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No one hangs up their shoes (or cleats, rackets, helmets, bats, swim caps or leotards) without having spent considerable time nursing injuries, be they broken bones, concussions, torn muscles or just general wear and tear. They train hard, usually from a very young age, they dedicate their lives to competing and they’ll spend every day after turning 30 fighting the notion that they’re “past their prime.” More and more these days we’re hearing about eating disorders, the pressure to use performance-enhancing drugs and struggles with depression and anxiety.
Women’s gymnastics is a sport that’s notoriously hard on the body and for the most part they have an unusually small window of peak performance and marketability, and are done competing at the most elite levels past the age of 22.
Which means, basically, that to call them “women” half the time is a stretch. They’re basically girls. Or they certainly started out as girls. Children.
Even once they’re 18, they’ve foregone a so-called “normal childhood” and spent nearly all of their waking hours devoted to gymnastics, sacrificing friends, dating, sleeping in, junk food and often even regularly scheduled school to train.
They’re phenomenal athletes, possessors of a physical strength and mental fortitude that most mere mortals can only look up to.
But at the end of the day, they’re kids, competing for a handful of spots that open up every four years for their sport’s biggest stage—the Summer Olympics—and running themselves ragged in between for regional, national and international competition. There’s also a choice to be made when it comes to remaining eligible to compete in college and going pro. Gymnasts can’t do both. Moreover, NCAA rules don’t allow student athletes to accept the endorsements that have separated the names you know—Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Shawn Johnson, Dominique Dawes—from the ones you don’t.
“It’s kind of a bummer,” Jordyn Wieber, who went pro after high school and won team gold with Douglas at the 2012 Summer Olympics but therefore couldn’t compete as a student at UCLA afterward, told NBC Sports last year. “Gymnastics…