Opinion: At 31, Chellsie Memmel having fun doing gymnastics, and no telling where that might lead

When Chellsie Memmel started trying some of her old gymnastics skills, her father – and former coach – pointed out that the 2021 world championships were for individual events. She wouldn’t need to train all four events, he said, picking and choosing the ones she wanted to do.

At the time, Memmel laughed. She’s the 2005 world champion, and part of the U.S. team that won the silver medal at the Beijing Olympics. She’s also now 31, with two small children, and hasn’t done elite-level gymnastics in eight years.

“I didn’t think about it at all,” she told USA TODAY Sports. “It was just, `Oh hey, this is fun.’”

Well …

Memmel is making no promises or commitments. But her skills have come back with such ease that she’s curious to see what more she can do – and where it could take her.

“I’m going to keep playing and start doing more and see what happens,” she said. “I’ve been feeling good and having just a lot of fun.”

USA gymnast Chellsie Memmel on the uneven bars at the 2012 Beijing Olympics. (Photo: Matt Detrich, USAT)

Memmel attempted a comeback before the London Olympics but wasn’t granted a petition into the national championships after falling on balance beam in a qualifier. Memmel and her father, Andy, protested, saying they’d been led to believe she only needed to show readiness on one event and would have competed all four otherwise.

But USA Gymnastics refused to reconsider, and Memmel retired in November 2012.

She coaches at the Milwaukee-area gym owned by her parents, and is an international-level judge. She and husband Kory have two children, son Dashel, 5, and daughter, Audrielle, 2.

In late 2018, Memmel began posting a weekly “Chellsie Challenge,” conditioning exercises that she herself was doing at the gym to get in better shape. They were a huge hit, as much for the motivation they gave people to get moving as for some of the jaw-dropping things she tried, like pistol squats on a high bar.

Friday fun day!!! Taking my pistol squats to the next level 🙃🤷‍♀️ conquered them on beam with weights so naturally high bar was the next step! Thanks to my sister for filming and the kind word she used to describe me was insane 😆😂#squats#pistolsquatpic.twitter.com/5jlsBjznjW

She also began posting videos of her doing “adult gymnastics.”

“It was just showing you don’t have to stop doing something you love if you aren’t going to be super competitive or if you just want to do it for the pure joy of doing it. That’s how I started again,” Memmel said. “If I can inspire — especially moms. We do tend to compromise a lot. I know I have been happier, and I feel like I’m a better mom when I do stuff for me.”

The physical demands of gymnastics are relentless. While there are a few outliers — Oksana Chusovitina is still competing in her 40s — most elite athletes are done by their early to mid-20s. So as Memmel started playing around with her old skills, she was surprised not only at how quickly they came back but also how good her body felt.  

She started doing more, and the more fans saw, the more they wanted. People began giving her suggestions, and urging her to try skills on the balance beam that she was doing on the floor.

“With social media, people are seeing what you’re doing and they’re like, `Try it on the beam! Try it on the beam!’ You read it enough, it’s like, `I guess I might as well try it,’” she said.

By last summer, what once was a family joke had gained legitimacy. What she was showing on floor and balance beam would give her a shot at a world team.

On Monday, Memmel posted a video of herself doing her beam dismount for the first time in eight years – it was onto a mat over a pit, but she still landed it almost perfectly – and a message saying, “the seed has been planted.”

“Maybe start taking it to doing some of the flips and stuff three days a week and doing it a little bit more structured, like with the numbers,” said Memmel, who said she’s only been doing gymnastics for an hour or two, twice a week. “Doing the stuff that I would like to possibly put in a routine, doing that more and seeing how that feels.”

Though Memmel stressed repeatedly she’s not making a commitment to anything, she did say it would be fun to have another skill named after her – which would require her to do it at a world championships or the Olympics. She’s been playing with a piked Arabian – a backward entry into a half twist that continues into a somersault in a piked position – for beam, but has only done it on a floor-level beam so far.

First, though, she needs to see how her body responds to taking things up a notch. But she’s game to try, and so is her dad.

“He’s just always like, `Why not?’ I think he thinks it would be fun,” Chellsie Memmel said. “The other day after we were talking about it, he’s like, `I think these would be some good passes for you to try.’ I was like, `Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s back it up there!’ Because I haven’t really tumbled much.”

Regardless of what happens in the coming months, Memmel said she's been blown away by all the encouragement and support. 

“I’m happy I’ve been able to inspire people to continue doing gymnastics,” she said. “Or just feel like, `OK, I don’t have to stop, because I love doing it.’”

And that is no joke. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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