The Athlete Marathon: A Look at The Long Haul

By Gina Pongetti Angeletti, MPT

As much as the initial achievement of Elite success in gymnastics can be amazing, the maintenance of physical, mental and emotional health is ever-present, and honestly, even more astonishing. That has never been more apparent than at these 2022 U.S. Championships as athletes at vastly different stages of their careers balance the very short road to Paris in 2024.

Countless articles have been written about incredible Olympians who continue not just for a second Games, but six, seven, and even eight times. From one of swimming’s greatest champions five-time Olympian Michael Phelps to gymnastics’ own legendary Oksana Chusovitina (eight Olympics thus far!) it seems as though qualifying to the World’s greatest stage and even medaling should be celebrated and seen as the most satisfying of achievements. Yet, as we all know and have seen, the job isn’t quite complete until the athlete feels like they given everything they possibly can to their sport and have pushed themselves beyond the pinnacle of their abilities. It’s a place occupied by few and is often where the label ‘legendary’ comes into play once a career is complete. Dominique Dawes (1992, 1996, 2000) and Sam Mikulak (2012, 2016, 2020) each competed in three Games for the U.S., before retiring, pushing themselves one more quad and one more gigantic step towards achieving the ultimate in their sport each time. And as we’re seeing, competing in multiple Games is becoming more and more the norm in gymnastics

In Tampa, 2020 Olympians Jade Carey, who won gold on floor in Tokyo, and Jordan Chiles, who captured silver with her team are both competing here in the women’s field. Both are also balancing NCAA careers. For the men, Brody Malone, Shane Wiskus and Yul Moldauer are all back, hungry for more. 

On television, it can look glamorous. In the gym, it’s anything but.

No coach sits the parents of an athlete down when they begin tiny tot tumbling to lay out the money they will spend (estimates of a minimum of $72k before college), the hours of driving to and from practice, the late nights, the early mornings or the amount of days off one will actually have with no practice in the next 10, 15, or even 20 years, while somehow fitting in school along the way. 18 years of practices. 18 seasons with the excitement of competition, followed by a small period of relaxation, then back to new skills and preparing for the next year…it’s a hamster wheel for sure. And the thought of it is exhausting.

Athletes and their coaches, however, have to plan to progress.

Most coaches believe that a child who starts competing at 6 years-old has, with proper training, the ability to, at the very least, have the opportunity to compete in college at the culmination of their career. Then, after four (maybe five) years, graduate and retire at the ripe age of 22. This is also assuming that there is no Elite career concurrently or after college, which just a few years ago was considered an anomaly but is now consistently becoming part of the NCAA landscape. 

What separates those athletes that train and compete for decades, those that peak and those that burn out has equally to do with proper training and self-care as it does psychological mindset and motivation. The adage of “the body achieves what the mind believes” may not quite apply to the most challenging sport in the world. 

For the Olympian, or the aspiring one, strategically laying out the goals of the quad, backing out to yearly events, then mapping out in-season, post-season, and pre-season becomes equal to that of business development planning for a tech company. Within the month, week, day and practice are strategies for building and recovery, pressure and relaxation, down to even the body part specifically. Overworking legs with conditioning on a Tuesday and demanding full floor sets on Wednesday will lead to a much different outcome than fresh legs on Monday. 

Similarly, full body recovery and cycling down from a peak meet takes weeks if not months. The problem? It’s just not feasible. 

How Does Science Factor In?

So let’s look at the science of it all, specifically the nervous and adrenal systems. 

The sympathetic nervous system helps with performance aspects such as running, jumping, power. This is often on overload mode in the course of a big “push” to the peak, such as a meet, or new difficulty ramp-up. This, in turn, affects the adrenal system, which is responsible for self-regulation, in part with the production of cortisol and adrenaline. Breaks need to be taken from high stress (emotional, muscle building, joint, recovery) in order to allow the body’s system to “reset.” In contrast, the parasympathetic system is responsible for resetting and recovering. It lowers the heart rate, makes lungs more efficient at rest, helps flush the system of broken-down cells and waste, etc. 

