Chellsie Memmel competing on the floor at the Visa Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 18, 2011 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
That unquashable sense of competitiveness, the one that drove her to fill her gymnastics routines with wild gymnastics skills and lifted her onto the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team, is alive and well within Chellsie Memmel.
Granted, what once took the form of shoulder-splitting elements on uneven bars and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it acrobatics on balance beam manifests itself somewhat differently today.
What does adult gymnastics look like for a daredevil Olympian whose heart is still in the sport and whose spirit still seeks new challenges? Something like on a recent day, when Memmel found herself balancing precariously atop the higher bar of a set of uneven bars, standing on one foot, left leg stretched out in front of her.
Neither the high bar, diameter approximately 1.5 inches, nor the low bar for that matter, is really made for balancing. Gymnasts stopped trying that half a century ago, when swinging from the hands to become their principal preoccupation on the event. Yet there was Memmel, perched eight feet in the air, with arms outstretched and the concentrated air most apply to the balance beam.
Tried the pike arabian 😍#ilovegymnastics #gymnastics #adultgymnastics pic.twitter.com/oeEjDvWseP— Chellsie Memmel (@CMemmel) August 29, 2019
Slowly, without the help of her arms or her other leg, she lowered herself to a sitting position, then back up to a standing one, again and again. Video of this unorthodox “pistol squat,” a workout staple familiar to gymnasts and anyone who strives to strengthen their quadricep muscles, and the other “Chellsie Challenge” videos peppering Memmel’s social media feeds have drawn acclaim from gymnasts, fans and adults interested in getting into a sport once seen strictly as the domain of children and adolescents.
“I’m constantly surprising myself with what I’m able to do,” she said. “Sometimes (when someone suggests something) I will just laugh and be like, ‘Yeah, okay, sure, I can do that’ — and then I just do.”
Memmel’s gymnastics-based feats of strength, balance and fitness so far have included flipping onto stacked mats and new takes on some of her old combinations.
“I will say a lot comes own to adrenaline and being super duper competitive and when the video camera is on,” she said.
At 31, Memmel, a six-time world medalist, coach, brevet judge and mom of two, is showing that gymnastics is for people of all ages. She’s an adult in a gymnastics gym, striving for improvement, consciously going after her goals and innovating. Recently, she also posted a video of her trying a never-before-seen skill, an Arabian somersault performed in a pike position, on a floor beam, which is a training pad the same width as the balance beam. Gymnastics diehards swooned.
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The “Chellsie Challenge” videos have made Memmel something of a pioneer for older non-competitive gymnasts, and though that wasn’t her reason for posting them, she’s happy to know she’s inspired people to give the sport a try.
“I just kind of started posting them for fun, and it has been really cool to see people doing them and commenting. Our goals at first with our girls was really just to add a little fun into conditioning,” she recalled, invoking the young gymnasts she coaches alongside her parents Andy and Janelle at M&M Gymnastics in New Berlin, Wisconsin, the same gym where she trained to become the 2005 world all-around champion and then a U.S. Olympic team silver medalist.
Friday fun day!!! Taking my pistol squats to the next level 🙃🤷♀️ conquered them on beam with weights so naturally high bar was the next step! Thanks to my sister for filming and the kind word she used to describe me was insane 😆😂#squats #pistolsquat pic.twitter.com/5jlsBjznjW— Chellsie Memmel (@CMemmel) September 6, 2019
“It was really about them. But I was always aware of the other sports where they’re playing into their 40s, the quarterbacks who are in their 40s and at the top of their game. There shouldn’t be a reason that we have to stop just because ‘they’ think we should.”
A shoulder injury forced Memmel to retire before the 2012 Olympic Games, but the love for gymnastics has lingered long past her days of training 40 hours a week. There have been swaths of time, particularly after 2012, when she did nothing in the gym at all. But after giving birth to son Dashel in 2015, she decided to make an effort to regain some of her old fitness. That continued during her second pregnancy in 2017 with daughter Audrielle, where she stretched and exercised more.
Her advice to moms coming into the sport after having children? Work those abs, and recognize that things take time.
“The first leg lift I tried I thought I ripped all of my stomach muscles,” she admitted. “It was a gradual thing.”
There are many who would like to see a Memmel comeback to gymnastics, and while she doesn’t entirely rule it out, she admits it’s unlikely.
“I am having so much fun, and part of that is having that freedom to have fun and the freedom of not doing gymnastics,” she said. “If my body needs a week of not flipping, then I can do that.”
There’s a better chance that young Dashel or Audrielle will be competing, though Memmel makes sure they do plenty of other activities, just as she did when she was a child. But there are indications that the Memmel gymnastics genes are well present in her children.
“They both love to flip. I’m constantly telling them, my couch is not a trampoline. Let’s not do handstands while we’re supposed to be sitting down,” Memmel said. “They’re both really fearless, which terrifies me.”
Blythe Lawrence is a journalist based in Seattle. She has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.