“I was ancient,” Johnson Clarke says now, explaining how she was perceived by those around her.
At the 1976 Olympics, Nadia Comaneci captivated the sport with her perfect 10 and an all-around gold medal at age 14. Once the Romanian star set this standard, the already declining average age of Olympic medal winners kept tumbling, and that trend stuck for decades. Comaneci’s coaches, Bela and Martha Karolyi, brought those philosophies to the United States, and gymnastics became perceived as a sport for teenagers.
The window between ages 14 and 18 was viewed as the “optimal time to even attempt the Olympics,” said Betty Okino, a 1992 U.S. Olympian who trained with the Karolyis. Rarely did the age of U.S. Olympians exceed 20. Since Johnson Clarke competed in the 1984 Olympics, just two other American gymnasts did so at an older age: Annia Hatch and Mohini Bhardwaj, both members of the 2004 team.
But that trend, with regard to both the U.S. Olympic team and medal winners at the Games, has started to reverse. Americans Simone Biles and MyKayla Skinner each made the Tokyo team at 24, just months shy of Johnson Clarke’s Olympic age. And the average age of medal winners in Tokyo was 20.6, the highest since 1968, even without Biles skewing it upward with what was projected to be a haul of five medals. She instead earned two medals after a disorienting mental block kept her from competing in several finals.
Take the women’s floor exercise final as an example: U.S. gymnast Jade Carey, 21, earned the gold. Vanessa Ferrari, a 30-year-old Italian, won her first Olympic medal with the silver. Japan’s Mai Murakami, 24, and the Russian Olympic Committee’s Angelina Melnikova, 21, shared the bronze.
With an open-ended scoring system, the sport has evolved. Harder skills take longer to develop and often require more mature bodies that can generate power. Beginning in 1971, gymnasts had to be 14 by the end of the Olympic year to be eligible for the Games. That minimum age rose to 15 in 1981 and 16 in 1997. More recently, a cultural reckoning in the sport questioned whether young gymnasts were being pushed too much and too early.
There’s more evidenced-based research available now, said David Tilley, whose work in sports medicine and strength training focuses on gymnastics, and coaches have started to listen. Tilley thinks the average age of the U.S. women’s team — 21.25 at the Tokyo Games — could increase further and that the so-called peak age of performance actually might be in the window between 22 and 28 years old.
There are still — and probably always will be — examples on both sides of the spectrum. China’s Guan Chenchen, 16, shined with a gold medal-winning performance on balance beam. Viktoria Listunova, another 16-year-old star, won gold with the Russian Olympic Committee’s team. She wouldn’t have been age eligible for the Games if they hadn’t been postponed.
But then there’s also Oksana Chusovitina, a 46-year-old representing Uzbekistan, who just competed at her eighth Olympics. Chellsie Memmel, a 2008 U.S. Olympian, successfully returned to the elite level this summer as a 32-year-old mother of two. Biles proved she could execute more difficult skills in her 20s than she did at the Rio de Janeiro Games and before. Skinner, an alternate in 2016 and now a vault silver medalist, also improved during that stretch.
“It's amazing what someone setting that example can do for the next generation,” said Shannon Miller, a two-time Olympian in 1992 and 1996. “When you see a gymnast compete at their second or third Olympics, you suddenly realize, ‘Wait a second, I could do that.’”
Skinner has admitted that her return to elite gymnastics after three seasons at the University of Utah might not have been possible if Martha Karolyi still led the national team — “because that intense level, it’s almost sometimes too much,” she said, adding that her body might not have been able to handle the same amount of repetition it once could. Healthier training environments and an improved culture breed longevity.
“We really didn't have balance,” said Dominique Dawes, a three-time Olympian.
As the age of top American gymnasts continues to rise, athletes could be faced with a new choice: Will they still compete in college while maintaining their elite-level training? Skinner showed how that can be done, which “opens the door for more programs to see that as a possibility and more athletes to see that as a possibility,” said Samantha Peszek, a 2008 Olympian and former UCLA gymnast.
College athletes representing other countries, such as Canada’s Shallon Olsen (Alabama) and Jamaica’s Danusia Francis (UCLA), have done the same, but making the dominant U.S. team poses a difficult challenge. Skinner left school and returned to her club gym in Arizona as she pursued a spot on the Tokyo team, which in the United States requires frequent training camps. But the way she integrated difficult skills into her college routines reminded others that Olympic dreams for Americans didn’t necessarily need to disappear upon entering college.
“I’m hopeful that trend will continue, and I wouldn’t put it past some of these young women to continue to go that route,” said Jenny Rowland, the head coach at Florida, a perennial power that recruits many of these top athletes. One of her gymnasts, Trinity Thomas, competed at U.S. elite nationals and the world championships team selection camp in 2019 just after her NCAA season ended.
If this trend persists, and U.S. elite gymnasts keep training well beyond their high school years, the framework for development could need to be recalibrated, too.
“Now what we have to do is what we did when we all went, ‘Oh!’ when we saw Nadia,” Johnson Clarke said. “Instead we need to say, ‘Let’s imagine they’re going to do gymnastics into their 20s and work backwards from there.’”