Behind Chellsie Memmel's Adult Gymnastics Journey
Stacey Nash on documenting the gymnast's improbable comeback to the sport.
|Dvora Meyers||Jan 30||4|
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While we all can agree that 2020 was pretty much a trash year, it did yield a few unexpected delights. Top of the list, of course, was Donald Trump losing his reelection bid. Then there was the realization that I could just stop wearing bras altogether. And perhaps the most unexpected—yet most delightful—of all was 2008 Olympic silver medalist Chellsie Memmel’s return to elite gymnastics at age 32 after nearly a decade away from serious training and after having two kids. (I interviewed Memmel about her comeback in this newsletter from August.)
Memmel didn’t merely tell us that she was coming back to the sport; she’s been showing us what that process looks like with weekly videos posted to her YouTube channel. Early on, Memmel was a one-woman show—training, documenting, and editing these videos for her channel. (Not to mention coaching and raising two kids.) But Stacey Nash, a documentary filmmaker who works in branded content, reached out to Memmel during the pandemic and offered to assist her in documenting her “adult gymnastics journey” as Memmel has called it. The results have been very entertaining and informative. This series has essentially become the second-longest-running show about gymnastics after the iconic Make It Or Break It.
I reached out to Stacey and asked if I could send her some questions about the series and working with Memmel and she graciously agreed to answer them. Below are her responses, lightly edited for clarity.
Dvora Meyers: Can you talk a bit about your professional background? Also, what connections did you have to gymnastics prior to starting to film Chellsie?
Stacey Nash: I’ve been a video creator my whole career. It started with figure skating and working broadcasts as a runner, which is almost below an entry-level position. (It’s the “go get me coffee” position and nothing else). But that led me to a job with MTV, which is where I got my real start and realized I loved working in video. I freelanced for several years on various MTV, VH1, and Bravo shows, and then I moved over to the advertising side, directing and producing social media content for brands like Neutrogena and Adidas. Now most of my work is documentary-style content for brands.
I recently did a series with Harley-Davidson where my crew and I hit the road following a rider from Washington to Milwaukee for two weeks. We shot all day while our editor worked out of the backseat of a minivan creating short docs to post daily to social media. I normally work with agencies, account execs and creative directors, and there’s a lot of people weighing in on the creative [content] and it takes forever to come to agreement on a final version. This was the first time I realized how much fun quick-turn content could be, which I think is what put the idea in my head that I could potentially do something like I did with Chellsie’s channel. I also direct commercials, and one of my recent ones for a furniture brand featured Marvin Kimble [a member of the U.S. men’s gymnastics national team] as a superhero dad: we shot him doing pommel horse moves on a couch and flipping over a living room table. That was a very fun shoot and a very fun way to work in the sport of gymnastics.
I was a figure skater growing up, and for a brief time, I actually worked out at M&M Gymnastics [the gym that Memmel’s family owns and operates] where we did some off-ice training. So while I knew who Chellsie was, I didn’t actually know her.
But the biggest connection I have to gymnastics is my time with NBC Olympics as a digital producer for the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. I’ll be working with NBC again in Tokyo, helping out with the livestream.
DM: When you first started watching Chellsie's adult gymnastics videos, what about those early ones struck you and piqued your interest?
SN: I’m from Milwaukee, so I’ve always been a fan of Chellsie. When I saw that she had gotten herself back into killer shape and was doing skills again, as a gym fan, as a hometown fan, I was definitely paying attention.
DM: What made you think to reach out and offer to help Chellsie document her return to the sport? What did you think you could bring to the project?
SN: As a freelancer, the pandemic shut down hit me hard. Not only because I had no work, but because I LOVE to work and the boredom was killing me. I was watching friends at advertising agencies get laid off left and right, and I was really worried about what the budgets would look like when we returned to normal. As a commercial director in a relatively small market, it’s always tough to book gigs. As a female commercial director, unfortunately, it’s even harder. So I knew I needed to change something and be able to offer more. As a producer and director, I don’t edit, I don’t shoot; I make the creative decisions and lead the crew and editor to execute on those decisions. So learning to edit and shoot was a pretty daunting challenge because my bar of expectations is pretty high.
I decided to find a project in order to learn on and one day a lightbulb just went off. I cold emailed Chellsie and said, “Hey, no idea if I’ll be any good at this but can I come and help you make these training videos?” She was making everything with her iPhone and I figured I could at least help up the entertainment value a bit. But I had NO clue the videos would take off like they did, because I honestly wasn’t even sure if I could figure out how to edit.
I emailed Chellsie, we met on a Monday, I came and shot on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday of that week. I downloaded a new edit program on Wednesday and started watching a ton of YouTube videos on how to edit in that particular system. By Sunday, much to my great, great relief, I had a somewhat respectable video ready for Chellsie to publish. Audio was a mess and the edit was rough but I had somehow done it.
DM: Did you guys have any conversations about what the goals of the project were or did you just show up with your camera and start filming?
