Gymnastics-Culture change seeks to produce happier U.S. women athletes

Sunisa Lee runs through her beam routine during the second day of a two-day media event with the USA Gymnastics team ahead of the 2024 Olympics in Katy, Texas, U.S. February 5, 2024. REUTERS/Kaylee Greenlee Beal/File Photo

KATY, Texas (Reuters) - U.S. women's gymnastics, long associated with intense pressure placed on the shoulders of young girls, has entered a new era that prioritizes happiness and career longevity, former Olympians now in leadership roles said.

Not long ago the typical career of an elite gymnast was short and existed in a culture that controlled every aspect of the athlete's schedule, conditioning and diet.

Following a high-profile sexual abuse scandal that broke in 2016, however, physical and mental health issues have been dealt with more sensitively and USA Gymnastics is putting the athletes first, the former gymnasts said.

"Times have changed a lot," Alicia Sacramone Quinn, a two-time Olympian who is now a national coordinator for USA Gymnastics, said during a training camp near Houston this month.

"When we were growing up it was acceptable, or they thought it was acceptable, to be that demanding," she said.

"We are actively trying to break that trend. Instead of coming from a place of power and fear, we want to lift them up and make them feel that they can accomplish anything they dream of if they work hard enough.

"We're here as more of a positive influence for them rather than somebody that they are intimidated by."

Disgraced former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing young female gymnasts entrusted to his care and in 2021 his victims reached a $380 million settlement with USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.

A more cheerful mood around team training was evident, however, in Texas, where four-times Olympic gold medallist Simone Biles and her team mates smiled and laughed between executing their jaw-dropping feats on vault, floor, balance beam and bars.

Girls as young as 3 years old attending the venue for private lessons looked on in awe.

Gymnasts vying for a place in the five-member U.S. team for the Paris Olympics acknowledged the pressure they were under but were quick to point to the camaraderie within the group.

"We want these athletes to enjoy what they are doing," said Sacramone Quinn, captain of the 2008 Olympic team.

"For me, I felt like it was a job and I was on a business trip. I think more people are coming around to the idea that we're shaping these athletes as young women," she said.


Carly Patterson, the 2004 Olympic all-around champion, said she remains connected to the team as an adviser because she wants to provide the kind of support she did not receive.

"I'm here because I didn't have someone in this position, in my shoes, at that time in my career," she said.

Even the location of the camp at a gym in suburban Katy, instead of at the now shuttered Bela Karolyi Ranch located down a dirt road in a remote part of Huntsville, suggests a newfound openness about the program.

The approach is giving athletes a shot at competing in multiple Olympics, said Chellsie Memmel, 2008 Olympic silver medallist who splits national coordinator duties with Quinn.

"I think we're figuring out how to train smarter and be more mindful when we are in the gym," she said.

"We're seeing examples of people who want to have a longer career, and so why not? With Simone and Suni (Lee), why not try to push the boundaries if you can?"

Biles, who turns 27 next month, will be competing in her third Olympics in Paris and could be joined by 28-year-old Gabby Douglas, a three-times Olympic champion embarking on a comeback.

"At one point we thought, okay 16, 17, that is my one shot," Memmel said. "It's nice to see that no, it might not have to be."

(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Katy, Texas, editing by Ed Osmond)

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