The adrenal system regulates your stress hormones, immune system, metabolism, blood pressure and can affect heart rate regulation and overall balance. When it is not functioning properly, sleep, focus, alertness, reaction times, concentration, forward-thinking are all negatively disturbed. In the demand of Elite gymnastics training, there is no room for this. A body being even five percent off of reaction time can make a set less high creating potential for landing injury. Air-sense and balance being “off” can lead to missed skills. This, of course, does not allow time for the body to recover properly and will alter how focused, accurate and how quick athlete movement response time is during practice. Feeling run-down, getting sick easily, feeling heavy legged, and having unrestful sleep continue the cycle. 

History shows us that the year after an Olympic cycle, many athletes will have a down year, either resting, working on full injury rehabilitation, taking a mental break to enjoy their accomplishments, and then returning for a three-year push. Competition schedules – including the stress of international travel – need to take into account the domino effect of how system overload, so to speak, can affect recovery from the ramp-up and peak.

Brett McClure, USA Gymnastics Men’s High Performance Director, explained how delaying the 2020 Olympic Games a year took 25% of the preparation time away. 

“We’re not even recovered from Tokyo and we’re already talking about preparing for Paris. And for the men, we’re significantly behind in our difficulty.”

On the men’s side, the trek from Juniors to Seniors, college and after can result in many career “phases.” Is there a need to be bulking up to become a ring specialist? Trimming down to be more efficient and lighter? Leaving an event and the difficulty achieved ‘as-is’ and focusing on evening out all events? Is the body aching too much and is it time to become an event specialist? Do we need muscle support because of a chronic injury that needs to be supported?

All questions that are strategic in nature, because building – or re-formulating- one’s body make-up takes time. And increased difficulty does, too, as well as time and repetitions and drills. The effort and planning required to do so includes overloading muscle groups in lifting, weighted exercises, often creating muscle soreness and requiring added recovery and attention to nutrition so that the work done results in sustainable progress instead of the potential negative effects of overtraining.

Looking at Brody Malone, one can see the physical changes in his physique. Adding significant shoulder, back and general upper body girth and muscle mass, Malone’s goal since Tokyo in 2021 was to lay the groundwork for new skills, a three year training period, and the longevity to make it there. 

When asked about his physique noticeably changing even since Tokyo, Malone pointed out that  “I put on muscle pretty easily- which is a blessing and a curse- because I get stronger but then I get a lot heavier. I feel like I am kind of getting my ‘man strength’ as my coach likes to call it.”

Definitely it has helped me on rings, even though rings didn’t go so well today. The only thing it really hurts me on is pommels. But, pommels is always a struggle.”

McClure added, “We have essentially two years before we’re at Olympic Trials. So they retain that spot on National Team, try to make up four points in difficulty all while getting ready for Paris in two years.”

U.S. National Team Member Donnell Whittenburg understands the pressures that build to perform mentally year after year and the toll it all takes on his body. Ten seasons competing as a senior, he approaches things differently and with experience. 

“For so many years I felt I had to go out and do all the huge skills and throw everything out there. At this point in my career, I have to be strategic and smart, and I’ve learned how to play the game so that’s what I’m doing going forward.”  

Traditionally known for rings, vault and floor, he was a physical presence on the floor in often stark contrast to a lithe, narrow build. His shoulder muscles in sheer volume have allowed him to push limits on ring training resulting in strength and endurance, as well as an impressive vault block. Whittenburg, who made his first national team as a junior in 2010 says the key to his longevity is mental strength, along with the physical balance.

“When you are in a good headspace, the body will follow.”

Which really is the goal. And at the end of the day, it’s up to everyone – coaches, parents, support systems – to ensure the athletes have the best possible opportunity to not only compete in the marathon, but be at their very best while doing it.

Photos: Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics; USA Gymnastics

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For More:

2022 U.S. Championships Senior Women’s Preview:

2022 U.S. Championships Junior Women’s Preview 

2022 U.S. Championships Senior Men’s Preview

U.S. Junior Champ Katelyn Jong Ready For The Jump To The Senior Ranks 

August 2022 Issue Preview!

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