The Amazing Aging Athlete

By Gina Pongetti Angeletti, MPT MA, CSCS, ART-Cert. 

Three decades ago, choosing to compete in only one event in gymnastics was unheard of. Thankfully now, we can give credit where credit is due – to those who truly have a niche in the sport, have defied the odds, specialized, pressed on, and ultimately celebrate their achievements and longevity.

Yesterday in Tokyo, Oksana Chusovitina (UZB) competed in what she says will be her final Olympic Games. She finished 14th on vault, her only event and her competition is over. Without question, hers is a feat that may never be rivaled again but nonetheless is an inspiration to every athlete out there challenging themselves to push for just one more season, one more year.

The concept of age, and encouraging everyone, at any age, to be involved at the highest level of a sport can be daunting. Though there are exceptions, most of the oldest and most experienced Olympians listed in the records books are those who shoot, participate in equestrian and other sports that are based on skill and have significantly less physical demand. 

The youngest confirmed Olympic medalist is Greek gymnast Dimitrios Loundras who competed in the 1896 Athens Olympics. He was only 10 years-old. Luigina Giavotti was just 11 and 301 days old when she competed in the 1928 All-Around. 

As for the oldest, Queenie Judd was 41 years and nine months (yes, we count months!) at the 1928 Olympics representing Great Britain. Chusovitina was just seven months younger at the Rio Games in 2016.  

In gymnastics, the Olympic rules state that one must turn 16 within the year of the Games. So, up until 11:59 pm on Dec 31, you are golden. When the Games were postponed to 2021, the FIG allowed the year at hand to also change to 2021, thereby adding in a new group of athletes who otherwise would have contended for Paris. Some athletes benefited from and rose to the occasion, some were not able to capitalize – their timetables for physical and mental preparation thrown significantly off balance.

For many countries competing here, veterans are on the mat. We see the likes of Vanessa Ferrari (FRA) who qualified first on floor, Mai Murakami (JPN), Larisa Iordache (ROU), Kim Bui (GER) and of course, Chusovitina, to name just a few. For the U.S,. Simone Biles, Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner are all 20 years+ which at one time (see the 80s and early to mid 90s in particular) as we all know, was considered “old” for women’s gymnastics.

So what contributes to the “aging” trend in gymnastics? Let’s take a look.

The Balance

Every sport has its predispositions. For example, swimming is much less hard on the body and  bones (no pounding). So, as long as their heart and energy are good, and their shoulders don’t fall off, athletes can keep going for consecutive cycles as many do. 

Many gymnasts have decided that the strain of training and competing in all four women’s events, and six for the men, is too much as they age. Because of injury, fatigue, or simply realizing where they best fit into a program or team,  they become event specialists to save their bodies (and minds!). College is a perfect example of this. With a field of 12-18 athletes on average available to create line up, there is often room for single or multiple event athletes to truly make a difference and extend their careers in a healthy way. There is not a maximum of four or six athletes that have to be chosen from as there is internationally. 

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) decided years ago to change the team numbers for Tokyo 2020, (from 7 to 6 to 5 and now 4) in order to allow various qualification routes for specialists. This has since changed back to 5 for the next Olympic cycle.

Specializing has contributed significantly to the longevity of many athletes. But there’s more to their success.

An athlete that has age and experience under their belt can often make more informed decisions, possess a higher level of focus, and better organize keys to training such as sleep, nutrition and recovery without the help of their immediate families. 

With age of course also comes distractions- wanting to be social, college education and even marriage and children. U.S. gymnast Sam Mikulak mentioned that he was overwhelmed in thinking about all of the non-gymnastics related things in life – buying a house, moving, what to do after retirement. He stated that he has to hone-in on simply being in the moment, and worrying about ‘Sam, now.”

Currently for the U.S. women, the age range and longevity among the senior Elite athletes has increased, and that’s a great thing for the sport.  

Mohini Bhardwaj was close to making the Olympic team in 1996 as an alternate, and went on to have a successful career at UCLA before rejoining the National Team and earning a spot for the 2004 Olympic Games. Bhardwaj was 25 in Athens and her Olympic teammate Annia Hatch, 26.

