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Now 20, Olympic Champ Kyla Ross Embraces Transition To College Gymnastics

By Joanne C. Gerstner | Oct. 24, 2016, 3:30 p.m. (ET)

Kyla Ross performs on the balance beam during the women's team final at the 45th Artistic Gymnastics World Championships at Guangxi Sports Center Stadium on Oct. 8, 2014 in Nanning, China.

Kyla Ross’ uber-elite gymnastics career has taken her around the world, to the top of the Olympic and world championships medal stand, and everywhere in between. Yet even with all of her medals, titles, acclaim and experience, Ross is now getting her bearings in a new phase of her gymnastics career.

Meet Kyla Ross, the college freshman.

Ross, who won an Olympic gold medal as part of the “Fierce Five” at the London 2012 Olympic Games, retired earlier this year from elite gymnastics to become a full-time student and athlete at UCLA.

She’s discovering the stress of midterms, how to juggle assignments and practice, and the best ways to negotiate university life. And today, she’s also celebrating her 20th birthday … by preparing for a big midterm class presentation.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” Ross said. “I’m enjoying being here a lot, the campus, everything. I also love our team, we’re super close.”

The great challenge so far, she says, is time management.

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“We have such a busy schedule: practice, treatment, weights, cardio, school, study hall and peer-learning meetings,” she said. “Planning for all of it is the biggest part. I learned about time management during my elite career, but this is a little different. There are a lot of distractions in college.”

Ross was the youngest member of the “Fierce Five,” turning 16 three months after the London Games. She remained competitive after London, winning silver in the all-around, bars and beam at the 2013 world championships. She followed up in 2014, winning the Pacific Rim balance beam title, and all-around bronze and team gold at worlds.

Although she struggled during the 2015 season, Ross was on track to go for the 2016 Olympic team. But when she continued to struggle with small injuries and wavered in training focus, she made the decision to retire from competitive gymnastics in February 2016. She says she’s still at peace with her major life choice.

However, seeing the Rio Games from afar — instead of being in them — was not easy. Ross was on campus for UCLA summer school, so she had to work in viewing time around classes and workouts.

For a couple of weeks, her new life came crashing into the old one she knew so well.

“It was a little hard to watch,” Ross said. “I watched and wanted to be supportive. I am so close with all of them, they’re friends. I was so happy for them.”

But did Ross second-guess her decision?

“There’s always a few thoughts, but really, I am at ease with the decision to move on from elite gymnastics,” Ross said. “The decision was my own, and my family and coaches supported me. I’m happy where I am.”           

Ross is definitely looking ahead, both to competing for college gymnastics power UCLA, and also to her future career outside of the sport.

She is part of nine freshmen on the Bruins team, including 2016 Rio gold medalist Madison Kocian. There is another Olympic connection, as Ross’ 2012 teammate and friend, Jordyn Wieber, is a volunteer assistant coach for UCLA.

Kocian and Ross kept their amateur/NCAA eligibility through their elite careers, while Wieber decided to turn pro, which is why they have different roles.

Ross said she feels healthy and wants to take this year to fine-tune her gymnastics. Her style remains the same, showcasing powerful routines underpinned with a fluid elegance.

She enjoys being part of a close team, which is a contrast to the individual focus in elite gymnastics. However, Ross has found college gymnastics to be an adjustment, with more conditioning and strength training and less time working in the gym. The opposite was true during her elite career, when she spent hours in the gym trying to perfect her routines.

She likes the change, as she feels her body is stronger and the pounding is reduced from less intense training.

“It’s a great atmosphere,” she said. “It’s a small gym, so we’re all in there cheering for each other, motivating each other.”

She is majoring in bioengineering, wanting to develop medical devices to help in patient treatment. Ross is taking calculus, engineering and sociology this quarter.

She’s had her eye on this field for a while, but don’t look for her to end up in medical school any time in the future.

“Being an athlete and around athletes, I’ve been surrounded by so much about the body, so I knew this would be something I’d like,” Ross said. “But I don’t want to operate — I can’t watch ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ that stuff scares me. I’ll stick to engineering.

“But I have already seen that the classes are no joke. I’m studying a lot.”

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Kyla Ross