Inside Interview: Queen of the Comeback
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By Susan Williams
Chellsie Memmel is the queen of the comeback. She’s had to be. From her first improbable appearance at the 2003 World Championships as a 14-year-old—where she went from not even being a named alternate to a double gold medalist in a matter of weeks—to her surprise second-place finish at last year’s CoverGirl Classic, Memmel has always had a knack for overcoming injury to exceed expectations.
In 2005, she became only the third American women to even win the World All-Around crown. Memmel, in many ways, led the post-Atlanta American gymnastics resurgence. A part of two Olympic teams (alternate in 2004, silver medalist in ’08), Memmel has been a pivotal player for USA Gymnastics for a decade now. A rare feat in a sport that tends to measure stars in months. Memmel has accomplished all this, despite five surgeries, in addition to a list of other injuries that might make an NFL linebacker faint if read in succession.
But this time around, there will be no more Memmel magic. No last minute, Olympic-sized shocker. Memmel has lost her comeback mojo or, more accurately, had it denied.
A shaky beam performance at last week’s Secret U.S. Classic qualifier—she uncharacteristically fell twice and scored a meager 11.95—resulted in her petition to Visa Championships being denied by the USA Gymnastics Selection Committee led by National Team Coordinator Martha Karolyi.
In an instant, Memmel’s dreams of a third Games were dashed, much to the outrage of her many fans, who flooded USA Gymnastics’ email inboxes, Twitter feed and Facebook page with complaints.
On Thursday, INSIDE chatted with the surprisingly upbeat and completely composed 23-year-old World Champ to find out what she thinks of last weekend’s decision and what’s next for Chellsie Memmel …
INSIDE GYMNASTICS: How did you learn that your petition to Visa Championships was denied?
CHELLSIE MEMMEL: [USA Gymnastics Women’s Program VP] Kathy Kelly, Martha, [International Elite Committee Chair] Steve Rybacki and [Athlete Representative] Terin [Humphrey] were all there. They pulled me aside. It wasn’t like it was out on the competition floor. They pulled me to the back and let me know.
INSIDE: Were you surprised?
MEMMEL: I was. I really was. I mean, I know that I didn’t have a good beam routine, but I was still surprised.
INSIDE: You were second at the CoverGirl Classic last year. Can you walk us through what’s happened between that meet and last weekend’s 2012 Secret U.S. Classic?
MEMMEL: I re-injured my shoulder at [the 2011] Championships and didn’t know how bad it was. I started having problems at the selection camp for Pan Ams and Worlds. Then, I had the surgery in September, right away. I started rehabbing it. I was in the gym a lot and I could just feel that something wasn’t quite right. I know how coming back from an injury feels, and I didn’t feel like my shoulder was where it needed to be.
So, they went in again on February 13 to do a "cleanout" surgery. They put a couple extra anchors in my labrum to make it stronger, and once I started rehabbing from that surgery I could feel a difference right away. It was what needed to happen for my shoulder to be gymnastics-ready. They put me on the fast-track rehab program.
Things started finally moving quicker after that. I was starting to put things together on all the events. You know, I wish I would have had a little bit more time, but you have to deal with what you’re given. I felt like I had gotten back into pretty good shape by Classic. The floor routine I did in the training day, that’s how I train my floor routine. That was my hard floor routine in training.
I was happy with where I was. I was doing five beam routines a day and, you know, generally hitting them. It was just a fluke. It’s been a while since I haven’t hit a beam routine. But, you know, those things happen. It was unfortunate.
INSIDE: Was it ever spelled out to you, directly, what you needed to do, or a scoring threshold you needed to achieve, for your petition to be granted?
MEMMEL: I knew there was going to be, obviously, some criteria that I had to hit, but it wasn’t like anybody came up to me and said, ‘You have to have this or we will not …’ But, also, that’s not their job.
It isn’t their job to come up to you and tell you, ‘This is what you have to get.’
INSIDE: So, when you fell off beam you didn’t immediately think, ‘Uh oh, I’m out’?
MEMMEL: No. I did not think right after my routine, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I was hoping they’d give me a chance to at least go to Nationals.
INSIDE: You said you were surprised at the decision, were you upset?
MEMMEL: Of course I was disappointed at the decision. Of course I was. I didn’t have my best showing and I was hoping to get another chance to show at Nationals.
Even if they didn’t take me to Trials, it would have been nice to have the opportunity to compete at Nationals and show that I can hit my routines. Because that is the reason we only did the one event. I wanted to be able to petition to do the All-Around at Championships.
