Why Do Gymnasts Retire So Early? (explained)

Most gymnasts have retired by their early twenties and many peak while still in their teens. There are many factors that make gymnasts retire so early in comparison to other sports. It is a tough sport with demanding levels of training from a young age and apart from a very few at the highest level, gymnasts will make very little money from the sport.

In this article, I dive in-depth into the reasons behind these early retirements.

Let’s find out why so many gymnasts retire so early!

gymnast floor

Table of Contents

What age do elite gymnasts retire?

Gymnasts that reach the Olympic or world level are undoubtedly ‘elite’ as they have reached the pinnacle of the sport. But this is a tough sport that places huge demands on the gymnasts physically and mentally and as a result, many elite gymnasts will retire at an age still considered ‘prime’ in other sports.

Most elite female gymnasts have retired by their early to mid-twenties. 

Most elite male gymnasts have retired by their mid to late twenties. 

There are some gymnasts that will continue for longer but they are few and far between and will usually keep going only because they are competitive at a very high level and still have a chance of success.

Types of Gymnastics Vault
Types of Gymnastics Vault

Long training hours for gymnasts

To reach an elite competitive level, gymnasts will have often begun training as early as 5 or 6 years old. Many professionals will recommend starting even younger to help develop gross motor skills such as balance and coordination. Although elite competitive gymnastics will typically start at around 9 or 10 years old, many hundreds of training hours will already have been put into training before this point.

Elite gymnasts will typically train for 35 – 40 hours per week which is the equivalent of a full-time job.

Gymnasts (and their families) have to literally allow gym training schedules to take over their life if they want to stand any chance of succeeding at the very top. The sacrifices are immense and many people will be unaware of the long training hours each week until they have a child enter into such a program.

The juggling act between training, education, and attempting to have a social life can be too much, and eventually, this level of commitment is a major reason for deciding to retire from elite gymnastics. 

Different countries around the world have developed systems to combine education and long training hours. In the US the College System and Home Education work well. In Russia and China, Gymnastics training is considered part of the normal school day which is not usually the case in the UK where training usually fits around the school in the evenings or on weekends. 

Is gymnastics mentally draining?

Training is repetitive and exhausting which takes away a lot of the ‘fun’ elements that would be associated with recreational level gymnastics. Good coaches will try to build in opportunities for less intensity and more playful activities to help gymnasts enjoy their time in the gym but this will have little impact on the tough training regimes.

This is a very mentally draining sport which results in many gymnasts retiring in their teens.

Some sportsmen and women are competing every week (Football, Basketball, Baseball, etc) and have opportunities to be successful regularly. Gymnasts, however, may only compete three or four times a year so if one event doesn’t go well there is a prolonged period of reflection, self-doubt and eventually a lack of motivation.

The time spent training in the gym is often focused on getting that new skill ready for a routine. There will be pressure to improve and upgrade routines to stay competitive, which often leads to mental blocks when attempting skills. 

Without a good team around you, gymnastics can be a very lonely sport.

Do gymnasts suffer from long-term injuries?

The constant impact on major joints such as knees, ankles and wrists often develops into recurring injuries that have to be managed by gymnasts, coaches and physios. 

There is a greater awareness of managing gymnasts’ bodies now than 20 or 30 years ago, however, the constant training takes a toll on every gymnast.

Common gymnast injuries include:

  • Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) tears
  • Achilles Tendon strains and tears
  • Colles Fractures
  • Cartilage damage
  • Osgood Schlatters

Some injuries can be treated with help from physio and strengthening exercises or just by resting. More serious injuries will require surgery which still doesn’t guarantee a full recovery. In the worst-case scenario, gymnasts are forced to retire as their body is unable to regain full fitness.

The ultimate dilemma for a gymnast is having to decide between long-term health and the desire for sporting success.

The average age of Olympic gymnasts (male v female)

Take a look at the ages of Olympic Champions in both Artistic and Rhythmic gymnastics since the turn of the century.

