GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In 2012, Bridget Sloan‘s eyes welled as she came to grips with the end of her elite gymnastics career, speaking about withdrawing shortly before competition began at the U.S. Olympic trials in San Jose.
“Everything happens for a reason, so this was just kind of my time,” said Sloan, the youngest member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team who had just ended her bid to make back-to-back Olympic teams due to an elbow injury.
Sloan breathed deeply. Then came another question — are you optimistic that you’ll compete for the University of Florida in 2013?
“Oh, heck yeah,” she said, swatting her right hand. “I do not like to go down without a fight. … I’ll head down to Florida, have a great time, and I will win NCAAs. I plan on going down to school and taking names.”
Sloan did just that in her first three years in Gainesville and is beginning the final season of one of the most decorated careers in the sport’s history.
No other gymnast comes close to Sloan’s résumé — an Olympic medal (silver with the U.S. in Beijing), a World all-around title (in 2009), an NCAA all-around title (2013) and three NCAA team titles (2013, 2014, 2015).
And it’s hard to believe many Olympians in any sports taking part in NCAA competition more than seven years after an Olympic appearance. Tasha Schwikert, the youngest member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, competed for UCLA through 2008.
The UF gymnastics season began with an intrasquad meet on Thursday. Full-fledged competition starts Jan. 8. Sloan, 23, who started elite-level gymnastics at age 10, will perform her last routine no later than the NCAA Championships in mid-April.
“I don’t really know if I’ll be that emotional,” Sloan said recently, sitting on a couch outside of an indoor UF practice facility with her image decorating the walls in no fewer than seven places. “I kind of have already been through this with elite. Once that elite career is over, I was like peace out I’m going to college. So many people were like, ‘Are you going to be sad that your [elite] career ended the way it did?’ Obviously it could have ended a little differently, but I am very good at putting all of my memories in little compartments in my brain.”
Sloan verbally committed to Florida in 2011, but she first chose college gymnastics over turning professional soon after winning the 2009 World all-around title.
“I really had to think about, did I want to do college, or did I want to take money?” Sloan said of possibly giving up the opportunity for a Division I scholarship. “And it was actually a really hard decision for me simply because the money was there, I thought it was a lot of money, but in my parents’ eyes, it wasn’t enough to pay for college and have a good amount left over after college.
“So it kind of came down to all right, do I want gymnastics to be a job, or do I want to continue to compete, graduate [from high school in Indiana], figure out if I want to try for 2012 and then go off to college? … If I would’ve taken money in 2009, I would not be a three-time national [team] champion, I would not be a Florida Gator, I’d be living with my parents at home, because I would have no money, because after 2009 was when my injuries started.”
Sloan couldn’t defend her U.S. all-around title in 2010 due to an ankle injury and a torn pectoral but made it back for the 2011 Pan American Games, which proved to be her final international competition.
She enrolled at Florida after the teary withdrawal from the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, transitioned to college gymnastics (generally less difficult routines but a much busier competition schedule) and won the NCAA all-around title as a freshman.
Sloan’s biggest setback at UF came Jan. 11, when she suffered a severe right ankle sprain on her final tumbling pass at a meet at Ball State, about 70 miles east of her Pittsboro, Ind., hometown.
She was fitted with a walking boot and crutches yet returned to compete Feb. 20. Then, on March 13, Sloan scored a perfect 10 on uneven bars to become the eighth gymnast to record a “GymSlam,” recording 10s on all four events in her NCAA career.
Other Olympians like Schwikert and 2004 team members Courtney Kupets, Terin Humphrey and Courtney McCool went on to compete in college.
But more recent U.S. Olympic women’s gymnasts are bypassing NCAA by turning pro — such as four of the five 2012 team members — and, already, top 2016 hopeful Simone Biles.
“There are way more professional than there were in my time,” Sloan said. “Growing up, you had a select few. I remember [2004 Olympic all-around champion] Carly Patterson was a professional gymnast, it just blew my mind. I can’t even imagine getting paid for doing gymnastics. Again, it turns into your job. I didn’t want to take the fun out of gymnastics. College has been a way for me to put the fun back into gymnastics.
“There are some girls that took the money, and it’s done amazing things for them, which I applaud them in that, but it’s very difficult to get that.”
Such as Jordyn Wieber, who won the 2011 World all-around title, turned pro and then missed the 2012 Olympic all-around final.
Wieber enrolled at UCLA and helps as a team manager as she’s not allowed to compete.
“I’ve spoken to Jordyn,” Sloan said. “She’s so happy where she’s at. I think she’s very content at getting this amazing college experience.
“There are some girls that you never even knew took money. Those are the girls that I feel for a little bit because I wish they would have gotten that college experience.”
Sloan said she may want to continue in the sport in a non-competitive capacity after she graduates from UF. A communications major who has learned from the likes of Chad Ochocinco, she’d like to work for Nike or commentate for the SEC Network.
But first is one more season.
It comes after Marvin Sharp, her longtime Indiana coach until Sloan left for UF, was found dead in his jail cell in September, less than a month after being arrested on child molestation charges.
“All the happenings involving Marvin this fall was stunning,” Sloan said, according to the University of Florida Athletic Association. “Marvin was my coach. He helped me reach my goals. Marvin also helped me set goals I perhaps didn’t realize were in my reach, like the Olympics or World Championships. What happened this fall with Marvin is probably something I’ll never fully understand.”
Sloan’s drive, when she could rest on her unequaled accolades, is evident in her attempts to upgrade difficulty in her routines in practice this fall.
It’s left an impression on UF coach Jenny Rowland, hired in May after Rhonda Faehn left Gainesville to become the senior vice president of USA Gymnastics’ women’s program.
Rowland said she was a judge at Sloan’s first international competition at age 12.
“The athlete that Bridget was in Beijing, really, I would say she still has that exact same competitive nature today,” Rowland said. “She’s very vocal that she’s the grandma of the group, but at the same time she never complains about it.”
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*Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated Sloan was the seventh gymnast to complete a “GymSlam.”
*Clarification: A reference to a change in Sloan’s USA Gymnastics biography page in an earlier version of this post has been deleted as the change was computer-generated, according to USA Gymnastics.