girls doing that, taping ankles and taping things,” she said. “Once I hit the middle school years, that’s when girls kind of started dropping out of the sport. There were girls who were extremely talented, but their bodies were not going to hold up.”
What Showers observed anecdotally is supported by most of the available research. “If you’re looking at the literature on early specialization and year-round training, it’s not good,” said Dave Tilley, a former collegiate gymnast who’s now a coach and physical therapist working primarily with gymnasts. He is also the host of “The Shift Show,” a podcast that delves into many of the issues facing gymnastics, from injury prevention and rehabilitation to coaching culture. “It’s not good on burnout rates. It’s not good on injuries. And it’s also not good on objective outcomes or performance for the normative data,” said Tilley.
Though Showers was training more than 20 hours a week, she refused to give up her other interests. During this time, she started competing in pole vaulting, something she had to hide from her gymnastics coaches. “I kept it a secret, the pole vaulting, for probably like two years because I knew my coaches would be mad if they found out that I was putting my energy into something else,” Showers said. She was found out when one of her pole-vaulting teammates posted a photo on Facebook of Showers at a competition on her day off from gymnastics. Her coach saw it and told her she needed to stop. “It was pretty much just like, ‘You have to be done [with] pole vaulting’ … like it’s either ‘You’re all in here or you’re done here.’”
Showers’s parents told her to ignore the order from her coach, with whom she had an otherwise good relationship, and she continued with pole vaulting a little longer. But what if gymnastics culture encouraged kids to explore a range of other activities rather than limiting their options? What if coaches viewed other sports as a complement to gymnastics, not a distraction from it?
“Imagine you’re a kid and you’re doing a bit of athletics, maybe a bit of weight training,” said Cervin. “You learn how to sprint properly, so you’re a better vaulter. The weight training gives you stronger muscles, so you become a better tumbler. You don’t have to learn [the skills] in gymnastics, but you can apply them in gymnastics when you start to specialize at a later age.”
Gymnastics tends to view itself as foundational to all sports — and perhaps it is — but a consequence of this thinking is that what gymnasts can learn from other sports tends to be discounted. But it’s been other sports, not gymnastics, that have been quicker to bring science into the realm of training.
“Gymnastics has been a very late adopter, if at all, of a lot of the parameters that other athletes are tracking, like workload and sleep and mental readiness,” said Dr. Ellen Casey, a former collegiate gymnast. One of the new physicians for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, Casey is also a professor at Weill Cornell Medicine and a physiatrist at New York City’s Hospital for Special Surgery. Her expertise is in treating women, particularly female athletes, and she has conducted research on the role sex hormones play in injuries like ACL tears. In other sports, she noted, some athletes wear sensors on their bodies so there is a steady stream of data to analyze. “But there’s really been very little embracing of that type of data in gymnastics.
How to watch skateboarding like an Olympic judge | FiveThirtyEight
“What’s happening? How much are people training? How old were they when they started doing that training? How many repetitions?” Casey asked. We all seem to intuitively know that the answer to all these questions, in many cases, is “too much, too young and too many,” but we don’t yet know what the right answer is. The first thing we need to do, or try to do, is establish some sort of baseline.
Casey would love to see gymnastics embrace science and start collecting data on itself so that best practices can be established — as well as guidelines on how to intervene to improve training and development.
Gathering this kind of data is particularly challenging, Casey pointed out. “You have [to get] everybody to agree on the terms and how you’re going to do it. And then you have to put it in. That would be gymnasts and coaches primarily dumping data into the system because we have a decentralized system and people training all over the country. It’s a big ask.”
And it is a big ask. But it’s no bigger an ask than the demands we’ve been placing on young gymnasts for generations.
It’s all well and good to say we should radically shift the developmental timeline of women’s gymnastics so that gymnasts don’t start approaching their first athletic peak — a sports career can certainly have more than one — until they’re mostly through puberty and in their adult bodies. But how would that look?
The answer is: We don’t really know. The vast majority of gymnasts who have extended their careers into their 20s and beyond have also followed the early-specialization model the sport is known for. Perhaps some of them experienced more humane coaching in their early years, which probably protected their bodies and enabled them to continue longer. But even the patron saint of older gymnasts, Oksana Chusovitina — who, at 46, just competed in her eighth and final Olympic Games in Tokyo — got started at the elite level at the same age as everyone else. Younger even, since the age minimum when she started her senior elite career was only 15. By 16, she was a member of the Soviet team that won the gold medal at the World championships, where she also tied for the gold on floor. And at 17, she was a member of the gold-medal-winning Unified Team at the 1992 Olympics. The end of her career looks very different, but the early part definitely hews to the old stereotype.
