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Olympic gymnast and mom of 2 Chellsie Memmel on return to sport at 32: 'Just go for it'

Gymnast Chellsie Memmel talked about why she returned to competition after retiring nine years ago, and how she hopes it inspires others to pursue their dreams at any age.
/ Source: TODAY

The year that former Olympic gymnast Chellsie Memmel became the world all-around champion, many of her current competitors were just being born.

The 32-year-old mother of two has come out of retirement after nine years to shatter stereotypes in a sport where athletes often peak in their teens, and to prove that she can still compete at a high level without endless, grueling training.

She hopes her journey sends a message to others who may have given up on a dream or think that their time in the spotlight has passed.

"Go for it," she told Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb on TODAY Tuesday. "That's been the whole thing for me in this journey is figuring out what I can do, what I can push myself to do just out of love of doing it.

"And I really think that we generally are just the only people holding ourselves back. It's not somebody else. There is attitudes about things or certain expectations that you can't do things when you get to this age, but ultimately I feel like we tend to hold ourselves back because we listen to that, so just go for it."

Chellsie Memmel
Chellsie Memmel performs on the balance beam during the U.S. Classic in Indianapolis on May 22. Kyle Okita / CSM/Shutterstock

The Olympic silver medalist competed at the U.S. Classic in Indianapolis this past weekend, marking her first competition since retiring in 2012. She scored a 13.750 on the vault and recovered from a slight stumble on the beam for a 11.800.

The performance showed she could still challenge gymnasts half her age.

"I've had a couple of days to kind of take it all in, and it still feels a little bit surreal, like I can't believe I just competed," she said.

At a meet where 24-year-old superstar Simone Biles continued to push the limits of the sport, Memmel showed there doesn't have to be a strict retirement age.

Memmel was part of the U.S. Olympic team that won the silver medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and was the world all-around champion in 2005. She had stayed connected to the sport as a judge after her retirement, but decided she wanted to take another crack at competing at a high level.

She told TODAY she decided to start training again last year during the pandemic, documenting the journey on her YouTube channel. Her father, Andy Memmel, a former collegiate gymnast who trained her when she was young, returned to coaching her at the family's gym in West Berlin, Wisconsin.

Initially, she said, it was just a way to stay in shape.

"And so I just started doing gymnastics more and more and kind of seeing what my body could do," she said. "Can I handle it, can I do some of the skills that I used to before, and then it was like, can I push the envelope and learn some skills? And it just kind of kept happening, and I was continuing to just have so much fun that I kept going."

Her former teammate and current NBC analyst, gold medalist Nastia Liukin, 31, applauded her effort on Twitter by saying Memmel is "inspiring the whole world."

"It's kind of been instilled in us to be like, you're gonna peak when you're 16," Liukin said on TODAY Tuesday. "And so now to be able to see her, and being on the other side of things as well, it's been inspiring to me to see that she has no limits."

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Memmel also got plenty of help and support from her husband, Kory, and her children Dashel, 6, and Audrielle, 3.

"I feel like everybody was like, 'You should compete, you could compete,' and I was kind of the one that was dragging my feet a little bit," she said. "It's a big commitment, and I know how hard it is to train and compete but (my dad) was onboard, my family was onboard, my husband, everybody was on board, so they were just kind of waiting for me to be like, 'All right, let's do it.'"

She trained 15 hours a week, in contrast to the grueling schedule adhered to by many top gymnasts.

"I just want to put that message out to anybody who thought they missed their chance at something or didn't get a chance to try it or wanted to go back to their sport even just for fun, no one should be stopping you," she told NBC Sports after the meet. "Just don't hold yourself back."

Memmel is now looking forward to next week's U.S. Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, followed by the U.S. Olympic trials in St. Louis at the end of June.

While she is a long shot to make the Tokyo Olympics, she said she would've laughed at anyone who told her a year ago that it would even be a possibility.

So does she think she can qualify?

"Sometimes yes, sometimes no because I know how hard it is to make that team, I know the talent that we have in this country," she said. "I know how many other good gymnasts that there are, so I have just this great appreciation for everybody who is training, so I know that it will be a battle."