Top 10 Controversies in USA Women’s Gymnastics

When you think of USA gymnastics, you think of the Magnificent Seven, the Fierce Five, Shawn Johnson, and a long tradition of winning. Of course, no amount of gymnastics success comes without its share of controversy. Let’s rank USA Women’s Gymnastics’ Top 10 falls, bobbles, and out-of-bounds:


  1. Maggie Nichols Left Off Bars in the 2015 World Team Prelims

Maggie Nichols finished second at U.S. Nationals in 2015, with a two-day combined score of 119.15. Gabby Douglas finished in fifth place, with a total score of 117.950. On bars, Nichols totaled 29.750 at nationals, while Brenna Dowell averaged only 29.00 and Aly Raisman fared even worse, averaging 28.250.

Despite Nichols’ stellar performances, Marta Karolyi selected Dowell, Raisman and Douglas to compete in the bars preliminary competition over Nichols. This left Nichols ineligible to make the all-around competition, in favor of Douglas, who went on to win the silver medal. Karolyi selected Dowell for the lineup despite her known inconsistency issues, which played out with a disastrous routine in the preliminary competition.

Even worse is that Nichols competed bars in the team finals…and knocked it out of the park.


A gymnast performs on the balance beam.

Photo credit: Raphael Goetter – originally posted to Flickr as Poutre/Wikimedia Commons

  1. Okay, a lot of things about the 2015 Worlds Team

In addition to Karolyi’s puzzling decision to keep Nichols out of the bars prelim, Karolyi also made a few other head-scratching decisions relating to the 2015 Worlds. Most gymnastics fans thought that Bailie Key was headed to her first worlds after finishing fourth at nationals, ahead of Gabby Douglas, MyKyla Skinner and Brenna Dowell. Inexplicably, Karolyi left Key at home, having not even named her to the traveling alternate position.

In addition, Karolyi chose to use Dowell in competition, making Skinner the alternate. Dowell’s history of inconsistency played out and she badly fumbled her preliminary bars competition, while Skinner didn’t even have the chance to defend her 2014 World individual bronze vault medal, or her fourth place individual finish in floor at the 2014 Worlds.


Bailie Key

Photo credit: Alessandro Gamber/Wikimedia Commons

  1. 2008 Olympic Training Camp

In 2004 and 2008, USA Gymnastics didn’t name the Olympic team right after the Olympic Trials. Rather, they waited until after an intense training camp. The camp proved to be too much for many athletes. Arguably, the intensity of the 2008 camp resulted in Shayla Worley’s broken leg, preventing her selection to the team, and led to Chellsie Memmel’s and Sam Peszek’s eleventh-hour injuries. Did it ultimately cost Team USA the gold medal?


Sam Peszek

Photo credit: TheBostonianLonghorn/Wikimedia Commons


  1. Chellsie Memmel’s Petition Denied

In 2012, Chellsie Memmel competed only beam at the U.S. Classic. When her mark fell short of a predetermined cut off, the powers that be denied her petition to compete at U.S. Nationals, and ultimately the Olympic Trials. But it’s not as simple as that. The year prior, Shawn Johnson earned sub-par scores at the 2011 Classics, and USA Gymnastics allowed her to compete anyways. The thing we all loved about Memmel was that she was a planner. She carefully timed her training to peak at the right time. Given the chance to compete, she would have impressed.


Chellsie Memmel

Photo credit: TheBostonianLonghorn/Wikimedia Commons


  1. Dominique Moceanu’s Petition Denied

Are you noticing a pattern? USA Gymnastics also denied Dominique Moceanu the opportunity to compete at the 2006 U.S. Nationals, again making up the rules as they went. Moceanu claims that USA Gymnastics never said anything about a two-event minimum, and that she was told, in writing, that she could compete as long as she attended a training camp and competed one event at the U.S. Classics competition.

It’s not like USA Gymnastics nationals are busting at the seams, and there would have been no harm in allowing Moceanu to compete. And they might have sold a few more tickets.


