By Joanne C. Gerstner | July 26, 2017, 5:31 p.m. (ET)

Ashton Locklear competes on the uneven bars at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Women's Gymnastics at SAP Center on July 10, 2016 in San Jose, Calif.

 

It happens in the blink of an eye in gymnastics.

At first, the promising 13- and 14-year-old elites look up to the veterans with awe. Then the 15- and 16-year-olds push the veterans for the precious spots on national teams and Olympic rosters.

And if you’re competing at the highest level after high school, well, you then graduate to “grandma” status.

Seriously.

Ashton Locklear, an alternate for the 2016 U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team, is reveling in her new role as the experienced leader hopefully taking her turn at the top of international gymnastics. She will be one of the favorites to watch at the U.S. Classic this Saturday in Chicago and the P&G Gymnastics Championships, which run Aug. 17-20 in Anaheim, California.

“The other girls are calling me ‘Grandma Ashton,’ and I love it,” said Locklear, 19, adding a laugh at her new status. “Going into this last year, I was the one looking up to Aly (Raisman), Gabby (Douglas), so me being like the mom is crazy. It’s gone from me saying ‘Grandma Aly,’ to them now saying ‘Grandma Ashton.’”

Locklear is the defending champion on the uneven bars at both the Classic and P&G Championships.

“I’m looking forward to defending my titles, but mainly I am still getting back to where I was last year,” said Locklear, who only competed on the bars and balance beam last year. “I’m working hard, but not at the top of my career where I was. On bars, right now it’s most about getting quality, and on beam, we’re upgrading a few things. Overall, it’s just about upping the quality.”

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At its peak, the quality is certainly there. Had she made the Olympic team, Locklear likely would have been a favorite to win an uneven bars medal in Rio. She never had that opportunity. The U.S. had two elite bars performers to pick from last summer and decided to take just one, Madison Kocian, an all-arounder, who ended up winning the silver medal on bars.

Now Locklear is also working on her other events, in hopes of being a consistent all-around contender in the future.

But the biggest item on her list is improving her confidence. A 2016 Olympic alternate who traveled with the team, she learned a lot from her front-row seat to see Raisman, Douglas, Kocian, Simone Biles and Laurie Hernandez compete and win in Rio.

Biles’ attitude had a particular impact on Locklear.

“Simone is always so confident, she brings it every time, and that’s what I need to do more of too,” Locklear said. “Being more confident is the main thing. Last year, my confidence was a little bit lacking in the Olympic trials. I think having stronger confidence is the way I can improve.”

She termed last year as intense, incredible, but exhausting, taking her from the hectic competition and trials season to Rio, and then straight into touring the country for the post-Games exhibition run.

When it was all over, Locklear needed to decompress, rest and reflect. She took a month off, and has since rededicated herself in the gym.

“That (tour) was a very different experience, to have live audiences every night, sleeping and being on rock star tour buses, shows five nights per week — it’s a lot,” said Locklear, who lives in Charlotte. “It was really fun though to be with the men’s team, the rhythmic, trampoline gymnasts. We were all together for once.

“But I was really tired after all of that and needed to rest.”

The typical Olympic cycle turnover is in play, where the older guard either moves on or takes time off after a grueling run of training and competing. The next wave moves in, hoping to make their mark and improve for the next Olympics.

Locklear says her focus remains competing at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, but she understands she needs to make smart choices to maintain her health. She has suffered from numerous injuries in recent years and is learning new approaches to take care of her body.

She’s into more recovery massages, cleaner nutrition (not that it was bad before), and more quality sleep. Gymnastics is her sole job right now, as she chose to bypass competing for the University of Florida.

“I definitely want to be in it (gymnastics) for another two to three years, and then later on, I’d like to stay in the sport,” Locklear said. “Like Nastia (Liukin), doing commentary, possibly an assistant coach in college. I think I will always be involved in gymnastics in some way.”

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.