“I am excited to be part of the team of coaches and athletes moving our program forward. Having the chance to give back and help create the best environment possible for success is a great opportunity. I look forward to helping to develop and execute a plan that will enable athletes to feel and perform at their best.” – Chellsie Memmel
Note: The original article, which appeared in the August issue of Inside Gymnastics magazine, has been updated. Look for additional perspective on the new high performance leadership team throughout the week in Tampa. The women begin their competition tomorrow with the Junior women competing at 1:30 pm ET and Seniors at 7pm ET. For more on the schedule Click Here!
By Christy Sandmaier
Alicia Sacramone Quinn, Chellsie Memmel and Dan Baker are ushering in a new era for USA Gymnastics’ Women’s Program. Quinn, a 10-time World Championship medalist including four golds, will serve as strategic lead, and Memmel, the 2005 World All-Around Champion who staged an incredible comeback to the sport at age 32 and competed in the 2021 U.S. Championships, the technical lead. The two were teammates on the 2008 team which captured silver in Beijing. Baker, the Elite Women’s Development Coordinator since 2018, transitions to developmental lead.
It’s the first time the program has named three leaders in its very controversial history.
In late 1999, the role of national team coordinator was introduced to the program following disappointing results in international competition from 1997-1999. Bela Karolyi held the position from 1999-2000, followed by Martha Karolyi (2001-2016), Valeri Liukin (2017-2018), and most recently Tom Forster (as high-performance coordinator).
When Forster resigned in December, an opportunity arose within USA Gymnastics to evolve and reevaluate exactly what the team needed for sustainable success in competition and in March, the new team and its direction was announced.
“We are extremely pleased to have this well-rounded team of leaders to drive our program, from development to the Olympic stage,” Vice President of Women’s Gymnastics Annie Heffernon said in a press release. “They bring decades of experience in coaching, talent development, judging and elite competition. To have Olympians return to our National Team in coaching and strategic capacities will have an even bigger impact on the next generation of women’s elite athletes.”
For an organization that has struggled mightily with transparency and accountability, and continues to feel the fallout of heartbreaking abuse, incredible pressure is on the new leadership team to create, implement and uphold a women’s program for USA Gymnastics based on a total athlete-centric approach to training, competition and subjective processes such as team selection. In addition, a stronger focus on the Code of Points, artistry and international scoring trends are essential to the success of the program.
USA Gymnastics President and CEO Li Li Leung reiterated here in Tampa that her focus is squarely on transparency, integrity, and accountability as she works to continue to usher in a new era. With a shortened “quad” in preparation for the Paris Olympics in 2024, the athletes deserve consistency in leadership in every conceivable way. They need a supportive group of leaders and coaches who are trustworthy, open to change, and who have acknowledged the past and are determined not to let history repeat itself. Quite simply, they shouldn’t settle for anything less.
Quinn, who competed under Martha Karoyli, and Memmel, who competed under Martha Karolyi and Tom Forster, are determined to prioritize the athletes’ overall health – physical, mental and emotional – above everything else. They are also extremely motivated to prioritize transparency and communication, in particular when it comes to the selection process for teams and international assignments. Unlike their own experiences at times, they want the athletes to always know exactly where they stand and what to do to reach their goals. It’s created a new level of optimism and enthusiasm for the program we look forward to seeing play out.
Similarly, Baker, who was asked about being one of the remaining members of past “regimes” says he has already seen a strong effort during camps to give the athletes more of a voice in their own training.
2020 Olympic alternate and 2021 World All-Around bronze medalist Kayla DiCello, who is uncertain about her Elite future beyond these Championships and is headed to the University of Florida next week to compete as a Gator, is optimistic about the changes Quinn and Memmel will bring to the team. “Having Alicia and Chellsie is a good thing for the program. They have been here, they lived this lifestyle with great success, and we are all excited to have them here,” she told us in July.
And Levi Jung-Ruivivar, who is competing in her first senior U.S. Championships, when asked about moving forward among the numerous changes her generation has faced the last four years including national team coordinators and training locations, was refreshingly candid in her response: “It definitely has been a challenge. We’ve been to, like, five different locations. We were at Karolyi Ranch, and then we went to Flip Fest and then we were in Florida and then we were in Indiana. It’s been crazy, but yeah, I feel like it has been somewhat of a challenge adjusting so many times to either a new facility, a new coordinator. I think now, throughout the whole process, they’ve really been trying to move forward and be positive and make good changes to the program. Knowing that, I’ve been happy they’ve been trying to do that. Now I do feel like things are starting to smooth out. I’m super happy that they named the new coordinators and they have more people and more staff, and I’m really excited to be able to move forward and hopefully everything stays a little more consistent and a little more permanent. That would be great! But, I know they’re just trying to do their best to improve and make some changes to the program. So I respect that, and I’m happy that they’re doing that.”