Dominique Moceanu

Photo credit: Onutzmovie/Wikimedia Commons


  1. Weight Prejudice in the 1989-1992 Quad

In the early 90s, USA Gymnastics got caught up in the a-tiny-gymnast-is-a-good-gymnast fad. The pressure on the early 90s athletes to maintain unhealthy low weights caused the needless physical and emotional suffering of countless gymnasts.


Photo Credit: Cliff/Flickr


  1. 2000 Olympic Team Selection

Following a drastic performance decline following the 1996 Olympics, USA Gymnastics decided to turn selection to its Olympic team into a game of Mao. Regardless of rankings after competition, a selection committee went behind closed doors and chose the team they wanted. This system ultimately pushed sixth-place finisher Vanessa Atler off the team in favor of Dominique Dawes, who finished seventh at the trials. Alyssa Beckerman and Tasha Schwikert received alternate nods, and Schwikert ultimately competed after Morgan White broke her foot.

We all know that Atler was a basket case. But Beckerman wasn’t? Beckerman’s inability to keep it together ultimately led to her dismissal from UCLA’s women’s gymnastics team. And Dawes had her own reputation for inconsistency. Atler, even on her bad days, outscored the rest. It was politics, not performance, that ultimately kept Atler off the 2000 team.


Photo credit: Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons


  1. Gabby Douglas Blames Excalibur

In 2012, Gabby Douglas stunned the world with an upset victory in the Olympic all-around gymnastics finals. Fame and fortune waited for Douglas, and she soon cashed in on a series of lucrative deals.

You’d think Douglas would have used that fame to show some gratitude towards her former gym, Excalibur Gymnastics of Virginia Beach. Instead, Douglas played the victim, accusing Excalibur and her fellow gymnastics students of racism. Perhaps these accusations were to ease Douglas’ conscience over what gym owners claim is a $10,000-$20,000 debt for Douglas’ training? We’ll never know.


Photo credit: Melissa Hillier/Flickr


  1. Jamie Dantzscher Competes Vanessa Atler’s Floor Routine

Talk about cruel. Once seen as the most promising gymnast in the post-Magnificent Seven era, Vanessa Atler suffered a mental block that derailed her bar routines and ultimately her gymnastics career. In the year before the Olympic trials, a falling out with her coaches over her bars routine prompted Atler to switch coaches, leaving hurt feelings and blame in all directions.

Rather than, you know, behaving like the adults they were supposed to be, the Rybackis decided to rub salt in Atler’s wounds, by having their other elite gymnast, Jamie Dantzscher, perform to Atler’s floor music, complete with Atler’s signature opening tumbling pass.

Shame on Dantzscher’s coaches for participating in this charade and shame on USA Gymnastics for allowing it. Dantzscher should have received a score of 0 for every floor exercise routine until she learned to behave in a sportsmanlike manner. Even more shameful is that USA Gymnastics allowed Atler’s former coach Steve Rybacki to serve as assistant coach to the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team at the 2000 Sydney games.

You can watch it go down here.


  1. Kim Kelly Left Off the 1992 Olympic Team

The Kim Kelly scandal is easily USA Gymnastics’ blackest mark. In 1992, Kim Kelly finished sixth at the Olympic trials. Her placement earned her a spot on the 1992 Olympic team – or so she thought.

In a series of backroom trading, bargaining, and inventing-the-rules-as-you-go politics, USA Gymnastics and a slew of self-interested coaches voted Kelly off the island in favor of Betty Okino, who did not compete in the televised Olympic trials or the earlier U.S. nationals competition. Okino did not win any individual medals at the Olympics. In team competition, the United States beat China for the bronze medal by more than a point, making it extremely likely that the United States would have won the bronze medal had Kelly remained on the roster.

In 2000, Bela Karolyi left Shannon Miller off the Olympic team, for the stated reason that he would not take an injured athlete. This statement is in direct contrast to his actions in 1992, when he politicked to remove a healthy Kelly in favor of an injured Okino. Of course, Okino was his own athlete, while Miller and Kelly were not.

USA Gymnastics could begin to rectify this situation by inviting Kelly to the 2016 Olympic reunion scheduled for this summer’s USA Gymnastics Olympic Trials, but I won’t hold my breath.

You can watch a video on Kim Kelly here.

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