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Gymnastics Is a Brutal Sport. Does It Have to Be?

New York Times - Tue May 4 09:00

Chellsie Memmel, 32, was a member of the 2008 Olympics gymnastics team and hopes to make a comeback for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo this year.
Credit...Cait Oppermann for The New York Times

The Great Read

In the wake of a seismic scandal, Chellsie Memmel and other gymnasts are done with inhumane coaching — and the idea that they have to peak in their teens.

Chellsie Memmel, 32, was a member of the 2008 Olympics gymnastics team and hopes to make a comeback for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo this year.Credit...Cait Oppermann for The New York Times

During the first week of Wisconsin’s Covid shutdown in March 2020, Chellsie Memmel was disinfecting the equipment in her parents’ New Berlin gym when she got the urge to try a double layout. Memmel is the seventh-most-decorated female gymnast in U.S. history, tied with the 2008 Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson. But she had not done elite gymnastics in seven years, and at 31, she was nearly twice the ideal age for an Olympic gymnast — often posited to be 16, the youngest age permitted at the Games.

Memmel braced every muscle in her body, wiped her mind clear and threw the layout. (“Throw,” the gymnastics word for “do,” is one of the few verbs commonly used in the sport that come anywhere close to capturing gymnasts’ sheer physical force. The Olympic medalist Aly Raisman has said that her coaches have told her to throw skills on the balance beam as if she were trying to break it.) To her surprise, Memmel finished cleanly. She threw one more skill, then another. Eventually, her father, Andy Memmel, who coached her from when she was 16 until she retired at 24 — the age Simone Biles is now — started giving notes.

A few weeks later, Stacey Nash, who had been one of the producers on NBC digital coverage of the 2008 and 2012 Olympic women’s gymnastics, saw some videos Memmel posted on YouTube of her progress. Nash, who was out of work during lockdown, asked Memmel if she could come by the gym and shoot some footage for fun. By then, Memmel had started a loose training regimen, posting weekly updates online. The first time Nash visited, she told me, Memmel had recently tweaked her hamstring and “was just doing front tumbling” — impressive for a recreational gymnast but not an elite-level one. “I was like, ‘This is cute.’” A few weeks later, though, the hamstring had healed, and Nash saw Memmel do a double layout. Difficulty scores in gymnastics are open-ended, but on a letter scale, the double layout on floor is an F: Only a handful of skills have a higher value. Nash said, “That’s when I was like: ‘Oh. This is real.’”

Four months after Memmel’s first casual flipping, she announced an official comeback on her YouTube channel. She had just successfully thrown an Amanar, one of the most difficult vaults for women and one she had never tried before, even during the years that she considered her peak. Memmel typically speaks with a combination of succinctness and humility that flows easily into ringside articulations of patriotic duty, but when we spoke for the first time last summer, she seemed unable to suppress excitement at her spectacular, unplanned return. “I am just hitting every little thing I am trying,” she told me.

Memmel remains a long shot to make the Olympic team: She has yet to complete a full routine in public this season (although, to be fair, neither has Biles), and Olympic trials are less than two months away. But by merely training at the elite level, Memmel has flouted what is perhaps the most foundational notion in gymnastics training: that the world’s most talented gymnasts, after peaking in their teens, inevitably burn out before mature adulthood. This notion underpins the sport’s highly obedience-focused training philosophy and the way it positions the early and feverish intensity of its work environment as essential for athletic success. For years, calls to ease the authoritarian nature of gymnastics — and what many say are the unreasonable demands it places on young athletes’ spirits and bodies — have been countered by a mantra of necessity. Inhumane training may be tough on an athlete, goes the thinking, but it’s the only way to achieve dominance in a sport in which the window of opportunity is so short.

