Where do female gymnasts go after the Olympics are over?

Ivana Hong of the U.S. performs her routine on the beam during the qualifying round of the Gymnastics World Championships at the O2 Arena in London October 14, 2009.
Ivana Hong performs her routine on the beam during the qualifying round of the Gymnastics World Championships at the O2 Arena in London on Oct. 14, 2009. She’ll be competing this weekend in the NCAA championships.

Photo by Jerry Lampen/Reuters

This weekend in Los Angeles, the NCAA championships in women’s gymnastics will commence. (I know you’ve all set up your brackets—don’t deny it.) If you have followed the sport of gymnastics over the last five years, you’ll probably see a couple of familiar faces. 2008 Olympic silver medalist and 2009 world champion Bridget Sloan is now a headlining freshman at the University of Florida, which is favored to win the team competition. 2008 Olympic alternate and world medalist Ivana Hong has been leading Stanford in scoring and has also been a top-ranked all-around athlete this season.

Why does all this top-shelf talent bother with an event that gets so little attention? For some, it’s the scholarships. For others, it’s about the team camaraderie, something that is largely missing from the elite scene and competition. But for almost all of the female gymnasts who grace a college gym mat, it’s about finishing up a sport that they started when they were toddlers and figuring out what comes next.

“Gymnastics doesn’t last all your life,” Hong said in an interview with the podcast GymCastic. (Disclosure: I occasionally guest host GymCastic podcasts.) They peak by the time they’re 16, and then college is the final stop. Unlike football, baseball and basketball, NCAA women’s gymnastics doesn’t prepare athletes for a professional sports career—there is no such thing as professional gymnastics.  It doesn’t prepare them for international-caliber competitions either. All that leaves is Hollywood stunt work and Cirque du Soleil for the graduated NCAA gymnast who wants to flip and twist for money. So when someone as serious as Hong says “you can’t keep doing gymnastics forever,” the statement carries weight.

Since Olga Korbut burst onto the scene in 1972 and ushered in a new era of daredevil skills, elite gymnasts have been characterized as small and waifish. But the girls don’t stay that way. (“Nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes and puberty” is how the saying goes, right?) By the time they arrive at college meets, they’ve grown taller and look womanly. At the NCAA level, the athletes are tasked with performing the skills they could do at 16 but in a completely different body.

Hollie Vise, the 2003 world champion on the uneven bars and Olympic hopeful in 2004, acknowledged the immensity of this challenge in an interview after she completed her career at Oklahoma in 2010. She was out of shape when she arrived at college a couple of years after the disappointment of not making the Olympic team.

Though Vise clawed her way back to competitive shape and finished her senior year as one of the top collegiate gymnasts, she knew there was no way she could be as good as her elite fans remembered her. “There was no way I was going to be Elite Hollie again. I mean, I had gone through puberty. I grew up,” she said.

But puberty does not spell doom for most gymnasts (or humans, for that matter—life expectancy typically exceeds 16). Most of the girls figure out how to perform with their newer dimensions after a bit of time, which is why the NCAA features a great degree of body diversity. The athletes are average-size human women who just happen to do double back somersaults with ease. (Check out this clip of former Alabama star Ashley Miles, who is 5 feet 7 inches and tall for a gymnast, male or female.* Her double layout, however, is stratospheric.

The reduced training and lesser difficulty are indicative of a different set of priorities that govern the NCAA sport. The emphasis in college gymnastics is on consistency and execution. When you see extraordinarily difficult skills in a college meet, it’s because the gymnast wants to do it, not because she needs it for her score. The Level 10 rules and the scoring ceiling—the Perfect 10 still exists in college gymnastics—reins in the difficulty. The girl who does the double pike somersault can get the same score as the one who does the skill with the full twist. Both of these athletes have routines that start from the maximum score. It’s not what you do but how well you do it. Meets are decided in squeakers, by tenths of a point, by steps on dismounts, not falls from the apparatus. (By contrast, the U.S. women trounced the Russians by nearly five points in London’s team competition. This margin would be unthinkable in a college competition.)

With all of the challenges faced by college gymnasts—changing bodies, less time spent in the gym, the contemplation of a future without the sport—the college gymnastics coach’s job goes beyond putting together a strong beam rotation and winning. Knowing that most of their athletes will need to figure out a future without the sport, many think long term when it comes to educating their gymnasts.  

