For Olympic gymnasts, turning pro a complicated choice

Jordyn Wieber
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The end of her gymnastics career hit Jordyn Wieber suddenly. Too far removed from high-intensity training and ineligible to compete in college because she turned pro in high school, the 2011 world champion and 2012 Olympic gold medalist needed a place to vent.

So Wieber — at the time a student manager for the UCLA women’s program — made her way to the office of Bruins’ coach Valorie Kondos Field and wept.

“She kept asking, ‘Is there a way to give the money back?'” Kondos Field said.

Wieber insists the reaction was the byproduct of the emotional decision to formally retire nearly three years after helping her “Fierce Five” teammates overwhelm the field in London. Though she understood what she was giving up when she opted to turn professional at 17, that doesn’t necessarily mean she believes it’s fair.

“It’s kind of a bummer,” said Wieber, now a 21-year-old volunteer assistant coach with the Bruins. “Gymnastics should be the exception. It’s too bad girls can’t do both because gymnastics is so unique.”

The dilemma Wieber faced five years ago — one current U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team members Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian also face as they prepare for Rio de Janeiro next month — is different than the one other young athletes wrestle with when deciding whether to sign away their amateur status.

For top football and basketball players, turning pro means a chance at a signing a lucrative contract and competing at the highest level. Many aren’t finished products but are drafted based on raw ability that can be molded as they mature.

It’s not the same for elite female gymnasts like Wieber, who typically reach their prime in their late teens and who view the team-oriented nature of college gymnastics as a fun escape after years of trying to survive the sometimes lonely grind of training for the national team. Their biggest paydays as professionals don’t come from player contracts or performance bonuses, but endorsements.

There’s money to be made if you end up standing atop the podium at the Olympics with “The Star Spangled Banner” playing and your sport’s most coveted prize draped over your neck. The key is figuring out whether it’s worth sacrificing a college scholarship.

It’s a leap three-time world champion and heavy Olympic favorite Simone Biles opted to make last year when she pulled out of an offer from UCLA to sign with an agent. Biles was committed to joining the Bruins — there was even a plaque in the gym her family owns that featured Biles wearing a blue UCLA-inscribed polo — before the math became blatantly one-sided. The coach pleaded her case to the Biles family, but figured it’s akin to a college basketball coach asking LeBron James to do the same back in 2003.

“I had to try,” Kondos Field said. “With what she’s looking at, though, you can’t blame her.”

Biles is already pitching everything from Nike to United Airlines as part of a pre-Olympic rollout that could make her one of the faces of the 2016 Games if she heads back home in August with her backpack stuffed with gold.

The choice also was easy for reigning Olympic champion Gabby Douglas and three-time medalist Aly Raisman, who both turned pro before the 2012 Games and have created a healthy living for themselves since London while also carving out return trips to the Olympics.

For their less heralded teammates, things are dicier. The window to cash in is short. For those that turn pro but don’t have a breakthrough moment at the games, any potential windfall can be meager by comparison to those who repeatedly have their triumphs broadcast into living rooms across the world. How much? At least $1 million in the first year after the games.

“When you’re No. 1 or No. 2 it’s absolutely something you should do,” said agent Sheryl Shade, who has spent more than 20 years representing high-profile Olympic athletes, including 2008 all-around champion Nastia Liukin and four-time medalist Shawn Johnson. “When you’re No. 5, the opportunity might not be there.”

Liukin and Johnson became household names after they combined for eight medals in Beijing in 2008, each appearing on “Dancing With The Stars” and carving out comfortable post-Olympic lifestyles while also saving enough money to pay for college. Liukin just completed her degree at NYU; Johnson is working toward one of her own.

Yet the risk/reward balance is better measured by the path of one of their Olympic teammates.

Bridget Sloan earned a team silver in Beijing as 16-year-old then captured the all-around title at the 2009 world championships — a big accomplishment, but not one that’s going to have agents trying to friend her on Facebook in a non-Olympic year. Her parents told her she could explore her options. She just needed to be sure she was going to earn enough to pay for college … twice.

“I mean, I was never a superstar. I was good but I’d gone to the Olympics just once,” Sloan said. “In the real world, I was still a 17-year-old. You have to look at the big picture. At 17 that’s really hard to do.”

So she remained an amateur, and the only “payment” she ever received was the 2008 Jeep Patriot her parents paid for as a reward for a world title. Her bid to make the 2012 Olympic team ended due to a hand injury at Olympic Trials, though she hardly pouted. Sloan practically sprinted to Gainesville, Florida, where she led the Gators to three NCAA titles while earning two all-around crowns for herself before graduating this spring.