YearMale All-Around ChampionFemale All-Around ChampionFemale Rhythmic Champion
200024 Years Old (Alexei Nemov)16 Years Old (Andreea Raducan)21 Years Old (Yulia Barsukova)
200421 Years Old (Paul Hamm)16 Years Old (Carly Patterson)21 Years Old (Alina Kabaeva)
200828 Years Old (Yang Wei)18 Years Old (Nastia Liukin)18 Years Old (Yevgeniya Kanayeva)
201223 Years Old (Kohei Uchimera)16 Years Old (Gabby Douglas)22 Years Old (Yevgeniya Kanayeva)
201627 Years Old (Kohei Uchimera)19 Years Old (Simone Biles)20 Years Old (Margarita Mamum)
202020 Years Old (Daiki Hashimoto)18 Years Old (Sunisa Lee)22 Years Old(Linoy Ashram)
 Average Age: 24 Years Old Average Age: 17 Years Old Average Age: 20 Years Old

This table illustrates a clear gap between male and female peak ages in gymnastics and partially explains the difference in retirement ages between the genders. Sports Scientists point to the differences in human physiology between males and females. Females usually develop earlier than their male counterparts and therefore reach their physical peak sooner.

Women’s Gymnastics also places more focus on flexibility (this applies to both Artistic and Rhythmic) which gets harder to maintain as the body gets older. Whist the men still require a good range of motion in their bodies, there is less emphasis on flexibility requirements such as splits and leaps within routines.

Oksana Chusovitina is a huge exception to the rules when it comes to retiring early. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics was her 8th games, setting the record as the oldest ever gymnast at aged 46!

Chusovitina is now a vault specialist and does not compete on other apparatus. This allows her to focus on just one element, reducing her training load and managing her conditioning more effectively. By concentrating on vault she no longer worries about bars, beam or floor exercise. 

Famous gymnasts (when and why they retired)

Carly PATERSON – Aged 18 (back problems). This US gymnast won the All-Around Gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics but was forced to retire through injury just two years later.

Nile WILSON – Aged 24 (Neck injury). Nile failed to recover from a bulged disc in his neck. He had surgery but announced his retirement just six months before the Tokyo Olympics.

Jordyn WIEBER – Aged 19 (Personal reasons). Jordyn was a member of the ‘famous five’ that won all-around team gold at the London 2012 Olympics. 

McKayla MARONEY – Aged 21 (culmination of injuries). Another member of the ‘famous five’ suffered various injuries including a fractured fibula and issues with her knee that required surgery. 

Do lower-level gymnasts also retire early?

When I refer to lower-level gymnasts this could mean those that are recreational level or even compete up to a regional level. Typically recreational gymnastics has an earlier dropout age than those aspiring to reach a high competitive level. The term ‘retire’ isn’t really appropriate here as children and teenagers may simply be switching between sports or hobbies and haven’t had to commit to any great degree of training. It’s common to see this level of gymnasts drop out as they approach teenage years and other life interests take over.

At a lower level, we should also consider the competitive gymnasts that have trained to an elite level nationally but don’t quite make the grade at Olympic or World level. Many will ‘retire’ as dreams of international stardom fade due to injury, educational pressures, or simply not having the ability to stay competitive at the highest level. Many gymnasts that fit this description will disappear from the scene in their teenage years.

What do gymnasts do after they retire?

Many gymnasts that still have a passion for the sport when they retire from training will turn to coaching. This is a great way to pass on the knowledge gained from years of training to the next generation. It should be noted though that great gymnasts don’t always make great coaches. Likewise some of the top coaches in the world today were frustrated performers that didn’t reach the top as an athlete.

A handful of high-profile gymnasts can stay in the public eye on TV shows such as Dancing With The Stars (Simone Biles, Ally Raisman), Dancing on Ice (Beth Tweddle, Amy Tinkler), and Strictly Come Dancing (Louis Smith). Gymnastics in the US receives a high level of publicity and ex-gymnasts are often in demand.

Some ex-gymnasts leave the sport completely and find themselves in brand new industries. For example Kerri Strug (1996 Olympics – Teacher then Politician), Amy Chow (2000 Olympics -Doctor), Ross Brewer (Double Commonwealth Games gold medallist – Accountant).

I go into more detail about what gymnasts do after they retire in this article here.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, elite gymnasts will continue until their bodies can no longer handle the high demands of training or other interests become more important. This is the same the world over for athletes in all sports however, the unique pressures of gymnastics and the early start to training continue to impact the relatively young retirement ages.

Thankfully recreational gymnastics is still a sport enjoyed by all ages and many ex-gymnasts continue to keep up with low levels of enjoyable training to keep fit and stay mentally strong. Despite what people say, you can start gymnastics at any age either at home or at a professional gym facility (I always recommend the latter). 

Sources

AGE TRENDS IN ARTISTIC GYMNASTIC ACROSS WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS AND THE OLYMPIC GAMES FROM 2003 TO 2016 Atikovic et al

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