It started as a joke, one of those cracks made when the family gets together for the holidays.
A year and a half later, Chellsie Memmel is getting ready to compete at the U.S. Classic on Saturday, her first meet in nine years. A month shy of her 33rd birthday. Now with two small children.
"I’m a little bit terrified, to be honest," the 2005 all-around world champion said, laughing. "Having not been in that setting for so long, I’m hoping I’ll have a good reaction to it."
Before we get to the why, we need to go back to that how.
Memmel, who was part of the U.S. team that won the silver at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, is not some athlete who can’t let go of the past. After a comeback ahead of the 2012 Olympics, she got married and had her kids. She became an international judge, and coached at her family’s gym in suburban Milwaukee.
Few highlights from today….few solid turns without the beam pad today. Not the best pak but it made me laugh and a last part to solid landing! Really starting to feel the nerves but also excitement. Travel day tomorrow ? #chellsiesadultgymnasticsjourneypic.twitter.com/I3tPv6JSuA
But in the fall of 2019, she began playing around with some of her old skills, and was surprised at how easily they came back to her. Her dad Andy, who had also been her coach, pointed out that the 2021 world championships were only for individual events, with no team competition, so Memmel wouldn’t have to do the all-around.
He was joking. But the seed had been planted.
"At the very beginning, no,” Andy Memmel said when asked if he ever imagined it getting this far. “But then I saw what I saw when she was a young kid, that 'boy, this kid is really talented and this stuff is not hard.' "
Chellsie Memmel works out with her father and coach Andy Memmel on Feb. 18, 2021, in New Berlin, Wis. (Photo: The Associated Press)
Memmel began posting her progress on social media, and the reaction was overwhelming. Fans cheered every new development, and suggested other skills she should bring back or try.
But it was the response from those who were inspired by her to return to their old sport, or try a new one, that meant the most.
Gymnastics has long been seen as a sport for the young, its grueling physical demands forcing most elite gymnasts to hang up their grips and leotards by their mid-20s. Now here Memmel was, turning that idea on its head.
"It’s showing you can work hard and go for something and it doesn’t matter when you do it or if someone says you’re too old to be doing that or why? Why would you even go back and try?" Memmel said. "Why not? Why can’t we see what our bodies are still capable of doing?
"Even before, it didn’t even matter. I still wasn’t sure if I was going to compete. Why does it matter? I’m just doing it to see how far I can keep pushing."
Mostly, Memmel wanted to remind people that elite gymnastics could — should — be fun.
She didn’t train every day, spending at least two days a week conditioning. She didn’t do dozens of repetitions every day, recognizing that three turns were enough so long as they were good ones.
Her kids, 6-year-old Dash and 3-year-old Audrielle, are often with her at the gym. Her husband, Kory, assists with recovery, massaging her sore muscles with a Theragun. Her younger sister, Skyler, helps with coaching.
Memmel and her father have always had an easy rapport, and she posts videos of their funny exchanges in the gym. She also introduced her father to Instagram, and they made bets over how many followers he could get.
"The joke has been when I hit 20,000 I get a Corvette," Andy Memmel said. "I’m only 300 away."
Chellsie Memmel had been training for the world championships for later this year, but with the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics her plan changed. (Photo: The Associated Press)
Memmel trained on her terms, and found she was having the most fun — and felt the best — she had her whole career.
"I didn’t realize the full impact I could have by simply sharing the joy I have from training and the updates. I truly just didn’t understand the impact it could have," she said.
Though Memmel resisted calling it a comeback at first, by last spring it was clear that’s what it was. She had most of her old skills back, and was beginning to put them into routines. She even teased an Amanar, a vault so difficult only a few women in the world do it and one she didn’t do even in the prime of her career.
Memmel’s plan was to be ready for worlds later this year but, when COVID forced the Tokyo Olympics to be postponed by a year, she figured she might as well go for it.
An ankle injury in November has slowed her the last few months and remains "irritating."
"It’s still not allowing me to do as much as I want to, especially on floor exercise, which has been the most frustrating," Memmel said. "I’m doing everything I can to get it to where I want it to be."
She plans to do two events at Classic, balance beam and vault. Though her father said she is “very close” on uneven bars and floor is "coming along,"” she doesn’t want to overwhelm herself at her first competition since 2012.
"This is just as much of a test as trying one of those skills again," she said. "This is a test. How am I going to react in this competition setting?"
The plan, though, is to add additional events before next month’s national championships and Olympic trials. Partly because Memmel knows she needs them to make a serious run at the Tokyo team, but mostly because she wants to.
That, after all, is the point of all of this.
"I do sometimes ask, 'What have I gotten myself into?' But I’m still enjoying it, I’m still having fun," Memmel said. "Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but that’s what it’s been about. It’s never been about trying to prove anything.
"The biggest thing for me is don’t be afraid to go after something, to set a goal," she added. "Even setting a crazy goal and trying to make it happen."
And never dismiss crazy talk at a Christmas party. You never know where it might lead.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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