Bridget Sloan

Jordyn Wieber
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For Olympic gymnasts, turning pro a complicated choice

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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

Bridget Sloan eyes final NCAA season, 8 years after Olympic silver

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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?

Sloan smiled.

“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.”

MORE GYMNASTICS: Nastia Liukin details 2012 Olympic trials in book excerpt

*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.

A recent history of U.S. Olympic gymnastics comebacks

Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman
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Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman seemed pleased with their return to competitive gymnastics in Italy on Saturday, their first meet since each won two gold medals at the London Olympics.

But history is not on their side on the road to the Rio 2016 Games.

Douglas, Raisman and McKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross are trying to become the first U.S. women’s gymnasts to make back-to-back Olympic teams since Dominique Dawes and Amy Chow in 2000.

Since 2000, six U.S. Olympians tried and failed to return to the Games four years later. They included Olympic and World all-around champions, even gymnasts who won U.S. and World titles in the years leading into their squashed repeat bids.

The 2012 quartet fights not only a younger generation of gymnasts to make the five-woman 2016 Olympic team but also this history of the last six Olympians who attempted the same:

Nastia Liukin
2008 Olympic all-around champion

Liukin returned the season after the Beijing Olympics, placing fourth on the balance beam at the 2009 U.S. Championships. She announced a break from the sport two weeks later, citing not being in the physical shape she would like to compete and withdrawing from 2009 World Championships consideration.

Another two years passed before Liukin announced she was training for the 2012 Olympics. She returned to competition in May 2012. Her best finishes at the 2012 U.S. Championships and the U.S. Olympic Trials were sixth and seventh on the balance beam, respectively, missing the five-woman London Olympic team.

Shawn Johnson
2008 Olympic all-around silver medalist

Johnson went on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2009, and won, and then blew out her left knee in a January 2010 skiing accident. She took part in her first U.S. national team camp since the Beijing Olympics in November 2010 and returned to competition in 2011, with a best finish of fourth on balance beam at the U.S. Championships.

Johnson was the second alternate for the 2011 World Championships team and competed at the Pan American Games, placing second on uneven bars.

In June 2012, Johnson announced her retirement, four days before the U.S. Championships, citing continued problems with her left knee.

Alicia Sacramone
Ten-time World Championships medalist

Sacramone, the oldest member of the 2008 Olympic team, briefly retired in 2009 but returned to competition in 2010, winning the World title on vault. She claimed the U.S. balance beam title in 2011 but tore an Achilles tendon during World Championships training.

She endured, captured her sixth national title on vault and placed second on vault and beam at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. But she was not named to the U.S. Olympic team, which already had strong vaulters with all-around prowess.

Chellsie Memmel
2005 World all-around champion

Memmel competed at the 2009 U.S. Championships, placing eighth on balance beam, and then sat out 2010. She placed second in the all-around at the 2011 U.S. Classic, a U.S. Championships tune-up meet. At Nationals, she was eighth in the all-around and second on balance beam.

Memmel did not make the 2011 World Championships team but was selected for the Pan American Games. She withdrew before the Pan Am Games with a shoulder injury, which required surgeries in September 2011 and February 2012.

She competed once more, falling twice on the beam at the 2012 U.S. Classic, failing to meet a qualifying score and having her petition to compete at the 2012 U.S. Championships rejected.

Bridget Sloan
2009 World all-around champion

Sloan, the youngest member of the 2008 Olympic team, emerged as the world’s best gymnast the year after the Beijing Games. She won the U.S. and World Championships all-arounds.

She was limited by an ankle injury and a torn pectoral in 2010, keeping her from defending her U.S. all-around title. She still made it to the World Championships, where she placed fourth on the uneven bars.

In 2011, she joined Johnson on the Pan American Games team, which proved to be Sloan’s final international competition. Sloan placed 10th in the all-around at the 2012 U.S. Championships but suffered an elbow injury in warm-ups at the Olympic Trials and withdrew.

Tasha Schwikert
2001 and 2002 U.S. all-around champion

Schwikert, a 2000 Olympic alternate who competed in Sydney due to another gymnast’s injury, was the only member of the 2000 or 2004 U.S. Olympic teams who attempted to earn a spot at a second Games.

She captured U.S. all-around titles in 2001 and 2002 and was second to 2004 Olympian Courtney Kupets in 2003.

In 2004, Schwikert was third in the all-around after one of two days at the U.S. Championships, competing with a sore right Achilles. But she fell to ninth after the second day and was an alternate for the Athens 2004 Olympics. That time, she did not get called up to compete.

Catalina Ponor, three-time gymnastics gold medalist, eyes Rio 2016 Olympics comeback