Chellsie Memmel: Is This Really The End?
Entering the 2003 World Championships in Anaheim, California, the Americans had never won a team world title and expectations were high that this team could make history. When injuries and illness took out half of the team, hopes for Gold diminished as the team’s roster fell apart. Courtney Kupets, 2003 U.S. All-Around Champion and 2002 Word Champion on uneven bars, ruptured her achilles after the preliminaries; Annia Hatch, U.S. Champion on the vault, tore her ACL; Ashley Postell, 2002 World Champion on beam and U.S. Champion on floor went down with the flu. Martha Karolyi’s “Dream Team” was quickly becoming a coach's worst nightmare. The U.S. did not have enough gymnasts to compete and had to fly in the team’s third alternate, Chellsie Memmel.
The fifteen-year-old from Wisconsin had just won the won the all-around title at the 2003 Pan-American Games and was suddenly on a plane to California, for the biggest competition of her life. Memmel had never competed at a World Championships so there was a legitimate concern that the inexperienced teenager would crumble under the pressure. The team could not drop a low score so the pressure on Memmel was enormous.
The last minute replacement to the 2003 World Championship team shocked the world with her strong performance in Anaheim. Competing on all four events, Memmel hit her routines, leading the squad to its first ever world team gold medal and tied with teammate Hollie Vise for an individual title on the uneven bars. Amazingly, Memmel had the highest all-around score of any competitor during the team finals. The fifteen-year-old rookie from Wisconsin left the 2003 World Championships a 2-time World Champion.
Memmel’s phenomenal performance in Anaheim made her a strong contender for the 2004 Olympic team but a broken foot limited her gymnastics during the Trials process and left Memmel off the team. Once again, Memmel was a team alternate but this time she did not receive the last minute phone call, and could only watch, as Team USA took silver and Carly Patterson become the Olympic All-Around Champion.
This is where a gymnastics career would typically end. The difficulty increases every four years and as result gymnasts tend to end their elite careers after the Olympics. None of the 2004 Olympic team members continued to compete as elite gymnasts in 2005.
Fueled by the disappointment of 2004, Chellsie Memmel found her redemption at the 2005 World Championships. Now coached by her father, Andy Memmel, Chellsie finished .001 ahead of Nastia Liukin to become the third American in history to win the World All-Around title. Kim Zmeskal won in 1991 and Shannon Miller won back to back titles in 1993 and 1994. Additionally, Memmel won silver medals on both beam and uneven bars.
While the 2005 World Championships earned Memmel the title “best in the world”, her courageous and heroic performance at the 2006 World Championships is what exemplified all the characteristics of a great champion.
Memmel dislocated her shoulder while performing on the uneven bars, but heroically finished the competition so the U.S. could win the team silver medal. Characteristic of a champion, Memmel put her individual success aside for the good of the team. Pulling out of the competition was the intelligent decision for both her health and individual career, but Memmel was the epitome of a team player. A low score could not be dropped during Team Finals so the US would likely be eliminated from any chance of a medal if Memmel did not complete her routine.
Quote painted on the wall of the Memmel's gym in Wisconsin, M&M Gymnastics
Memmel fought through the agonizing pain and competed three events with her dislocated shoulder and torn labrum. It was a defining moment in Memmel’s career for two reasons: first that it revealed the true depth of her character, and second that the shoulder injury would hamper her for the rest of her career. Due to the shoulder injury, Memmel had to withdraw from the individual all-around competition and was unable to defend her title. Memmel had the highest all-around score in the competition during the qualifications.
Memmel’s comeback was very much under the radar, but was announced in dramatic fashion with her performance at the 2008 Visa Championships and Olympic trials. She finished 3rd in the all-around at both events. Memmel’s final routine at Olympic Trials earned her a standing ovation from the audience and National Team Coordinator Marta Karolyi.
Four years later, Memmel admits that thinking about that routine still gives her chills. Finally, Chellsie Memmel made the 2008 Olympic team only to suffer a broken foot ten days before the competition. Memmel could only compete on the uneven bars. Determined to contribute, she competed with the broken foot and hit her routine during the team finals. It was a clutch performance and Memmel won a silver medal along with her American team mates.
Three years after her disappointment in Beijing, Memmel returned to the sport AGAIN at the 2011 CoverGirl Classic. Memmel’s history of remarkable comebacks should have prepared the gymnastics community for her return or at the very least, the result should have been less surprising. By this time the world should have learned not to count out the “comeback queen”, but there was not really a precedent for an athlete like Chellise Memmel. A brief appearance at the 2009 Visa Championships, competing only on beam, was Memmel’s only competition since the 2008 Olympics. However, Memmel did not disappoint at the CoverGirl Classic and finished second in the all-around to Aly Raisman.
The comeback continued at the 2011 Visa Championships. Following two days of competition and seven routines, Memmel was in third place going into her final routine. In another cruel twist of fate, Memmel’s shoulder, the one she injured and competed on to help her country win a silver medal, gave out in the middle of her uneven bar routine. Always a fighter, Memmel attempted to finish the routine, but realized on the first skill, a simple pirouette, that her competition was over. Another comeback derailed by injury was cruel enough, but for her to still be suffering from the injury that she bravely fought through to help Team USA, was heartbreaking.
Despite the injury, Memmel was not deterred from continuing in pursuit of a trip to London. Memmel withdrew from the 2011 Pan American Games team so she could have surgery, recover, and resume training for 2012. Memmel did make her return at the 2012 Secret Classic and looked impressive in podium training. On paper, Memmel was a long shot for the 2012 Olympic team, but I learned my lesson in 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2011; that you should never count Chellsie Memmel out of anything. The bleaker the prospect for success, the better Chellsie seemed to perform.
Memmel was only slated to compete on beam during the competition. Finishing a tenth of point behind Alicia Sacromone at the 2011 Visa Championships, Memmel was ranked second in the country on the event.
Memmel’s injury and subsequent recovery hindered her preparation for the event. Memmel fell twice during the routine and in the blink of an eye, her 2012 comeback was over. Memmel’s petition for Visa’s was denied and the gymnastics community battled over “Memmelgate”. There's no need to rehash the debate but it's fair to say it was a very controversial decision.
Currently, Chellsie is on the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions and announced her intention to retire following the Tour. This is the part where I should talk about how much she will be missed. Time and again, Chellsie Memmel defied critics, age, and sometimes even logic with her comebacks. The term “Never give up” takes on new meaning with Memmel. Her perseverance, competitive drive, and selfless attitude qualifies her among the great champions of the sport. When faced with adversity or injury, Memmel never gave up fighting for herself, or Team USA. Logically, I should believe Memmel when she says that she is going to retire. However, I know that when I am sitting in the stands in Hartford at the the 2013 Visa Championships and the athletes march onto the floor, my eyes will be searching for the familiar face from Wisconsin.
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