“We’ve never come close to the alternative model of what we’re doing now, which is peaking later, later specialization, cross-training, science being used, proper flexibility, interdisciplinary care,” said Tilley, the former gymnast who’s now a physical therapist. “We’ve never had an opportunity where kids could go through that from a very young age and experience that, so to say that it’s crazy and it wouldn’t work is like, OK, let’s test it. And if it goes up in smoke and we blow it, then we can say it didn’t work.
“Clearly what we’re doing now doesn’t work,” Tilley said. It’s hard to disagree.
“I think that in an ideal world … you would start to specialize in gymnastics around, like, 13. Even that’s young in literature, because they say 15 is probably better to get ready for college,” Tilley said. Like Cervin, he would like to see young athletes do a lot of sports and also pursue other interests before they decide to make gymnastics their exclusive focus.
“There would be things in maturation that we take into account like open-growth plates,” said Casey, the physiatrist, pointing out that many gymnasts have experienced Sever’s or Osgood-Schlatter diseases — conditions that affect the heel and knee, respectively — both of which are strongly correlated with excessive physical stresses during puberty. Considering the physical and emotional chaos of puberty, it’s remarkable that we ever thought this period was an acceptable time to expect elite-level athletic performance from gymnasts.
“The problem is that it’s seen as something that has to be overcome,” Cervin said of puberty. “It’s not accepted as a part of the journey.”
“There’s no literature [that] supports that female athletes — or male, honestly — are at their peak strength or power or endurance [before puberty],” Tilley pointed out.
“I think it’s certainly worthy of exploring, or at least figuring out, at what point in maturation might be ideal to start learning certain types of skills or introducing certain types of training, because chronological age is one factor,” Casey said. And age isn’t the only factor. Puberty is highly individual and happens at different times for different people. “Psychological development, too,” she added. For too long we’ve been focused solely on whether gymnasts are physically capable of executing a certain skill and haven’t spent nearly as much time working out whether they’re psychologically ready to handle the risks and fears associated with it. One of the benefits many coaches cite for teaching very young gymnasts very difficult skills is that they are not fearful at that point, but they’re not yet strong enough to withstand the physical forces of those skills. And the fear does eventually set in, usually during puberty and after some injuries. Besides, good coaching entails helping athletes through psychological obstacles, not avoiding that difficult task by insisting that only children can learn these skills because that’s what is easier for the coach.
That fully grown women can do a very acrobatic form of gymnastics at the highest level is a settled matter. Just look at 33-year-old Chellsie Memmel, the 2005 world all-around champion and member of the 2008 silver-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team. Memmel returned to gymnastics after an eight-year hiatus during which she got married and had two kids. Though she obviously peaked once as a teen, and then again around 20, when she made the 2008 Olympic team, her third act is another compelling piece of evidence that it’s past time to change the whole developmental timeline built around the erroneous assumption that an elite gymnast’s competitive window is as short as the lifespan of a fruit fly and exists only in the teenage years.
But with older athletes, we’re forced yet again to confront the funding issues that led the U.S. and other countries to turn to child athletes in the first place. If women are really only starting their careers at 18, they’re not at home being supported by their parents during their peak training years, which means we will have to find other forms of financial support for them. While there is a national team stipend, it is meager and difficult to live on. (Ask any U.S. male gymnast about this.) And what happens if you get injured and you’re cut from the national team for a year? How will a gymnast pay her way then?
related: No One Can Catch Katie Ledecky In The Mile Read more. »
One thing women have going for them now that they didn’t have in the ’60s is a college scholarship. Many of the top gymnasts in the U.S. get full rides to compete in NCAA gymnastics, but almost all of them matriculate after they’ve completed their elite gymnastics careers, if they were ever elite to begin with. Unlike in most other sports, including men’s gymnastics, women’s college gymnastics isn’t seen as preparatory for elite competition — it’s judged by rules that are far less demanding than the elite Code. (Male NCAA gymnastics, however, uses the FIG rulebook.) This is why many think it’s incompatible to participate in women’s college gymnastics while aiming for elite competition.
Some gymnasts have certainly been able to juggle both — University of Alabama gymnast Shallon Olsen is on the Canadian Olympic team — but this is relatively rare. When University of Utah star MyKayla Skinner decided to go for the 2020 Olympics, she returned to her home gym in Arizona to prepare. It worked out for her, as she was selected to compete in Tokyo.3 Fellow Olympian Jordan Chiles, however, has deferred joining UCLA’s gymnastics team for two years.
