When 11 is too old.

Anna Gordon

For decades, women’s gymnastics was a sport for children and teenagers. Athletes peaked young- really young. Pam Majumdar is one of the many gymnasts who have felt stifled by the sport’s focus on youth. She started the sport when she was 11 years old, and it wasn’t long before she encountered problems. 

“I really wanted to start competing and I found out that the gym had a rule that anybody over the age of 10 was never going to be invited onto their competition team,” said Majumdar. “They had a hard age limit.”

It didn’t matter what kind of skills she had, or how good she was. Majumdar was devastated. She even asked her parents to sue the gym for age discrimination, but they said no. The gym let Pam continue going recreationally, but she was barred from competing, simply because of her age. It took over a decade before she finally found a gym that would take her at the age of 24. 

But as an adult gymnast, she encountered even more issues. “The next oldest person on the team was 11,” said Majumdar. “And there were gymnasts as young as 7 and 8 on the team.” 

Majumdar admits she was often embarrassed competing with children. She had to wear childish bright pink leotards and do routines that were clearly designed for kids. Despite it all, Majumdar used all of her vacation time to practice an extra 12 hours a week during the summer while juggling a full time job. But eventually after three years of competing with children, Majumdar gave up. The judgement from other people just got to be too much. 

Many people assume that female gymnasts are young because women’s bodies hit peak athleticism while they are still teenagers. However, the scientific literature doesn’t support this idea. In most sports, women reach peak athletic performance around the age of 25, just one year younger than the men’s average of 26 years old. And in other women’s sports like tennis, or soccer, many female athletes still remain competitive well into their 30s. 

While it may seem like gymnastics is designed exclusively for children, it hasn’t always been this way. In the early days of the sport, in the 1950s and 1960s, most competitive gymnasts were adults in their 20s. The data shows that it was in the 1970s when the age of gymnastics medalists began to dip. 14-year old stars like Nadia Comaneci started dominating in international competitions. 

Nicole Langevin is a gymnastics coach, judge, and olympic choreographer. She’s been following the sport for decades, and she said that the drop in gymnast’s age was due to the success of two famous Romanian gymnastics: Bella Karolyi and his wife Marta. 

“Coaches like Bella Karolyi were realizing that they could control a younger athlete,” said langevine. “ They could teach them things really quickly because they didn’t have any fear.”

The Karolyis fled Romania in the 80’s, and would come to dominate the United States women’s program. Marta served as the US women’s national team coordinator from 2001 to 2016, and had the power to decide who would make the US Olympic team. 

However, when the Karolyis came to the United States, they brought with them many of the same Soviet style training methods they had implemented in Romania. They recruited young teenagers, and cultivated an atmosphere where athletes were frequently berated and encouraged to continue training even with severe injuries. At national training camps, Karolyi’s were known for controlling what meals the girls were allowed to eat and how girls wore their hair during practices. 

“There was a lot of success in the short term,” said Langevin. “But in the long term a lot of those people were emotionally destroyed because of it.”

This kind of abuse is also easier to get away with with younger athletes, who often don’t have the experience and maturity to know that they are being taken advantage of. It was in this environment that the pedophile doctor Larry Nassar was able to abuse hundreds of children.

But in the past few years, there’s been a shift in the culture of USA gymnastics. In the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, the entire board of USA gymnastics was forced to resign, including the CEO. The Karolyi training ranch was shut down, and Marta is no longer the national team coordinator. And for the first time since 1952, the women’s gymnastics olympic team is composed entirely of adult athletes, including two 24 year olds. 

It’s more than just the elite level where things are changing. Despite the costs, and the complicated logistics, recreational adult gymnastics is now extremely popular. In New York, adult classes at Chelsea Piers fill up within ten minutes of being posted online. Even Majumdar has been inspired, and now at 38 years old she has decided to come back to the sport. She is planning to travel to Maryland in the fall and train 20 hours a week. 

“My whole life, nobody has ever believed that I could do gymnastics,” said Majumdar. “So I don’t care if people think I’m crazy.” But maybe now people won’t think Majumdar is crazy. Perhaps in the future, age will no longer stop women like her from competing in the sport they love. 

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