Chellsie Memmel's Bonus Round
The 2005 world champion on her comeback to gymnastics at 32.
|Dvora Meyers||Aug 28, 2020|| 3|
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When Chellsie Memmel started posting videos of her conditioning exercises about two years ago, she had no idea she’d find herself back in a leotard. The 2005 world champion and 2008 Olympic silver medalist was simply having fun getting into shape. Up until that point, her involvement in gymnastics was limited to coaching at her family’s gym and at camps and judging at competitions. The flipping phase of her career was supposed to be over. (She officially retired in 2012.)
The Chellsie Challenges, as they ended up being called, were pretty entertaining. I watched many of them, but I can’t say that I ever tried to do any of the exercises she demonstrated. Cause sometimes she did things like pistol squats on the high bar, which is just crazy.
What was clear from the Challenge videos was that Chellsie was having fun and was still super strong. Still, I didn’t watch those and see a return to gymnastics on the horizon. I just saw a woman in her element and loving it.
But then came COVID-19. The Memmels’ Wisconsin gym was closed, and Chellsie was heading into the gym to do some cleaning during this hiatus. And then she decided to add gymnastics to the mix.
In this first video of her “adult gymnastics journey” she explains her new training regimen: she would only do gymnastics three days a week and capped the number of skills she would do in her workouts, a wise course of action for an athlete who had underwent more than one shoulder surgery during her elite career. “I just want to see how my body responds,” she said.
It responded very well. Right off the bat, Chellsie was throwing difficult skills. She also started working on a pretty wild beam combination: a back handspring into a piked Arabian somersault.
While most of the skills she was practicing were skills she had previously competed or trained during her elite career—muscle memory is very real, my friends—Chellsie also started working on a new skill, one that she had always wanted to learn: a double twisting double somersault.
At the end of May, documentary filmmaker Stacey Nash reached out to Chellsie about coming to the gym and filming her adult gymnastics journey. Since then, the videos, which were already enjoyable and informative, took on a whole new dimension. Stacey captured the interactions between Chellsie and others, really bringing her personality to the fore. We also get to meet other “characters” in the Chellsie-verse, like her father/coach Andy, who gets adorably excited about the popularity of his newly created Instagram account. There’s Rahdea, a college gymnast home for the summer (and coronavirus), who trains alongside Chellsie and eggs her on to do skills and to start training bars again; there are the kids who condition with Chellsie and cheer her every vault; and, of course, there are Chellsie’s two young children who make occasional appearances too.
There was only one direction this was headed in given how quickly Chellsie was progressing in the gym—an official comeback to the sport with an eye on competing elite again. She announced that she was going for it at the end of last month. (It took a lot of self-control to not riff on LL Cool J’s lyrics in the title or subhed. I hope you guys appreciate how hard this was for me.) She did in a very understated way, saying to her father, “Well, I guess it’s time to admit this is a comeback.”
I reached out to Chellsie and asked to speak with her about her comeback and she agreed to pop on the phone and chat for awhile.
A note about this piece: When I first sat down to interview Chellsie, I thought I’d be writing a standard article where I’d pull quotes from her and then write around them. But after I finished transcribing our hour-long conversation, I felt that the best way to approach it was to basically publish our conversation almost in its entirety. She said a lot of interesting things that I didn’t know I’d be able to fit into an article structure and have it make any kind of sense. (Also, I sensed that you guys wouldn’t exactly be against reading a lot of Chellsie.) I bring this up to note that I had to edit, especially on my end, since I got a bit rambly when I asked some questions and I didn’t want to put you guys through that.
Anyway, that was a long way of saying this conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Dvora Meyers: I know you've been really busy doing media lately. Are you surprised by the reaction that people have had to your comeback and you doing gymnastics again?
Chellsie Memmel: Yeah. I mean there are some people that have been along from the [beginning of the] journey, since I just started working out and doing the Chellsie Challenges and then just doing some fun combinations in the gym. But yes, I really was surprised.
DM: You retired officially for the first time from gymnastics in 2012. Did you feel done? Or did you just do that because your body was hurting or you felt like, ‘Okay, it's time,’ but not because you internally felt done?
CM: I did feel done. I did take the time to kind of heal after obviously not having the ending [I wanted], how I finished at classic. [Ed. note: Here’s a link story about what happened to Chellsie at the 2012 U.S. Classic.] But I did get to be a part of the post Olympic tour and do great gymnastics and kind of celebrate my career...and be like, Okay, I feel good about this.
I just was in a much better place mentally than I was after 2008 cause I just felt completely lost in 2008 with what I was going to do with my life. And so this time around, I felt much better about it. Okay, I'm good. I am done with gymnastics. [brief pause] I would say I was done doing gymnastics but not done with the sport.
