Memmel's still a kid, sort of
SHE'S already an old lady and she's only 17.
OK, not quite. Chellsie Memmel -- America's first gymnastics all-around world champion since Shannon Miller in 1994 -- won't be doing her floor program with a walker, during the Pacific Alliance Championships here April 13-15.
But she is 17. And it is gymnastics. And she's a world champion today, but the Olympics don't come until 2008. And then she'll be ...
"Nineteen," Memmel says.
Nineteen. Well into retirement age for most gymnasts with Olympic dreams. For some, 17 is already over the hill. If she makes this next team she'll be its mother hen, she'd be sure to be the subject of an emotional, tear-jerking NBC video montage. They'll show her hugging all those mini pixies. She'd be that older shoulder they could all come to.
She's already halfway there, and she's only 17. And she's the best in the world today, but the Olympics aren't until '08 and you wonder if she's running out of time.
"I don't really look at it that way, but I am one of the older ones on the team right now," she says. "Yeah, it's very different from other sports. We have a much smaller time."
And so Memmel is living it, and loving it, and smiling nonstop through her first trip to Hawaii, as part of a media blitz for that elite international field here next month.
"The event will be great," she says. "There's a lot of other countries coming and we'll get to see them and everything, and how the new scoring system works out and everything."
(Yes, there is a new scoring system. It seems that you can now do better than a perfect 10. Like, for some reason, you can now have better than a 4.0 grade-point average. Why mess with that, when one of the sport's iconic moments was Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10, you never know.)
Memmel, America's first all-around champ since Miller, is the headliner. She's the best in the world. She's already had a career's worth of a career. And she's only 17.
She's had bad injuries. She was an alternate on the Athens team, and watched the Olympics from the side (that was tough). She grew up in a cloud of chalk. Both parents were All-Americans who married and started their very own gym.
She would either love gymnastics or rebel.
"I haven't gotten tired of it yet," she says. "No, I still love it. I always will. I think even when I'm done competing, gymnastics will still be in my life somehow."
What, will she be 40 and run out on the weekend to swing on the uneven bars?
"Not like that," she says, and laughs. "But with a gym, or maybe coaching or doing some clinics and stuff. I don't think I could imagine my life without it."
Her parents were smart. When she was 7 they sent her to another gym in their Wisconsin town. They wouldn't coach her.
"Because they really wanted to concentrate on being my parents and not that side of the sport," she says. "That's one thing that really helped."
(Last year, she started working with her dad and he's her coach now.)
And she goes to the mall, she says, and to movies with friends and to school dances and football games. She may be almost an old lady, in this sport that she loves. But she's still just 17.
"I try to keep as low a profile as I can at school. It didn't work out that much when I had a TV crew follow me around all day once," she says. "Yeah, some people know and a lot of people don't know how big it is that I'm a world champion. Because I don't really, kind of ... you know, talk about it that much."
Did they have an assembly?
"They did," she says.
Well, then it might have gotten around that the girl in the second row in science class is an all-world gymnast.
"I know. I know, but still ..."
Of course. But it was cool, what they did when she won the title last year: "And they painted," she says, "we have this like 10-foot high wall and it's really huge outside of our school. And they painted, before I went to Worlds, they put, 'Good luck at Worlds, Chellsie.' And then when I got back they put 'Chellsie Memmel, World Champion.' "
Wow. Did she like that?
"Oh, yeah. It was awesome. You see it when you walk into school, it's this huge wall. I didn't notice it the first time I walked in. And then the second day it was like 'Omigosh.' It was really cool."
She's an old lady, who's still only a kid. Her life is just beginning. She's running out of time. She's the best in the world and she's coming here next month.
When she looks at the other girls on the team, do they look young to her?
"Oh, yeah," she says. "They do. And it's weird though. It's been such a short amount of time that I went from being one of the younger ones to being one of the older ones on the team in the matter of a couple years. But it's great to look at them and see that we've got a stronger team coming up."