Ex-gymnasts have long wondered if it is possible to reach the highest levels of the sport without harsh training methods and the consequent risk of early burnout. In the three years since the sentencing of former U.S. national team doctor Larry Nassar, whom at least 265 women have accused of molestation, this question has taken on a new urgency. “The broader culture of cruelty enabled Nassar to do what he did,” said Jennifer Sey, the 1986 United States Champion, whose 2008 memoir, “Chalked Up,” was one of the first books to expose some of the physical and emotional abuse routinely positioned as fundamental experiences for success in the sport. Some gymnasts and coaches have increasingly begun to see Nassar’s abuse as part of a broader failure to protect athlete health, and among athletes, a new willingness has emerged to openly discuss the line between pain and abuse, which many say has been blurred for too long.

Even before Nassar, questions of mistreatment in the sport have overshadowed some of the brightest moments in its history. Kerri Strug’s vault to secure team gold at the 1996 Olympics, for example, which she stuck on an injured ankle, was a defining moment of Olympics heroism, yet even at the time — and despite Strug’s statements to the contrary — journalists wondered if taking off down the vault a second time had been her choice. Gymnasts themselves wondered less: They knew that the sport was organized in such a way that there was only one path to choose. Strug wasn’t able to compete in the all-around or for any of the individual event finals after the vault, and in fact she never engaged in professional competition again. The sacrifice wasn’t even necessary: It turned out later that the Americans had the points needed to win team gold.

Embedded in Strug hagiography is a certain lack of implicit concern about her athletic future: It is easy not to worry as much about the impact of her injury when you don’t necessarily expect her to stick around for future seasons anyway. In the early months of lockdown, Memmel’s progress hinted at what the sport might look like if gymnasts were treated less like sacrificial lambs and more like female tennis players or swimmers, who may start young and peak early yet still continue competing into adulthood. Memmel said, “I would really like people to see that there’s another way.”

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Memmel at her family gym in New Berlin, Wis.
Credit...Cait Oppermann for The New York Times

Can the United States approach high-level gymnastics training more humanely? It’s impossible even to pretend that the status quo is ethical. “Let’s say it’s true: You can’t have a certain level of success without leaving the sport broken,” Sey said when we spoke. “So?” Sey can now “barely walk” on her left ankle as a result of her time in gymnastics, but it was the “emotional and mental stress” on her while she was training that, she said, ended her career: “I literally lost my ability to do the sport.” She added, “Do we want thousands of girls leaving the sport mentally and emotionally damaged?”

It’s easy to answer no, but the idea that an athlete must suffer in order to become a top contender in gymnastics remains deeply entrenched. In one recent study of mistreatment in the sport, a Dutch coach asked what a policy of emphasizing a child’s best interest would look like: “That you constantly watch a child’s face to see if she is smiling or not? And that you then go with her to a competition, and she ends up as No. 30 in the world?” (The implication being that No. 30 in the world is a disappointing outcome.)

As the Dutch coach’s comment shows, much of the emphasis on obedience and intensity rests on the idea that a gymnast’s body reaches peak condition for the sport while barely out of childhood. Coaches need to be able to extract an adult performance from a talented child. Coaching philosophies in gymnastics often sound a bit like strict parenting: “Rigorous coaching is very rarely ‘yuk-yuk fool-around,’” William Sands, a researcher who has done numerous data-based experiments on the sport, told me.

Yet peaking early in gymnastics, Sands noted, has also become “kind of old thinking.” Children are thought to be such good gymnasts in part because they are smaller and lighter, yet tininess is only partly a biomechanical necessity for success. While gymnasts do have to be “on the lean side of lean,” as Sands put it, and few experts or athletes disagree that there are benefits to starting the sport young, the notion that gymnasts have to be prepubescent to succeed in international competition is based on a calculus that no longer really applies. Between 1936 and the 1980s, top gymnasts shrank, but more recently, as the sport has evolved to favor explosive strength, they have steadily increased in strength, age and size. “When you were trying to put space-age powerful skills into a body built for dance, there was a breaking point there,” Sands said of the 1960s and 1970s balletic aesthetic of the sport. “There usually came a point where they couldn’t get stronger fast enough to keep up with their growth.” But reaching the peak of your career before finishing puberty is less important now that the sport favors power.

“Everyone tells gymnasts they’re done when they’re 16 or 17 or when they finish college,” Andy Memmel told me. “I think a lot of it is coaches and society.”

