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Chellsie's Chase: US Olympian's gymnastics comeback turning serious

Back in 2005, American Chellsie Memmel was crowned gymnastics world champion. Now in 2021, the 32-year-old mother of two is training for an Olympic comeback.

Chellsie Memmel wants to emphasize something. This is not about ego nor unfinished business nor fending off some sort of early-onset midlife crisis.

The 32-year-old Memmel's return to competitive gymnastics after spending nearly a decade getting on with the rest of her life is about love. It's about discipline. And an inside family joke that turned into something far more serious.

She doesn't need to do this. She's got a world all-around gold medal tucked away somewhere. An Olympic silver medal, too. When she officially retired in 2012, Memmel went out on her own terms. She got married, had two kids, became an integral part of running the gym her family owns in New Berlin, Wisconsin, and earned a reputation as one of the country's most respected judges.

So no, trying to make the U.S. national team while competing against some athletes born the year Memmel stood atop the podium in Melbourne, Australia in 2005 as the best female gymnast on the planet — isn't some publicity stunt. There are easier ways to do this while juggling motherhood, coaching, judging and returning to the elite level all at once.

“I know people will be thinking I’m doing it just because I want to be in the spotlight,” Memmel said. “That couldn’t be farther from the truth. I don’t know why I would put myself through this. It’s the hardest sport ever. There’s no way I would be dragging myself out of bed to do this instead of doing other things.”

The “other things” had consumed her for years. Yet when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring, Memmel suddenly found herself in an empty gym with time on her hands. So she started fooling around: a skill here and there. Momentum built. Her body, which she says is “stronger now than it's ever been” responded. Muscle memory returned.

Credit: AP
Former gymnastics world champion and Olympic silver medalist Chellsie Memmel works out Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in New Berlin, Wisc.

Her father, Andy, watched with equal parts admiration and bemusement as Memmel shared video of her fooling around with the gymternet, the sport's fervent online community. He was impressed, but when she mentioned getting serious, the only coach she's known didn't exactly jump at the idea.

“I pushed pretty hard to see if it was even possible from a gymnastics standpoint,” Andy Memmel said. “I had no interest in doing this for ‘I just want to do this for adult gymnastics, or this is fun.’ If she’s going to make a run at it, let’s do it properly."

That meant no shortcuts. Getting back to her level as a teenager wouldn't be enough. The sport has marched forward during her break. Memmel knew she had to evolve along with it.

She has. There's a whole new bar routine. Upgrades on both floor exercise and vault, where she's working on a “Cheng” that's impressed USA Gymnastics high-performance team coordinator Tom Forster. She's experimenting on beam, working on a skill that — if she pulls it off in competition — would bear her name in the Code of Points.

"She hasn’t lost a step,” Andy Memmel said.

Credit: AP
Former world champion and Olympic silver medalist Chellsie Memmel works out with her father and coach Andy Memmel Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in New Berlin, Wisc. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

That's not simply fatherly pride talking. Forster admits he wasn't sure Chellsie was serious until she told him she wouldn't be judging at competitions in 2021 because she planned on being judged instead. While Forster's made it a point to give Memmel space, what he's seen on Memmel's Youtube channel is encouraging.

“She looks like the Chellsie Memmel we knew,” Forster said. "It's remarkable. You know, her confidence level I think is different because she’s much more mature and she just has a lot more life behind her to know how to train, how to not take things so seriously and give herself a break. She seems to be training smarter.”

Credit: AP
Former world champion and Olympic silver medalist Chellsie Memmel works out with her father and coach Andy Memmel looking on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in New Berlin, Wisc.

Still, she's not immune to the physical toll the sport takes. While her thrice-repaired shoulder, which basically cost her a legitimate shot at making the 2012 Olympic team, is fine, an ankle injury last fall stalled her progress. It forced an adjustment to her timeline. She had hoped to be on the floor in Indianapolis this weekend at the Winter Cup, the first major domestic gymnastics competition in a year.

Credit: AP
Former world champion and Olympic silver medalist Chellsie Memmel works out with her father and coach Andy Memmel Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in New Berlin, Wisc. Memmel, 32, is attempting a comeback. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Instead, she'll stay home, hoping to attend the next national team camp in March. If that goes well, the American Classic in April figures to be her first meet since May 2012. There are no plans to do this as a specialist. She plans on doing all four events. Yes, really.

Credit: AP
FILE - U.S. gymnasts, from left: Bridget Sloan, Alicia Sacramone, Samantha Peszek, Chellsie Memmel, Nastia Liukin, and Shawn Johnson pose with their silver medals after the women's team final competition at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing, in this Aug 13, 2008, file photo.

And yeah, it'll be a little weird. Memmel isn't kidding that she's got leotards older than some of the young women she could end up training alongside. While it's not uncommon for international gymnasts to compete into their mid-20s and beyond — the seemingly ageless 45-year-old Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan will compete in her eighth Olympics this summer — it's much harder in the United States, where the talent pool is the world's deepest.

Memmel knows that better than most. She's watched Olympic champion Simone Biles redefine the realm of possibility. She's judged athletes doing skills that didn't exist in 2005. So reaching the Olympics would be great. But it's also not the point.

Credit: AP
FILE - Chellsie Memmel is congratulated by her coach and father, Andrew Memmel, after completing her routine on the Floor Exercise in the final of the Women's Individual All-Around at the World Gymnastic Championships in Melbourne, Australia, in this Nov. 25, 2005 file photo.

Memmel bristles when asked if she could be tarnishing her legacy if the reboot fails.

“That irritates me,” she said. “In other sports, nobody bats an eye when you go out and play it for fun, no matter what age you are, especially in men's sports. Why is there that stigma that you have to stop doing gymnastics when you hit a certain age? ... I don’t like people saying you should stop doing it because there’s nothing left for you.”

Credit: AP
Former gymnastics world champion and Olympic silver medalist Chellsie Memmel works out Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in New Berlin, Wisc.

And there very much is something left. This is not a “Tokyo or Bust” situation. This is rediscovering and sharing the joy that led her to gymnastics.

“I’m not doing it for anybody else,” she said. “I’m doing it for me. And even with what I’ve done already, I feel like I’ve accomplished so much. I feel like I’ve already won.”

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