After months of subtly indicating that the coming Olympics could be her last, Simone Biles recently changed her tune and refrained from ruling out the possibility that she could continue in some form until the Paris Olympics in 2024. Biles, already a veteran at 24, would be 27 by then – a competition age that was once unthinkable for an Olympic all-around gold medallist.
Yet these days – as it becomes increasingly clear that women’s gymnastics is not only for teenagers with a few exceptions – it just sounds about right. Around the world gymnasts are learning that they are capable of continuing into adulthood and there are numerous benefits for those who wish to do so.
“We’re seeing more girls sticking around and that’s becoming more normal,” says the Canadian Ellie Black, 25. “People are seeing it and thinking: ‘Oh, OK, experience is playing into it.’ [It’s] allowing yourself time to become strong, actually build your basics and not burn yourself out at such a young age trying to reach the Olympics when you think your peak is happening. You’re seeing now that your peak can be at any point. It’s not a certain age that you peak at.”
Each individual is different. Danusia Francis, a 26-year-old who initially represented Great Britain before qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics for Jamaica, says that she felt that her skills were easiest between 16 and 18, but that age has moulded her into a well-rounded competitor who better understands how to be successful: “People are sort of getting rid of that stigma. I don’t know if all gymnasts would agree that their peak is 16 to 18, but it doesn’t mean you have to stop competing.”
Laurie Hernandez is still only 20 but after winning team gold and individual silver Olympic medals in Rio at 16, the American spent two years away from the gym. Despite Hernandez’s doubts, her new coaches convinced her that her adult body would simply harness more muscle and power. “I don’t really want to generalise and speak for everybody but I can debunk the [puberty] myth for myself,” says Hernandez. “Of course, some things were less difficult for me at 16 because I was 16. Just for the most part, I feel a lot stronger now and I’m grateful for that body change.”
Of all the older gymnasts today, Black’s trajectory feels particularly relevant. She finished sixth in Canada’s Olympic trials when she qualified for London 2012 aged 16. At that time, she says, Canadian gymnasts would usually aim for one Olympics, then graduate from high school and transition to college in the US. After much thought Black chose to continue. Only in recent years has she grown into a perennial top-five all-around gymnast, winning all-around silver at the 2017 world championships.
At a time when gymnastics is reckoning with its toxic culture in many gyms around the world, it is heartening to hear Black describe a trajectory that defies numerous common perceptions and could be a reference point for others. She prioritises efficiency in her training over long days in the gym and her continued growth is a product of patience. “We set our goals and we work towards them,” she says. “If they don’t go to plan, we adjust and we figure out how we’re gonna get there. Instead of putting a timeline on things it was more of an open-ended: ‘We’re gonna try for this Olympics.’ If that doesn’t work, we’re gonna keep going and see where we can go after that.”
Black says her coaches were keen for her to seek out expertise from other mentors and specialists and, as she has matured, she has increasingly taken ownership of her career. “You have a better understanding of where you are, what you’re doing and the skills you’re doing. Even skills I was doing a long time ago compared to now, I feel like I understand how to do them so much better, [as well as] the corrections you need to be making and how that applies to your body. So you just gain a lot of knowledge in that sense.”
It could be that the lockdown period further aids longevity in the sport. Taking time off has often been stigmatised in gymnastics due to the belief that it is difficult to regain skills. Yet, after returning from lockdown, countless gymnasts noted the relative ease with which they recovered their levels. Black says: “I think we learned a lot from the past year that it actually is OK to take some time off. As long as you’re being smart with how you’re coming back, you’re staying physically prepared and physically conditioned, you can take some time off and it’s actually good for your body, good for your mind and your longevity in the sport.”
Francis concurs: “You need time off and recovery is really important. I don’t think that is as necessary as people once thought to train 30 hours a week.”
As international gymnastics competitions slowly return, starting with next week’s European championships, older gymnasts will take up an increasing amount of space – from Britain’s 29-year-old Rebecca Downie to the enduring greatness of the much-travelled 45-year-old Oksana Chusovitina, now representing Uzbekistan. “I think it’s really cool to see because if you’re passionate about it and your body can handle it and you love it, why not keep going, right?” says Black. “There’s no end date that needs to be set.”