Research has also shown that whether gymnasts can or will stay in the sport has everything to do with how they’re treated while they’re training. In a study of older female gymnasts (defined as 20 and above) led by the sport sociologist Natalie Barker-Ruchti, all the respondents said that their choice to stay in gymnastics longer than expected had depended on having a less-typically-controlling relationship with their coaches. In several instances, “neither the gymnast nor the coach considered this a normal way for training to take place,” Barker-Ruchti and her colleagues noted. In the United States, it is much more common for gymnastics coaches to rely on training models “from decades gone by,” said John Hauth, the senior director for sports-medicine relationships at St. Luke’s University Health Network, which works with elite gymnasts. Too many U.S. coaches, he told me via email, believe that achieving and retaining elite status requires forcing young athletes into grueling practice regimens, sometimes “even when athletes are injured or otherwise compromised.” He added, “The mental and physical toll has been incredibly high.”

Older athletes in gymnastics have often been cited as models of how to excel without passing a breaking point. In 1996, 23-year-old Svetlana Boginskaya, training for her third Olympics, told The Times, “I’m not a little robot anymore, and I know what I need.” The reporter wrote: “In days of yore, when her coach asked for 10 routines on the beam, Svetlana Boginskaya hopped to it. Now, at 23, she knows that five perfect run-throughs will suffice.” Today, Boginskaya manages the career of Oksana Chusovitina, the oldest elite gymnast in the world, who, at 45, is gearing up for her eighth Olympic Games.

In any other context, it would seem ridiculous to point out what the athlete-maltreatment researcher Gretchen Kerr says is routinely ignored in gymnastics: that physical mistreatment has never been shown to have any evidence-based improvement on sports performance. When we spoke, she encouraged me to think about the means of discipline still prevalent in many youth sports, especially gymnastics — yelling, shaming, drills as punishment — as akin to the formerly common practice of corporal punishment in schools and homes, which we now understand to be not just cruel but also grossly ineffective when it comes to actual learning. “All those punishment methods have been done away with because of the research on development and learning,” Kerr told me. “We haven’t transferred sufficiently what we know from learning and child development to the sports arena, and particularly to gymnastics.”

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Credit...Cait Oppermann for The New York Times

When I arrived at the gym to watch Memmel train last September, she was jogging the perimeter of the gym floor, her body giving off a light wind. Since quitting gymnastics, she’d had two children; that morning, she had just dropped the older one off at kindergarten. As is common at gyms with internationally ranked alumni, the walls behind her were a shrine to her 16-year-old self. A banner of her as a muscular yet coltish-looking teenager hung above the balance beam.

Memmel is 5-foot-3, with deep-set eyes, brown hair and a pair of exquisitely powerful arms. As she tossed off a round of push-ups, Andy circled the gym, waiting for her to start on her first piece of equipment. Earlier in her career, he often came into the gym with a comprehensive training plan for her to follow; now, he and Memmel were in some ways more like two coaches than coach and athlete. When she began working skills, he stood by mostly in silence, filming her attempts at each and then tilting the screen toward her to show her the footage.

“I don’t know if I want to do the shaposh, feeling like this,” Memmel said at one point, pausing with both hands on the low bar. She was referring to a shaposhnikova half, a transition move on the uneven bars from the low bar to the high. Gymnastics evolves rapidly — “It’s as though basketball changed the height of the hoop every four years,” one coach told me — and Memmel was upgrading her 2008 routine to include one.

“Why is that?” Andy asked.

“My back is kind of sore,” she replied.

“What’s it sore from?”

“I don’t know.”

She chalked up her hands and hopped up to grab the low bar. Andy shifted positions and took out his phone to film. To an outsider, this exchange might have read as routine, but for a gymnast it amounted to a notable expression of autonomy. (“I really am following her lead,” Andy told me later.) She settled on the Hindorff, a move that took less force. She swung once around, cleared the bar a second time and released it, flinging her legs up into a V straddle. Reaching out in front of her, she tapped the bar between her legs.

Andy was so surprised that he dropped his phone. Chellsie, he explained later, had not successfully touched the bar for a Hindorff in eight years. He’d expected relearning its position in the air to take months. She seemed to be taking weeks.