SN: We sat down at her gym after she practiced on a Monday and I just introduced myself and told her a bit about my background. I can’t remember if we talked about goals at that meeting but I did talk to her a lot about it afterwards. I was watching the world of gymnastics essentially burn that summer with Athlete A and #gymnastalliance coming out. It was really important to me as a fan of the sport to do something to help. I felt like featuring Chellsie and the very levelheaded approach she was taking with her training was something positive that the gymnastics community might benefit from.
I also wanted to bring in some levity, which is why I started to feature Rahdea and Andy so much. Ultimately, as a lifelong gymnastics fan, I wanted to make some gymnastics content that I personally would get a kick out of. That ended up being my North Star: As a gymnastics fan, does this make me smile or laugh?
I had no intention to do as many of those videos as I did though. I figured it would be a month-long thing, but I was having a lot of fun with it and one turned into five. I was learning so much about editing and shooting and getting better every week … well, my editing got better—my camera is old and my frequently out-of-focus footage drove me insane. The videos were so much fun to make but they took a LOT of time.
DM: What surprised you the most about watching and documenting Chellsie as she trained?
SN: How easy she made everything look in real time and then watching it back and hearing her breathing hard and realizing, “oh wow, that is NOT easy for her.”
DM: How often and for how long do you go in and film Chellsie? How many others are on the crew or otherwise involved in producing the weekly videos?
SN: In the beginning, I had nothing but time and I was shooting 2-3 times a week. By mid-July, I was starting to get busier with gigs and filming became once a week.
My initial thought was to shoot everything myself. I chickened out on the shooting approximately two minutes into the project. As I was walking out of M&M Gymnastics after that first meeting with Chellsie, I was on the phone calling my good friend, Vinnie Besasie, to come help me shoot the next day. He had been a gymnast in high school and was, like me, bored out of his mind, so he was all in and ended up being a massive help on the project. I don’t think it would have caught the attention it did without his footage. My editing skills were given time to grow because I had good footage to work with. The visuals forgave some of the editing sloppiness. It also gave me time to ease myself into doing all of the filming myself.
I also recruited some other friends to come help me like Scott Curty, Bill Armstrong, Ryan Brooks, Mike Gillis, and Brian Minton. Basically, if you worked a job with me over the summer, I was persuasively asking you to come “play” with me the next day and shoot some gymnastics. A lot of the awesome visuals we captured were purely because I have awesome friends who were willing to come and help me.
DM: One of the things I've really enjoyed about watching the videos thus far is the emergence of characters like Andy and Rahdea and even Chellsie herself, whom I don't think we got to know very well during her career. Was this something you focused on bringing to the fore?
SN: Chellsie is the ultimate straight man, so I needed to find people for her to play against. Every time I was at the gym, I was scanning for someone [else] to put on camera. That very quickly led me to Rahdea who is an absolute star and stud. Her sense of humor is so dry and her timing is insane. She is such a natural performer. So I would start asking Chellsie when Rahdea was training so that I could get the two of them together.
Andy was a total surprise. He’s very quiet and a soft talker so it took me a while to realize just how valuable he was going to be. The first time I really used him was the video where she does the Arabian on the high beam for the first time. I could tell she wanted to try but was lacking some confidence; she said she wouldn’t do it without her dad, so I hightailed it upstairs and dragged Andy downstairs. I think he was in the middle of painting something—really not in coach mode! But that was the beginning of showcasing that relationship. I had SO much fun shooting Andy and capturing those quips. Although it was much easier when I had someone running audio for me. He’s SO quiet. I can’t tell you how many times I had to blast the volume on my laptop and put my ear to the speakers to hear what he was saying.
DM: Editing is obviously a big part of the process of shaping narrative in documentary filmmaking. When you sit down to edit, what are you looking for in the footage in terms of the story that week?
SN: I’ve always been pretty good about mentally editing on the fly as I shoot and interview, but that has come from years and years of practice. There’s nothing worse than getting back to an edit and realizing you’re missing a key piece of footage that you need to tell the story. So while I was shooting, I was paying attention to what was going on and capturing what was in front of me, but I was simultaneously editing it all together in my brain so that if I needed to shoot any extra context, I could get that before I left. A lot of times what that meant was getting Andy to repeat himself. He tended to tell me his funniest stories when I had my camera down so I would have to coax him to repeat himself. After a while I realized that even if I didn’t have my camera pointed at him, I needed to at least have it on. That’s why a lot of the footage would end up shaky and a mess. I didn’t have a B cam—it was just me reacting and hoping I got everything good enough.
But what that means for edit is that I sit down with a pretty solid plan for what story I want to tell so edit time is a matter of piecing it together, not figuring out what those pieces are. Time-wise, that was essential. There were a lot of weeks where I shot on Friday from 10-2 and then spent the entire weekend editing in order to have something ready for Sunday’s premiere at 5 [ p.m. Central time]. I didn’t have time to plot out story or second guess anything. Which, as a creative, was an incredible exercise in letting go and running on instinct.