Looking back, Sloan believes turning pro would have been “the biggest mistake of my life” even though she understands not accepting money put her parents on the hook for a large portion of the financial burden it takes to train at the elite level, a bill that can soar into the tens of thousands a year in coaching fees and travel costs. Then again, it can look like wise investment considering the value of a college gymnastics scholarship can reach well into six figures.

The futures for this year’s team are still forming. Kocian, an 18-year-old Texan, says she has no plans to change her mind on joining UCLA, no matter how high she flies in Rio. Hernandez, a 16-year-old from New Jersey, verbally committed to Florida but has several years before she’ll be heading to college and is in no hurry to figure out her path until after the Olympics.

“I’m sure maybe we’ll talk about it soon but I haven’t given any thought into the future,” Hernandez said after Olympic Trials.

Smart move. The vast majority of the pre-Olympic marketing money has already been spent. The coffers may open, however, if Hernandez makes the podium multiple times in Rio. If that happens, the crossroads await.

MORE: Jordyn Wieber announces gymnastics retirement

Joel Embiid gains U.S. citizenship, mum on Olympic nationality

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Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid said he is now a U.S. citizen and it’s way too early to think about what nation he would represent at the Olympics.

“I just want to be healthy and win a championship and go from there,” he said, according to The Associated Press.

Embiid, 28, was born in Cameroon and has never competed in a major international tournament. In July, he gained French nationality, a step toward being able to represent that nation at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

In the spring, French media reported that Embiid started the process to become eligible to represent France in international basketball, quoting national team general manager Boris Diaw.

Embiid was second in NBA MVP voting this season behind Serbian Nikola Jokic. He was the All-NBA second team center.

What nation Embiid represents could have a major impact on the Paris Games.

In Tokyo, a French team led by another center, Rudy Gobert, handed the U.S. its first Olympic defeat since 2004. That was in group play. The Americans then beat the French in the gold-medal game 87-82.

That France team had five NBA players to the U.S.’ 12: Nicolas BatumEvan FournierTimothe Luwawu-CabarrotFrank Ntilikina and Gobert.

Anthony Davis, who skipped the Tokyo Olympics, is the lone U.S. center to make an All-NBA team in the last five seasons. In that time, Embiid made four All-NBA second teams and Gobert made three All-NBA third teams.

No Olympic team other than the U.S. has ever had two reigning All-NBA players on its roster.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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LA 2028, Delta unveil first-of-its-kind emblems for Olympics, Paralympics

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Emblems for the 2028 Los Angeles Games that include logos of Delta Air Lines is the first integration of its kind in Olympic and Paralympic history.

Organizers released the latest set of emblems for the LA 2028 Olympics and Paralympics on Thursday, each with a Delta symbol occupying the “A” spot in LA 28.

Two years ago, the LA 2028 logo concept was unveiled with an ever-changing “A” that allowed for infinite possibilities. Many athletes already created their own logos, as has NBC.

“You can make your own,” LA28 chairperson Casey Wasserman said in 2020. “There’s not one way to represent Los Angeles, and there is strength in our diverse cultures. We have to represent the creativity and imagination of Los Angeles, the diversity of our community and the big dreams the Olympic and Paralympic Games provide.”

Also in 2020, Delta was announced as LA 2028’s inaugural founding partner. Becoming the first partner to have an integrated LA 2028 emblem was “extremely important for us,” said Emmakate Young, Delta’s managing director, brand marketing and sponsorships.

“It is a symbol of our partnership with LA, our commitment to the people there, as well as those who come through LA, and a commitment to the Olympics,” she said.

The ever-changing emblem succeeds an angelic bid logo unveiled in February 2016 when the city was going for the 2024 Games, along with the slogan, “Follow the Sun.” In July 2017, the IOC made a historic double awarding of the Olympics and Paralympics — to Paris for 2024 and Los Angeles for 2028.

The U.S. will host its first Olympics and Paralympics since 2002 (and first Summer Games since 1996), ending its longest drought between hosting the Games since the 28-year gap between 1932 and 1960.

Delta began an eight-year Olympic partnership in 2021, becoming the official airline of Team USA and the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

Athletes flew to this year’s Winter Games in Beijing on chartered Delta flights and will do so for every Games through at least 2028.

Previously, Delta sponsored the last two Olympics held in the U.S. — the 1996 Atlanta Games and the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.

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