So I retired in 2012. And then I got married in 2013. I was coaching and judging, and I was happy.
DM: Can you talk a little bit about how you were feeling after 2008 and why?
CM: It was pretty awful.
I've been thinking about this a lot because I've had a few questions about it lately. And it was kind of hard to describe when you're in it, but looking back, I was so lost, and just so unsure of what to do, because everything in my life had revolved around gymnastics and the goal of wanting to make an Olympic team. And then you make that goal. We got a silver medal as a team. And then also I did that post Olympic tour and was not really living in real life. You're on the road, and you're having fun, and you're doing things way differently, and then you come home. And it's like, I don't have gymnastics and I'm not with that group of people who are my friends anymore. What do I do? I don't have training five, six hours a day, six days a week. What is going to take up my time? Because I didn't have that many outside interests, or things to keep me busy...It's this incredible loss and just like emptiness. It's not a fun place to be.
I tried to come back right away in 2009. My heart and mind just wasn't in it 100%. You could see, I wasn't in the best shape. My routines, they were okay. But it was just like I was doing it because I didn't know what else to do. I knew and my dad knew that it wasn't 100% commitment.
DM: I can imagine that's really difficult. We all have jobs where at times we're phoning it in because you gotta pay the bills but it's a little different...to have that mentality and try to approach elite athletics that way.
CM: I feel like with trying to be at the highest level, you really need 100% dedication and that's just not where I was in that first year…But I did decide, I did then fully commit to it. And then it got better. 2011 was good until I hurt my shoulder, but I was in a much better place physically and mentally because I was fully committed to doing it instead of just doing it because I didn't know what else to do.
DM: As opposed to after the 2008 Olympics when you were just lost, in 2012 you moved on and you got married and had kids. But during those years since 2012, did it ever flit across your mind like hey, maybe I should do gymnastics again?
CM: It wasn't like hey, I want to do gymnastics again, I want to do it and commit to it. It was just like, hey, I'm gonna do a flip every now and then when I got to a summer camp or any kind of camp where they had a tumble track into the pit. I’m going to do a double layout because they’re so much fun. That's more what it was...I didn't ever think I [would] want to commit to it again.
DM: When I was at 2014 worlds I was sitting next to this former New Zealand elite. We were watching [Simone] do a double layout and she [the ex-elite gymnast] was like, ‘I know why she's smiling. That is the most fun skill to do.’ …Simone said it [double layout] to me when I asked her what her favorite skill was back in 2016. [Ed. note: I haven’t asked her recently. Maybe a triple double is now her favorite skill.] What is it about the sensations of doing the double layout that make it so enjoyable?
CM: There is a spot in it where you feel almost weightless and just the rotation and everything that it creates...It's the most fun skill. The shape because being in the straight body, just kind of all of that. But there is a spot in it where you almost feel weightless and that's the coolest part to me. You're going so fast.
It is something that I wish that everybody could [experience]...It’s cool because you're the one doing it, you're in control. I made my body do that like that. That part of it is so cool.
DM: Charlotte Drury [a trampoline athlete] did a video where she says of trampoline, it's a roller coaster that you control. And I thought that was a really smart way of putting that.
You've talked about how you didn't used to enjoy conditioning, which is, I think, something that every gymnast feels. They don't like conditioning; it’s a means to an end, so that they’re strong enough to do their skills, but they don't actually enjoy it. Except now you do. Can you talk about that flip?
CM: A complete 180.
Part of it is just because I'm older and appreciate it more. But the other thing is I always tried to use gymnastics to get in shape. And that doesn't always work because it's not a sport that actually burns a lot of calories. Just being in the gym, it’s not a workout. You actually have to do stuff and move.
So once we started doing the Chellsie Challenges, I started putting together a conditioning program for myself to follow, because I wasn't going to get stronger only doing one challenge one time a week. That obviously wasn’t gonna work. So I started doing more just everyday conditioning, not always super gymnastics-specific things, and started doing cardio and cardio circuits. They just worked. It was something that was a lot of fun.
I could switch them up every day. I honestly have a couple binders full of just different kinds of circuits. So total full body workouts that I was following, and then started adding more of the gymnastics conditioning.
Once I was in shape, the gymnastics just kind of started coming easy.
I was just feeling good. I mean, sometimes I would get sore, but then the next day I was like, Oh, I feel good, I feel stronger. And then you start seeing results...We used to be so focused on results quickly. And that never happened. I honestly took the time…It was an entire year of working out before I really started flipping again.
