The best gymnasts from all around the country gathered in San Jose, California this past Sunday to compete for a spot on the coveted American gymnastics team for the 2012 London Olympics. Anticipation and excitement filled the arena as 2008 Olympic all-around gold medalist, Nastia Liukin, stepped up to do her routine on the uneven bars; the world’s best gymnast was ready to perform her routine…and then she flopped.
The pressures of women’s gymnastics are evident to the millions who tune in for the Olympic games; many of the girls appear to be in their adolescence rather than their late teens, and the tender ages of 19 and 20 become the acceptable limit for participants to maintain a competitive standing.
Former gymnast, Kasi Kennedy, who trained with several famous gymnasts including Shannon Miller, Keri Sturg, and Jenny Thompson, explains the pressures to get started at an early age. “When I started, the average age was five or six…but I taught a class with two year olds and they would do gymnastics with a parent holding and/or walking them.” Not only do these athletes start before they learn to walk, but to seriously compete in the sport, a social life is impossible: “I practiced about four or five hours a day, six days a week. I did not have much free time with friends and I never got to go to the mall or movies like most kids at my age did,” explains Kasi.
Many of the gymnasts who compete in the Olympic trials are in their early to late teens; former medalist, Nastia, is considered “over-the-hill” to be competing at 22. “I would say by the time you hit twenty is when it is hard to compete with the younger gymnasts. Your body starts going through changes and it gets really hard to keep up,” says Kasi.
The former gymnast explains the physical strenuousness of the sport as well; weight-loss is a common pressure for gymnasts who train competitively. Despite the pressure to stay small, the sport has long-lasting effects on many of the athletes. “I have suffered from bad joints, knees, and a back that gives me trouble daily,” explains Kasi.
Most gymnasts don’t make it to the Olympic trials, but for those who do go on to compete, their glory days do not last long. Olympic gold medalist, Luikin, longed for another shot at the all-around gold medal, but when she landed her bar routine on her face, any hope of making the team was lost. The crowd responded to Liukin’s fall with a standing ovation, recognizing all she had accomplished four short years ago. She explains that her shot at the trials was not a total waste: Liukin summed up her career, “I’ve had two high moments in my career that are at the very top. It was winding that all-around at the Beijing Olympics, and it was receiving that standing ovation in San Jose this past weekend.”