I started writing this but kept procrastinating and putting it off. Somehow, me not writing my goodbye will mean she never left. Right?
If you haven’t heard, it was yesterday afternoon that Kyla Ross – the 19-year-old who made her elite debut in 2009, won an Olympic gold medal three years later, and went on to win five world medals without taking more than a few weeks off – announced her retirement on social media.
Today I am officially announcing my retirement from elite gymnastics. This has been one of the most difficult decisions I have made in my life but I feel that my time as an elite gymnast has come to an end. I truly love the sport of gymnastics and I am so fortunate to have been able to accomplish my dreams with the help of my coaches, family, friends, and of course my amazing fans. Having the opportunity to represent the U.S. through gymnastics has been a great honor and experience I will cherish. I would like to thank everyone for all the amazing support I have received over my entire elite career. As I make this transition to collegiate gymnastics and this next chapter in my life, I hope to still inspire people to reach for their dreams!
The message was shocking to even her biggest fans, who were excited a month ago to see her return to the national team training center for the January camp. Only days ago, some of her followers noticed she was working out with a personal trainer and expressed their excitement – clearly this meant she was working on endurance and was truly committed to putting up an epic fight for Rio.
Her decision was a shocking one, but it was simultaneously not. Back in 2014, after upsetting stronger competition – including 2012 Olympic bronze all-around medalist Aliya Mustafina of Russia – to win her second all-around medal in as many years, Ross seemed drained when faced with an onslaught of “when are you going to upgrade?!” questions from the media. “I know I need to upgrade,” she told the press, somewhat exasperated. “Next year.”
The issue was that at almost 18, she had been going strong at the elite level for nearly half her life, first entering the scene in 2009 when she was only 12. From day one, Ross was one of the best in the country, and domestically, didn’t once place outside of the top five in the all-around, nearly always placing first or second. Internationally, she competed in the all-around thirteen times between 2009 and 2014, and won the gold or silver medal every single time aside from that one bronze medal in Nanning.
Then 2015 happened. At 18, Ross was dealing with multiple nagging injuries that never seemed to fade. Never having missed even part of a season due to a major injury since her first elite appearance, the wear and tear in addition to a major growth spurt – Ross is currently a giant in elite gymnastics at five-foot-six – meant she could no longer compete skills that were once almost too easy for her.
Her silver medal-winning bar routine lost its inbar stalders due to low back pain and then her beautiful double layout dismount when she simply got too tall. She dealt with endurance problems that limited her tumbling on floor, and beam, which once looked effortless, saw uncharacteristic connection breaks. Not only were upgrades not happening, but her routines looked like they were falling apart at the seams, and she left people with their mouths dropped when she placed tenth at Jesolo to start off her seventh elite season.
She did add a Bhardwaj on bars and changed her double layout dismount to a double front, but both of these skills would cause nothing but strife as she moved into the summer season. With a tenth place finish at nationals and no real chance at breaking into the USA’s immensely deep pool, she withdrew from the world championship selection process to rest her body and focus on 2016.
With all of 2015’s drama in mind, it really isn’t shocking that she finally said “it’s been a good run.” But at the same time, after watching her year in and year out since 2009 and seeing her literally grow up from a 12-year-old child to a 19-year-old adult, elite gymnastics won’t seem real without her there.
I personally feel connected to her career because 2009 is the first year I got really involved in paying attention to every aspect of the sport, not just the Olympics, worlds and maybe nationals. I remember when she qualified to elite and I remember combing YouTube for the videos of her in that heinous orange hall in Des Moines for the U.S. Classic that year after finding out she’d won the all-around despite it being her first major domestic elite meet ever. When she won nationals a month later everyone griped that it was only because Jordyn Wieber was injured, but still. You couldn’t deny the magic of seeing this tiny 12-year-old calmly coast her way to the title like she’d been doing it for years. And when she did it again a few months later at Pan Ams? I was hooked.
A year later, I was working my way into gymnastics journalism and the U.S. Classic was my first live meet. As fate would have it, Ross – who placed third in the all-around that time – was the first gymnast I ever interviewed in my career, and between our mutual shyness and my bumbling first-time jitters, the “interview” was a holy mess. But after that, especially as she grew older and more insightful and I knew what to ask, she became my favorite person to talk to.
We spoke dozens of times over the years, as my career nearly lined up side by side with hers, and I was always impressed with how insightful, genuine, honest, and considerate she was. She was one of the only gymnasts to not only remember me, but to greet me warmly and ask how I was doing and what I’d been up to. We also shared a hilarious moment in the bathroom one time between junior and senior nationals sessions, waiting to use two stalls occupied by judges who chose to gab about various junior routines whilst doing their business, something the two of us found highly amusing.
