If you don’t know a female team gymnast you might be shocked the first time you hear how many pull-ups, push-ups, or sit-ups they can do (often talked about when the public schools do the Presidential Fitness tests). Or your jaw may drop when you hear how many hours these kiddos train each week. You may also be stunned to learn they train multiple hours per week all year long, not just during gymnastics “season.” And don’t get me started on their muscles. Suffice it to say these girls are RIPPED! Competitive gymnastics is unknown territory to a lot people, let me explain a bit about the process.
In the USAG, there are three “types” of women’s artistic gymnastics: Xcel, Junior Olympics (JO), and Elite. According to the USA Gymnastics (USAG) website, “The Xcel Program is designed to offer a broad-based, affordable competitive experience outside the traditional Jr. Olympic Program to attract and retain a diverse group of athletes.” The Junior Olympic program hosts the majority of competitive gymnasts. It is a program of competitive progression where gymnasts master different skills for each level of competition from levels 1-10. The Elite Program provides competitions for those athletes aspiring to the USA National Team or the Pre-Elite Training Squad. Every four years five Olympic athletes are chosen from the National Team. In each of these programs female athletes compete on four events: vault (VT), Uneven Bars (UB), Balance Beam (BB), and Floor Exercise (FX). The sum of these four event scores is an athlete’s All Around (AA) score.
My family’s experience is with women’s artistic gymnastics and the Junior Olympics program of the USAG organization. As of current, Levels 1-3 are considered “Developmental,” meaning they are for developing proficiency requirements in the USAG Entry and Mobility Chart. Levels 4-5 are “Compulsory” in that they are progressive in nature and require each athlete to compete the exact same routine during competitions. Levels 6-10 are the “Optional” levels. These allow for variety within each athlete’s routine (especially noticeable when each girls gets her own floor music and routine), yet levels 6-9 have difficulty restrictions. Level 10 has no restrictions (and is therefore very exciting to watch!). Women’s Artistic JO Level 1-10 scores range from 0-10.00 for each of the four events. The annual culmination of Levels 1-7 is the State Championship, while qualified Levels 8 and up compete at the Regional level. At Level 9 athletes may also advance to compete at a (Eastern or Western) National Championship, while qualified Level 10s may advance to the National Championships. College gymnasts compete level 9 and 10 skills (or more if they can do those skills very well) and are scored on the same 10.00 scale.
My daughter’s gym (Jaycie Phelps Athletic Center) trains JO team girls from Level 2 to Level 10. As previously mentioned, the girls train year-round with very few breaks. The JO season in Indiana starts as early as October and ends in March-May, depending on the level. During season, the girls rarely miss a practice, “giving up” family, study, and social time because they need to maintain their top physical condition and skills. Teams compete at roughly 5-10 meets per season. Then summer is a time for advanced skill development. So while many kiddos are sleeping in this summer, our team girls are practicing each morning beginning at 8:30 a.m. I am in awe of the dedication, discipline, talent, and mental toughness of these gymnasts! They train more than most athletes I know (20-30 hours/week!), are extremely brave to take on the skills they do, fight through injuries regularly, are incredibly poised, and display fantastic sportsmanship. I have completely enjoyed watching their triumphs and growth through the years. My daughter has made incredible friendships with her teammates and has bonded with athletes and coaches throughout the country in person and via social media because of her love for this sport. As we continue to support her development we know she has a strong work ethic and a mentally tough core skill set that will serve her well in all aspects of life…rooted in her experience as a young gymnast.
The sport is TOUGH! The skills and stamina required are mind-blowing, then add in the physical complexity of injuries, growth spurts and body changes, rest requirements, and the increased competitiveness of any American sport and you end up with an intense regime. My daughter’s gym has a very strong program. The optional gymnasts train 20-30 hours/week year round. So you get the idea that the next issue is retention…as the girls get older, they are introduced to new experiences and maybe a young girl wants to spend more time with friends, family, other activities, schoolwork, etc. and less time in the gym. We know girls who drive or are/have driven hours each day to practice and still attend school full-time. Another young lady lives with a local family during the week, attends virtual school, and trains 30 hours/week.
Obviously, this dedication requires family support (!) and the athlete’s intense love for the sport. While there are tens of thousands of girls in the JO program, the numbers dwindle as the levels increase, down to around 1,600 by the time they reach level 10. Our gym has a small group of girls who are training to someday test for pre-elite or elite competitive status. This status is extremely exclusive, with only around 80 girls in the country competing as elites in any season. While exciting, this is also scary…and expensive…and requires serious commitment. My own 12 year-old just completed her first year of virtual/online school and 30 hour/week practices as she falls into that small group of girls. She had her first injury this season (Sever’s Disease and a subsequent stress fracture of the heel). It kept her out of two events for several meets and out of one meet entirely. And it caused her some pain, too. As parents, we just want the best for our kiddos and want them to be happy, right? So I check in with her often to make sure we are “doing the right thing.” However, it’s a short talk…she happily answers, “yep” and we move on with our day. Tough? Yep. They sure are.
Guest post author Connie Vore is mom to two athletes. Daughter, Jacey, is currently a level 10 gymnast and striving for more! Her son, Jon stays busy year round by playing on the school football and basketball teams and plays travel baseball as well. Connie’s part time job is chauffeur!