Memmel’s success is coming after years away from the gym, but even for younger gymnasts, the break caused by the coronavirus has occasioned surprising reflections about the nature of athletic success. Few competitive gymnasts had ever taken a midseason break this long. The 19-year-old Delaware gymnast and national team member Morgan Hurd, a favorite going into Tokyo, told me that before the shutdown, the longest time she could remember being away from gymnastics was just several days — four years earlier, when she went to Myrtle Beach. During the shutdown, she lugged a mat home from her gym and wrestled it up the carpeted stairs to her bedroom, where she stayed conditioned by searching for workouts on YouTube. On March 7, a week or so before the shutdown, Hurd won the American Cup; no woman has won that competition in a games year and not qualified for the Olympics. But when we spoke a month into lockdown, she said the time off hadn’t hurt. “I feel like I got physically stronger,” she said. Last July, the 29-year-old British Olympian Becky Downie posted on Twitter: “Lockdown has taught me gymnasts can definitely have ‘off season’ if you stay conditioned, your skills go nowhere. ... now I look back & think of all the holidays I could have had in 20 years. Where did this myth come from!!!”

In June, Netflix released a documentary, “Athlete A,” on Larry Nassar’s victims. Its release spurred a further wave of allegations and reflections, although largely not about sexual abuse. Instead, athletes in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Britain, Brazil and Belgium began posting on social media, using the hashtag #GymnastAlliance, about the kind of routine physical, verbal and emotional mistreatment — like body shaming and forced training on injuries — that have long been the norm in gymnastics. Several countries began investigations into their national governing bodies, and the Netherlands even suspended its women’s national Olympics program; in the United States, the posts formed a kind of second-wave #MeToo in the gymnastics community, centered on training practices and their costs.

Many accusations of abusive training practices in gymnastics have previously come from high-profile athletes, a fact that sometimes helped perpetuate the misconception that abusive training was happening only at the highest levels of the sport. In the United States especially, the gymnasts sharing their stories on Twitter and Instagram were college or club gymnasts, not pros. The Nassar survivor Rachael Denhollander tweeted, in reply to a story that one former gymnast, Cassidy Hyman, posted about feeling pressured to compete in a Level 5 state championship with two stress fractures: “I cannot even express my anger at this. Permanent, preventable back injuries incurred as a LEVEL FIVE.” At Level 5, gymnasts are not yet doing release moves on bars. They stand on the low bar and reach out to grab the high one, as though on a jungle gym. After training for up to 40 hours a week and two years of home-schooling, Hyman finally quit the sport at 14 with mental blocks so severe she was unable to do a back walkover on the balance beam, a skill she had been doing for years.

It has been 26 years since the publication of Joan Ryan’s “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,” a groundbreaking investigation of the harm caused by gymnastics. Many of the practices that gymnasts posted about last summer, especially the pressure to be thin, echoed those widely covered in the 1990s. But some of these athletes were making a more novel point, which was that they had come to believe that the harsh coaching they experienced, and the punishing levels of exercise, weren’t necessarily even helping them win. “I didn’t always need to do all those extra turns,” said one former athlete, Ashton Kim, whose post on Twitter claimed that her head coaches overtrained and emotionally and physically mistreated her. “It was unproductive at a certain point.” In her post, which included a letter to her head coaches at the gym Texas Dreams, Kim added, “You can’t deny that we were overtrained to the point of exhaustion.” (A representative from Texas Dreams declined to comment.)

