When MyKayla Skinner announced in 2019 she was foregoing her final year of college to pursue her Olympic dream one more time, many doubted her on the account that post-collegiate comebacks are rare and difficult in women’s gymnastics. She exceeded expectations. Not only was she selected to represent Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics, but she won a silver medal for herself on vault as well.
Skinner’s achievement is impressive in its own right, but it’s even more so when put in perspective. Indeed, in the history of the sport, only three female gymnasts managed to fulfil their Olympic dream after fully completing their college careers, both athletically and academically. In addition to these three, Kelly Garrison was selected for the 1988 Olympics after competing for two seasons with the Sooners. Similarly to Skinner, her Olympic achievement prompted her to turn pro, losing her remaining college eligibility.
The first gymnast to complete her college career before competing at the Games was Olympic silver medalist Mohini Bhardwaj. After getting very close to making the Olympic team in 1996, Bhardwaj competed for UCLA from 1998 to 2001 and resumed elite training only after graduation, eventually being selected for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team.
After a 12-year hiatus, in 2016 Houry Gebeshian qualified to the Rio Olympics five years after graduating from Iowa. A U.S.-born gymnast of Armenian heritage, Gebeshian originally applied for an Armenian passport to represent the country at the 2012 Olympics. After failing to qualify for the London Games, she took almost three years off of gymnastics before giving her dream another try and eventually qualifying to Rio.
Finally, this year Danusia Francis represented Jamaica at the Tokyo Olympics. Like Skinner in 2016, Francis was an alternate to the 2012 British Olympic team before joining UCLA where she competed from 2013 to 2016. During college, she applied for a Jamaican passport aiming at the Rio Games, but after failing to be selected, she decided to try one more time, eventually achieving her dream in 2021.
For both Bhardwaj and Francis, the Olympics was a childhood dream, and getting so close but ultimately failing on their first attempts before college left them feeling bittersweet.
Bhardwaj first dreamed of going to the Olympics in 1984 when she was six years old. “I watched the Olympics in 1984. It was in LA, and it was hosted in Pauley Pavilion,” Bhardwaj said. “That started my whole, ‘OK, I want to go to the Olympics, and I want to go to UCLA.’”
Not making the team in 1996 left her battling with contrasting emotions. “I was devastated, but I knew I was going to college and I was really excited about that,” she said. “Also, in the back of my mind, I don’t think I was confident enough. I didn’t really think that I was going to make that 1996 Olympic team. So it wasn’t necessarily what I expected, but I also wasn’t really upset that I didn’t get it.”
Sixteen years later, Francis was also six years old when she first dreamed of going to the Olympics. “I was watching the 2000 Olympics, I loved gymnastics already and I realized that you can go to the Olympics, so that was a whole new thing,” she said. “That was the first time when I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go.’ Obviously at that time I had no idea if I had the potential.”
When in 2012 Francis was named an alternate to the British Olympic team, she felt a mix of pride and disappointment. “I was disappointed because growing up, [you] got one shot at the Olympics when you first became eligible age-wise. So in my head I was like, ‘I’d make it or I wouldn’t,’” she explained. “Then going to college, they did loads of different celebrations for the Olympians, and they would include me in all of them. And I kept telling people, ‘I was just reserve.’ But at UCLA they really counted that as you being an Olympian, so that helped me see it as an achievement.”
Gebeshian’s love story with the Olympics was different, as she didn’t really start thinking about it until she was in high school, and even then she wasn’t serious about it. “My mom encouraged me to do it when I was in high school, and I thought that that was crazy,” she said. “Every mother thinks their daughter is going to make it to the Olympics, but I was like, ‘Elite gymnastics? I’m nowhere near there.’ So I kind of brushed it to the side.”
It was only when she got to college that a change of perspective prompted Gebeshian to think she stood a chance of making it to the Games. “What you see on TV when you’re living in the United States is the U.S. athletes and the level of gymnastics that they’re competing at. There’s only five people who qualify for that team, and I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to qualify,’” she explained.
When the conversation came up with her family about competing for Armenia, however, Gebeshian began to look into her options from a different angle. “I got the reassurance from my college coaches being like, ‘You’re probably good enough, we need to adjust some things, but you should be up to the level; let’s give it a try,” she said, referring to Larissa Libby and Linas Gaveika, who were both former international elite gymnasts. “That’s people who actually know gymnastics, so I definitely was going to believe them.”
For Bhardwaj and Francis, too, college was instrumental in their decision to continue to pursue their Olympic dream. While for her first three years at UCLA Bhardwaj believed her elite career to be over, the addition to the roster of 2000 U.S. Olympians Kristen Maloney and Tasha Schwikert in her senior year changed her mind. “They kept telling me, ‘You have so many skills, you should try, you’re good, you would have made the 2000 team.’ So I think hearing that from my teammates gave me a little bit more motivation,” Bhardwaj said. “I also felt I wasn’t really done competing. I didn’t want to be finished with gymnastics after college.”