Skye Blakely, a favorite for the All-Around title here in Tampa, is also remaining positive about the future as new waters are tested. “It’s definitely different,” she said. “We’re used to it being one person in charge but now it’s three. Having new faces at these camps is different but I’m looking forward to seeing how things will change and how we will work together so we can all be better as a team!”
Shilese Jones, who placed second at the recent U.S. Classic, says the change to working with the new leadership team has been a positive one overall, specifically citing her relationship with Memmel and the experience both Memmel and Quinn have as athletes as key factors.
“I know Chellsie very well from the tour (Simone Biles’ Gold Over America Tour) and we became really close. They’re just great role models and I think they’re going to make a difference for the U.S. team. I feel like this is what we need – a new beginning and a new start.”
Jones also sees positive cultural change within USA Gymnastics overall. “I feel like they’ve grown tremendously. Everything has grown in a positive way and they should continue doing what they’re doing. It’s working.”
Leung said the change from having one high performance coordinator to a tri-leadership system for the women was not prompted by a specific catalyst, rather the conversations to make a change had been happening for some time.
“This is a big change in terms of what we’ve had in the past. We thought that it was better to have three people being involved versus a single individual,” she said. “We will continue to evaluate it and we will continue to have discussions with the high performance team in terms of they do see and where perhaps we can tweak things a little bit. But ultimately, we thought this was a better structure to have in place.”
The process of weaving together athlete wellness with the pursuit of gold medals will no doubt be difficult for a program that for so long focused on medals and money over athlete well-being. It’s a process that will take time to produce sustainable results but one Leung feels is absolutely possible.
“That’s the million dollar question in terms of ‘can we still be competitive and also compete nicely and still train nicely at the same time?’ And my view is yes, that we are able to do that. When I was a gymnast, when I looked forward to going into the gym, I trained that much harder. I was much more productive in the gym as well and I believe the other athletes feel that way as well, and we are hearing that is the case, too. Ultimately, we one hundred percent believe that you can balance both being competitively excellent as well as have a positive environment to be successful.”
Moving forward, Quinn, Memmel and Baker know all eyes will be on them and as Memmel put it, “walking the walk” is more important than ever.
“A lot of it, I feel is going to be under the microscope, there will be a lot of scrutiny – I know that going into it,” Memmel said. “I weighed all of the factors. I want to be there for the athletes.”
She’s also aware that there will be an adjustment period for the athletes, coaches and for herself based on her recent involvement as an athlete, and as a Brevet-level judge. “I’d like to just be relatable. Hopefully the athletes will be comfortable and can relate to me and just respect that I’ve done a lot in my career. I want to be there to support and be there to guide and have that respect. But respect it earned. That is something that you have to prove. You have to walk the walk. When you put an expectation out there you have to follow through. I’ve been around for a while and I know the coaches but it’s in a different role, there’s going to be an adjustment but I’m looking forward to that part of it.”
Quinn, who is also well-aware of the pressure and scrutiny she’ll face in her position, says she’s committed to putting the best, healthiest team on the floor. “Our goal is to put out the healthiest, most ready – physically, mentally, emotionally capable athletes in that moment. Making sure that the athletes and coaches have everything they need in order to be successful to get to that point – once they’re on the competition floor, you never know what’s going to happen. I’ll take the heat if it was a poor choice in lineup, yeah, that’s okay, but maybe I wanted to give an athlete a chance who was great in training and deserved it. I’m all about who’s competing and physically looking their best – I’m not going to put someone in jeopardy to hurt themselves – their well-being is most important.”
Following a silver medal finish at the Pan American Championships in July, the next big international test for the U.S. women’s program will be the World Championships slated to begin October 29 in Liverpool, England.
In June, media spoke with Quinn, Memmel and Baker about their goals and how they plan on working together to build trust within the women’s program. Here are some additional key takeaways from those conversations.
Alicia Sacramone Quinn- Strategic Lead
Job Description: The Strategic Lead oversees strategic planning and guides the overall direction of the high performance program. Quinn will focus on the program as a whole and the overarching strategy for the National Team while also making the holistic development of individual athletes, physically and mentally, a top priority.
On her interest in the position and some of her overall goals:
“I haven’t felt compelled back to the sport like this since I started a comeback in 2012. Being drawn back, I haven’t felt that way in a long time. The best part of the job for me is the athletes. My goal, yes, is to get them to the best level of gymnastics they can be. But I want to help shape who they are as people so when they walk away from Elite gymnastics, they’re like ‘man, that was a great experience. People actually cared about me. Not just my gymnastics, but me as a person.”
