Why Elite Gymnasts Come BackS

On Friday night, Nastia Liukin, the defending Olympic all around champion will try to make her second Olympic team and the Vegas odd makers, if they were at all interested in a sport like gymnastics, would put her as a long shot. Why? Not simply because she's a 22-year-old woman in a teenager's game, but due to her incredibly weak showing just a few weeks ago at National Championships. Emerging from a three year competitive hiatus, she botched beam and woefully underperformed on her marquee event, the uneven bars, dismounting with elementary level skills.



Her poor outing left many wondering why Liukin, who is well aware of the time and dedication necessary to make an Olympic team, had waited until October of 2011, a mere eight months before team selection, to announce her comeback? But some have also wondered why, after she had won virtually every title in the sport, had she decided to return to the daily grind of training?



"I went through a period of time where I was so lost and confused. I didn't know who I was anymore," she admitted in one interview. "London all of a sudden became a huge dream of mine."



It seems that Liukin was having difficulty navigating her post-gymnastics life of endorsements, sponsorships, and travel. During those whirlwind years, she was an Olympic champion but not a gymnast. The sport had structured her day and shaped her identity. Without gymnastics, she felt understandably bereft. And in this dislocation, Liukin is not alone. Virtually all high-level female gymnasts experience it as they try to figure out their lives once the sport ceases to be the sole organizing principle.



The recently retired Beijing gold medalist Shawn Johnson expressed similar sentiments in her memoir, Winning Balance, writing of the competition free couple of years that preceded her attempted comeback, said, "I'd often said that gymnastics was my life, and now it was like a part of me had died."



To many, this challenge might not seem at all exceptional. We all must figure out how to carve out niches in the adult world. Most of us bumble our way forward, at least for a little. Yet most people do not exit adolescence terribly accomplished. We chart our way into the future with the knowledge that given our mundane lives our best days lie ahead of us. But what if your peak was the equivalent of the high school play?



Elite gymnasts, as a rule, accomplish more by college age, whether winning national, world or Olympic medals. Many former champions move on with the knowledge that their adult accomplishments cannot contend with the performances of their teenage life.



Furthermore, gymnasts have few professional avenues to continue with the sport outside of circus-style shows like Cirque du Soleil or stunting for ABC Family's gymnastics soap opera, Make It Or Break It. While this sort of work may be fun, these endeavors, like the glamorous post-Olympic gigs that Liukin has received, cannot last long or provide as equally a challenging competitive lifestyle.



Many gymnasts ease their transition from the Olympics and world championships to adult lives by competing in the NCAA. There, the training hours and difficulty levels are reduced. Furthermore, in the collegiate setting, team success is emphasized above all else, taking the pressure off the individual. This opens up avenues for identity exploration. If their gymnastics is now subsumed by the team goals then outside of the practice halls, they are freer to explore their individual passions. They get a chance to glimpse what life after the sport might look like without being forced to give up gymnastics fully.



This has been a popular avenue for many former elites and Olympians such as 2004 Olympic silver medalist Courtney Kupets and Courtney McCool, both of whom went on to successful college gymnastics careers. Though many fans had hoped that Kupets would return to the elite scene since she competed with such a high level of difficulty in college, she never did.




But for gymnasts like Johnson, Liukin and 1996 Olympic champion Dominique Moceanu, NCAA gymnastics was not an option. They were the phenoms. Even among their exceptionally talented elite peers, these athletes were akin to prodigies and their earning potential was evident early. They forfeited their NCAA eligibility for sponsorships that would only be available to them in the run-up to the Games. And because female gymnasts peak before college, it's next to impossible to both take advantage of endorsement money and NCAA athletic eligibility. Though all three of the aforementioned elite athletes have earned more than the cash value of a college education, going pro young did rob them of the opportunity to slowly phase competitive gymnastics out of their lives while they figured out what to do next.



All of this helps to answer why after a three-year hiatus, Liukin returned, having not had a chance to get elite gymnastics out of her system, but not why she waited until it was possibly too late to get back into full-time training.



The answer to that comes down to our collective blindness to the aging process. Aging takes all of us, gymnast and non-gymnast alike, by surprise. Intellectually, we all know we age. But on a day-to-day basis, we don't perceive the changes unless we hit some sort of milestone such as marriage, birth, making your first student loan repayment, or your first wrinkles. (Nevermind that those wrinkles had been taking shape for years. They certainly feel like they sprang up overnight.)



I imagine the same type of thoughts occurred to Liukin as she deferred her decision about her comeback. She knew that she was out of gymnastics shape and was a few years older than she had been in Beijing. But she had no experience, as of yet, training in her older, more adult body. If she had seriously considered it, she probably would've started the comeback sooner.



This is not to say that Liukin, as one journalist has asserted, should've stepped aside for the younger gymnasts. Older athletes don't owe the next generation an unobstructed path to the Olympic team. It's unfair to assert that a decade of work can only be channeled towards one Olympic cycle and team.



And it's certainly not impossible to compete well at 22. There are more than a few older gymnasts competing very successfully on the elite level. In fact, a couple — Alicia Sacramone and Bridget Sloane — are Beijing teammates of Liukin's. Though Sacramone also took time off after the 2008 Games, she returned in early 2010 and had the time to make the proper adjustments to her regimen, to learn that what worked for her at 16 or 17 or even 20 would not be appropriate at 24. She trains far fewer hours in the gym, favoring activities such as Pilates in order to stay conditioned for the sport, but not doing as many flips as she once had.



Liukin hasn't had the same luxury of time, of trial and error, of figuring out the right way to train as an adult. Though she insists that she takes fewer turns during workout, she is back to the seven hour a day, six day a week regimen she had done for most of her life. And instead of snapping back to championship form, her movements were slow and labored.



Perhaps, as Liukin insisted, all she needed was more time. Maybe the three weeks between Nationals and Olympic Trial will prove sufficient to regain her form and she'll successfully cram for the Olympic Trials as we all did for our college finals. But even if she defies everyone's expectations and makes the team, she'll still have to figure out what comes after gymnastics. Unless she plans to attempt a comeback in 2016.



Which could happen. After all, Oksana Chusovitina, 37, is set to compete at her fifth Games. But she lives in Germany, the land of Faust, and has obviously struck some sort of devilish bargain to remain competitive. Short of anything mystical, Liukin will probably retire after this final effort, successful or otherwise, which means she'll be in the same boat as every other woman in her early 20s and the entire cast of Girls. At least with her Olympic medals, she'll have better accessories than the rest of us. 



Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.

Image via Dilip Vishwanat/Getty.