Opinion: Chellsie Memmel’s gymnastics comeback is a reminder that no one is too old and no dream is too crazy

INDIANAPOLIS — All you folks who’ve ever wanted to do something but thought you were too old or your dream was too out of reach, you no longer have an excuse. 

A month before her 33rd birthday and with two young children at home, Chellsie Memmel competed at her first gymnastics meet in nine years Saturday. Though a fall on balance beam left the 2008 Olympic silver medalist shy of the qualifying score, her petition to compete at the national championship has already been accepted.

“Obviously, beam I would have liked to have it gone better, but I'm still happy with everything that I did,” Memmel said after the first session of the U.S. Classic. “To even get to this point, to try this again, to put on a leo and to register for a competition, I'm not going to hold my joy back. I’m not.”

Nor should she.

Chellsie Memmel returned to competition Saturday for the first time in nine years. (Photo: Morry Gash, AP)

To put in better perspective how extraordinary this was, some of the athletes competing alongside Memmel were born in 2005 – the same year she won her all-around title at the world championships. Laurie Hernandez, whose gold and silver medals at the Rio Olympics made her a household name, freely admitted to fan-girling when she saw Memmel across the floor.

“I watched her growing up and was in awe of her. I still am,” Hernandez said. “I know I’m an Olympian, but it’s Chellsie Memmel.”

Memmel is not one of those athletes who can’t let go of her glory days. Since her last competition – Classic in 2012 – Memmel has gotten married, had a son and a daughter, become a gymnastics judge and coached at her family’s gym in suburban Milwaukee. A comeback was the furthest thing from her mind.

But she started playing around with some of her old skills about a year and a half ago, and was shocked at how easily they came back. The more she did, the more she found herself enjoying it. Why, she wondered, should she stop? Because of some arbitrary number? Because gymnastics is considered a sport for the young?

It’s here, it’s happening….training day complete. Very weird walking into the arena as a gymnast again but amazing at the same time. Everyone was so welcoming and supportive and I couldn’t have asked for a better first time back out on the floor. pic.twitter.com/wRtQmZSHfK

“The biggest thing for me is don’t be afraid to go after something, to set a goal,” Memmel said last week. “And try not to listen to someone who tells you, 'Yeah, you probably can’t do it.' It should be about you and your journey and not listening to people who don’t think you can.”

Memmel only did two events at the Classic, vault and balance beam. Her vault was a watered-down version of what she’s been working on, and she performed it easily, with just a slight hop backward on the landing.

As she walked off the mat, she leaned over and pumped both her fists. She was grinning as she straightened, and then exchanged a big hug with her father and coach, Andy.

“You think about that moment, and I've been in that position of competing before, but yeah, it's been a long time,” Memmel said. “To see the green lights, your name going, I was just like, 'I hope I remember how to do this vault and don't suddenly forget.' I was just overwhelmed with, 'Thank goodness that went like I wanted it to.' "

Memmel seemed to turn back time on balance beam. Her aerial series was done with such confidence, she might as well have been doing it on flat ground rather than a 4-inch wide beam that’s 4 feet off the floor. Her fingers and toes were pointed to perfection.

She landed her standing Arabian – a somersault with a half twist – off-balance, and fell off the beam, drawing a gasp from the crowd. But after nine years away from competition, the mistake was to be expected, national team coordinator Tom Forster said.

Imagine if Peyton Manning came back after being retired for nine years. No one would be surprised if he threw an early interception, Forster said.

“This is kind of the same thing,” he said.

But it doesn’t diminish the magnitude of what Memmel did. At all.

“Watching her warm up, it was amazing to see how she just blended in to being at this level so easily. It’s just a testimony to the type of athlete she is,” Forster said. “The level of skills she’s able to do for so many years away is really impressive.”

You’re never too old to dream. And it’s never too late to try and make it a reality.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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