At the 1978 World Championships Marcia Frederick became the first American to win a gold medal in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG). Marcia was the spark that helped kickstart the rise of American WAG into an Olympic power. But Marcia was never able to experience Olympic glory herself. The 1980 Olympic boycott ended Marcia’s Olympic dream. As opposed to the other top gymnasts of the 1980 American team, Marcia Frederick did not earn redemption by making the 1984 team that competed in Los Angeles.
Despite missing out on the Olympics, Marcia still enjoyed a small stint on the media circuit having appeared in a couple of commercials, display tours, and even served as the stunt double for Nadia’s routines in the 1984 film Nadia. But behind the scenes, Marcia was quietly struggling to adapt to a post-post gymnastics life. She would later say the following about her struggles in the first ten years of her retirement:
“Those 10 years were painful, lonely and extremely hard. Peter helped me through it, but other help I should have gotten just wasn’t there. I was asking ‘what do I do now,’ and I wasn’t getting any answers from the people who had been providing them since I was nine.”
“Part of the problem was that too many decisions were made for me up until then, all the way down to what I ate. People want to nurture and protect, but they’re really not helping, they’re smothering. So I wasn’t prepared to make decisions myself when the time came and I don’t think they recognized that. They just figured I was 18 now and could handle it.”
The problem Marcia was describing was how the Olympic training regimen left gymnasts unprepared for adulthood. Gymnasts live a very structured lifestyle where nearly every decision is made for them, resulting in a situation where they aren’t used to making decisions for themselves. They also endure a very isolated lifestyle that at times leaves them socially under developed compared to their non-gymnastics peers.
But when their careers end, elite gymnasts don’t get to make up for the lost-time that wasn’t spent on teaching them how to be an adult. Instead they are thrust into the adult world on their own and are told to figure it out for themselves. The paradox here is that elite gymnasts are first asked to grow up too slowly in the buildup to the Olympics, and then once the Olympics end they are asked to grow up too fast.
It all comes at a time when gymnasts find themselves at a crossroads. Gymnasts spend their teenage years treating the Olympics as their life goal, a dream that usually reaches its conclusion between the ages of 17 and 22. For the gymnasts who focused on the Olympics with little time being spent thinking about what comes next, their lack of preparation for adulthood is compounded by a lack of preparation for a post-gymnastics career path.
While their non-gymnastics peers are taking entry-level jobs in industries that they will stay in for the next three decades, gymnasts are only just beginning to weigh all the possible career paths they have to choose from. It is not the fault of the gymnast that she is left unprepared, but a byproduct of the environment in which she trains in. Any time that is not being spent inside the gym is time being used by her competitors to beat her. Thoughts on what comes after the Olympics is a distraction that are discouraged to prevent her from losing focus on the Olympic goal.
Then like the flick of the light switch it all comes to an end. Gymnasts who know only routine and structure suddenly find themselves in a world where they can stay in bed all day. It may sound like a nice vacation, but elite-level athletes are typically those who revel in structure/routine and become unraveled without it.
As Marcia saw it, she had been let down. Marcia specifically cited both her parents and her personal coach Muriel Grossfeld who was also a former coach of the national team for failing to help her weather the transition from gymnast to ex-gymnast. It wasn’t an attempt to blame her inner circle, but to tell how other parents and coaches could prevent making the same mistake with future gymnasts. It was a warning. Raising awareness to an issue that the sport needed to address and solve.
Marcia made these comments in 1994.
In July of 2020 Shawn Johnson appeared on the Today Show and her comments sounded eerily reminiscent of what Marcia had said almost three decades earlier:
“After the 2008 Olympics, I always explain it as I felt like I ran straight into a brick wall at full speed, just because, as an elite athlete, every single decision you make on a daily basis revolves around your goal.”
“That means what you eat, how you think, who you hang out with, when you wake up, when you set your alarm — everything. And when that was over, I didn’t know how to operate as a human being. I felt lost, and so I felt like, if I went back to the Olympics, even though I had no desire to do gymnastics again, I felt like I might get that purpose back.”
Marcia and Shawn made their comments 26 years apart, but they are nearly identical in tone. The two gymnasts use very different terminology. Marcia used the term “drifting” to describe herself in this time period whereas Shawn described herself as feeling “lost.” But the concepts both gymnasts presented are fundamentally the same. Shawn Johnson goes as far as to say that she had “no desire” to return to gymnastics but did so anyways specifically to find a sense of self-purpose.
So why tell this story? It is compelling seeing how similar these two accounts are. Especially when considering that one further similarity the two stories have in common is the timeline. Both gymnasts needed roughly the same amount of time to overcome their despair. Shawn Johnson spoke out 12 years after the 2008 Olympics came to an end. Marcia Frederick spoke out 14 years after the 1980 Olympics came to an end.
But the compelling similarities quickly turn into anger when realizing that the same mistakes that had been made with Marcia Frederick were allowed to be repeated with Shawn Johnson 28 years later. Even after the details of Marcia’s case were on the public record. It is further enraging when a key component of this story is the simple relaying of information. Shawn was searching for answers. Answers that hadn’t been provided for her. Answers that had been put into writing before she even started gymnastics.
Shawn could have been spared so much turmoil had those answers been given to her when she was 16. But that never happened because this particular story symbolizes an overall pattern where time and time again, the sport simply doesn’t learn from its past mistakes. And the consequence is repeating those same mistakes with future gymnasts.
There is much that has been said about gymnastics having an abuse culture that is always passed from one generation to the next generation. But a simultaneous problem is lessons going unlearned from one generation to the next. So what is the lesson here?
The lesson here is that after spending so much time building a young girl into a high level gymnast, perhaps a little bit more time should be spent helping her with the transition to a post-gymnastics lifestyle. Using the experiences of Shawn and Marcia to explain to the next generation of gymnasts, the type of mental dilemmas they will encounter as they find their sense of self purpose after retiring from gymnastics. To prevent gymnasts from as Shawn puts it, running into a brick wall.
It is also a lesson for the fans to be more understanding when analyzing the actions of recently retired gymnasts. Not every recently retired gymnast is in the “drifting” phase that Marcia describes. The rise of NCAA gymnastics has likely had a substantial impact in helping gymnasts transition away from elite level gymnastics. But for an unknown number of gymnasts, they too have experienced the struggle Shawn and Marcia experienced.
But the final lesson, is how poorly these two accounts reflect on the sport of gymnastics. It is outrageous to see two accounts that are so identical, and yet spaced so far apart. It is a blatant example of how problems are rarely acknowledged and go unsolved for decades. Even after someone comes along, points out the problem, and proposes reform. The only thing left to do is to ponder what other problems are there that are also going unchecked and unsolved?