Many gymnasts with the Olympics on their minds come into a new quad thinking “can I make it that far?”
Because gymnastics is so mentally and physically demanding, most gymnasts who train at the sport’s toughest level must decide if it’s worth it for them to go another four years, an excruciatingly long period of time especially when more often than not, there is no reward for the hard work put in.
It’s never surprising to see a small wave of gymnasts retire from international elite right after the Olympic Games one year or at the start of the following year, and 2017 was no different. Below is a small celebration of those gymnasts who will be moving on.
Phan Thi Ha Thanh, Vietnam
A two-time Olympian and world bronze medalist on vault, 25-year-old Phan couldn’t have asked for much more in her career. She was the first Vietnamese gymnast to ever qualify for an Olympic Games, the first to earn a world championships medal, earned multiple medals on her two best events — vault and beam — at world cups over the years, and was a back-to-back Southeast Asian Games all-around champion, just to name a few of her countless achievements in the sport.
The history-maker was one in a million for her longtime coach, Nguyen Thi Thanh Thuy, who first noticed Phan when she was just six years old. “I have never seen an athlete with Phan’s energy, passion, and commitment,” he said in an interview last year. “To me, Phan is always number one.”
She’s leaving the sport because physically, it’s becoming too much to handle, which is why she limited herself to only her top two events in Rio this summer rather than competing in the all-around. But on the plus side, she has no regrets and will go down as the best gymnast of all time in Vietnam. Going forward, Phan wants to coach, and is also dedicated to growing the sport’s popularity and resources in her country.
Nia Dennis, United States
Once one of the most promising juniors in the country, Dennis — who turns 18 next month — had to make a tough decision. With a full scholarship at UCLA awaiting her next year, she could’ve opted to return to the elite level and make a go at this year’s worlds before going off to college, or she could’ve dropped down to level 10, cutting her training hours nearly in half and ‘taking it easy’ before beginning her NCAA career.
I actually wasn’t surprised to see her drop down. After making the national team in 2013, Dennis was an ‘it girl’ a year later, making the Jesolo and Pac Rims teams and getting the silver all-around medals behind Bailie Key at both. Even though her mental game wasn’t always quite the best and she often fell in most of her meets, she was still one of the best in the country with her mistakes, missing the junior national all-around title in 2014 by less than half a point despite three falls throughout her two days of competition.
Her consistency issues were frustrating, though, and after missing out on the 2015 Pan Ams team in her first year as a senior, Dennis changed gyms a week before the U.S. Classic. At Legacy Elite, her renewed energy and confidence was shocking, and things were looking promising once again, but then last February, six months before the Olympics, Dennis tore her Achilles, effectively ending her dream. She came back hard and fast, returning to nationals to compete two solid sets on bars, though while her efforts were tremendous, it wasn’t enough to make the cut for Olympic Trials.
Now back on all four events, Dennis is killing it in her level 10 invitational season, winning her first all-around competition back two weeks ago, and placing in the top two on every event at the Circle of Stars invite this weekend, including earning a 9.725 for her incredible performance on floor. Though her elite career didn’t go how anyone could have expected, she’ll likely come out a multiple J.O. national champ this spring, entering UCLA next fall as one of the top prospects in the country.
Claire Martin, France
When Martin, now 18, made her senior debut in 2014, I don’t think anyone doubted her spot on last summer’s Olympic team. France didn’t have a ton of depth that year, and though Martin’s scores weren’t through the roof, she was a true performer on beam and floor, events she’d continue to improve as she climbed the senior ranks in an effort to eventually become a top contributor on both.
Her rockstar year was 2015, which began with the national silver medals on her best events. She was the bronze medalist on beam at European Championships, an honor earned in front of a home crowd in Montpellier, and she made her second worlds appearance later that year, complementing what was a powerhouse bars team rather nicely, posting the country’s top beam score and third-best floor score in qualifications.
The Olympics seemed like her destiny, but then she got injured. Repeatedly. Despite multiple attempts to come back and reach her full potential in time for Rio selection, Martin just wasn’t ready. She watched as younger gymnasts swooped in and outperformed her on beam (Marine Boyer would go on to place fourth on the event at the Olympics) and floor (Oreane Lechenault got the spot that likely would’ve been a healthy Martin’s because of her stellar work on that event), and came away from the season emotionally drained after not making her dream come true.
The decision to retire was a difficult one for Martin, though she leaves with no regrets and is happy to move on to university, where she wants to study nutrition, a career path that could keep her involved with sports. “Who knows?” she said in an interview with the FIG. “Maybe one day I’ll be a dietitian for elite athletes?”
Ana Sofia Gomez, Guatemala
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Ana Sofia, who goes by Sofi, compete. It was at the 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, and despite coming into the meet a relative unknown at only 15, Gomez walked away the beam champion and all-around silver medalist, a huge feat for the girl making her international senior debut.
Now 21, Gomez is a two-time Olympian who carried the flag for her country during the Parade of Nations in the 2016 Olympic Opening Ceremony. She finished 22nd in the Olympic all-around final in 2012, won the beam title at the Pan Am Championships in 2014, and won the bronze medal on floor at her second Pan Am Games a year later.
This summer, she missed the all-around final in Rio by only two spots, but went on to end her career on a high note when she swept the Central American Championships in November. In a press conference last week, she announced her retirement, expressing total happiness about her career, but feeling ready to end things on a high note. Going forward, she wants to coach, and will begin her journey into this new career right away.
Louise McColgan, Great Britain
While the others above are all retiring in their late teens or early 20s after years of high-level domestic and international experience, McColgan is putting her elite career behind her at only 15.
This year would’ve been the beginning of McColgan’s senior career. The Scottish gymnast rose to international status when she swept the gold medals at the 2015 Scottish Championships at the age of 13, going on to win the beam bronze and floor silver at British Championships a month later, a hugely impressive feat given that most of the British medalists tend to be from England or Wales. Scotland rarely qualifies gymnasts to the big national event, let alone comes away with medalists, and yet here was a kid with huge potential and promise hoping to challenge for international team spots…maybe even the Olympics.
Representing Scotland at Northern Europeans that autumn, only days after she turned 14, McColgan came away with the silver medal on floor, defeating two future Olympians in the process, but that was it for the young gymnast. Though she came into 2016 with high hopes, she was thrown injury after injury combined with personal issues and challenges that made it impossible for her to train at a high level.
Last week, she made the difficult decision to end her elite career, though hopes to continue in the sport in some capacity. “My career is hopefully not over, just going in a different direction,” she wrote on Facebook.
Article by Lauren Hopkins