The Tuscaloosa News will dive into the differences between elite and collegiate gymnastics with a three-part series focusing on the decision to switch (below), the changes in competition and the best of both worlds.


Emily Gaskins paced outside Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy for more than three hours, trying to decide what she was going to do. With each lap around her gym in Ohio, she went back and forth on the phone with family members. She’d talk through her options with her mom, bring up similar arguments to her dad and then get her sisters’ opinions – only to circle back through the order.

The question Gaskins needed help answering: Should she give up her elite career for a chance at a collegiate one?

“The elite world was falling apart, which was really hard for me to go through because I knew what it was like when it was amazing,” Gaskins said. “I went through it as it as all crumbled down around me. It just wasn’t the same, the same as it was when I first fell in love with it.

“I loved elite gymnastics – I love elite gymnastics, still do to this day – but I didn’t love the way it was going. And I knew my body also wasn’t able to take it, like I was getting older. I had to think more about my future than about what I wanted in that moment.”

Now, a freshman at the University of Alabama, Gaskins competes for the Crimson Tide, which starts its 2019 postseason run in Michigan this weekend with NCAA regionals.

This is the history of multiple Alabama gymnasts. Seven of the 17 members listed on the roster came from an elite background: Gaskins and fellow freshman Shallon Olsen, sophomores Alonza Klopfer and Kylie Dickson, juniors Maddie Desh and Bailie Key and senior Ariana Guerra. For some, the decision to switch wasn’t as difficult.

“I accomplished all I wanted to accomplish, all my goals,” Dickson said. “So I was like, ‘You know, the next step for me is college.’ ”

Said Desch, “By the time the end of my elite career came, I definitely had severe injuries that needed to be addressed, and I think that, kind of for me, meant it was my time to move on, heal and then come here.”

The theme is consistent. Those who were elite enjoyed their experience at that level. But when the end did come, they were OK with it. They had something else to look forward to.

When one door closes, another one opens. People step through, bringing the good and bad of their past with them.

“The advantages of the elite athletes are really the experiences they’ve had and their upbringing from the way they’ve trained,” said Alabama coach Dana Duckworth, a former elite-turned-collegiate gymnast herself. “Because you cannot become an elite athlete and not have trained the way they trained.

“But the flip side is a lot of them are injured. Very injured. And they’ve lost some joy.”

Desch had a back fracture and two labrum surgeries before she joined the Crimson Tide. Dickson competed for Belarus at the 2016 Rio Olympics with a broken ankle but healed up before coming to UA. Guerra still has four screws in her back and is in Alabama’s lineup every week.

That’s just the beginning of the Crimson Tide’s prior – even current – physical ailments. That’s also the reality of the sport. UA junior Wynter Childers wasn’t an elite and still tore her ACL and meniscus her senior year of high school.

Keeping the other part Duckworth mentioned – the joy – determines whether it’s all worth it.

“Enjoying the sport is much more emphasized here than in elite,” Dickson said.

And so is the team, not so much the individual.

“When I see it makes my team happy,” Gaskins said, “I want to do it for them.”

Teammates make up her support group, the ones who cheer her on every time she steps up on an apparatus. They’re the ones who have her back in and out of the competition and practice. They were the ones who were waiting for her at Alabama.

So, when Gaskins looks back on the life-changing decision she made that day outside her elite gym, she has no regrets.

“I loved all the years I did it, through the hard times and through the great times,” Gaskins said. “But I’ve accepted that I am moving on to the next stage in my life and I wouldn’t trade anything I’ve done for anything. It’s kind of like when you grow up, you have to put all your energy into now. Alabama, that’s where all my energy, mind and thought is – here with this team in and out of season.”

Reach Terrin Waack at twaack@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0229.

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