She was a good kid, friendly to everyone, super smart, and talented beyond belief. If fans were frustrated by her lack of ability to upgrade in her later years, Ross was four million times as frustrated. After rough performances, her interviews were always angry and full of fire, and the next day she’d come back with murder in her eyes, ready to slaughter the apparatus that took her down. Even on what would become her final day of competition ever, when her bars dismount gave her trouble yet again, she moved on to beam and had her best set in over a year, turning anger and frustration into domination because she was a competitor through and through.
Of course, you can’t talk about Kyla Ross without talking about the 2012 Olympics. With so much depth in the U.S. that summer, Ross – a brand-new senior lacking the Amanar everyone else kept in their back pocket – began to see her top three all-around spots turning into top five, but no biggie. She was still one of the country’s best on bars and beam, and she was going to make that team. No matter that there were several other specialists going after that same team spot. No matter that these specialists just happened to be Olympians and world medalists and NCAA superstars. At the end of the day, Ross was the best fit, and the only one who could get the job done perfectly every single time.
At the Olympic Trials, we remember her as the robotic one of the five, the one who stood with a calm smile while her teammates sobbed around her. She was thrilled, of course, but she was also a professional and kept her game face on. In London, she again went into qualifications and got the job done, taking in the excitement of helping her team qualify first with the disappointment of missing the bars final by two spots and getting two-per-country-ed out of the beam final despite placing sixth, just 0.025 behind her teammate Aly Raisman.
Finally, after finishing a beautiful beam routine in the team final competition, Ross shed a few tears, proud of her performance knowing it likely meant her team would win gold. It’s like what Don Geiss says in 30 Rock about being allowed one cry in life, so choose it wisely. Kyla Ross did just that.
Though it would’ve been great to see Ross at least attempt to make it to her second Olympic Games this summer, I’m happy she made the decision she did when she did. If anything, Ross is hyper insightful about herself as a gymnast, and her decision to retire wasn’t on a whim. She knew at the January camp that there were twenty or so other girls in the country with the same dream. She knew making it wasn’t a guarantee. She knew she’d have to be in the top three on at least two events, likely bars and beam again, to make it all the way. She knew she had a physically, mentally, and emotionally difficult five months ahead of her before making the team and another month after that if it all worked out. She knew her body was already past a physical peak she maintained for years and it would take motivation beyond belief to fight through an almost constant pain that had plagued her for years.
Most importantly, she knew she had a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow with her commitment to the UCLA collegiate gymnastics program waiting for her once elite was said and done. Unlike Rio, she owns that spot in Westwood and no longer has to earn it. Her decision came down to continuing to fight the physical and mental torment that is fighting to make an Olympic team in the strongest program on earth with an impossibly deep talent pool knowing full well that your chances are low and it could all be for nothing, or for the first time in her life deciding to go easy on herself, cutting her training hours nearly in half, and enjoying six months of freedom before embarking on the next step in her life.
For the first time ever, Ross went easy on herself. This is the girl who took only a few weeks off after the Olympic Games in order to stay in shape for the 2013 elite season and who opted to compete with nagging injures at every meet possible for seven years even when she had proven herself, her consistency, and her dependability time and again. For workaholics, the decision to take time off is never an easy one, but sometimes it’s just necessary.
With everything Ross accomplished in seven years, she deserves to cut down to a level 10 training regimen so that her body is as physically healthy as possible as she goes into her first year of college. With high school already out of the way, she deserves to spend her free time at the beach or hanging out with friends or watching the dumbest television imaginable before she jumps back into a full course load.
Think of the next six months as an extended vacation to make up for everything “normal teenage girl” she missed while she was off being extraordinary. Instead of being sad about the retirement of a gymnast who had one of the best possible elite careers every last gymnast in this country would die for, be happy that she got to finish on her terms, making her own decision, and with an incredible four years of gymnastics ahead of her on a different yet equally valuable level.
I’m not gonna lie. I’m probably going to feel lost and confused and sad and alone when I walk into the arena at the U.S. Classic this year and Kyla Ross isn’t there. It’s going to be so weird not watching her compete one of the world’s best DTYs on vault or seeing her effortlessly nail her beam combinations or even holding my breath throughout her entire floor routine, hoping her endurance doesn’t give out and she hits every pass.
But life goes on. We got a taste of elite gymnastics without Kyla Ross in Glasgow last year, where the world kept spinning even without her there. She will move on and we will move on, as much as it pains me to admit. It’ll suck not getting to see her hold out for the remainder of a quad she started out owning, but at the end of the day, her career was one of dreams and she got to go out on her own terms with an incredibly bright future in the sport still ahead of her. What more could she – or we – want?
We at The Gymternet wish Kyla the best of luck as she transitions from the elite world to the world of NCAA, and are counting down the days until she’s breaking records in a navy blue Rebecca’s Mom leo with the Bruins. Until then, we hope she sleeps for a million hours, eats a solid amount of pizza, watches a lot of terrible reality TV, and gets in some great workouts without the stress of Rio holding her back from enjoying herself. Thank you, Kyla, for giving us some of your best years and may you have even better years to come!
Article by Lauren Hopkins