INSIDE: You’re almost a week away from that decision now. How do you feel about it today? Is it still raw?
MEMMEL: Umm, you know, it’s still disappointing. It’s still hard to believe that I don’t have the chance anymore. I knew how hard it was going to be to make the team. I knew that my chances weren’t that great, but I still wanted to have the chance. [Laughs] You know what I mean?
INSIDE: You are no stranger to injury, and this wasn’t your first, or even second, shoulder surgery, correct? How many other surgeries have you had?
MEMMEL: I’ve had three now on my shoulder, and two others on my ankle.
INSIDE: Given what you’ve endured, injury-wise, not only this past year, but, really, over the past decade, did it ever occur to you to just give up on the dream of a third Games?
MEMMEL: You know, it crossed my mind, but I knew this was going to be my last shot at trying to make an Olympic team and I wanted to go for it. I didn’t want to think about the injuries. [Laughing] Really, if anyone is worried about an injury, they are not going to do a sport. I mean, you can’t just keep thinking about, ‘What if?’
I wanted to give it a shot. I knew this would be my last chance.
INSIDE: Have you come to terms yet with the idea that, that ‘last chance’ is now past?
MEMMEL: [Pauses, then laughs] I’m getting there.
It’s hard. Gymnastics has been a part of my life for 20-plus years and it’s always been my job. It’s been something that I’ve loved for so long and it’s hard to just abruptly say goodbye to it. Especially when it ultimately wasn’t my decision. That makes it difficult.
My family has been so incredibly supportive. They have been doing everything they can to help me. My boyfriend has been very supportive and the fans have been just tremendous.
It’s been amazing how much support and just, nice comments, people are giving to me.
INSIDE: You sound very calm and collected, but the Internet gymnastics community has been outraged on your behalf. When did you become aware of this effort, and were you shocked by the intensity of it?
MEMMEL: Yeah, I was so surprised to see that kind of reaction from the fans. You know, I guess I didn’t expect that everyone would be so supportive of me; to want me to have the chance to at least compete at Nationals.
We had no idea [at first]. My sister was like, ‘There’s an online petition going on’ [laughs]. I was just like, ‘That’s crazy!’
INSIDE: You have spoken with USA Gymnastics this past week, since all the online fervor began. At any point did you get the feeling that they considered reversing their decision?
MEMMEL: I don’t think so. I think they were pretty set on their decision. And, you know, I get it from a business standpoint. You can’t overturn every decision. You can’t make an exception. They made that decision and if they were to completely overturn it for me, they might have to do it for other people … So, I understand that.
[Laughing] But I still think it’s very cool how many people have come to my defense.
INSIDE: Do you think past accomplishments as a member of Team USA should have been taken into consideration? Should they have given a past World Champion and two-time Olympian the benefit of the doubt?
MEMMEL: [Long pause] Umm, that’s a tough one. I don’t know how to answer it, because it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter, and that’s all I can say.
INSIDE: Up until this point, had you always felt fairly treated by USA Gymnastics, throughout your long career?
MEMMEL: Things have always been pretty positive. I’ve had a good relationship with USA Gymnastics.
INSIDE: You’ve had some stunningly spectacular highs, and devastatingly depressing lows throughout your career. Do you think you have a unique perspective on the sport because of that?
MEMMEL: [Laughing] I have just about been through it all.
… I still look back on 2006 and wonder how I did that. [INSIDE NOTE: Memmel, competing with a torn labrum in her shoulder, helped the U.S. team win a silver medal.] I learned at that competition how strong I was. It really was mind over matter. I didn’t completely understand until that competition that your mind is a very, very powerful tool.
I had the option of not competing at all, beforehand, because I had hurt my ankle four days before podium, which nobody really knew either [laughs]. I was in a boot for three or four weeks when I got home. There's lots of pictures of Nastia [Liukin] and I sharing an ice bucket.
… So, yeah, I have been through a lot. And I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned what I’m capable of doing.
And I still get to say that I’m a World Champion and an Olympian. That’s a really cool thing.
INSIDE: You are the queen of the comeback, in part because you’ve had to comeback so many times. Do you feel like you’ve scarified your body for the sport?
MEMMEL: I don’t know. I mean, well, I can still walk [laughs].
I guess I don’t look at it that way. I just look at it as something that comes with the sport. That comes with any sport. People can get hurt walking down the street, or up the stairs. I mean, it’s a part of life.