At 24, MyKayla Skinner and Simone Biles call themselves the “OG’s,” or Olympic Grandmas in comparison to the rest of their U.S. teammates and the U.S. Elite program. Chellsie Memmel, who was making a comeback in time for Tokyo, is 32. After a successful Olympics in 2008, she competed in 2011 in the hopes of making the team to London. Then took a break, got married and had two children. After returning to the gym to get back in shape, she started having fun again. One thing led to another, and she was making a run at it. Memmel still hopes the World Championships later this year are a possibility for her. 

Shannon Miller, currently the most decorated women’s Olympic gymnast in the U.S. with seven Olympic medals, made a comeback at the age of 23. After the 1996 Olympics, she retired from competition. Four years later, she competed at the 2000 Olympic Trials.

Miller competed alongside Dominique Dawes, who came back to successfully compete in the 2000 Olympics eight years after her first Olympics in 1992 and four year after competing as part of the Mag 7 in 1996. Dawes is only one of three women in the U.S. to compete in three Olympic Games. Linda Mulvihill (1964, ‘68, and ‘72) and Muriel Grossfeld (1956, ’60 and ’64) are the others.

Miller reflected on the process. 

“Coming back after three years off was a challenge both physically and mentally. I had to work very hard to regain strength and flexibility. Mentally, I wondered if people thought I was too old or maybe just crazy!” 

Miller went on to explain, “Having two children of my own and knowing what a balancing act that can be in and of itself, much less adding the rigors of training, getting enough rest and recuperation, I think we are all completely inspired by Chellsie. Watching her work so hard and chase this goal is simply awe-inspiring.”

In 2016, the average age of the U.S. Men’s gymnastics team was 25. For men, their best gymnastics develops when their bodies physically mature. Mikulak is competing in his third Olympics at 28 years-old. In 2007 in San Jose, he had his first appearance at USAG Nationals, 14 years ago. Blaine Wilson and John Roethlisberger also competed three Olympic cycles with the U.S. Men’s team.

“Doing the sport you love shouldn’t have an age limit applied to it,” Roethlisberger stated. “And others’ expectations should be ignored. Do what you love!”

When I asked Oksana Chusovitina here in Tokyo how it felt to be at her eighth Olympics, she said it was a mix of happy and sad, confirming that this, indeed, would be her last Games. Her son, who is 22 and older than many of the fellow competitors, is off to college and she would like to spend more time with him, she says.

Equipment has also changed with a two-fold result. First, it allows for the sport to grow exponentially since the days of hip bar beaters and split layouts. This subsequently demands that the athletes are strong enough to use the springs, land from higher in the air, and take the forces on the shoulders with the give in the high bar, as an example. 

However, because matting has changed and training methods are geared toward safety and build up, athletes can “save themselves” by decreasing the impact but still allowing training. Examples are TumblTrak, sting mats. Loose foam pits were around in the Soviet Union before the United States, and not until the 1970’s were they a part of gymnastics gyms across the country. This saves athletes from hard landings, placing too much stress on the growth plates of developing children, and lowers risk of landing-based injuries while learning. 

The Physiology of it All

Most research and meta analysis of the literature leads to the conclusion that before the age of 30, not much changes, from a physiological perspective. However, whether you are 15 or 65, the amount of years, weeks, days and hours spent in a gym leads to repetition-based wear and tear, making the amount of time, quantitatively, and the intensity of training within that time, in a sport a more meaningful factor at times than physical age. 

Factors that make being older better for men in gymnastics:

  • Testosterone production
  • Pure muscle mass
  • Height and bone density
  • Proprioception and growing “in to” the height of the body, body awareness

Factors that make being older harder for women in gymnastics:

  • Physical size (height, hips, torso)
  • Estrogen and puberty, leading to development that may hinder performance
  • Hormones and effect on psychology and balancing mood

Being good early on can be challenging later for the athlete who sticks around if there were early ankle sprains or even bone and growth-plate based epiphyseal injuries. Most of us know these as ankle jamming gone bad, wrist overuse, elbow pain and even OCD, and spine stress issues. As the athletes get older, these stick around with microtrauma and pain and can be hard to deal with over the long haul. 