For Francis, it was the different mindset she developed toward competing at UCLA that fueled her dream of continuing elite in pursuit of the next Olympics. “I was just enjoying college so much—my body was good and my mindset while competing was in a different place to where it had been previously,” Francis said. “I was looking at it more as a performance, a chance to show my hard work, while before I felt the pressure was a ‘make it or break it’ kind of thing. So I thought I would like to give myself another chance on the elite stage with this new mindset.”
Since complying with Great Britain’s rigorous selection process was not feasible while living in Los Angeles, Francis decided to rely on her Jamaican heritage to apply for a second passport and represent her father’s country of origin. “I’m half Polish and half Jamaican, and when I looked into my options, Jamaica just spoke to me more,” Francis explained. “When I think of the Olympics, I think of the Jamaican athletes, I think of how fun they are, how much charisma they have, and I thought, ‘I’d fit in that team.’ So I went with Jamaica.”
While Francis doesn’t have a relationship with her father, her representation of Jamaica helped her reconnect with that side of her family. “Competing for Jamaica actually made me a lot closer to my Jamaican roots, and I was able to connect with more family members on my dad’s side,” she revealed.
Once back training elite after graduating from college, all three gymnasts realized that the years they spent in the NCAA had changed their approach to training and to gymnastics in general. “I felt that I didn’t have to train as many hours and when I was in the gym; my training was very much quality over quantity,” Francis said. “At college, in the gym you do [only] three beam routines, but you need to have them all under a certain amount of deductions. So going back to elite, my coaches were very understanding of me being older and they let me choose how many hours and days I wanted to do.”
For Bhardwaj, the level of cleanliness and consistency that’s key to college gymnastics helped her increase her confidence during her comeback. “That gives you a whole different level of confidence, and that confidence is so important when you’re nervous and you’re competing at that high level,” she said.
At UCLA, she added, she gained a lot of knowledge about training methods, which allowed her to mature as an athlete, too. “We had a lot of meetings in college about how to prepare for a meet mentally—how to self-talk during competition—and that’s all stuff that I learned that I didn’t really know very much of,” Bhardwaj explained. “Being an older athlete, being in your 20s, you think very differently. You have so many different tools.”
A new level of maturity was also the main difference Gebeshian noticed in her post-collegiate comeback compared to her younger self. “The biggest difference is just a level of maturity in me as an adult athlete, as well as the maturity of taking this journey on my own and knowing that there’s no one else that’s going to get me there other than me,” she said. “There were definitely obstacles, but the biggest difference was feeling like this is my journey. I am a mature, adult human who can listen to my body, who can make decisions and that can hopefully make my dream happen if I do all the right things.”
For Gebeshian, the main difficulty she encountered during her bid for the Olympics was having to work full time as a physician’s assistant. The work-training balance, however, ended up being a blessing in disguise. “It was challenging because I would work a one 24-hour shift and one 16-hour shift, so my shifts were really long, but then it allowed me to train the other four or five days and really focus on just my gymnastics,” she explained. “I liked it because I could turn my brain off when I was at work from my gymnastics world. … And then it would allow me to reset, refocus and be grateful that the next day I was in the gym and I could put all my efforts into my practice when I was there. It was hard for sure, but I think it was a good balance.”
Additionally, given her working schedule Gebeshian couldn’t attend practice with the other athletes, nor could she afford a one-to-one coach, so she ended up training by herself at Gymnastics World of Ohio in Cleveland. “I made my entire training plans from start to finish, all of my training and conditioning,” she said. “It was really challenging to motivate myself … [but] I was able to coach myself through the training. It was definitely unorthodox, but I made it through.”
Money soon became a problem for Bhardwaj, too, who was forced to take up lots of different jobs in order to finance her training. “When I started training for 2004, I was working in a pizza place, I was bartending, I was cocktail waitressing at a bar, I was doing all these other things and trying to train at the same time. I couldn’t keep up doing that stuff with my training schedule, so I got to the point where I started putting everything on credit card,” she recounted.
“There were a lot of tears, a lot of times where I would be telling my coach, ‘I don’t know if I can do it,’” she added. “I remember he gave me $20 to get lunch one day because I had no food. I was really lucky that I had that support system, and then I was really lucky that it all worked out in the end because it was a big gamble.”
While her coach was very supportive of her post-college training methods, including doing a lot of cardio and cross training, national team coordinator Márta Károlyi was much less impressed, making Bhardwaj’s life difficult during the national training camps and even at the Olympics. “My biggest issue with our national team coordinator was that she expected me to do the same amount of numbers as everybody else at 25, but my body really couldn’t handle that,” Bhardwaj recalled. “My coach was super supportive, and we would just nod and be like, ‘OK,’ and then we would just do our own thing. He probably took the heat, but he knew that was not what my body needed.”