Last year, Maggie Haney, who coached the 2016 gold- and silver-​medalist Laurie Hernandez for 11 years at MG Elite, received an eight-year suspension, the harshest sentence for nonsexual abuse that U.S.A. Gymnastics had ever handed down. After Haney appealed, the suspension was reduced to five years, but it was still the harshest sentence for nonsexual abuse that U.S.A. Gymnastics had ever handed down. It was especially remarkable because Haney’s behavior, which was said to include hair-pulling and telling her gymnasts that she would commit suicide if they stopped working with her, occupied a space that U.S. gymnastics governing bodies had, until then, largely declined to call abusive. (“Although victims may share their own stories publicly, U.S.A. Gymnastics does not share information on reports or investigations,” U.S.A.G. wrote in a statement to The Times. “Each case is unique and is treated by U.S.A. Gymnastics’ Safe Sport department as such.” Haney denied verbally, emotionally or physically abusing any gymnast: “It is astonishing that a few girls, families and agents continue to use the U.S.A.G./Safe Sport for personal and/or financial gain. These organizations have been put into place to protect truly abused athletes,” she wrote in her own statement to The Times. She added that “U.S.A.G. has used me personally as a scapegoat to divert attention from their own colossal misdeeds.” Haney is suing U.S.A.G. for what she claims was an unfair hearing.)

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Credit...Cait Oppermann for The New York Times

Despite the ruling, U.S.A. Gymnastics’ regulations make coaching and training practices hard to question. It provides a list of exclusions from its definition of physical misconduct, including “professionally accepted coaching methods of skill enhancement, physical conditioning, team building, appropriate discipline or improved athlete performance.” Most coaches could argue that their actions are “professionally accepted” and geared toward “improved athlete performance.” But defining harm in terms of its intent runs contrary to a wide body of empirical literature on child abuse that, as the athlete-maltreatment researcher Kerr pointed out when we spoke, has repeatedly shown that intent is irrelevant when it comes to an action’s potential to harm.

Since the Nassar case, U.S.A. Gymnastics has begun referring most sexual-abuse investigations to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an outside organization created in 2017 to investigate sexual abuse within American sports. But U.S.A. Gymnastics still investigates most of its own nonsexual-abuse complaints, which have exploded since the Nassar and Haney cases. Currently, cases involving 63 coaches are pending resolution. That list only includes the names of coaches for whom interim suspensions are in place. The names of coaches who have been reported for abuse but who have not been placed on interim suspensions aren’t made public.

Many claimants say investigations have taken far too long. (“We know that the Safe Sport investigation and resolution process must be faster in the future, and we have made significant changes to our Safe Sport department and processes to make it more efficient,” U.S.A.G. wrote in a statement.) Haney’s suspension hearing took four years from the time of Hernandez’s initial complaint; in the interim, Haney continued to coach. Hernandez, as with so many others, was left to sort out what more supportive training would look like on her own.

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Credit...Cait Oppermann for The New York Times

One day in March, I watched over Zoom as Hernandez got ready to do a floor pass, while Jenny Liang, one of her current coaches, stood protectively behind her, their bodies in perfect alignment. Liang’s fingers quivered, radiating attention; she looked as if she were about to dance. The intensity of their mutual concentration filled the room, making it feel momentarily airless. Hernandez sprinted down the floor and did a double Arabian, knees bent and feet flexed, as if she were sitting in a chair midair. She landed short and hard. Her knees, on which she has had major surgery, briefly buckled. But she leapt up immediately, as though being rewound, and then turned and walked back. Liang motioned an exaggerated pulling closed of the chest. “You’re open here too much,” Liang said. She splayed her own chest out.

Weeks after the 2016 Olympics, Hernandez’s mother overheard her daughter discussing Haney’s behavior with another gymnast and pressed Hernandez for more details. Soon after that, she filed a complaint with U.S.A. Gymnastics against Haney. For years, with no communication with U.S.A. Gymnastics, Hernandez assumed the claim had come to nothing. “I just figured it would not exist, basically,” she said of the investigation. She competed on “Dancing With the Stars” and tried to move on. Eventually, Hernandez told me, she realized that it was Haney’s gym she had needed to quit, not gymnastics itself. “I still loved the sport,” she said.

After two years away, Hernandez decided to begin working toward a comeback, moving across the country to train at Gym-Max in Costa Mesa, Calif., with Jenny and Howie Liang. The Liangs have a reputation for taking an unusually gentle approach with their athletes. “With them, there’s like a boundary in place, almost,” Hernandez said. During one of her early training days at the gym, Hernandez recalled that she was unable to keep herself from repeating a skill over and over. The relationship with her coaches was still new, and the Liangs seemed unsure how to handle how hard she was driving herself. “They were kind of like, ‘OK, I guess we’ll just let her keep going,’” she told me.

