Rethinking Gymnastics Training

The Ny Times article. I can’t get a link/won’t paste from it. I wanted to share it because it talks about Chellsie’s training, the culture of abuse, how the sport has changed.

What If Everything We Know About Gymnastics Is Wrong? - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Hernandez gives us some insight into how the coaching change has been in her comeback.

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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."

Another bit:

“ 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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Oh my god, yes. And not just elite coaches. Sarcasm is the language of competitive gymnastics, in my experience. Ever present at every level.

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Gosh, I totally missed the news in 2017 that Laura Wilkinson is making a comeback.