Chellsie Memmel raised her fists in the air after putting down her best vault of the weekend, a full twisting Yurchenko. She skipped off the floor and high-fived her coach, who is also her dad, Andy Memmel. In the broadcast booth for NBC, Nastia Liukin shook off a sense of deja vu and had to remind herself what year it was. “The first time we watched her in training, I felt like, Oh wait, I’m next!” Liukin said of her former teammate on NBC’s broadcast. “I got so used to it. I am sitting here in a dress, I am not prepared!”
Memmel, 2008 Olympic silver medalist and the 2005 World All-Around champion is 32 years old and a mother of two. She’s a coach and a high-level gymnastics judge (she’s worked at all six of Simone Biles‘s national championships) and before competing on the vault and beam on Saturday’s GK Classic, she’d been retired, like Liukin, since 2012.
As soon as NBC finished the replay of Memmel’s powerful vault (NBC analyst Tim Daggett said she will soon be able to upgrade to the double twisting Yurchenko, another rotation for an increased level of difficulty), the network cut over to the balance beam, where 15-year-old Mya Witte waited to begin her routine. “It’s an amazing sport, when you can include a 32-year-old and a 15-year-old,” said NBC’s Terry Gannon.
But this isn’t typical for gymnastics, a sport that burns out athletes so young that the 24-year-old Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, gets questions about why she returned for another Olympic cycle. And Memmel didn’t even start her comeback thinking it would be a return to high-level competition. After having kids—her son Dashel is six, and her daughter Audrielle is three—she says she just wanted to get back into shape. So she began documenting her gymnastics fitness exercises on YouTube during the summer of 2019. What started as quick ab and cardio circuits that she called “Chellsie Challenges” eventually evolved into a weekly series she started calling, “Chellsie’s Adult Gymnastics Journey.” Her series has earned her a devoted following and her latest video, where she ran herself through a mock meet and laughed at using hairspray for the first time since she last competed, has 61,000 views.
Memmel kept trying her old skills and kept waiting for things to get too hard or too frustrating or less fun, but they never did. She first started structured training (three times a week in the gym her parents own in New Berlin, Wisc.) in April of 2020 and by the end of July, she was ready to say it out loud.
“Anything else you want to say?” Andy asked her at the end of her Week 15 video.
“Ummm,” she hesitated. “Well, I guess it’s time to admit this is a comeback.”
Memmel’s 13.750 vault score this weekend was better than that of ninth-place-overall finisher Kara Eaker, who was a member of the U.S.’s most recent gold-medal winning World Championship team. On beam, Memmel hit a tricky back handspring, back layout, back layout sequence but then fell off the beam on an Arabian, a difficult skill (backwards entry into a front flip) placed at the end of her routine.
The GK Classic is the qualifying event to the U.S. Nationals, which is the qualifying event to the Olympic trials. Memmel is not an Olympic contender, and in a field of athletes making their own comebacks from various injuries and a year without competition, Memmel’s post-competition giggles and her light-hearted attitude stood out. And in a sport marred by coaching abuse and sexual assault, Memmel’s adult gymnastics journey is a refreshing storyline. She’s achieved major success in this sport already, and the only thing she had to prove by competing was to prove to herself that she could return to the sport she loves.
“I am not going to get sick of saying it and I am not going to stop saying it,” Memmel told NBC. ”I love doing gymnastics. There are hard days but you’re having fun. You’re seeing how far you can take this when people say you should have retired when you were 20 or when you were 24, and you can’t have kids and come back to a sport. That kind of thinking is so backwards but that’s what we think is true and it’s not true. For me, I just wanted to put that message out to anybody that thought they missed their chance at something or wanted to go back to their sport, even just for fun. No one should be stopping you, just don’t hold yourself back.”
Memmel’s next step will be to compete in all four events (adding floor and uneven bars), but she’s already set an important precedent. Elite gymnasts can take a very long break from the sport to heal their injuries, have a family, take time for themselves and still come back years later at a high level.
“I feel like this is a win,” she told NBC after she finished competing. “I did not know what to expect. When I got onto the floor, was I going to fall over and faint with nerves? … I put myself out there and I couldn’t have asked for a better day.”