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Credit...Cait Oppermann for The New York Times

Hernandez kept trying and kept falling — unsurprisingly, because she was pushing herself past a reasonable point of efficacy. “At some point I got really emotional,” she said. “Howie walked over and was like: ‘Why are you crying? I’m not going to yell at you.’ And then it was immediate tears.” Hernandez ended up having to cut practice short and go home.

During the hours of meets and practices that I watched while working on this article, I couldn’t help noticing the ubiquity of sarcasm among elite gymnastics coaches — a kind of double-edged tonal default that could flicker as quickly toward tension-diffusing humor as it could toward flippant cruelty. “So you’re getting serious about your gymnastics, huh?” a staff member for the national team called out to a 15-year-old junior elite gymnast, moments into a challenging uneven bar routine that I watched at a training camp last year. You could take this harmless-sounding comment many ways, but the mismatch between tone and activity itself always seemed profound: Bodies in a state of exertion are only ever earnest. Nodding and smiling through their sweat, the gymnasts absorbed sarcasm the way you might some awkward comment from a distant relative.

Notably, Jenny Liang never spoke to Hernandez like this. At the training session I observed in March, they were working, as ever, on the elusive property of consistency. Consistency doesn’t mean getting a routine right every time — during televised practice sessions before major competitions, you can watch some of the best gymnasts in the world falter repeatedly on moves they plan to use the next day — but every gymnast’s goal is to get as close to being able to “hit” every time as possible. It’s also the epitome of a skill that previous generations of coaches believed could be instilled only through merciless training loads. When Hernandez first started training, Jenny Liang told me: “Everyone wanted her quickly, even she wanted it. ‘I can quickly get this one, I can get that one.’ It’s not quick. We had to say to her, ‘Calm down.’”

The previous week, at the Winter Cup in Indianapolis, just moments before the competition — Hernandez’s first time competing since the 2016 Olympics — Liang came up to her and told her to switch to a slightly easier version of her floor pass, a change in plan that relieved and shocked her. Changing a plan this close to competition is highly unusual. “I was like, ‘What are you doing, homegirl?’” Hernandez told me.

“I wanted her to feel that she was back,” Liang explained — that she could enjoy herself rather than straining to prove herself capable. “Watering down” a routine’s difficulty, Hernandez worried, could send a message that she wasn’t yet ready to perform her harder material. But Liang wanted her to take it slow, to focus on her “ultimate goal” — and to understand that her gymnastics career was a longer game.

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Credit...Cait Oppermann for The New York Times

On the first Friday in October, Memmel landed short on a two-and-a-half twisting floor pass and collapsed to the ground in pain. She’d rolled both ankles — the kind of fall you know will be bad before you even hit the floor. “It was just devastation,” Andy told me. But a doctor diagnosed only a Grade 2 sprain on Memmel’s right ankle. It was better than a break, although she faced a long, tedious recovery. Months later, she was still working through it.

The intervening time had been “painstaking,” Andy said this April. Chellsie’s injury was the kind that coaches at every level are known to hustle their athletes through to get them back on the floor; but she had been increasing her training load by tiny increments instead, a careful process that younger gymnasts often struggle not to rush, sweating through pull-ups and range-of-motion exercises to stay in competition shape, without any of the rewards of tumbling or flying. She hadn’t gone to the first elite competition of the season, February’s Winter Cup, or to any national team camps yet. “You don’t want to rush it and force myself into a situation that my body is just truly not ready for,” she told me, pressing a heating pad against one pectoral. She and Andy were both confident that the injury’s persistence didn’t have to do with her age. “It was quite an impact that she took,” Andy said when I asked. “It’s just like anybody else.”