“What if college was like it is in other sports — part of the athlete’s learning journey?” Cervin asked. “You learn your musicality and your rhythm through your college experience. How much more artistic would our floor routines [be]?” she wondered, referring to the reputation women’s NCAA gymnastics has earned over the past few years for featuring fun, expressive floor routines. A change in the developmental timeline might force college programs and coaches to reconsider their role and purpose. Or it might force gymnasts to choose between the two paths instead of getting to do both.
And there are the limits the NCAA places on training hours — “just” 20 per week, which is far less than how often the average elite gymnast trains. And if gymnasts are being trained to peak later, they might not arrive on campus with all the skills they need to compete at either the college or elite level. Currently, NCAA gymnasts are expected to arrive at their first practice with all the elements they’ll need to compete in their four years on the team. While some gymnasts continue to learn new skills in college, it’s somewhat rare. Skill development can be pretty time- and labor-intensive. College coaches have to prepare for long seasons and almost immediately start constructing routines for the start of the season. And during the season itself, the focus is on conditioning and injury prevention. There’s not a ton of room left for learning new skills and preparing for the summer/fall elite season.
And this new schedule could change how college coaches approach recruiting not just the elites but also Level 10s. Currently, there’s an unspoken expectation that young gymnasts enter the Level 10 ranks by 8th or 9th grade, when they start being unofficially recruited, but a delayed timeline could shake up this schedule.
To get anywhere near the developmental model that Cervin, Tilley and Casey seem to favor, the culture of the sport would need to shift significantly. Even after all that has happened in gymnastics, many people still believe that the old ways work or that rather than effecting fundamental change, only some tinkering around the edges is sufficient. “I think there’s a strong-held belief that this has worked, depending on how you define that, and so we want to keep doing it, whether that’s twice-a-day training or volume or how early you start athletes,” Casey said.
It will, of course, take several concurrent changes to effect a cultural transformation. The sport needs to continue addressing coaching abuses and creating systems of accountability so that bad actors can be weeded out. But that isn’t enough. We have to think critically about a sport whose structure not only enables bad people to flourish but also encourages poor decision-making in people who might actually be well-intentioned.
For starters, we need to change the incentives for gymnasts. “The reward structure is such that they’re rewarded for doing high difficulty at young ages,” Fink said. Perhaps the entire category of “junior elite” should be eliminated. Or perhaps difficulty caps so extreme should be instituted so that the difference between junior and senior elite is significant. One indication of baby steps in the right direction: FIG has adopted a 14-15 age range for international junior elite competition. A 13-year-old elite gymnast, no matter how talented, is not able to compete at any major event. But for its own domestic meets, each country is free to do what it wishes. Right now, there is no age minimum for junior elite gymnasts in the U.S., so it is still possible for 12-year-olds to qualify and compete in those ranks.
To accelerate the cultural change, Cervin would like to see an increase in the current age minimum for senior elites. “I’d like to see a minimum age of 18 because I think that would force the shift,” she said. “We would still have people specializing early unfortunately, but I think it would allow people to consider specializing later.”
Cervin is not alone in thinking this, though her wish appears unlikely to come true anytime soon. Dutch Gymnastics proposed an increase to the current age minimum, but that proposal wasn’t adopted. That was after USA Gymnastics had requested that the age minimum be lowered in 2010. That proposal had been rejected as well. It’s fitting that the pioneers in using child athletes would have made this request in the past decade.
Internally, the Dutch are considering whether to make 18 the age minimum for their elite gymnasts — not surprising given their most successful athletes are in their 20s. Sanne Wevers was one month shy of 25 when she won the gold medal on balance beam at the 2016 Olympics. She and her twin sister, Lieke, are still competing at age 29. The Dutch aren’t alone, though. Canada’s Ellie Black and Great Britain’s Becky Downie are in their 20s and doing better gymnastics than they had done as teens. (The average age for the German women’s team is 26; for the Dutch it’s nearly 27.) And for the first time in decades, every member of the U.S. women’s Olympic team is at least 18. Simone Biles, its star, is 24 and better than she was in 2016, when she won five medals in Rio.
“It is time for the gymnastics community to let girls grow into women before entering the (international) arena as a senior gymnast,” said Céline van Gerner, a retired gymnast from the Netherlands. “Let them grow physically, go through puberty, and let them have time to mature emotionally.”
It’s a simple request — and a moral one at that. But it remains to be seen whether women’s gymnastics is ready to let go of the young phenoms who helped make the sport one of the most popular in the Olympics and let girls grow into women before turning them into global icons.
Photo research by Jeremy Elvas.