For anyone interested in joining the US Gymnastics team, the national team that competes at various sponsored and Olympic events, it is a long and arduous road.
Not only is it a lengthy process, but there is no guarantee that if you go through it that you’ll actually be selected. The prestigious team will typically only select the most promising gymnasts from around the country.
Before we can even discuss the process, we must first understand the stringent requirements that are set for national level gymnasts.
Like most other sports, Gymnastics has a peak age range. For basketball, that’s usually when you’re at your peak for stamina and reflexes. For boxing, this is in your late 20’s and early 30’s, when your bone density and strength are at their highest point. For gymnastics, however, this peak is often in the late teens. While it’s not unheard of for individuals to compete at the Olympic level for many years, with a few still remaining competitive into their late 20’s, it is very rare due to the harsh nature of the sport.
This is due to the difficulty, complexity, and skill required of them, particularly for Artistic and Rhythmic gymnasts. Artistic gymnastics involves performing extremely specific individual or series of actions on complicated, and dangerous, apparatuses. Namely the balance beam, uneven bars and the vaulting platform. Even for floor routines, in order to be competitive, they have to perform a number of very difficult jumps, flips, and spins, which can be harsh
Unlike basketball or boxing, you aren’t competing directly against an opponent. Instead, you need to complete routines that you dictate ahead of time, and your final score is dependent on the difficulty of the difficulties and risks included in your routine and how precisely you execute them. The scoring system was created specifically so that only the absolute best can compete at the top levels of the sport.
The actual actions included in the routine themselves strongly influence this age limitation. In your teens, you aren’t at your strongest, but your strength to weight ratio is at its highest. By the time you’re 20, your bone density increases your overall weight, and while that makes for stronger bones, it also means that even at your peak strength, you cannot pull off some of the more difficult maneuvers, which often require jumping high, flipping and other actions that necessitate a high strength to weight ratio. Add to that the fact that these jumps mean that your now heavier bones are applying more force to the cartilage in your joints means you’re more likely to be injured.
In your late teens, you’re at that sweet spot where your ability to recover, thanks to the vigor of youth and some natural growth hormones, is much better.
Another major limitation for joining the US Gymnastics team comes from this age limit and the sheer difficulty of the sport. Resilience of the joints is absolutely essential for a Gymnast, because even when you’re not flying through the air, you’re still required to demonstrate incredible flexibility. Add to that the fact that the actual skills required to perform most routines are extraordinarily high, thanks in part to the rating system, and it’s not really something you can just pick up in a few months. It takes years. Years of slowly stretching out your tendons and ligaments to the limits of what the human body can tolerate. Years of pounding your cartilage until it becomes hard and durable, able to withstand the tremendous forces exerted upon it by the various difficulties included in your routines.
As a result, it is only feasible to achieve the peak level of gymnastic performance by beginning when you’re very young. Particularly for Artistic and Rhythmic gymnastics.
Most of the gymnasts from the US Gymnastics team started when they were small children, some as young as 2 or 3, attending tumbling classes and youth gymnastics. In these classes, the rapidly growing body of a child can achieve the greatest rate of progress in this particular area of physical conditioning than at any other age. By constantly training the body to be more flexible, and the joints to be stronger, the way these children grow is actively sculpted, changed to make their bodies better suited to gymnastics.
While thousands of young children around the US, and the world, enter into gymnastics in their youth, even then there has to be a level of dedication or natural talent that separates you from the rest. Instructors who see promise in their young students will then often recommend that they seek out the more serious training programs, where coaches can dedicate more time to each individual gymnast.
Eventually, after years of grueling training, they’ll begin to compete in various gymnastics meets, typically at the age of 13. This is usually the beginning of their peak in the sport, but several years before they’re old enough to compete at the national level. It is here that they will work to make a name for themselves, hopefully being considered one of the elites by the USAG. You need to be an elite to qualify for the Olympics.
Those that are in the top of the Junior division of their disciplines often dedicate even more of their time to training. There are special schools that have a curriculum built around their gymnastics training schedule to allow them the ideal amount of time spent in the gym.
Once they prove themselves through these various local, regional and junior national meets, and are of the appropriate age to compete. Once they reach the age of 16, firmly in the middle of this peak age for gymnastics, they are allowed to compete in the senior division. The best of those from the Junior competitions will be recruited to the Senior team and compete in various international competitions, as well as the Olympics.
If that is your goal for you or your child, then the process is difficult, but fairly straight forward. Enroll in youth gymnastics classes, then once a foundation has been built up, seek out a more extensive training program. With enough hard work and dedication, that will put you or your child on the right track to eventually earn a spot on the US Gymnastics team.