What aging does to everybody

  • Sarcopenia, or the fancy name for a loss of type II muscle fibers. Those are responsible for power and explosiveness. Slow twitch, or Type I are for posture and endurance, which insignificantly decrease. 
  • Scar tissue develops over time from repetitive stress on the same muscles and tendons, and repetitive motion. Mictrotrauma is caused, and then non-elastic tissue replaces elastic, 
  • Response time can be slower based on nerve condition, neuroplasticity concerns and other
  • Inability to tolerate heavier training loads and frequency, given increased recovery time demands (lactic acid, muscle protein synthesis)
  • Articular cartilage: we have things in the body that may begin to wear away with time. Cartilage covers bone in areas, most importantly, where we weight bear, or smush together, two parts of bone. It is there so that the bones don’t literally grind against each other. 
  • Joints and tendons, capsules and labrums. Ankles, elbows, wrists, knees, hips and shoulders. These can take a beating over the years. It is hard to make it through a career as a female artistic gymnast with a healthy hip labrum and as a male with an in-tact shoulder. 
  • Discs in the back. They are the pillows between the bones, taking the impact of vertical force, and at the same time, allowing motion. Over time, they may dry out, per se, become less absorptive, and result in arthritis, nerve pinching and other painful things. 
  • Fear. With youth comes inexperience which at times can be good. There are less previous mistakes, traumas and PTSD incidents to fill one’s mind. The double-edged sword is that age can bring the psychological and social intelligence to deal with these things once they happen as well. 
  • Recovery. Often, sleep habits change and the body needs more time after activity to replenish and recover at the cellular level. Lactic acid stays around longer (the  byproduct  of muscle work, and creatinine clearance, in summary).

Shannon Miller knew how to keep herself in injury-prevention mode during her run at the 2000 Games, and not feel guilty about not doing the same numbers and crazy schedule as years past. 

“The changes in my gymnastics were primarily switching from a mentality of training sheer numbers of skills and routines to more of a focus on quality in every movement. I had done the numbers, had the muscle memory and the mentality. It was now a focus of keeping up on strength and conditioning while focusing on quality of movements,” stated Miller.

Things like changes in bone density, aerobic capacity, hormone levels, losing lean body mass, and elastin changes are more of an issue in populations greater than 60. And since Chusovitina said she is finally retiring after her eight Olympics, it should be a while until someone can last through upwards of 50 years in this sport!

Jamaica’s Danusia Francis (who is a UCLA Alumni) is someone who has found her way in the process. She surely did not think she would be doing this at 27. 

“I wasn’t even sure if I would go [and do gymnastics in] college. Growing up, I was like, ’18 and I’m done,’… you had one shot at the Olympics and if you didn’t make it you didn’t make it -and if you did, you did. Over the years, my opinion of that has evolved a lot.”

When asked why it is hard to stay in the sport Francis stated, “It is very demanding on  your  body. I’ve noticed quite a lot of the girls in my subdivision- even just my group- are a bit older and everyone’s more willing to take days off. There’s two sessions each day, and I only go to one. Most of my group only goes to one.  Everyone was at both, and everyone was doing hundreds of routines. Now, you take a day off and you recover, and it is actually helpful and really good to see the change having stayed in the sport that long. It is cool to witness.”

Ellie Black (CAN) said that she saw a lot of girls from London to Rio “sticking around and going for their second Olympics. After that, I just knew that many were going to stay around for their third Olympic Games.” It opened her mind to the possibility that this may be the new norm, not the close-minded, presumable one-and-done of years past. 

“Being smarter and really listening to the athletes more,” stated Black. “It’s not just one cycle. One Olympics. One competition. We’re going to try to look at the longevity of it. Take care of our bodies and see what we can achieve over the course of many years rather than just one go.”

Ultimately, everything counts. 

Memmel and so many others have shown us that there are benefits to training smarter and not harder when coming back. That family, and a balanced life may actually be a welcome change to the hyper-focus and imbalance that prevail in the teenage standouts. If we can defy gravity, we sure can defy science.

Photos by Ricardo Bufolin and Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics.

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