In a different yet strangely similar way, Francis’ main obstacle during her comeback also came from a national governing body for gymnastics, when during the COVID-19 pandemic British Gymnastics made it incredibly difficult for her to resume training after the first lockdown. In June 2020 the British government allowed athletes to start training again with safety measures in place, but British Gymnastics denied Francis her right to resume training at her club, Heathrow Gymnastics Club, claiming that they were complying with government rules. After a lengthy correspondence with the local member of parliament and the ministry of sport, it turned out that it was up to British Gymnastics, and not the government, to grant Francis permission to resume training, at which point it granted it to her, but told her that she wasn’t allowed to train at her gym. Instead, she was asked to choose between two gyms much farther away from home and more crowded than her own, where her coach wasn’t allowed to come. Eventually, Francis was able to resume training at Heathrow, but with over a month delay compared to most other athletes. “It was just really odd, and I don’t really know why they did that,” Francis said. “As an elite athlete, if you’re going to the Olympics, you’d think that ticks that box.”
After so many difficulties, making it to the Olympics was a wonderful feeling. “In 2016 and 2012, not to say it was the wrong choice by any means, but those were both down to selections,” Francis said. “Whereas in 2019, I knew going if I get a score that puts me in the top 20 as an individual. That it was all down to me made it that much more special, and it also felt like I truly earned it because no one could take it away from me.”
A couple of days before leaving for Tokyo, Francis suffered a knee injury, which progressively deteriorated to the point of limiting her to only a few skills on bars at the Olympics. Nevertheless, she didn’t allow it to have any negative impact on her experience. “I just thought, ‘Now I’m here, I’ve finally made it, this is my dream come true.’ I got caught up in the moment and just enjoyed it. For me, the hard part was really getting there. So after all the years, I wasn’t letting myself down and not enjoying it. And I did.”
“My favorite part was all the camaraderie between all the gymnasts. We’ve all come a long way,” she added. “I remember back in the GB day when no one was talking to each other and it was a very frosty atmosphere in training gyms and stuff. Whereas this time, everyone was cheering for each other—I think we could all empathize for each other, having gone through that extra year especially. That helped with the gymnasts and also the wider community of athletes.”
For Gebeshian, qualifying to the Olympics in 2016 was “such a relief.” “The thing I had told myself was even if I don’t qualify this time around, I would have been content and happy because I would have known that I did everything I possibly could,” she explained. “So if the stars didn’t align, if I didn’t have the best day, I would have been OK because I knew I worked my butt off, and I did everything I could. But luckily it all aligned, the training worked out for me, I qualified and I was so relieved that I could check that box.”
Once in Rio, she made sure to enjoy every single moment and make as many unforgettable memories as possible. “I tried to sink it all in as much as I possibly could. I knew that was going to be my last competition, and I wanted to enjoy it the most that I could,” Gebeshian said. “If you watch the videos, I think I had a smile on my face the entire time. I just loved it, I loved being there, I loved feeling the accomplishment of not just me but everyone else—it was so cool to watch people’s dreams happen right in front of you. It was an amazing experience.”
As the first gymnast to ever make it to the Olympics after college, Bhardwaj felt elated. “I felt like I was on cloud nine, I was thankful that I had an event they wanted, that I had skills that they wanted. I was thankful that I was healthy at the right time, because all those things come into play when they’re selecting an Olympic team,” she said. “And I was also like, ‘OK, putting my life on hold, this was totally worth it.’”
Rules for U.S. gymnasts at the Olympics were so strict that they immediately demystified any myths about the Olympic village, but winning that silver medal with the team repaid Bhardwaj of all the difficult moments. Her favorite moment of the Olympics was hitting her beam routine in the team final. “I didn’t realize I was competing beam [until] five minutes before. I didn’t get to warm up on the actual equipment we were competing on, so I had five minutes in the back gym to warm up,” she recalled. “I competed, I pretty much nailed that beam routine and it was an out of body experience. I think the moment of stepping off that beam was one of the best experiences of my life because it was like, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe I just did that.’”
As the only three athletes who competed at the Olympics for the first time after fully completing their college careers, they hope that their story will serve as an example to younger generations of gymnasts never to give up on their dreams. “Just keep going, there’s no expiry date on your dream,” Francis said.
Additionally, they hope that their accomplishment will change the mindset of elite gymnastics by showing that mature, adult women can be as successful as teenagers, if not more. “I like to think that I kind of opened the door for some of those girls to do that,” Bhardwaj said. “If you look at other sports, you will notice that very few are very young. I think that mentally and physically you are more developed and capable of being more of a professional athlete at a little bit of an older age.”
“I hope [our story] changes that mindset I had when I was younger that the first Olympics you’re eligible for is your only chance or your best chance. I think we showed that that’s not true,” Francis added. “You can still get there on your second or even third attempt, whatever that might be.”
“The narrative is definitely changing. You don’t have to be that 16-year-old who’s just age eligible to be the ones that are competing at the Olympics,” Gebeshian concluded. “You can be a mature, adult human that has a husband, a wife, a significant other, that has a job and just loves the sport and feels good and can do it for years and years and years. It’s so rare right now. It’s only three of us. I definitely think we’ll see a lot more in the years to come.”
Article by Talitha Ilacqua
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