Gymnastics: the hardest break up of my life

Arizona gymnast Shelby Edwards in competing in McKale Center Photo by Arizona Athletics
Arizona gymnast Shelby Edwards competing in McKale Center Photo by Arizona Athletics

When I think about, it doesn’t make much sense to stay in a sport like gymnastics. If I’m looking at it from a professional standpoint, unless you are an Olympic hopeful, gymnastics is a go-nowhere sport.

We train and we train, six hours a day and six days a week, for a large majority of our childhood and teenage years. But what do we get? The lucky ones get college gymnastics, while the rest get retirement from the sport at age 18 or younger. Regardless of the circumstance, one thing is certain: there is a definite expiration date to every gymnastics career.

At about 13-years-old I was painfully aware that I would never fulfill my dreams of competing in the Olympics. Besides the fact that I was plagued with injury after injury, the reality was that I was far behind where I needed to be at that age. Once a young talent with aspiring dreams, now I was simply a gymnast for the sake of not knowing what else to be.

Fast forward to present day, and I am still a gymnast, just for more complicated reasons.

I’m a University of Arizona gymnast about to enter her fourth and final year as a GymCat and her 17th and final year as a gymnast. I am both terrified and ready.

Shelby Edwards on the balance beam in McKale Center
Shelby Edwards on the balance beam in McKale Center Photo by Arizona Athletics

So, let’s address the scary emotion first. No, I’m not terrified of the gymnastics part; I’ve been flipping and flying around since the age of four. My fears extend far past the width of a four inch balance beam. What terrifies me about entering my last season as a competitive gymnast is that in about five months, I will be losing a part of who I am.

“Hi, my name is Shelby and I’m a gymnast.”

This has been my introduction line for as long as I can remember. It’s a personal identifier. It’s my go-to adjective for individual descriptions. In a few short months, I will no longer be “Shelby, the gymnast”, but instead, just Shelby. And “Just Shelby” has always sounded a little empty to me.

In terms of gymnastics, when considering the “why” behind choosing to stay in such a dead-end sport, I believe the answer is fairly simple: I love it. It’s obvious, isn’t it? I wouldn’t have spent thousands of hours doing a sport that does nothing to further my professional future or career path if it wasn’t something that I absolutely loved doing, something that I couldn’t imagine life without. It’s very apparent the love I have for gymnastics. What I’ve struggled with explaining to people is why it love it.

I can talk all day about how physically, emotionally and mentally demanding gymnastics is. I can talk about how gymnastics helps develop life skills, such as hard work, passion, determination, perseverance, team-oriented mindsets, positive self-talk, and much more. I can drone on and on about how gymnastics has taught me to set goals and push myself past my limits. However, none of these things really encompass what it’s like to be in love with the sport.

Arizona gymnast Shelby Edwards competing in McKale Center Photo by Arizona Athletics
Arizona gymnast Shelby Edwards competing in McKale Center Photo by Arizona Athletics

Gymnastics was my first relationship, my first true love. It’s been there for me through problems at home to teenage angst. It’s been there through all my boy drama and all my friend drama. From emotional breakdowns to age 20-something life crisises to the struggles of college algebra, gymnastics has always been the one constant. When I walk into the gym, all my troubles, worries, and concerns are left at the door. I was safe inside those four walls, just me and my best friend.

In five months, I will be graduating. In five months, I will be transitioning from a college adult to a real adult, and unfortunately there is no room for a relationship with gymnastics in the life of a real adult. Though this break up has been planned and expected for years now, that doesn’t make the process any easier.

Gymnasts, at a young age, know exactly what we’re getting ourselves into. The break up is inevitable. We know there’s no professional pay off, we know there’s no future for us in the sport past the age of 22, and we know that after all the hard work we’ve put in we will ultimately have nothing in our hands to show for it. That, however, is what makes a gymnast, a gymnast.

Arizona gymnast Shelby Edwards thanking fans in McKale Center Photo by Arizona Athletics
Arizona gymnast Shelby Edwards thanking fans in McKale Center Photo by Arizona Athletics

This beautifully demanding sport has given me grit. It has taught me how to work for something worth more than just a gold medal and a spot on the podium. Gymnastics might be temporary, but what I have taken away from these 17 years is perpetual. We do what we do because of who we are made through the sport. Though it has taken me a while to realize, gymnastics isn’t who I am, yet through gymnastics I have grown into the person I am today.

So, when these five months come to an end, I guess I won’t really be losing a part of who I am. Thanks to gymnastics, I know that my worth is found in much more than what sport I do. Though I am saying goodbye to my first true love, I know that this relationship has prepared me for life after college in a way that no other experience could have. There is no other person like a gymnast, because a gymnast does what she does out of love.

“Hi, my name is Shelby and I’m ready to move on.”

Shelby Edwards is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos

18 comments Add yours
  1. AI am another Shelby who also loved the sport of gymnastics and begged my parents to let me try it (to no avail) I can tell you to use the concentration and discipline you learned to tackle what life brings you. I am nearly 50 now and still can’t watch artistic gymnastics without a pang of regret. Fortunately, my daughter has just started and loves it. Your life is just starting…you will never be “just” unless you decide it for yourself.