I hate saying it because it's kind of annoying, but it felt easy. And it was super fun. And my body was responding really well to it. When everything shut down, I was like, oh let's see how it feels, and then I kept doing it. I was going into [the gym to] clean but then also carving out time to do gymnastics.
DM: Between cleaning and gymnastics, I think we'd all choose gymnastics.
CM: Right? And the gym was empty. I was like, it's a gymnastics gym. Somebody needs to do gymnastics. It's going to be me, I guess.
DM: What was your dad's reaction to you starting to flip again after all this time?
CM: At first he would just help me whenever I asked, because for a long while, I was still just in charge. I was just doing it to have fun.
[Ed. note: Here’s a delightful interview with Andy Memmel, Chellsie’s father and coach, where he was being asked about his daughter’s comeback that, at the time this video was shot, was not yet an official comeback.]
It took me the longest to be convinced that I [should] commit to it and give it a try because my mom was on board, my dad was on board, my husband was on board, my family, my sisters, everyone was on board. I was just dragging my feet.
DM: Why do you think you were dragging your feet when it came to committing? What do you think was stopping you?
CM: One because I know how hard, how much hard work it is, and how hard it would be to even have a shot at making a team.
And when I commit to something, I want to give it 100%, and I knew it would look different this time because it's not just me this time. I have kids, I have a husband. It's not just all about me and my gymnastics. So I didn't know how that would look...This is gonna look a little bit different this time, so that was part of it. And the other part, like I said, I know how hard it's gonna be to even have a shot at making the team; I needed to know that it could even be a slim possibility before I said okay, I'm gonna try.
[Ed. note: Chellsie said that she been in contact with Tom Forster, the high performance director for the U.S. women’s national team about her comeback.]
DM: In 2008 you were lost after [the Games] because you didn't have interests outside gymnastics and this time your life is very full outside of gymnastics.
CM: Very full.
As I've gotten some time to reflect on it, I feel like it's just this really awesome bonus. Let's see what I can do.
DM: How many hours of gymnastics [per day] are you doing?
CM: It's about, let me think, three, three and a half.
DM: And on the conditioning days, how many hours of conditioning are you doing?
CM: Minimum two, sometimes I go to two and a half.
DM: This is working for you and your body feels good. But once you move into something like routine construction and practicing routines, do you imagine that you're going to have to increase the training time a little? Obviously nothing like what you did before, that would probably be very bad for your body. But maybe go up to 20 [hours per week] or something like that?
CM: Probably yes...But I want to try to keep that off day as long as I can. Just because it's giving my body that time to rest and recover so those days that I am doing gymnastics, it's much more efficient.
DM: I think one of the things that takes a lot of time when you're younger is skill development, right? It just takes a lot of hours. A lot of drills. You are learning new skills like the double double, but you're not learning tons of new skills.
CM: Right, I’m not learning the skills and I don't have to do a ton of development...For me, too, I know how to do a lot of the things, and I can visualize it, so that part is super helpful.
DM: So with the rise of the Gymnast Alliance [a movement begun to counter abuse in women’s gymnastics], one of the issues we've talked a lot about overtraining and pushing the high level skills while the kids are still very young. On Dave Tilley’s podcast [which is an absolute must listen for anyone interested in exercise science, gymnastics, ethical coaching, etc.] I think you said something like, why do they need to be doing double pikes when they’re 12 years old? But you did double pikes when you were 12, right?
CM: I did.
But I also feel like I am very lucky too, because my body feels good enough now where I can still do some of those [skills]. And I know a lot of others have long-standing issues, or this or that. It's hard to fully know what caused what [in terms of] injury but at some point too like, why are we pushing everybody? And not just at the highest level and even then like, what is the right thing to do? Why are we pushing so many level 9s and 10s to get those [difficult skills] so early?
DM: For elite, the age minimum for senior international competition is 16, you're going to want the girls to at least be doing their high-level skills for a little while before they turn senior, right?
CM: You're going to want to do training for it. It doesn't mean that they can't do it, but maybe not competing hard. [Ed. note: Here she’s talking about landing surfaces. Hard landing surfaces are the kinds you see in competition on TV. Yes, these are mats there but when you’re dropping from the sky with speed and force, those mats can feel like concrete. And when she’s talking about soft landing surfaces, she’s referring to things like foam pits, etc.] They could be training these skills soft on the tramp, into the pit, off of like an air floor and not the hard floor. They're 10, 11, 12, so they've been doing these skills for a long time. It doesn't mean they need to be doing them on hard all the time.
It’s such a complex issue...to try to figure out what is the best way and what is the best way to get everybody to buy into it... getting coaches, getting parents, getting the colleges [that are] getting the kids, everyone to buy into this that we're looking out for you for the long term.
