The Tuscaloosa News will dive into the differences between elite and collegiate gymnastics with a three-part series focusing on the decision to switch, the changes in competition and the best of both worlds (below).
Just two months before the Crimson Tide opened its 2019 season, one of its members was off in Doha, Qatar, representing Team Canada at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships.
There, Alabama freshman Shallon Olsen became the first Canadian woman to earn a vault medal at Worlds, taking home the silver with her 14.516. She finished second only to Team USA’s Simone Biles.
That was back in November. Come January, Olsen was competing in Tuscaloosa’s Coleman Coliseum. She’s the only current Alabama gymnast who decided not to fully give up her elite career when she joined the Crimson Tide.
“I just feel like there’s still a part of me that’s a little bit unfinished,” Olsen said. “I’m always a person who wants to do better each and every single time. I don’t really like to do worse. I just have higher goals for myself, I assume.
“Knowing I still have some drive inside me that wants to push myself to that limit – and I’m always up for a challenge – I really just want to see how far I can go with it.”
Now that Alabama’s season is officially over, Olsen will shift her focus to Canadian nationals in May. She’ll complete her spring semester at UA first and then go home to Canada for training. She’s coached by Vladimir Lashin and Svetlana Lasina at Omega Gymnastics.
By participating in Canadian nationals, Olsen should renew her carding status, which is how Canada verifies an athlete’s elite eligibility. That would then allow her to be considered for bigger competitions, such as Worlds, Pan American Games and Olympics.
“It’s fun to be able to partner with an athlete that wants that,” Alabama coach Dana Duckworth said. “Because it has to come from them, right? It has to be driven by them. I think that’s why there’s a partnership there. We will do our very best, but you have to take ownership and you have to be the instigator, especially with the NCAA rules and it being voluntary in the summer.”
The only reason Olsen is allowed to do both college and elite is because she has never accepted any prize money. Therefore, she’s not considered a professional. And she’s OK with that because college has always been a personal aspiration.
It’s a balance, though, mainly since the standard for difficulty is different.
Throughout this past season at Alabama, of course Olsen had to regularly practice her collegiate routines and do whatever else the team was focusing on at any given moment. But she also made sure to keep up with her elite skills, like a pike full-in or triple full, at least once a week to maintain her muscle memory. She did throw her double-double on the floor exercise in a couple of the Crimson Tide’s actual meets.
“We’re working on her execution,” Duckworth said. “I joke with her that we’re making her a cleaner athlete and Canada is going to benefit from it.”
Olsen knows it, too.
“Even though I’m doing a little bit easier skills here, it’s going to pay off,” she said. “In the bigger picture of things, everything is going to work out. Everything is going to come together. Because paying attention to the little details is going to make the gymnastics, in my opinion, just look prettier so then I won’t have to get as many deductions on my flexed feet or my bent knees. In elite, I always got dinged a lot on those mistakes.”
No more dinging. Her expectations for herself are higher now.
Olsen has been a member of the Canadian national team since 2010. That includes a trip to the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she placed eighth on the vault. Now, after her second-place Worlds finish on the same event, she believes she can do even better at the ultimate level if given another opportunity next year, next summer.
“Rio 2016 was a big goal of mine to make it, but now I feel like I’ve put this other idea in my head that I can potentially medal on vault for Tokyo 2020,” Olsen said. “That’s a goal. To have that mentality, or to even put it in the back of mind, and then to actually achieve it is a completely different thing.
“But I feel like I still have so much more in me left to unleash.”
Reach Terrin Waack at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.