At gymnastics nationals, Olympians give it the college try
TAMPA -- For many star college athletes, August means easing back into campus life. But gymnasts Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles have unprecedented business ahead over the next two and a half months, starting with the U.S. Championships this week.
Carey and Chiles are the first U.S. Olympic female gymnasts to return to elite competition after a college season since NCAA gymnastics began in 1982. Leanne Wong, an Olympic alternate also coming off her freshman campaign, is another headliner this week.
The Tokyo veterans plan to vie for national titles on Friday and Sunday (broadcast schedule here), then bid at an October selection camp for a spot on the five-woman team for the world championships. Worlds are in late October and early November in Liverpool, England.
They would then have two months until the start of their sophomore NCAA seasons, should they keep the whirlwind going.
Some Olympians retire after the Games, or at least take a break. Others go compete in college, but never return to the more demanding elite level. Carey and Chiles want it all.
“I was pretty sure that, after the Olympics, I was going to be done [with Olympic-level gymnastics] and move on to college,” said Carey, the Olympic floor exercise gold medalist who attends Oregon State. “But I think just that whole [Tokyo] experience in general, I really just wanted to be able to experience it again.”
Chiles, who matriculated at UCLA after winning team silver in Tokyo, also has eyes on the 2024 Paris Games. Even though she’s had exhausting days at Westwood where she wondered what she got herself into.
“It’s hard being able to do online [classes], and then you have to be in person [for class] and then doing NCAA [gymnastics] and making sure you’re there with your team,” said Chiles, who said she didn’t take a break after April’s NCAA Championships. “I like challenges.”
For some Olympic sports, the NCAA can be a feeding system for the Olympics. Not women’s gymnastics, which looks very different in college than it does at the Games.
NCAA scoring is capped at 10.0 (similar to what the Olympics had through 2004), rather than the more open-ended international system. College places a greater emphasis on clean routines than the skill difficulty that might be necessary for international medals. It can be overkill to perform the most demanding elite skills in college when you’re competing weekly for most of the winter, a contrast from peaking for two or three meets a year as an elite. So gymnasts may switch to completely different routines than they performed in elite.
The last several U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics teams included athletes who previously competed in college, and many who returned to school after the Games.
But it has been different for women. Before Tokyo, most Olympic female gymnasts were teenagers. For a collegian considering a return to elite training, that meant her primary competition for national team spots were athletes who weren’t balancing the two different types of gymnastics training, let alone competing every week in NCAA.
Up until last year, every U.S. Olympic female gymnastics star had to choose between NCAA eligibility and cashing in on professional opportunities. Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Nastia Liukin all turned pro in that era, forgoing college competition.
Name, image and likeness changed all that. Four of the six women on the Tokyo Olympic team competed collegiately last season, a record. Olympic all-around champion Suni Lee, a rising Auburn sophomore, plans to follow Carey and Chiles and return to elite competition in 2023. It has been more than a half-century since the only U.S. woman to compete at the Olympics, then compete in college and then compete in another Olympics.
Since, many women had to decide if and when to phase out of elite and into NCAA gymnastics. Some tried both at the same time.
In 2004, a 16-year-old Alicia Quinn did not make the Olympic team and signed a letter of intent to compete for UCLA. But before enrolling, she won the 2005 World title on floor exercise and decided to stick with elite gymnastics for a 2008 Olympic bid. That meant staying at home in Massachusetts and working with her elite coaches.
Quinn still wanted a college experience, so she joined the team down the road at Brown University, sometimes training at her elite gym in the morning and then driving to campus for Ivy League classes and practice.
“My [elite] coach [Mihai Brestyan] was like, look, just don’t let her do anything where she’s going to hurt herself,” Quinn said. “Mihai’s whole thing was education is really important. Put that first because, obviously, gymnastics doesn’t last forever. So he was on board with me going to school.”
A year after her one college season, Quinn made the Beijing Olympics and earned a team silver medal. She’s now one of three directors for the U.S. women’s national team program.
“Physically, it’s a toll,” Quinn said of doing college and elite. “I would tell [younger gymnasts], that’s great. Just know that it takes a lot of work and a lot of dedication.”
In 2015, Brenna Dowell placed second on floor exercise at the NCAA Championships as an Oklahoma freshman. She then chose not to renew her accommodation lease in Norman, deferred her sophomore season, went to the U.S. Championships that summer and competed at the world championships that fall despite not training elite skills during the January-to-April college season.
“I had nothing to lose because I got to keep my eligibility, and I could go back to college after taking my year off,” she said. “My bar routine was going to be twice as long [in elite], I’d have to add an extra floor pass, add an extra full twist on vault. Everything came back so easily.
“Leanne, Jade and Jordan and all the girls that are coming back, they’ve been doing elite gymnastics for so long, so this season of college gymnastics could actually be something that’s really good for them, because their bodies have had time off [from elite]. Retrain a skill, try to get rid of bad habits as you’re starting fresh.”
Elizabeth Price, a 2012 Olympic alternate, won the all-around at the 2014 American Cup and the 2014 Pacific Rim Championships. She looked like a contender for the 2016 Olympics. But she never had designs on Rio, nor second thoughts after enrolling at Stanford later in 2014.
“I was looking forward to that different phase of life,” said Price, who earned a biomechanical engineering degree, then got her master’s from Harvard in design engineering. “Even if my school hours were cut in half, I still don’t think it would have made much of a difference because for me personally at that time, I don’t think my body could have handled doing elite gymnastics on top of college gymnastics.”
Last year, MyKayla Skinner became the first American woman with college experience to make an Olympic team since Quinn. She retired after Tokyo.
This past April, Trinity Thomas of the University of Florida won the NCAA Championships all-around over the Olympic champion Lee.
Thomas did college and elite gymnastics back-to-back in 2019 and planned to do it again in 2020 before the pandemic shut down sports. She thought she would bid for the Olympic team in 2021, but sprained both ankles that NCAA season and announced her retirement from elite.
Thomas is now leaving the door open to a return to elite after deciding to come back for one more college season in 2023. Her motivation stems in part from seeing Carey, Chiles and her Gators teammate Wong try both.
“It does give me that extra kick in the butt, maybe that little bit more confidence that I can do it, too,” she said.
In Tampa this weekend, Carey and Chiles will experience what Price called “fighting from a different perspective.”
“You have to get back the skills that you hadn’t been training, also build up the endurance and strength that it requires to go to these competitions and compete significantly harder routines like you never left elite gymnastics,” Price said. “They’re fighting an uphill battle, but it’s been done before.”
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