DM: It's hard, especially for kids, to be long term thinkers. When you were younger and experiencing these injuries, were you thinking about your body 10-15 years down the line?
CM: [laughing] Oh no.
DM: How do you get the kids to care about their bodies in the long term?
[Ed. note: I wish I had asked this question differently. Really, the question should’ve been: How do we get coaches to care about the long term health of the gymnasts and transmit those priorities to the athlete? Chellsie did her best to answer the question I actually posed instead of the one I wish I had posed.]
CM: That's hard. And I think, I think that's adding another job to the coach, talking about that too. Even the parents too, to [get them] realize that there is life after the sport. It’s really hard to convince someone until they get there.
DM: I think I think I started realizing when I was like, 26, or 27 when I had to go in for spinal scans and the doctors told me, you have arthritis in the spots on your spine above and below your fusion. [About half my spine was fused when I was 14 due to severe scoliosis.] That’s when it clicked for me. Oh, this is the only body I get. Before that, I thought, if I’m injured, I’ll rehab it and then I can do what I want [to do] again. I didn't really consider that these things accrue over time and contribute to a worsening picture for myself. It’s embarrassing that it wasn’t until I was in my late 20s, when I was like, ‘Oh my god, I should not do things to compress my upper spine anymore. That's a bad idea.’ So if it was hard for a dumb 27 year old to get it, I can't imagine what it’s like for a 14 year old who's worked so hard for something and now they're being told they should consider the future.
CM: I feel like we ask so much of coaches sometimes, to be experts in so many different things and not just solely the gymnastics and the technical side of it. I mean, that's a lot of someone's plate. Also, they have to, try to be an expert in conditioning and be able to help if the kid or someone has a nutrition problem. That's so much for one person to manage
DM: The coaches are being asked to do a lot of things. But I think what we've seen is there's a lot of ego involved; some are so controlling that they're not going to say, ‘Oh, maybe you should go consult a strength and conditioning coach and bring back a program that you can do in the gym that will help you.’ Because that would mean that they couldn't control every aspect of the gymnast’s training. I think we know for some coaches, unfortunately, that level control is very is very important to them.
CM: It's time to take a step back and kind of look inward and be like, who am I doing this for? Do I want success as a coach or do I want to help athletes be successful in the sport but then also be successful after the sport? Because those are two completely different things and motivations.
DM: Yeah, I mean, we're talking about how gymnasts are poor long term thinkers but that's mainly a consequence of being young. That's just how young people are. But the coaches are adults; you'd expect to be able to think a little more long term simply because they are not teenagers.
It's very hard. Like I said, there are so many factors that I can go back to [such as] not overtraining. How many kids can we keep, keep in the gym and be happy and enjoy this and look back with great memories and then want to continue doing it or want their kids to do it someday? That should be the success story.
DM: A lot of the stories coming out of the Gymnast Alliance have been about how coaches have body shamed and fat shamed gymnasts and restricted what they could eat. You’ve spoken about you having your own issues with food. Can you talk a little bit about that experience and how you've managed to sort of change your perspective on food?
CM: My whole mindset has completely shifted where it's more about looking at food as fuel and really truly like, how I feel with what I'm eating. Finding the foods that make me feel good. And before it was just like trying to figure out what I was going to eat or if I had to eat less and that's always what it was. Okay, I have to get back in shape, I have to stop eating this or start eating that. Or, I really want this, but I shouldn't have it. It was just such a negative relationship with food. It was just thinking, you can't have this, or you shouldn't have this. Or then thinking, well, I worked out today, so I can have this and thinking of it as a reward as well. It’s just not healthy and clearly it didn't work. Because this is the longest I've ever been in any kind of good shape, which is crazy because I was an elite athlete.
It was changing the mindset to knowing that food is fuel, and that food is not the enemy. But it took a long time and a lot of learning and being okay, and not having a restrictive diet. It's just figuring out what makes me feel good and makes my workouts better and easier. And also being okay with having a treat. I still don't eat the healthiest. I'm not the poster child of healthy food. But I'm also okay with that. And I don't feel guilty when I eat, when I have a treat anymore.
DM: I think a lot of young women go through this...I went to an all-girls school. Everyone was always talking about dieting in the lunchroom. The elite gymnast, their peak years—allegedly, their peak years—fall during this period of when women in general are at their greatest risk for developing eating disorders.
[Ed. note: Female gymnasts, however, are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder than girls and women who are not gymnasts. I’m sure that being body shamed by coaches has something to do with that.]
