Defying the odds: Olympian Chellsie Memmel returns to gymnastics 9 years after retirement

Photo of Chellsie Memmel
Chellsie Memmel/Courtesy

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After a 2012 Sports Illustrated article announced “Chellsie Memmel is done with gymnastics, this time for good,” it seemed unlikely that Memmel, a former Olympian and world champion, would find herself back in the gym, training competitively once more.

Yet, nearly nine years after announcing her retirement, Memmel, now 32 years old and a mother of two, has made a triumphant return to the sport.

In fact, she’s returned to where it all began: her family’s own gym, M&M Gymnastics. Her parents, Andy and Jeanelle Memmel, founded M&M (short for Memmel and Memmel) in 1992, and Memmel began training with her parents shortly thereafter.

From her family’s small gym, Memmel catapulted herself onto the international stage. Her accomplishments not only demonstrate her skill but her selflessness and tenacity. After becoming a last-minute replacement in the 2003 World Championship team, Memmel led the U.S. team to its first world title. When a broken foot thwarted her Olympic dreams in 2004, she persevered past the disappointing season to win the women’s all-around title at the 2005 World Gymnastics Championships. Memmel was the first American woman to do so in 11 years.

At the 2006 World Championships, Memmel dislocated her shoulder, yet continued to compete in the team finals and delivered her team to a silver medal. The decision prevented Memmel from defending her 2005 individual title and left her with a nagging shoulder injury that plagued the rest of her career. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Memmel broke her foot days before the team event but, once again, competed injured and helped the United States win a silver medal in the team finals.

However, Memmel left the sport in 2012, after her petition to join the national team was controversially denied.

Following retirement, Memmel casually practiced gymnastics to get back into shape after having children. However, formally returning was never among her many priorities as a mom, coach and judge.

That all changed once the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. While gym closures forced most athletes to pause their training, the circumstances instead encouraged Memmel. M&M Gymnastics, once alive with aspiring gymnasts, lay dormant during the early months of the pandemic. When Memmel returned to help her parents clean, she took advantage of the eerie emptiness.

“Nobody was doing gymnastics,” Memmel said. “So I thought I should.”

And so she did. Memmel officially restarted her gymnastics career, not out of lust for competition or to avenge her 2012 snub from the national team. Instead, Memmel’s return to the sport was an exercise in self-care.

“This is 100% something I do for myself,” Memmel said. “[I am] doing it because I enjoy it, not because I have to.”

While Memmel is motivated by her personal love for the sport, her family is never far behind her. “Obviously, being a wife and a mother is really important. Those things usually take precedent over what I’m doing in the gym,” Memmel said.

Memmel documents her journey on her YouTube channel, which has essentially become a family vlog channel infused with gymnastics. Her dad continues to coach her and has quickly become a fan favorite online. Memmel’s children, Audrielle and Dashel, make frequent appearances in her vlogs and training sessions, even “coaching” her as well. While some may find it distracting, Memmel finds the presence of her family comforting.

“It’s helpful, especially on those hard days, to know that your family is there and that they believe in you,” Memmel said.

Furthemore, Memmel strives to challenge long-held stereotypes about age with her inspiring journey. The destructive nature of gymnastics forces most of the sport’s stars to retire before their 21st birthday. World all-around champion, Jordyn Wieber, retired at the age of 19. Her Olympic teammate McKayla Maroney retired at just 20. Even at the collegiate level, many gymnasts end their careers upon graduating.

According to Memmel, the grueling training regimes of elite gymnasts are the cause of early retirement.

“I hope we change how we train,” Memmel said. “And how we look at training the younger kids so that gymnasts have the opportunity or just the chance to do it longer if they chose to.”

As of January 2021, Memmel is yet to participate in a formal competition. For the Olympics, if she makes the team, Memmel would be the oldest U.S. Olympic gymnast to compete in 60 years. Nonetheless, Memmel’s history of grit and determination prove that one thing is for certain: Never count her out of the race.

Aiko Sudijono covers women’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].