Age is a cruel inevitability in any sport. No matter how dominant an athlete is, the body only allows them to be at a certain physical level for so long.
In women’s gymnastics, it’s a trend that’s doubly true, where the window of competing at the highest level internationally is as small and fragile as the gymnasts themselves. Timing is paramount.
It’s something that Kyla Ross and Simone Biles know well.
Though born five months apart, the top two female gymnasts at the P&G Gymnastics Championships at Consol energy Center this week are at different points in their careers.
USA Gymnastics rules stipulate that an athlete must be 16 or older in the year the Olympics are held in order to participate. Ross’ birthday beat the deadline by more than two months, allowing her to be a member of the gold medal-winning team at the 2012 London Games at age 15. Now, at 17, she’s entering her prime and is jockeying for position to make the team that will go to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“I’m glad that I have that chance,” Ross said. “I know a lot of girls coming back for a second Olympics is really difficult because your body’s just been through so much and has been through lots of ups and downs.”
Biles, the defending all-around U.S. and world champion, doesn’t have that luxury.
Her birthday fell three months after the deadline, meaning she was too young for the 2012 team. Though she’s arguably the top female gymnast in the world, she’ll be 19 by the time the 2016 Games roll around, meaning that she’ll likely have only one chance at an Olympic all-around gold.
It’s a stark reality, but not one Biles worries much about.
“We were talking about the age limit and how if you say you’re 19, you’re old as a gymnast,” she said. “But McKayla Skinner and I yesterday were talking about it that, yes, we’re going to be 18 soon and 19 when the Olympics come around, but, honestly, I don’t feel 17. We feel like 15-year-olds. I think we’ll be OK. Age is just something you get in your head.”
Regardless of age and where it matches up in the sport’s cycle of major events, U.S. national team coordinator Marta Karolyi is proud of how much Biles has progressed.
“I’m very pleased with how Simone is maturing and becoming not just the most talented girl, but also more of an accomplished gymnast who knows what it takes at the world level of gymnastics,” she said. “She’s somebody who realizes that not only getting to the top is important, but staying on the top is sometimes even harder.”
Some stars are absent
In an age group that features many of the sport’s future stars, there’s a notable face missing at Consol Energy Center. Bailie Key, the reigning all-around junior champion from the 2013 P&G Championships, will not compete this year after having arm surgery. Her absence presents an opportunity for several other elite gymnasts to claim a top prize.
“I’m really sad she’s not here because I haven’t seen her in a while and I hope she’s doing well,” said Nia Dennis, who finished fourth in the all-around at the P&G Championships last year.
Along with Dennis, other top competitors include Norah Flatley, who finished fifth in the all-around at the P&G Championships last year and Jordan Chiles, the 13-year-old who won the all-around at the Secret U.S. Classic earlier this month.
Rachel Gowey withdrew from the senior women’s competition after fracturing her right ankle on a balance beam dismount in a training session Wednesday. Gowey was third on the balance beam and fourth all-around at the Secret U.S. Classic. Chris Brooks, a member of the U.S. men’s senior national team, also withdrew because of an injury.
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.