CM: It is a struggle. It's a really hard balance to find and, like you said, even just being in an all-girls school, that's such a big focus for women and girls in general. So it's really hard to find a balance at a young age. I was very lucky with a lot of my coaches, but a lot of it was learned from some of the other girls or how their coaches [were].
DM: Can you talk about some of the things you witnessed that influenced you and had an impact on you in terms of eating?
CM: So much of it was eating less or you shouldn't eat that today or you shouldn't have that or it was just being restrictive and saying, you shouldn't eat that much or make your portion smaller or this or that. And it wasn’t focused on using food as fuel so your workouts could be better. Like that was never the attitude around food. Food was never thought of as a good thing.
DM: It was almost treated like a necessary evil but with an emphasis on evil.
CM: That's part of that negative outlook on it. Because then when you're thinking you can't have it or you're feeling bad about it, that's all you're thinking about.
DM: What was your favorite meet and why?
CM: That is tough.
DM: Okay, you can give a few answers. I'm not gonna limit you. Choose your top three if you wish.
CM: The Olympic Trials in 2008. Because I just felt so ready and so prepared…I was just on...It should have been the most high-stress, and it was, but I still was enjoying that competition. Because I was just so prepared and so focused and each routine I did just felt good. And obviously that floor routine is one of the highlights in my career.
DM: Oh yeah, I remember that floor routine.
DM: I think a lot of people doubted you heading into 2008. Those doubters were pretty much destroyed by the Olympic Trials. That must have be fun. Proving people wrong is always fun.
CM: It is a lot of fun.
So those two days are definitely one of them. 2005 worlds, just because it was such a fierce battle between Nastia [Liukin] and [me]. That is a big one.
DM: Becoming world all-around champion is a pretty big deal.
CM: Yes, that was a big deal.
DM: And you got a car because of it.
CM: Yes, even better.
[Ed. note: In this video, Andy talks about how in 2004, he told Chellsie that if she won worlds the following year he’d buy her a car. Also in this video—Chellsie has to wear a leotard for the first time in her comeback after losing a bet to Rahdea. Chellsie chose a leotard from 2003, her first year as a senior at 15. That’s the leotard she’s wearing in the lead image.]
DM: Have there been any other wagers that your dad has lost to you?
CM: There was a dog. That was before the car.
DM: Did you get the dog?
CM: Oh, I did.
DM: That's actually more important to me. Tell me about the dog as I sit right next to my dog. [Ed. note: Of course I was going to mention Lizzie. You guys know me by now.]
CM: It was at classics, I think. They [Chellsie’s parents] didn't really want a dog at all. And it was a very, very outside chance that I could win and I won like the second day.
DM: What kind of dog was it? Now I'm just gonna ask you a lot of questions about dogs. This is that part of the interview where I ask gymnasts about their dogs.
CM: She was a Bichon...a little white, fluffy, dog.
DM: Have you made any wagers with your dad now? Any that he could lose?
CM: We don't have any current ones going on.
DM: I know that the Olympics are somewhere in your mind [as a goal], but what are some other goals that you have?
CM: It would be really cool to get the pike Arabian named after me on beam, because I think that would be really awesome.
DM: It'd be really awesome. I hope they just send you to a competition where you can get the name.
CM: It's really just for me. A lot of it is about the journey and just to see how far I can go...with such a different approach and different style of training, and not having my sole focus be on gymnastics. And to inspire people. I sometimes still don't fully get it, how much you can inspire people over social media. I've been trying to share a lot, and be super transparent with this journey. Like I said, it's like a bonus round, and I want to see what happens. I usually don't share that much. But I feel like this is such an important thing and message to share that you can be a little bit older and go back to something you love. You can do it a little bit differently. You can do something, especially for moms, you can do something for yourself and it can make you really happy...And I've gotten a lot of messages about it and people, not just gymnastics people (but I've gotten a lot of those too), or moms that have started running again, or someone who went back to a sport that they've done, or people who have started to work out again or working out for the first time. That's so amazing.
Those messages mean so much to me, that I've had a positive impact on somebody else's life.
I feel that it's needed, and it's something that just brings me joy and I just want to show that you can enjoy and do something good and be successful in a positive environment. Like I said, I just think that message is so important, just to know that there's a way.
DM: You can take pleasure in moving your body. It’s not something I really grasped until I started dancing after gymnastics. Just the pleasure of moving my body, it's not something you're taught to have when you do gymnastics. You're taught to control your body, but you're not taught to enjoy what it can do.
CM: Right? And that's another appreciation that I have now. I'm just like, in awe most days of what I can still do or in awe of myself that I've been able to learn and try new skills. This is amazing. Our bodies are so cool.
Photo courtesy of Chellsie Memmel