Feature | Artistic Gymnastics

Gymnast Chellsie Memmel: "Why should we put a label on when you have to stop?"

In the midst of an inspiring second act, the U.S. Olympic silver medallist talks comeback, finding new perspective as a judge and Simone Biles

By Scott Bregman ·

2008 Olympic gymnastics silver medallist Chellsie Memmel just wanted to get back in shape after giving birth. Little did she know where it would lead.

So, she turned to the familiar: gymnastics. She was already spending her days as a coach inside M&M Gymnastics in New Berlin, Wisconsin, where years earlier she’d trained for her Olympic dream.

“Why would I try to make time to go somewhere else?” Memmel recalled to Olympic Channel. “I just was looking for something to get back in shape. The only thing and only a way to work out I know is through gymnastics conditioning.”

As she got more and more fit, she figured she should see what flipping again would feel like. Memmel also decided to share that journey online, with social media strength challenges and eventually a blog about her adult gymnastics journey.

The flipping, it turned out, felt just as it had, maybe even better than before. Fans tirelessly bugged Memmel for weeks to declare a comeback. Finally, over the summer, she made it official.

And whether or not her return to training takes her back to the Olympic Games, Memmel has a simple inspiring message: why should you have to step away from something you love so much just because of your age?

Below is the transcript of Memmel’s interview with Olympic Channel on how she got back to the gym, her new role as a judge and a look back at her stellar career. The interview has been edited lightly for clarity and brevity.

Chellsie Memmel: My new perspective on gymnastics

2008 Olympic silver medallist Chellsie Memmel who retired in 2012 is on the...

Olympic Channel: How did you first start getting back into training?

Chellsie Memmel: Oh, basically, it was after I had my daughter in 2017. I took time off and I just was looking for something to get back in shape. The only thing and only a way to work out I know is through gymnastics conditioning. I know a lot of gymnasts have transitioned into the CrossFit or things like that, but with working and having my kids and I'm like already in a gym… Why would I try to make time to go somewhere else? So that's kind of how it started with just starting to do like just stretching and then starting to condition again and then starting to do a little bit more with each of the teams that I was coaching.

Then, it kind of turned into this ‘Chellsie Challenge’ thing. It was the first rope challenge I did. I'm like, no. Like, there's no way. But, then, I did. I tried it like at least four weeks later, and I made it, but it was rough. The only reason I made it is because there was a camera and it was pressure, it was like a competition setting because there was a girl on the rope next to me, so I have do this. So that kind of like sparked that little bit of competition in me because I am super competitive when it comes to things like that. It just kind of took off from there, we can started doing challenges each week.

I started conditioning more because of them, because I wanted to continue to get better and just found like a whole new love of conditioning. I like doing it. I like how it makes me feel. Once I started getting in better shape, it was like maybe I should try flipping and it just kind of snowballed. It was just like, I feel great. I just started having so much fun and kept doing it.

OC: Do you think you are even stronger than you were when you went to the Olympics more than a decade ago?

CM: I feel stronger. I know I am stronger. It's a little bit different type of strong because I'm not doing gymnastics every day. It's just a different kind of shape. But my upper body is definitely stronger than it's ever been, and it's allowing me to do some of this hard gymnastics. Some of the stuff feels easier. I feel like I'm higher, I feel like it's just better which is crazy. But it's like, why didn't I love conditioning this much when I was an elite?

But this is the longest I've ever been in shape. [Growing up,] I never had the best relationship with food and not always knowing how to work out and do what is best for my body. It was just... It wasn't a good formula and I'm relaxed much more about food. I learned so much more about my body and conditioning and what it needs and what I need to feel good. It’s amazing to me.

It kind of sucks that I didn't have this knowledge or appreciation of it when I was when I was training because I am stronger now.

Chellsie Memmel feels 'stronger' as she announces comeback to gymnastics

The 2005 World all-around champion returns to elite gymnastics at 32, 8 yea...

Chellsie Memmel: My message

OC: What kind of message does that send about the sport of gymnastics?

CM: It just says it sends a message that you don't have to stop or it's OK to take a break and come back. Why shouldn't I be able to just do this and come in and have fun and stay in shape?

Why should we put a label on when you have to stop? I've had a few people like reach out to me and say, ‘I'm turning 18. Some of the people just kind of looked me like, why is she still doing gymnastics if she's not going to do it in college?’ Why do you even have that attitude? If it's something that makes you happy and you're doing it because you love it and it's a form of exercise. Why is that wrong?

OC: Looking back at your career. You made your mark first in 2003 when you helped Team USA win World gold for the first time. What was that like?

CM: There's just so much of an appreciation for it. One of the things that always sticks out when people ask me about Worlds is, I'm pretty sure someone said, ‘Someone tell her she's at World Championships,’ because it was one of my first big international assignments. I had been on assignments but, I was young and 15 on the my World Championship team. And [originally, I was] not even a part [of the team], not even an alternate to begin with.

Everything that led up to worlds happened so fast, I didn't have time to stop and think and get nervous because I literally flew from the Pan American Games to the Ranch to the prep camp, and then we flew out Anaheim. It was just like a snowball effect. There wasn't like time for me to be like, oh, my Gosh, like this is my first Worlds. It was just everything happened, and I was there and I was competing. It was insane. The worst part is just seeing your teammates get injured and get sick. I didn't really have time to think about myself. I just wanted to do the best that I could for the team and for the girls that couldn't.

OC: Given the disappointment you experienced in 2004 where an ankle injury impacted your chance to make the Olympics then and what the world is going through now with the postponed Tokyo Games, what was it like to refocus after missing out on Athens?

CM: It was hard. I vividly remember the day that I was told it was broken because I was at the ranch when the injury happened. The first initial X-ray didn't show anything much. Then, when I got home, I had another one, and my mom called me [and told me] it's broken. At first, because it didn't fully process, I was like, ‘Oh, well obviously, you know, I couldn't make that international assignment I was going for [at camp]’, and then, it was like, ‘I might not be able to make this team, I might not even have a shot at even just trying out.

But, then, I did reset. It's like, OK, was stay as in shape as you can, swing bars, like you can - whatever you can do with this cast on. And then, I'll just get back in time to see what you can do because I didn't even compete at Olympic trials. I flew out to trials. Martha [Karolyi] came and watched the training. I flew down for the final selection camp. I wasn't as full strength as I'd like to be… I was so close. It was so close and, obviously, bars was fine, the things like that. But, obviously, it didn't work out being on the team. It was really tough for me to be like, OK, what am I going to do? Because at 16, it was like that was your dream and your goal. It's like, do I stick around for four more years to try again? Do I just be done? Do I go back a level? What do I do? And that was a really hard... that's just a really hard place to be, and mentally, I feel like I've gone through that like three times in my career: after 2004, after 2008 and after 2012.

That's one thing that you really don't get warned about it, just like this gaping hole that you feel in just the sense of like, what do I do? But then ultimately, it's like, well, what is my goal? Do I still love doing gymnastics? Yes. Do I still want a shot at making an Olympic team? Yes. Alright then, do what you can to make that happen.

This is such an unprecedented time for everyone. And, obviously, not just gymnasts, but athletes in every sport. It's a really trying time, not just physically but mentally because a year.... It is a long time in any sport. So many things can happen. Your body can change. You could have an injury. It could work in someone's favor. It could work not in someone's favor. The hardest part will be trying to stay mentally strong and focused to be able to do what you need to do to try to get on a team.

OC: What was it like when you finally did make the Olympic team?

CM: That moment was... That was amazing. It is really hard to describe and just put into words. It was just all the years and years of hard work, and after missing out in 2004, then finally hearing your name called. It's overwhelming excitement and enthusiasm and all of just all of those happy emotions, and then it's just like, ‘Oh, my gosh… Now, I have to go compete.’

It was like a little bit of terror because I wanted to make the team and you dream about competing at the Olympics, but you can't get there until you make the team. So it was just like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Now we have to go compete.’ It was just kind of terrifying in that moment because so much is focused on making the team. But it was really cool to have finally hear your name called to this dream and this goal that I set for myself officially.

OC: You’ve stayed close to the sport, even before you started training. What’s it been like as a judge?

CM: I didn't even really think about being a judge, or anything like that. I didn't really have much interest in it. That was Kathy Kelly, just like bugging me, bugging me and bugging me. They put together a course in 2011, and I took the course and I did well. But I didn't judge [then]. I had to retake it right away in 2013 when the code changed. And then it was like, ‘OK, judge at Classic!’ and I'm like, wait what?

It's a totally different side, knowing the rules even more. And also getting to know the judges, that was that was the cool thing as well, because it's just like you don't really have much interaction at all with them while you're competing. To see it kind of from a different perspective and having like a different mindset, it was cool. And I kept saying, do I like this? Am I going to keep doing this? And I'm like, well, it's how many years later? I'm still judging. And I do. I like it.

It's a different kind of pressure and feeling and, for me, being a judge, I just want to do the best that I can for each of these athletes because I know how hard it is and I know how hard they work. It's so hard to see someone go up and just miss something or do this and do that. I’m trying to help kind of change the mentality around judges because we don't want you to fall. We don't want you to do poorly. We want to see you go out there and just rock a routine and give you that score that you deserve.
So, being on the other side of it gives me a little bit more of appreciation for that.

OC: As a judge, can you help provide some insight into just how incredible Simone Biles has been to this sport?

CM: I don't think I know enough words because she's just like she's ridiculous. For me, sometimes it is hard to judge because it's just an appreciation of the incredible difficulty that she is doing. I mean, especially on floor and getting the double-double off beam. It’s insane.
It's really hard to describe, and she always seems just so calm and cool and collected when she's out there on the floor, but also able to enjoy it, which is awesome to see. But to be able to put that incredible difficulty into a routine – and it's not like she's just throwing like in practice, or going to the pit and throwing a triple double – she is doing it in a routine, she's competing it with other things, that is insane. She's just on a whole other level.

OC: With the Olympics being pushed back a year, suddenly women who were born in 2005 find themselves eligible to compete in Tokyo. What challenges do you see for the women who are now eligible but were previously targeting 2024?

CM: I do think that's difficult. Because you were pacing yourself, and maybe not pushing these skills or pushing that or pushing the difficulty as much as you would need to because there is no reason to because you're not going to be eligible for four years. I was a little bit shocked at the decision, honestly. I'm still totally unsure how I feel about it.

But if they have a chance, it's not their fault, and if they want to take that opportunity, there's no reason that they shouldn't. It's hard to completely shift that focus, to be like OK, now, these routines were great for juniors, right on the path that we were going. But now they might not be enough if you want the chance [at the Olympics]. You're gonna push. But then you don't want to push too hard or have an injury or a setback or something like that. It will be hard to find a balance. They're just going to have to work together with their coaches and be as smart as they can to try to figure out what to push or what is going to be the most realistic to give them a shot if that's what they want. But to also not push too hard, too fast.