Stacey Ervin
Courtesy Stacey Ervin Jr.

Riding The Wave: How Stacey Ervin went from gymnastics to WWE, and why he left

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About a year after his WWE tryout, and about eight months after signing with the organization, former U.S. national team gymnast Stacey Ervin Jr. hit a milestone.

“I was told that I was the fastest ever to go from no wrestling experience to a TV match,” he said.

Ervin made his WWE Network debut as part of an NXT tag team with Humberto Carrillo against the Street Profits on Feb. 13. It would be his first and last TV match. A belly-to-back suplex gone wrong left Ervin landing on the back of his head and viewers wondering if he broke his neck or suffered a concussion.

“That is not true, actually,” said Ervin, who continued in the match, even nailing a tsunami-sault, and later shared video on social media with a woozy face emoji. “I didn’t suffer a concussion, but I did have a scary spill.”

That served as a catalyst for Ervin’s decision a month later to walk away from a promising career at age 25. His goal — headlining WrestleMania — unmet.

“I don’t walk away from the company with any negative feeling,” Ervin stressed. “Everyone that’s with me has been very supportive and looking out for my best interests.”

Ervin was 7 or 8 years old when his mom, Stephanie Hayes, suggested gymnastics after he ran across a balance beam at a rec center.

“Kind of freaked out the instructor,” Ervin said on the GymCastic podcast in 2013. “They pointed us to a different facility, which was Michigan Academy of Gymnastics.”

Ervin proved a natural. He was profiled by the Detroit News at age 12 and a U.S. junior champion on vault at 16. He matriculated at the University of Michigan, where he would be part of an NCAA champion team and place third on floor exercise.

Before his freshman season, Ervin’s mom died of T-Cell lymphoma.

“I struggled dealing with grief over her death,” he told the University of Michigan Depression Center. “Not to mention living in a new environment with increased athletic and academic demands. I consistently found myself alone, spiraling downward.”

The Michigan team helped. Gymnasts and coaches attended his mom’s memorial service, months before Ervin would don the maize and blue in competition for the first time.

The most meaningful of Ervin’s seven tattoos is his first one — a cross with a ribbon wrapped around it topped with “Mom” on the left side of his ribcage. His second tattoo, on his right chest, was his Michigan team’s mantra — “The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack” — from Rudyard Kipling‘s “The Law of the Jungle.”

“It also resonated with me as an individual,” Ervin said. “I like to think of myself as a leader, and I don’t want to be the one to hold any community back that I’m a part of.”

Ervin graduated from Michigan in 2015 and began working for Oracle as a customer success manager in Austin, Texas. He soon became discontented with spending eight hours a day at a desk.

Through a friend, Ervin found a path back to gymnastics in early 2017. He interviewed with Nellie Biles and became a coach (and then a director) at the Biles’ gym, World Champions Centre at Spring, Texas. By August of that year, he and Nellie’s daughter, Simone, were an Instagram official couple. They had met at the 2013 U.S. Championships, but didn’t know each other extremely well until he moved to Texas.

But Ervin still sought an energetic, competitive outlet. He took part in an American Ninja Warrior qualifier. He also brought up another idea to his girlfriend. What about the WWE?

“Before really knowing what it was or anything, I automatically said no,” Biles said. “[Later] I was like, actually, that would be pretty cool. I would always watch like ‘Total Divas’ and that all the time. So I was kind of a little bit familiar with it, but not the guys’ side, I guess.

“I thought they, like, beat each other up. They do, but it’s in kind of a safer way. It’s not like UFC. You’re not trying to kill them. This is to entertain.”

Biles kept her mind open and, apparently, her eyes peeled. She woke from an airplane nap to see wrestling on the TV in the seat next to her. She saw a WWE billboard while driving. She had a dream about it.

Then in September 2017, Biles was in New York City for a benefit for The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis. So was Paul Levesque, better known as WWE superstar turned executive Triple H, and his wife, Stephanie McMahon. Biles texted Ervin and asked if she should approach the bulging man 20 inches taller and double her weight. Ervin said no.

“I’m like, it’s too late, Stacey, I’m already talking to them,” she said. “Then I started showing him pictures of Stacey. He said, well we have these open tryouts, here’s a card.”

Ervin tried out in February 2018. He described it as “an overall test of physicality and personality.” Every one of the nearly 40 prospects had to give a minute-long monologue in front of the group, plus coaches and executives.

“I let everyone know that I’m here on purpose,” he said. “I’m here to do this because it’s on cue with who I am and that I’m going to be the next great WWE superstar.

“I had never really gotten away from staying in shape from gymnastics. I think they were rather impressed with what I was able to.”

Ervin believed that when he started with the WWE’s developmental NXT promotion last July, he was the first male gymnast to do so. WWE spokespersons declined interview requests for this story.

He thought decision-makers liked not only his athleticism, but also the charisma that dripped from the curls he began growing out the day before his 23rd birthday.

“The technical aspects of working a match and wrestling, those presented the biggest challenges to me,” the psychology graduate said, comparing it to coding computer software.

For both Ervin and Biles, nerves came with watching the other compete.

“I don’t know,” she said last fall. “It still looks like they’re beating each other up.”

Then came the night before Valentine’s Day, when Ervin landed on the back of his head in his TV debut. He had already been questioning the career. Other opportunities sprung in health and fitness.

“I made a 17-year gymnastics career and pretty successfully walked away with no injuries that would impair me to function at any other level,” Ervin said while noting he knew what he was signing up for with WWE. “It occurred to me that the risk versus reward through my path at WWE just wasn’t worth it to me personally. I felt there were other ways for me to achieve my personal vision without risking life and limb.”

Just before Ervin decided he wanted to walk away, he tuned into John Oliver‘s “Last Week Tonight” segment on the WWE and how it takes care of its wrestlers.

“When I watched that, I wasn’t blown away,” Ervin said. “This is exactly what I’m going through.” Ervin went public with his decision last week via Instagram. His amicable release from WWE is expected to become official later this week. He remains a WWE fan.

“Even more so now because I’m seeing friends and people that I know who are super passionate about it,” he said. “I still have my wrestling trunks and my attire. I’ll probably be hanging onto that.”

Ervin transitioned his persona — “The Wave” — into a health and fitness venture, starting from the ground up with help from friends. His Instagram stories — broadcast to 122,000 followers — are a daily diary of diet and wellness. He launched a website and a $25 workout guide last month.

Ervin says his “The Wave” philosophy is the reason why he chased the WWE dream and the reason why he ultimately gave it up.

“Be one with the path, so to speak,” he said. “Ride your path. Ride your intentions. Ride your intuition. You know, ride the wave.”

MORE: Simone Biles talks anxiety medicine, therapy in up-and-down year

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Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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