But she was also running out of time: She needs to show routines at the U.S. Classic this month in order to be able to compete at the national championships, the next step in the 2021 season before Olympic trials. When I watched her train in April, Memmel was hoping for a “breakthrough,” a sign that her body might be ready to load up on training and make a serious push for the Classic. Memmel stared down the equipment before each turn and stalked the gym between rounds, as if cooling off from a heated verbal exchange. On the beam, she ran through her tricks at increasing speed, losing her balance several times and falling off one side, thudding like fruit dropping off a tree. “Agh!” she shouted after one fumble, smacking the beam with one hand. Each landing gave off a satisfying crack. “All right, Chell, let’s see it,” Andy urged.

While training at the 2008 Olympics, Memmel had been doing something simple — just taking off on a warm-up floor pass — when she broke her ankle completely. Andy told me that the group of doctors and trainers, headed, at the time by Nassar, had advised him against getting an X-ray. Andy remembered Nassar’s warning him that Memmel might be pulled from the team. “It was basically, ‘Don’t go and find out that it’s broken.’”

Andy ignored the advice, such as it was, and went to the hospital. Memmel, who had been a favorite going into the all-around, ultimately competed only on bars. When he got the X-ray, Andy said, he wasn’t thinking about gymnastics. “I was thinking about her whole life ahead of her,” he said.

“People always ask me, ‘If you could change one thing ...,’” she told me. “But you can’t go back.” If she competed in 2008, another outcome could have been even more lasting damage. She might not be training now.

In one way, the 2020 sprain was another piece of terrible timing. In another way, the timing was perfect — if not to dominate at competitions, then to have a lasting impact on a sport that has just begun to leave serious room for narratives that go beyond mere winning and losing. Outliers don’t single-handedly establish new norms, but Memmel’s presence had already imbued the sport with a new language of possibility. Chusovitina, the 45-year-old Olympic vaulter, is the athlete most American gymnasts used to name when asked about whether gymnastics might change or whether gymnasts can be taken seriously into adulthood; it was the name Memmel herself came up with when I asked her last summer if there was anyone she could talk to about what it was like to train in your 30s. (Gymnasts her age are so rare in the United States that Memmel had taken the 43-year-old Olympic diver Laura Wilkinson, who is also aiming for a 2021 Olympic comeback, out for dinner instead.) Chusovitina competes for Uzbekistan; the United States is so dominant in the sport that top gymnasts abroad aren’t typically considered competitors of Americans. Memmel was someone many more American gymnasts could see themselves in.

Jessica O’Beirne, a prominent gymnastics journalist and podcast host, said she thought the reflexive adoration of youth in the sport was so intractable that it would take “an entire Olympic team of post-college gymnasts or gymnasts with kids, and they have to win Olympic gold as a team,” to fully cement a new narrative — or perhaps someone like Simone Biles competing in Paris 2024, which is a possibility that Biles hinted at during a recent news conference. (She’ll be 27 then.) But in gymnastics, Biles represents superhuman dominance; she may be one of the best athletes who has ever lived. It was Memmel’s name instead that came up when athletes were talking about what might be possible for them, too. This fall, I spoke with Vanessa Dickerson, a former gymnast who posted about the mental and emotional abuse she experienced from her coach before she quit the sport in high school. It was Memmel she mentioned when I asked whether she thought she could have had a longer career if she’d been trained differently. “Watching Chellsie Memmel make this comeback,” she said, “it makes you wonder, right?”

During the last event of the day, uneven bars, Memmel arrived at a crucial point: a running mount from a hard floor into a Hindorff on the high bar. She ran, jumped, swung back and forth, hurled herself over the high bar and did a straddle in the air, then fell heavily to the ground on her stomach. The fall didn’t matter, though — it was the air she was looking for. She got up and whooped. The Hindorff had been excellent. This was the “breakthrough.” Memmel tended not to editorialize much while I was watching her in the gym, but now she came over to the monitor, where I was observing over Zoom, and grinned. It wasn’t over yet.

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Credit...Cait Oppermann for The New York Times

Lizzie Feidelson is a writer and dancer living in Brooklyn. She last wrote for the magazine about the influence of intimacy coordinators on Hollywood sex scenes. Cait Oppermann is a photographer and director based in New York. She has spent much of her career photographing trailblazers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, Naomi Osaka and Megan Rapinoe.