  2. Great article, can you adjust it to not have the background, it is incredibly hard to read!

  3. There is always room in my life for gymnastics, and like you, it has made me the person I am today! A hard worker determined never to give up on anything. It is a part of who I am because I dedicated my younger years to the sport! You will never lose a part of yourself because because you will always tell people you learned discipline from gymnastics!!!

  4. This is an wonderful heartfelt article about a passion that sometimes in life is hard to explain. Shelby you did a great job of letting us inside your demanding yet special relationship and love

  5. This really made me an emotional wreck. This is real life and every athlete should read this because you will have to face this same obstacle one day. The question remains what’s next and are you ready. This young lady is ready to score a perfect 10 in the real world and I’m glad she’s a Wildcat. Always remember to BEAR Down Shelby.

  6. I’m not a gymnast but my daughter still is, at 26 years old. Not in the four event competitive arena, she auditioned and was one of four selected out of the hundreds that applied to be an athlete performer for Le Reve^ at the WinnResort in Las Vegas several years ago. All that hard work has paid off in spades for her now and she is in the presence of other world class gymnasts from the world over. So if you have the drive and the skills, look them up. You won’t regret it.

  7. Amazing article! I felt the same way when I stopped my sport too- synchronized swimming. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

  8. This is very true , I have 2 years at visa “s , 4 international elites , 25 gymnast to college on gymnastic scholarships , and I currently have no where to teach elite , or level 8, 9 , 10 women’s gymnastics . I feel your pain

  9. Shelby, this is a BEAUTIFUL article, and even though I did not do gymnastics as long as you, I felt the same way when it was time to retire. Let me tell you what I wish I knew then. I wish someone would have told me that I could live out my gymnastics forever through Fitness and Figure competitions. Now 30 and missing gymnastics more than ever (#OlympicFever), I am training for my first NPC Figure competition. Training for this competition fills the void created when I quit gymnastics. Something to think about. ;D

  10. This article really affected my gymnasts in a negative way. Calling gymnastics a dead end sport was irresponsible. There are very few sports that females can continue to pursue as a professional. And even then, its an extremely small percentage that get to do that, Sports are NOT MEANT to be a professional career. Most all person’s athletic careers end after high school or college. Gymnastics is not any different, As an all state athlete in 2 different sports, my athlete career ended after college as I knew it would. But I continued my love of sports by transitioning into coaching. At 50 years old, I can say I love my career choice as a professional gymnastics coach. I love it more than being an athlete. My gymnasts targeted the fact that you called it a dead end sport. It took a very long conversation to show them otherwise. I believe it was very irresponsible to call it a dead end sport. I would hope you would write a follow up with the facts about sports not being a professional career except for an extremely small percentage. And that you can always continue your love by transitioning into a very respectfull career as a coach.

  11. Love this article – and you are one of my favorite NCAA gymnasts to watch! I can’t say I don’t still miss doing gymnastics myself, long more than a decade after retiring, but there’s still a lot to enjoy about it even after retirement. Coaching, following NCAA, and proving to my new students every year that yes, their teacher can still do handstands means that I’ll never have to get gymnastics out of my life entirely.

  12. I can relate to all that you have written about. I too was a collegiate gymnasts w my identity surrounded around gymnastics. It was who I was. I am MUCH older than you so I can tell you that you WILL. Be successful at everything you do after gymnastics. Gymnasts are unique individuals and employers LOVE to hire us for all the right reasons . We are dedicated, compassionate, driven and fierce competitors . Who would love to hire that? Good luck in your final season and for the rest of your life! I live in TEMPE and would love to see you compete . All the best!! Jian

  13. Great piece!
    I was never as accomplished as you but I can remember the sadness of having to leave behind the sport that I loved when I left college. Now, 30 years later (!!) I discovered that adult gymnastics is on the rise and I am re-learning some basic tricks again. My only life regrets are not maintaining my shoulder strength and flexibility and my handstand balance, and giving up so easily the sport I loved so much. Don’t stop doing what you love.
    Gymnastics will always be part of your life, even if adulthood steers you in other directions.

  14. I love this article! Shelby – you are a very insightful young lady. My daughter had a similar relationship with competitive badminton and had to deal with “the breakup” at the conclusion of the Illinois State Tournament at 18.

    Moreso, your article reminds me a lot of me and my daughter’s experience with 8-week overnight camp as both a camper and counselor. Both of us learned so much from the experience (how to win and lose, how to live with someone you might not like very much, table manners, etc.) that it helped shape us into the people we are. Our friendships from camp are our strongest friendships we have. I would guess you have a similar relationship with other gymnasts.

    You are a fabulous writer besides being a insightful and very athletic person. Good luck as Shelby the person. You’ll do great!


  15. Ammazing article of self disclosure. As an olympian, went thru all of it. The pool to this day is my safe place as I escape reality by coaching dving

    Michael Mourant

  16. Once a gymnast myself ( though not a high level at all) I also had a hard time saying goodbye. I now coach and I love teaching even more! My friend ( also former gymnast, but mostly dancer) just passed her judge exam! Thank you for this wonderful article! What we truely love the most stays with us!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *