For most of the past 20 years, gymnastics is the only thing that Kyla Ross has known. She was doing handstands by four years old, she was an Olympic gold medallist by 15 and this year at 23 she was finishing an exceptional college gymnastics career at UCLA. This was supposed to be the season that tied all the loose ends as she achieved her final goals and then departed into the night. Instead, Ross watched helplessly as the coronavirus outbreak had the final say, briskly sending her into retirement.
For a full week in mid-March, each new day brought one more blow in a series of gut punches for college athletes. First they learned that their meets would be audience-free, then the Pac-12 national competition was scuppered, then the entire season was cancelled. By 12 March, universities were closing down. After teams held emergency meetings filled with tears and farewells, senior athletes across the United States spent the trip home trying to come to terms with the mortality of their careers.
As a gymnast, the sting was even more severe for Ross. Even in a world of questionable judging and suffocating coaches, a gymnast steps up on to the podium alone. Only their actions determine the quality of their performance. As the world shut down, so too did her autonomy.
“Honestly, that was probably one of the longest weeks of my life,” says Ross in a phone interview. “It was all out of our control. Usually, you have this expectation in your mind of how you want your season to end and you usually have control of being out there on the competition floor. But just having the news given to you and told that you’re done is the hardest.”
Ross is a rarity among the college athletes. She also happens to be one of the best gymnasts of the past decade. The youthful nature of women’s gymnastics means that those who attend university complete the cycle back to front; they chase their Olympic dreams, retire from elite level, and only then head off to class.
In Ross’s first year as a senior gymnast, she marched into the monstrous 2012 US Olympic team at 15 and projected all the composure in the world to help USA win team gold. She says she was too young to open her eyes and take it all in. She does not really remember much.
“I think it was just like: ‘OK, this is another meet. Yes, it may be the Olympics but this is my life.’ Now looking back, it’s sunk in more. Being at UCLA, seeing how people react. People my age are still like: ‘Oh my god, I watched you growing up!”
For her teammates, her presence is like Kylian Mbappé rolling up to college after winning the World Cup. She is famed for her smoothness on every single skill, her consistency and the mental grit that glued her routines together. In 2013 she won three world championship silver medals and led Simone Biles going into the final rotation of the all around. She remains the last person to beat Biles.
The conditions in which she and her teammates competed have come to define recent gymnastics headlines. As the entire 2012 Olympic team stepped forward against Larry Nassar, the toxic culture of Marta Karolyi’s camps was revealed. However, college is often different. The gymnasts are hellbent on pairing fierce competition with enjoyment, friendship and an enriching culture. Ross’s UCLA head coach, Chris Waller, describes college gymnastics as “a pep rally for learning life lessons”.
When Ross first entered the UCLA training gym, the environment unsettled her. People were actually smiling. The tension and pressure she associated with training for big events was absent. It took time for her to feel comfortable actually enjoying herself.
“[At elite level] we’re just so used to being in high-pressure situations, which is good, but I think we would take it a little bit too seriously. The same as in training – in college, I was honestly more nervous to train than compete.”
Similar awakenings came away from the gym. During her youth, Ross’s siblings would head to the beach every day, enjoying their regular childhoods while her life revolved around gymnastics. It never occurred to her that she was missing a vast array of life experiences and she never questioned it. Reality struck as she met her peers in her first year.
“It was crazy just talking to other student athletes,” she says. “Even though they still devoted a lot of time to their sport, they were able to experience a lot more things than I had. Just coming into my freshman year, it sunk in how many sacrifices I did have to make compared to my peers who were the same age as me.” Ross initially struggled to open up, but by the end of her freshman year she had grown into an adventurous young adult and was transforming for good.
“From everything I’ve heard, she’s always been that athlete who would stop at nothing to win,” says Waller. “She didn’t really have a rounded life. What she did over the course of her time at UCLA is figure out how to have integrity in everything. To balance academic, athletic, friendship, teamwork, fun … she literally does it all and we’re all still trying to figure out how she does.”
The personal growth was reflected clearly in competition. Ross’s final years were a stream of perfect 10s and collegiate records. She has one year left of her molecular, cell and developmental biology major and after a short internship in a medical company she will spend it as a coach. She is still processing the end of her career, but the greatest gift of her maturation is that she is equipped with sufficient perspective to know that she is just fine.
“Looking back at my elite career, I kind of had the same ending,” she says. “I didn’t have the perfect ending I was looking for. But I can’t just think that competition is what’s going to define my career. I have to think about all the other accomplishments and experiences, and I think by doing that it helps people get that sense of closure to be happy with how they were able to handle what was given to them.”