In 1995 sports writer Joan Ryan penned Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, a nonfiction account which unflinchingly documents the abuse and trauma of young girls inherent in narratives of success in gymnastics and figure skating. Among Ryan’s critiques of gymnastics was the immense pressure it places on teenagers, often prepubescent gymnasts to “race against time to transform themselves into perfect little machines before their bodies turn against them, swelling and rounding into a woman’s or simply giving out.” Twenty-five years on, Ryan’s book has become eerily prescient in a moment of reckoning for the international gymnastics community. On 24 June, Netflix released Athlete A, a feature-length documentary focusing on the hundreds of survivors of former USA Gymnastics (USAG) team doctor, Lawrence Nassar. In particular, the documentary depicts the life of Maggie Nichols, who first reported Nassar’s sexual abuse in 2015 and was once known in legal paperwork by the pseudonym “Athlete A”.
Though the details of the Nassar scandal and the negligence of USAG to bring Nichols’ reports to relevant authorities was well documented before its release, Athlete A focused particularly on the ongoing psychological trauma of Nassar’s survivors. Due to its release on Netflix, it was also afforded a far greater audience and public attention than any other work to date. In the weeks that followed, prominent elite gymnasts from the United States, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium and the Netherlands (among others) began to speak out against the exact abusive culture and training methods that Ryan had described in 1995. The gymnasts described how trusted adults stripped them of their agency and pressured them to develop disordered eating patterns and how non-compliance led to neglect or physical abuse. Though the breadth and depth of Nassar’s abuse has shocked the gymnastics community, it is perhaps unsurprising to find a sport that cultivated a culture of abuse in the name of success had also enabled a sexual predator for decades. Whether and how gymnastics culture will be reformed to better nurture athletes remains an open question.
Amongst the current moment of reckoning, an unlikely protagonist has emerged: a 32-year old mother from Milwaukee. For over a year Chellsie Memmel, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist who officially retired in 2012, has been documenting her journey to regain fitness after giving birth to two children. In early 2020, Memmel started posting her attempts at difficult balance beam skills – like a side aerial cartwheel in her judging attire – to the delight of the online gymnastics community. In April, after landing a double pike dismount off the balance beam, Memmel declared that a “seed [had] been planted” to begin a structured training regimen with two days of physical conditioning and three days of gymnastics with an emphasis on quality execution rather than a high number of repetitions. By June, a camera crew was following her as she regained all of the skills she performed as an elite gymnast. Nevertheless, Memmel remained uncommitted to anything more than enjoying herself. The gymnastics community could not help but notice that with an additional year to train (after the Olympic postponement), Memmel had an increasingly realistic chance to return to the sport.
Each week, Memmel’s YouTube videos document her strides towards elite calibre gymnastics as she brings difficult skills back to the four events (balance beam, floor exercise, vault and uneven bars) that make up the women’s all around gymnastics event. For months though Memmel was reluctant to return to training on the uneven bars, despite the fact she was the 2003 world champion on that event. Numerous shoulder injuries held Memmel back during her career, including a major one incurred during the 2006 world championships whilst competing on the uneven bars; Memmel worried that a shoulder injury could derail her fledgling comeback. Nevertheless, in a symbolic moment this July, Memmel prepared a pair of bar grips and began a cast to handstand on the uneven bars. In a moment befitting of a scripted drama, Memmel seemed to realise that her fourth attempt at qualifying for an Olympic Games was not only possible, but inevitable. On 31 July she made the obvious official.
Essentially everything about Chellsie Memmel’s comeback to women’s gymnastics is paradigm shifting. An extremely select number of female gymnasts compete into their late twenties, let alone in their thirties after an eight year hiatus. At 32, she is nine years older than Simone Biles, the oldest member of the current US national team. Even fewer women return to the highest annals of the sport after giving birth. Memmel will be the first American gymnast to ever compete in elite gymnastics after becoming a mother and only the sixth woman in the international history of the sport.
However, the most radical aspect about Memmel’s comeback is not simply that she is a 32 year old mother of two returning to a sport traditionally dominated by teenagers. Memmel is also a gymnastics coach and in her weekly videos, Memmel encourages young gymnasts to enjoy the sport and advocates for “[taking herself] out of the equation” of her athletes’ goals. While watching Memmel’s attempts at complicated skills makes for fascinating viewing for gymnastics fans, it is equally compelling to watch Memmel as an alternative model of coaching.
The hours that Memmel herself trains are dwarfed by most other elite gymnasts, who usually train six days a week and repeat skills several times until they are perfected. Despite this, Memmel feels her physical condition and gymnastics ability has never been better, an observation she attributes to a more positive relationship with nutrition, physical conditioning and injury management since becoming a mother. Memmel’s coach and father, Andy, has also quickly become an internet favourite as he encourages her to perform the hardest skills whilst maintaining her agency in training decisions.
Earlier this year, before Memmel had committed to officially returning to the sport and gymnasts had begun to share their stories of abuse, I profiled Simone Biles, the reigning Olympic all-around champion. Biles is widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time and I noted then that she is perhaps the true protagonist of the open-ended code of points that gymnastics adopted in 2006. If Biles is redefining excellence on the competition floor, then Memmel is fabricating the most radical blueprint for healing the toxic training culture of professional gymnastics. As coach and athlete, Memmel is guided by the principle that gymnastics should be enjoyed by all; in making this simple argument, she is dismantling every narrative at the heart of its history of child abuse.
Memmel’s appearance at the Tokyo Olympics is by no means assured. Next year, competition for the four member gymnastics team will be fierce. One spot will almost certainly go to Biles, who has not lost an all-around competition in seven years. As many as fifteen to twenty gymnasts could feasibly fill the final three spots, including Memmel. No matter what the outcome, Biles and Memmel competing contemporaneously will be an aspirational portrait of gymnastics’ future. In the gymnastics world that Joan Ryan documented twenty-five years ago, Chellsie Memmel would have been labelled simply too old. In this moment though, she seems to have arrived exactly on time.