by Brina Sept. 13, 2020
A few weeks back, I discovered this list of all US junior and senior national team members dating back to 1983. I was primarily interested in testing out the narrative surrounding the growing number of clubs with gymnasts at the highest level, and you can read about that here. But basic summary statistics about the US national team are also intrinsically interesting, so since I have the data, I figured I’d share some more.
1. The senior national team has shrunk over time.
This might be related to the shrinking size of teams at international competition: if no more than five gymnasts will be needed to compete at any given competition, you don’t need as deep of a bench. Of course, it’s also worth noting that this data tells us nothing about who got funding. It’s possible that the changes in team size reflect changing norms around having unfunded athletes.
The junior national team was much smaller than the senior team in the 1980s and 90s, so we don’t see such a pronounced decline in its size. But from approximately 2000 onward, the junior team has been much closer in size to the senior national team. This may reflect an increasing emphasis on creating a pipeline of younger gymnasts who come up through the national team system.
To my surprise, we also don’t see much evidence of team sizes peaking during Olympic years. I was under the impression that the team grows as the Olympics approaches, both to let more athletes get closer to their dream and to maintain a large selection pool in case of injury. However, the data does not support this.
2. Most athletes don’t stay on the national team very long.
We know many gymnasts have short careers, but it’s really striking to see just how few athletes are able to hold on to a spot at the top in the US. The plot below shows the tenures of national team athletes.
The data begins in 1983, so I looked only at gymnasts who were on the team in 1990 or later for this analysis to ensure that I’m capturing athletes’ entire careers. For athletes who were on the team in 1990 or later, I do include all national team appearances going back to the 80s.
The mean national team athlete spends 2.74 years on the junior and senior national team combined. This is somewhat skewed by a few athletes with outstanding longevity: the median athlete is on the national team for just two years.
36.9% of athletes on the national team in this period — that is, 137 gymnasts — were only on the national team for a single year. 57.7% of athletes were only on the national team for one or two years. Put plainly, the vast majority of athletes who make it to the highest levels in US gymnastics do not stay there long.
There are, however, some very notable exceptions to this rule. Chellsie Memmel and Domique Dawes share the honor of spending a full decade on the national team. If Memmel succeeds in making the national team in 2021, she would become the single longest tenured member of the US national team in the modern era.
The full list of athletes with five years or more on the national team is below.
3. A small number clubs have absolutely dominated the national team over time.
Get ready to do some scrolling: here’s every single club that’s had a gymnast on the national team since 1983 in one plot.
There are 178 teams on this list, which is a testament to the power of the semi-centralized system. It is incredibly impressive that 178 separate training programs have produced gymnasts capable of competing internationally. This is the true strength of American gymnastics: it is not reliant on a small number of individuals or vulnerable to the collapse of select programs. Elite gymnastics is widespread.
Of course, this plot above is highly skewed. Parkettes, Karolyis, CGA, and SCATS have all sent more than 30 athletes to the national team. (All of these clubs have been accused of abusive coaching practices.) On the other hand, most clubs — specifically, 59.4% of them — have only ever had one athlete on the national team. If you’d like to read more about measuring the extent to which the national team is dominated by just a few clubs, check out my last post!
Got any lingering questions that I can answer with this data? DM me on twitter or comment below!
Tags: Fun with Other Data