In the crush of a hotel reception following the U.S. women's
gymnastics team's historic victory at the world championships in
Anaheim last week, former Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton sought
out a teenager with a ponytail and braces. Taking the girl by the
shoulders, Retton looked her in the eyes and said, "You are my
This is an article from the Sept. 1, 2003 issue
It was just one of many unlikely moments 15-year-old that
Chellsie Memmel of West Allis, Wis., enjoyed after she vaulted
from last-minute replacement to A-team savior. By the eve of the
meet the U.S. had lost its three most accomplished gymnasts:
world balance beam champion Ashley Postell to stomach flu; U.S.
vault champion Annia Hatch to a blown-out left knee; and
defending world uneven bar champion Courtney Kupets to a torn
left Achilles tendon. In stepped Memmel, one of two alternates,
who turned in solid to spectacular performances in all four
disciplines and led a young five-woman squad to the U.S.'s
first-ever team gold at worlds. "To overcome all those obstacles,
those girls had to dig down deep," says Retton. "I don't know how
they did it, but it was electrifying to watch."
What Retton's former coach, Bela Karolyi, would call "the
greatest team victory ever for the United States" would not have
happened without Memmel, the home-schooled Harry Potter fan who
had bruised a bone in her left foot two weeks before the
nationals in June and finished a disappointing 10th in the
all-around. Passed over for the world championship team, Memmel
was busy winning three golds and a bronze for the U.S. B squad at
the Pan Am Games in the Dominican Republic when U.S. team
coordinator Marta Karolyi (Bela's wife) called to report that
worlds alternate Samantha Sheehan was injured and Memmel would be
needed in Anaheim. "It was like, Wow, I'm going to the
worlds--that's amazing!" says Memmel. "It took about an hour to
sink in. When I found out I'd be competing [after Postell, Hatch
and Kupets went down], that came as an even bigger shock."
The shock wore off quickly. On the night of team finals no
gymnast looked more at home on the floor of the Arrowhead Pond
than did Memmel, the daughter of two former college All-America
gymnasts who has always considered the sport's apparatuses her
playground. Displaying an unflappable cool that her coach, Jim
Chudy, calls "almost unnatural," Memmel performed with a
compelling combination of strength, flexibility and originality.
It was a great week for American gymnasts. Memmel and Hollie Vise
tied for first on the uneven bars, and Carly Patterson took
silver in the all-around. (Five finals were on Sunday night,
after SI's deadline.) The women's team gold, which followed an
impressive team silver by the men, was being touted by Marta
Karolyi as a validation of the new training system she introduced
after she was named women's team coordinator in the wake of the
U.S.'s medalless 2000 Olympics. In addition to working with their
coaches at home, members of the women's national team have begun
to gather once every four to six weeks at the Karolyis'
2,000-acre ranch and gymnastics center north of Houston for
training, testing and teaching.
Staying in shape is critical in the new system, as gymnasts are
evaluated on strength and flexibility at every camp. While there
is no question this system has created depth by driving up the
level of competition, there were whispers at worlds that it might
also have contributed to the Americans' rash of injuries. Marta
denies that the athletes were overtrained, and Retton agrees.
"Honestly, I think those were freak accidents," says Retton. "I
worry more about mental stress. You may be national champion, but
you still have to go to the ranch and be evaluated. That's a lot
of pressure." So far the U.S. women appear to be thriving on it.