It was my choice to comeback from every one of the injuries I’ve had. It wasn’t somebody else’s. No one was pushing me to do it. I wanted to do it, because I loved gymnastics, and I loved competing.
And, like I said, my body is still in one piece.
INSIDE: You say it’s always been your decision to comeback. You’re a World medalist, multiple times over. The World All-Around champ. And an Olympic medalist as well. Why did you want to keep coming back? What was left for you to achieve?
MEMMEL: It is a lot. I’ve done a lot.
But what made me want to do it is not having such a good experience at the last Olympics. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was only able to do bars. I wanted to help the team more.
And we got the silver medal, and we all were hoping we would get gold.
INSIDE: As part of this 2012 Olympic selection journey, up until last weekend at least, you are very familiar with the athletes who will eventually make up this team. What are you expecting from the U.S. women in London? And do you think you’ll be able to watch?
MEMMEL: Oh, absolutely! Of course I’ll be rooting for the girls. I have no problem with the girls. They are all awesome and all have been working so hard. I hope they do well.
I think our team is looking really good, but it always comes down to that one day. One day of competition. That’s when they have to put it together. It doesn’t matter how great they look now. It’s that one day. And I hope they can put it together and get a gold for us. It’s been a while [laughs].
INSIDE: Has anyone reached out to you this week with any opportunities? Perhaps a chance to go to London in some other capacity?
MEMMEL: Mostly people have just been wanting to talk to me this week. To find out how I’m doing. And I think a lot of people have been nice; to give me some time to just sort of sort everything out.
I think things will come. I hope they will. But, no, nothing like that yet.
INSIDE: Is there any part of you that is relieved you don’t have to keep pushing your body?
MEMMEL: You know, there is. When I was training I was not thinking about, ‘Oh my gosh, what if I get injured again?’ But now that I have to be done, I know my body can have a break, and there are a lot less chances of getting injured.
INSIDE: Physically, how do you feel now?
MEMMEL: Actually, I feel good.
INSIDE: Have you been back in the gym since this past weekend’s decision?
MEMMEL: Well, I took Monday off, since it was a holiday, minus a bike ride [laughs]. But, yeah, I’ve gone in.
… It’s hard to [not go]. I would like to stay in shape; I don’t want to get completely out of shape—[laughs] again. I know how hard it is to get back into shape and if I’m able to be on that post-Olympic tour, I’d like to stay in good shape for that.
INSIDE: Is being part of the tour a possibility?
MEMMEL: We are hoping so.
INSIDE: Is there an element of ‘just in case’ in continuing to train? You’re an athlete for whom being ready when it seemed unlikely you’d be needed has paid off in the past …
MEMMEL: Yeah, there is. I still think they are going to be sticking to their decision, but there’s no harm in me staying loose in the gym.
INSIDE: What’s next for you?
MEMMEL: Well, I took the judge’s course back in November, so that is always an avenue that I can go down. I’d have to get some meets under my belt.
College. I would like to at least take some classes. Find a college; maybe do something online. I like learning and I put off going to college for gymnastics, so that’s something I’d like to do, as well.
INSIDE: You have lived your life in quadrennial increments for so long, now. Any idea where you will be four years from now?
MEMMEL: I have no idea. Honestly, right now, it’s so soon.
… I want to say, I’m not retired yet. I’m not closing the door completely. I’m not saying I’m going to try and compete next year—I’m just not going to retire right now.
INSIDE: Are you at least going to take a vacation? Relax and enjoy yourself a bit?
MEMMEL: Well, yes, actually. I’m going to go to Hawaii. My boyfriend’s brother is getting married in Hawaii. He’d already booked his ticket, because I wasn’t sure how everything was going to pan out … [Laughs] But, now I am going to go.
INSIDE: Besides the way it ended, any regrets at all?
MEMMEL: No, absolutely not, not even [the ending].
I don’t have any regrets about anything that’s happened to me in the sport. I’m not going to live like that—wishing something had happened differently. I’m just not going to do that. I was brought up differently.
Things happen. Things happen for a reason. And I’m really happy with all that I’ve been able to accomplish in gymnastics.
INSIDE: Is there anything else you want to add?
MEMMEL: Mostly, I want to thank all the fans for the tremendous amount of support they’ve given me.
[Wistfully] And, you know, it would have been nice. My very first Championships—the first one I ever competed in—was in St. Louis. It would have been nice [to end there, too].
[Pauses and laughs] You know, it’s life. And life isn’t fair. [Laughing] I’ve known that for a looong time.
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