For Olympic gymnasts, it’s usually one and done

November 9, 2012 E-mail the writer

No athlete dazzled at the London Olympics quite like Gabby Douglas, the pint-sized dynamo who won the individual all-around title after leading the U.S. women’s gymnastics squad to team gold.

Though she’s nearly 17, Douglas has yet to get her driver’s license because at 4-feet-11 and 94 pounds, her mother worries she’ll be mistaken for a child and pulled over.

No doubt, gymnastics’ celebrated “Flying Squirrel” will have her license, and as many cars as she wants, by the 2016 Olympics. But it’s no certainty that she or any other member of the victorious Fierce Five will be on the squad.

That’s because when it comes to Olympic glory, women’s gymnastics is increasingly a “one-and-done” sport.

And though Douglas says she’s determined to compete at Rio 2016 — “Definitely! I’m too young to retire!” she exulted in a recent telephone interview — and U.S captain Aly Raisman, 18, says she’s considering it, they would be the first American female gymnasts to repeat as Olympians in 16 years if they succeed.

“Without sounding condescending to young women, this is a little girl’s sport,” says John Geddert, head coach of the 2012 U.S. women’s Olympic team. “With their body changes and the wear-and-tear everybody goes through, once they become women, it just becomes very, very difficult.”

It’s not simply that the high-risk stunts demand feather-light, pre-pubescent physiques. They also demand single-minded focus. For many female gymnasts, after sacrificing so much of their adolescence — eschewing summer camps, slumber parties and proms for so many years — it’s difficult to keep sacrificing after their Olympic dream comes true.

That’s partly why, Geddert suspects, no American female gymnast has competed in more than one Olympics since Dominique Dawes and Amy Chow at the Sydney Games in 2000. It was Dawes’ third Olympics and the second for Chow.

“Those kids were just phenomenally gifted — not only physically, but their desire level was just off the charts,” Geddert recalls.

‘There’s no judges here’

The rewards of winning Olympic gold are great.

Douglas is expected to earn $8-12 million in endorsements over the next four years, according to ESPN’s sports-business writer Darren Rovell, with Proctor & Gamble among the first Fortune 500s to sign on. She has also been a popular talk-show guest, performed with Alicia Keys at MTV’s Video Music Awards, graces the cover of Essence magazine and reportedly will appear in upcoming episodes of her favorite TV show, “The Vampire Diaries.”

Meantime, Douglas has crisscrossed the country since September with the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, which comes to Verizon Center on Thursday. It’s the 37th stop on the 40-city tour for Douglas and Raisman, the most decorated of the Fierce Five, who are among the cast of roughly 30 that includes their teammates and 2008 all-around Olympic champion Nastia Liukin.

For the gymnasts involved, the up-tempo show, with its wild choreography and costumes, is a reward for the years of hard work and unrelenting pressure that went into their Olympic triumphs.

“I just love being interactive with the crowd and going all crazy,” Douglas gushed. “Going up to the fans and giving them high-fives makes my day. My favorite part is the dance number, the Party Walk. We all shuffle together and do our hair and makeup crazy. It’s really fun.”

That’s Raisman’s favorite part, too.

“You see a different side of us; you see our personalities,” Raisman says. “The show is more relaxed [than competition]. There’s no judges here. It’s more fun. We have a really good time and get to know each other. And we’re learning really cool dances.”

To Geddert, who is also Jordyn Wieber’s longtime personal coach at Geddert’s Twistars in Lansing, Mich., it’s understandable that gymnasts want to enjoy their Olympic success. But, he adds, it often comes with a price.

“With the trend to capitalize on your fame, I think that takes them out of the realm of reality, and they lose that edge of what it took to get there in the first place: ‘Now I’m a superstar! I’m doing all these shows and exhibitions and TV appearances and special engagements!’” Geddert says. “They should, by all means, enjoy the fruits of their labors. I encourage them to do so. But I think with all that exposure comes a little bit less motivation. If you’re going to become one the top five kids in the United States, you can’t be lacking in any department. Motivation is certainly one of them you can’t be lacking.”

‘Your body just forgets’

Britain’s Beth Tweddle qualified for her third Olympics this summer and won her first medal (bronze on the uneven bars) at 27. Even more eye-popping was the participation of Oksana Chusovitina, a former Russian who competed for Germany at age 37.

But few countries rival the depth of gymnastics talent in the United States, which some argue could field two medal-contending women’s Olympic teams. The standard for making the cut is so high, in fact, that neither Liukin nor Shawn Johnson, who won gold and silver in the individual all-around respectively at the 2008 Beijing Games, qualified for London-bound U.S. team.

They were hardly at the sunset of their careers when they were deemed the world’s best two gymnasts just four years ago. Liukin was 18; Johnson, 16.

But Johnson dropped her bid to repeat in June, realizing she simply couldn’t regain her skills after suffering a serious knee injury on a ski slope in 2010. And Liukin, now 23, fell from the uneven bars during the U.S. Olympic trials weeks later, her skills too rusty after a three-year hiatus from competition.

“I saw them train, and I know it was so hard for them to come back — harder than they ever thought it would be,” Raisman says of Liukin and Johnson. “When you’re out of the sport awhile, you forget how difficult it is — not only physically exhausting, but mentally.

Adds Geddert: “Both of them were phenomenal athletes and phenomenally successful, but both of them took a lot of time off to go do their different things. And in this sport, it’s just not possible. You would think the rest would do you good, but your body just forgets how to do gymnastics.”

It’s a pity, he believes. Every sport needs heroes to capture the public’s imagination; gymnastics is no different. But to sustain the public’s attention, Geddert notes, those heroes need a bit of staying power.

Despite the challenges in store, Douglas believes she has just that.

“It’s really tough once you set a goal and accomplish a goal. You think, ‘What else can I accomplish?’” Douglas says. “But I know I can go to more championships. Anything is possible if you set your mind to it.”

Medals
Gold Silver Bronze Total
Russian Federation 13 11 9 33
United States of America 9 7 12 28
Norway 11 5 10 26
See complete medals table
Events
Post Most Sports
Subscribe to The Washington Post