DM: Does Chellsie have any input behind the scenes in terms of editing and final approval?
I would always send her the edit before she posted so that if there was anything she wanted removed or revised, I would have time to make those changes. But I don’t believe I ended up making any revisions other than a few spelling errors. I would just tell the stories that I personally found the most amusing and she was onboard with that.
DM: When did it become apparent to you that this was more than just her playing around with gymnastics again, and that Chellsie was actually going to try to turn this into a competitive comeback?
SN: I knew she was serious about bettering herself and returning her body to top elite form but I don’t think I understood her actual intentions for a while. I was immediately inspired by the work, but I think I expected her comeback to be more about a world cup, not necessarily the Olympics or Worlds. I immediately got invested in this idea that she could get a skill named after her and I thought there was an incredible story there. But the Olympics getting postponed kind of changed the possibilities.
DM: Chellsie has always been beloved by gymnastics fans, but her comeback story seems to have broadened her fan base to people outside of the sport’s fandom. What do you think that people outside of the sport or with tenuous connections to the sport are responding to in this comeback story?
SN: I grew up figure skating, and so there was never a day where it was like, “and now you’re done and you’ll never skate again.” I loved dropping into public ice sessions throughout college and working on random things. It’s wild to me that option isn’t available to gymnasts. So I think this idea that she came back on her own terms as an adult is incredibly appealing to athletes who grew up loving the sport and wished there was still an option to go in and do some conditioning, swing on the bars, jump into the pit, etc. I really hope this opens up more adult gymnastics classes!
DM: Do you have a favorite video? Which "episode" is it?
SN: I don’t know if I have a favorite video, but I totally have favorite moments. I’m probably torn between the moment where she landed her first Arabian on high beam and the day where she had to wear a leotard because she lost a bet with Rahdea. The Arabian moment because I could really feel how nervous she was in the moment. I mean, I don’t think I took a breath while she was setting up for it. And then edit wise, I was really happy with how we shot it and how I edited it to build that tension.
The whole build-up to the leotard bet was hilarious but also filled with tension. Rahdea had to do her series on beam and she was genuinely scared to do it. But she was so honest and forthcoming with her fear and I loved seeing that. I hope there were some young girls watching that who realized it’s totally normal and fine to be afraid. I think Chellsie was sort of looking for a reason to get back into a leotard, but I also do think it was a weird time travel-y experience for her. It seemed like making the bet and making it this whole fun ordeal made it a little easier to ease back into the “appearance” of a gymnast again.
[The part where Radhea is trying to go for her series starts around 6:56]
DM: One of the things that people really enjoy watching are outtakes. Any good outtakes that we didn't get to see? And any plans to compile bloopers or outtakes into a reel and put it out on YouTube?
SN: Because I was editing together a 15-20 minute video every week and I was generally only shooting one day for about 3 hours, I included almost everything good that I shot. I know fans love to see the skills so I made sure I was including every turn. So unfortunately, no, there’s really not some treasure trove of outtakes I didn’t use. If it was funny, it made it in.
But! The funniest blooper to me was something that I don’t think actually came across as all that funny in the video. I rarely asked Chellsie to do anything for the camera. She’s pretty regimented in her training and knows exactly what her body can handle. So me asking for one more take for the camera was never an option. Except twice. I asked her to do the illusion aerial on laser beam (you’re welcome, Twitter) and then I asked her to do an illusion on high beam because I had opened the garage door and wanted a cool silhouetted look. I had a crew of three with me that day and as we set up for the shot it was taking a while to get everyone situated and ready. Chellsie was getting a bit antsy because we’re fumbling around with cameras for a while and getting everything prepped because I didn’t want to have to ask her to do it more than once. We finally get set, she goes up to try, and boom. She lands on the ground. It was hilarious; all that prep and then it didn’t even work. It was the ultimate trombone womp-womp sound.
I want to jump on something that Stacey said in one of her responses above about how her decision to stop training in figure skating wasn’t a decision to stop skating forever because it is easy enough for her to drop in on a public ice session, lace up her skates, and play around. Other sports present similar opportunities for ex-athletes to keep on messing around on the court or at the park. But for gymnasts, it can be much harder to do the sport casually after your training days are finished. Essentially, many gymnasts, especially those who don’t pursue a career in the sport, are expected to stop doing it cold turkey.
Venues like skating rinks or basketball courts are available for public use in the way that gymnastics facilities aren’t. Gymnastics simply isn’t considered a leisure activity for adults. You can’t just make an afternoon of going to the gym to do gymnastics with your friends the way you can go to the rink or a spinning class. The barrier to entry is (too) high.
I don’t know what exactly is to be done about this aside from adding more adult classes to gyms’ schedules and to keep working to change the image of gymnastics as an activity that is only for kids to a pursuit that’s for all ages and levels.
Maybe, if my financial prospects greatly improve, I’ll finally have the gymnastics birthday party I’ve always dreamed of in two years for my 40th.