“My goal, which is lofty, because I know that there are things that play into this, is that every kid on the national team should be able to go out and compete on assignment. If there’s some way I can make that schedule work to get athletes going out all over and get experience, that is something I’m striving for. Just figuring out what meets fall best in our calendar and being smart with our schedule – we don’t want to do too much with our athletes and get them burnt out – (so) it’s keeping them healthy, strong but getting them out enough on the competition scene to really get them the international experience.”
On her leadership style and creating discipline without going too far:
“When I was competing, it was very fear-driven. I don’t want to be leading from a position of fear. If I can inspire them to respect the program, respect their coaches, their training – everything – that will help them be motivated. Yes, I want them to respect me or Dan or Chellsie – we know what they’re capable of – we want them to be their absolute best. Changing the culture in the gym and on the national team, yes, it should be fun, but it’s also going to be a lot of work. GIving them a lot of positive reinforcement, doing things to make camps fun – which I have yet to figure out what that will be – If I can find a way to inspire them and not make them fear me, I can get a better result from the athletes.”
On team selection and subjectivity:
“I think having everything in writing so the athletes know you have to do X, Y, Z… I personally don’t want to send an athlete out to a competition who’s not healthy. You’re going to jeopardize their body. Everything will be very up front. I think giving athletes a clear line and not having it be so broad will help each one peak at the right time.”
On getting buy-in from the coaches:
We’re all in this for the same reason. We want all these athletes to get to the top tier in their gymnastics. I think realizing we’re all in this together and we all have the same goals, will help me win the coaches over.”
Chellsie Memmel – Technical Lead
Job Description: The Technical Lead provides the technical and coaching oversight of the High Performance Program and serves as the resident expert for training, competition and performance. Memmel will direct training and skill development at National Team camps and clinics and will travel to clubs around the country to help facilitate streamlined implementation of the program’s high performance strategy, serving as a resource to the elite gymnastics community.
On how her rating as Brevet judge will benefit the role:
“As other countries compete, it’s seeing what skills they are rewarding, what skills they are not giving. It’s really great information to have to shape the routines, to point the athletes and point the coaches in the right direction. It’s being able to communicate, ‘hey, you probably aren’t going to receive credit for this’… Which at the end of the day, is everything.”
On new opportunities within the Code and how she’ll advise the coaches and athletes:
“One I see we really still need to work on is the artistry on beam and floor. The flow of the routine, that’s where we’re getting hit sometimes. I know that the girls have been working really hard as a group on this, it’s just something that needs even more focus… [It’s about] finding a balance, continuing to educate, making suggestions.”
On transparency in the team selection process:
“That was part of what I talked about in my interview process – is trying to make it as clear as possible and trying to do a better job of communicating it to the athletes and the coaches instead of only the coaches relaying it to their athletes… Because sometimes it would get lost in translation or they might not relay it as it was relayed to them. That happens – that’s where confusion steps in. We want to make it as clear as possible for everyone.”
“We will be at all of the training camps and watching all of the training at the competitions – not just the things that are televised or just that very end result. We want to put the best team forward and the girls who are the best prepared.”
Dan Baker – Developmental Lead
Job Description: The Developmental Lead oversees USA Gymnastics’ Developmental Program and camps, facilitating an athlete’s initial introduction to and progression through the elite program. Baker’s broad focus will be on the Hopes, TOPS, and junior developmental program as well as talent identification.
On differences between past “regimes” he was part of and what he sees as beneficial moving forward:
“I think that the structure of the program is still good. I think we always valued the athletes as people but we’re putting a little more emphasis into what the athletes feel and what they have to say, and getting their opinions more than in the past where they were just told, ‘this is what you’re going to do’ and that’s it. They give us their opinion and their feedback so that’s where I think the difference is – we’ve involved the athletes in the conversation more than we did in the past.”
On technical needs or improvements the team will focus on and can start on the developmental front, in particular:
“The vault issue is something that we’ve talked about for several years and I was glad when Alicia walked in she saw the same thing… So, we have started in the developmental camp some second vault work… we’re encouraging that because we would like to have more vault medalists. As far as things we’ve looked at with the new Code of Points, it’s very important we have D dismounts on all the events. Artistry’s become extremely important to us. We started that several years ago. Betty Okino has done a fantastic job with those athletes… so that’s where we’re putting a lot of our emphasis.”
On his approach with the leadership team:
“The thing that Chellsie and Alicia bring to this leadership team that none of the other people that have led this program have, is that they are athletes that came through the program. We’ve already discussed what they liked, what didn’t they like, what changes they wanted to make – that’s a valuable experience we haven’t had before.”
Photos: Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics; USA Gymnastics
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