UCLA’s head coach, Valorie Kondos-Field, who has won six championships with the Bruins, tries to get her student-athletes to reconsider the purpose of their athletic training. “Use gymnastics as another university class in developing life skills,” she tells them. “Develop your sense of focus and discipline and not as something defines you whether you have succeeded or failed.”

And the way a gymnast succeeds at the college level is by learning to work as part of the team. In elite gymnastics, the team format can sometimes feel forced or even contrived. Throughout most of the season, elites compete as individuals. Teams are assembled only for the major meets—world and European championships and the Olympics. The girls work together as teams for only a few weeks out of each year. The rest of the time, it’s each girl out there for herself.

But in the NCAA, the team is sacrosanct. While there is an individual all-around winner at the college level, she isn’t crowned on a dedicated night of competition as is common during the Olympics or world championships. The all-around title is earned during the team qualifications when all of the competitors are focused on getting their team to the Super Six final. In this arrangement, the all-around title is treated as an afterthought.

The emphasis on team translates into a very fun, partylike competitive atmosphere. The gymnasts don’t stand idly on the sidelines as their teammates compete. They yell themselves hoarse. They perform their teammate’s choreography while she dances on the floor, which might be performed to anything, ranging from a Top 40 tune to a classical piece. (In the case of Florida, a “Gator Chop” is choreographed into every floor routine. And every completed exercise is greeted by high-fives and hugs from the coaches. “I get to put on a show every weekend,” Sloan said.

Hong, a gymnast of whom you might’ve been tempted to ask “Why so serious?” during her elite meets, ends her performances at Stanford by high-fiving the first row of the audience after she dismounts and salutes the judges. And then she does the same to her teammates.

“Everything we do is for each other,” Hong noted. “We got each other’s backs.”

After years spent at the club and elite level, where the emphasis is placed on individual achievement, the team format of NCAA competition allows gymnasts to subsume their individual goals to the team ones. Kristen Maloney, an Olympic bronze medalist and two-time national champion, admitted that the UCLA team and coaches helped rekindle her spark for gymnastics. “I think a big part of it was coming into college and falling in love with the sport again, knowing that I have my team around me and I’m doing it for my team,” she said.

The NCAA, however, isn’t filled only with elite gymnasts looking for a graceful exit from the sport or trying to recover from trauma or pain experienced at the international level. Some of the women are Level 10 gymnasts for whom college was always the pinnacle. “When I was younger, I never had dreams of grandeur. I didn’t think I was going to the Olympics,” said Elizabeth Bohnsack, a former Rutgers gymnast. “I knew before I was in high school that it was not an Olympic dream. It was a college dream.”

Currently, the top-ranked all-around college gymnast is UCLA’s Vanessa Zamarripa, who came to college as one of the best Level 10 gymnasts of all time. Former Nebraska star Tricia Woo, who went onto perform with Cirque du Soleil after graduation, also never competed as an elite. Not that she felt thwarted by that. “I was just a Level 10 and I was kicking butt,” she noted.

Zamarripa posited that one of the reasons that Level 10 gymnasts tend to do well against elites in a recent podcast interview. “Club kids who don’t go elite are a little healthier because they aren’t as beaten.” Maloney is a classic example of the injured elite. She arrived at UCLA with a lingering stress fracture in her leg that required multiple surgeries and forced her to sit out two full college seasons before she was able to resume gymnastics.

Still, many of the elite and NCAA stars speak wistfully about their elite days or flirt with the idea of a return or at least admit the desire to learn some new skills that are unnecessary in the NCAA. Zamarripa has considered taking her game to the next level, competing at a few national elite meets in 2010 before tearing her ACL.

Some, like Mohini Bhardwaj, resume elite training after they graduate from college. Bhardwaj made the Olympics in 2004 at the age 25 after missing it in 1996 at the age of 17 and was a major contributor the U.S. team’s silver medal.

Still, you shouldn’t watch this weekend’s competition with the goal of spotting the next Olympic stars. Those kids are still in high school, biding their time until they can swarm the collegiate ranks.

Correction, April 23, 2013: This article originally misspelled Ashley Miles’ first name.