‘Gym hopping’ is not always a sign of a problem — Other gym news — Thoughts from Simone Biles
The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, Sept. 10, 2022
This week we got the news that Tiana Sumanasekera, a top U.S. junior gymnast and member of the junior national team, and Joscelyn Roberson, a well-regarded senior, have moved to World Champions Centre (WCC) near Houston to train.
WCC is, of course, the gym owned by Simone Biles’ family, built for Biles, and was responsible for half the Olympic team silver medal last year (Biles and Jordan Chiles). Biles’ and Chiles’ coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi, also coached Madison Kocian to an Olympic team gold and individual bars silver in 2016 while they worked at WOGA in Dallas.
WCC and the Landis, in other words, get results. And moving gyms for better results – that is, spots on major teams and world and Olympic medals – is hardly a new concept in the world of elite gymnastics.
I started following gymnastics in the 90s, during the heyday of the Karolyi “six-pack” of gymnasts, six young women who trained together. Most of them had moved to train with Bela and Martha Karolyi because…they got results. (Yes, we would later find out at what cost. We probably knew the cost at the time, if we’re being honest.)
Training under the Karolyis meant you were serious about winning. Training under anyone else meant you got lucky. Gymnasts who moved from gym to gym were derided as less serious about the sport; rarely did we stop to consider whether someone just wanted to live at home, perhaps.
And roughly until Carly Patterson won the all-around gold at the 2004 Olympics and attention shifted to her gym, WOGA, the Karolyis were considered the best and fastest route to gymnastics results. Their gymnasts dominated teams and podiums.
At this year’s nationals, it may have looked like a return to the 90s, with a small number of gyms representing the bulk of the top athletes. But now, the power is far more in the hands of the athletes than of the coaches, as it was in the 90s.
The Olympic trifecta of Patterson, Nastia Liukin, and Kocian got WOGA a lot of attention, and the fruits of that attention are still pretty ripe. Konnor McClain, this year’s national champion, famously switched gyms to WOGA last year from her West Virginia gym where she was the sole elite. She transformed from an anxiety-riddled, inconsistent gymnast to a champion in a year. Skye Blakeley, who finished sixth all-around at nationals, also trains at WOGA. This year’s junior national champion, Madray Johnson, is a WOGA gymnast. The junior ranks were full of young WOGA-ites.
The Landis’ move from WOGA to WCC took some of that star power to Houston, where they have built their own roster of champions. Some of their stars arrived from questionable situations at previous gyms: Chiles, whose previous coach drove drunk with her in the car; Olivia Greaves, a refugee from MG Elite and Maggie Haney now headed to LSU with her beautiful bars; and Dulcy Caylor, who won the junior all-around at the Pan Am Championships, came from Texas Dreams after being unable to crack the elite ranks there.
Zoe Miller, currently out with a back injury, is another LSU commit who competed at Olympic trials last year and this year won silver on bars at Pan Ams. Karis German competed elite until this year, capping off her career with a bronze medal on floor at Winter Cup, and is now off to Alabama. WCC has also attracted some international elites, most notably Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos of France. (The Landis are French; Cecile competed, as Cecile Canqueteau, at the 1996 Olympics.)
The Landis’ are known for creating strong bar workers (Kocian, Alyssa Baumann, Greaves, Miller) and for helping turn power gymnasts like Biles and Chiles into stellar all-arounders. And while I am hesitant to over-praise the Landis, or any gymnastics coaches, for seeming like good humans, I do think Biles would not stand for anything less.
So it is not a complete surprise that Sumanasekera, whose bars are her Achilles’ heel in all-around competition, and Roberson, who is all power and can captivate an audience but who has not quite achieved her full potential in the sport, have looked to WCC for their next step. Sumanasekera placed ninth at nationals this year, her last as a junior, and Roberson 18th in the senior division.
A third gym, Twin City Twisters, out of which sprang Athlete A Maggie Nichols and Olympian Grace McCallum, has built on their reputation for building strong, capable all-arounders and had a strong showing at nationals. They currently have two gymnasts on the senior national team (Lexi Zeiss and Elle Mueller) with two other strong senior elites in Katelyn Rosen and Levi Jung-Ruivivar.
Still, it is the gymnasts whose accomplishments we praise now, instead of saying that McClain’s success this year is owed to Valeri and Anna Liukin at WOGA, for example, or that the Landis’ empire at WCC is solely due to their abilities. We did at least learn that after too many years of attributing U.S. gymnastics success to the Karolyis.
And it is not always personal. Too often we’re quick to attribute a gym switch to some kind of personality clash between gymnast and coach (especially when the parties are female, sad to say). Top gyms attract top talent, in part because it is easier for a top gym, with a big elite team and a big staff, and, more importantly, a big recreational program (since that’s where the money flows in) to keep gymnasts and their coaches traveling to international and domestic competitions all season.
All of that costs money and time. Gymnasts with the drive to succeed at the elite level may believe a top gym can handle more of the logistics, allowing them to focus more on training. Additionally, a gym with many elites may be more appealing than being the sole elite at a gym that has not spent years training athletes at that level.
Gymnasts can train together and benefit from institutional knowledge. This is not to say that a smaller gym or an athlete who is her coach’s only elite cannot succeed; they can and do. But it’s not for everyone or every gym.
So let’s get our heads out of the 90s and stop dismissing “gym-hopping” by athletes or the consolidation of athlete power by a few big gyms. Our sport is in a rebuilding phase, and our athletes need all the support they can get; if a training squad and the resources of a big, experienced gym are what it takes, who can blame them? And, frankly, it’s not hurting results, either.
Other gym news
The draw for worlds is out. The U.S. will compete in the first subdivision of qualifications, and lots of people have Feelings About It.
National Team Camp is underway in Texas. Here’s the list of attendees. The camp will decide who will represent the U.S. at each of the next two World Challenge Cups, in Paris and Szombathely. Notably absent is Leanne Wong on the senior side. Wong was expected to appear here so she could be placed on the national team; speculation is that the injury she sustained at nationals is keeping her away. For the juniors, neither Joscelyn Roberson nor Tiana Sumanasekera is attending, so we hope they are getting settled in at WCC!
Morgan Hurd is tumbling again after her ACL injury:
Suni Lee is training again too:
Asia D’Amato of Italy, who fractured her ankle at Euros, will return to competition in 2023, said her coach.
Steve Butcher, the FIG men’s technical president, will leave the FIG, according to the minutes of the Men’s Program Committee as reported by Kensley Behel. Butcher assisted Simone Biles at the Olympics after she left the team competition.
Nastia Liukin will compete on a reality show called “Special Forces: The Ultimate Test.” Her competitors include a Spice Girl (Mel B) and Jamie Lynn Spears. But also Carli Lloyd, so watch out for some intra-The IX trash talk going on!
Five at The IX: Simone Biles
Simone Biles appeared on the Late Late Show With James Corden this week, where she told Corden (and fellow guest Pete Buttigieg) that she would attend the 2024 Olympics “as an athlete or an audience member.” Media training: Impeccable. Enjoy the clip below.