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Tough girl


April 8, 2009

Despite sustaining numerous injuries, gymnast Chellsie Memmel is one of the most decorated female gymnasts in United States history.

Brett Favre will always be the first athlete who sports fans in Wisconsin think of when the subject turns to toughness.

Favre may be the gold standard, but West Allis Olympic gymnast Chellsie Memmel is not far behind. Memmel, 5-foot-2, 119 pounds, is grittier than the cheapest of breakfast steaks.

"Iíve seen everyone from high school athletes to professional athletes," says Cheryl Timmer, a physical therapist at Spinal Dynamics of Wisconsin who has worked with Memmel for 10 years. "She is hands down the toughest, most dedicated, resilient athlete there is."

Gymnastics is a sport in which the bodies are small but the impact to those bodies is blunt.

"Some people donít really believe itís a sport, but I try to explain to them itís not something you can just do," says Memmel, 20. "You can pick up a football and throw it, but in gymnastics you have to practice to learn a skill. You put your body through so much."

Memmelís toughness was on full display in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. On Aug. 3, Memmel suffered a major setback when she injured her right ankle during a training exercise. She immediately knew something was wrong ó it was just a matter of finding out how badly she was hurt.

The news was worse than she had feared. It was a broken bone, not just a sprain. Memmel immediately had dťjŗ vu. After all, she figured to be a key member of the 2004 Olympic team, only to lose her spot when she broke a bone in her foot. She ended up as an alternate.

"I took 30 minutes to break down, but Iíve learned from my parents (both gymnastics coaches) that concentrating on the negative will get you nowhere," Memmel says.

When it was determined she could do no further damage by competing, Memmel channeled her energy into the uneven bars. Since all the skills for this event are in the air except for the dismount, this would put the least amount of strain on her ankle.

During the team finals, she managed to perform a clean routine, helping the United States Gymnastics team win a silver medal.

"I was only doing one event and it was the most nervous Iíve ever been," Memmel says. "Iím most proud that I was able to do my job and help the team. I will always remember (the feeling) of standing together on the podium and getting a silver medal. I loved being there and representing my country."

As she was on the medal stand, she flashed back to all the obstacles she had overcome to be near the pinnacle of her sport. In 2001, she missed most of the year with a torn hamstring. In 2004 she broke her left foot and in 2006 she tore her rotator cuff and labrum.

Thanks to her mental toughness, dedication and zeal for gymnastics, Memmel was able to recover from all her injuries. Despite all the time she was sidelined, her total of seven World and Olympic medals is the fourth most in U.S. female gymnastics history.

In 2005, Memmel became the third American woman to win the All-Around at the World Championship. The next year, famed American coach Marta Karolyi told International Gymnast Magazine that Memmel was "most likely the best competitor Iíve seen in my 35 years of coaching."

Memmel says balancing short- and long-term goals helps her recover from injuries. For instance, at the start of the rehabilitation process she has to exercise patience. "I make short term and weekly goals (specific) to my training," she says. When she would get discouraged, thatís when she focused on the big picture. "On hard days I would remember what I was working for," she says. "My goal of making the Olympics pulled me through. It was about the adrenaline and love of competition. I wanted to be there to represent my country."

Memmel also maximizes her rehabilitation by always trying her best. "In 10 years, I can count on one hand the times sheís had a down day," Timmer says.


This story ran in the February 2009 issue of: