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gymnastics

For gymnasts, age matters – and comes with a cost

In the world of elite gymnastics, sticking with the sport through puberty can be a challenge for female athletes: They can lose their spacial awareness, face an increased risk of injury and can get stuck having to relearn many skills they used to know

Svetlana Lashina points to a photo of a tiny gymnast she says she coaches, then nods toward an athlete across the gym who is flipping backward on a balance beam – clearly older, and much taller than the girl in the frame.

"That's her," Lashina says, as if it's something no one would ever believe.

Having just turned 16, Vancouver's Shallon Olsen is the youngest of five gymnasts on Canada's women's artistic gymnastics team set to compete in Rio de Janeiro.

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"She is completely different," says Lashina, Olsen's long-time coach. "She looks like a woman now."

In the world of elite gymnastics, sticking with the sport through puberty can be a lot to ask of female athletes: They can lose their spacial awareness, face an increased risk of injury and can get stuck having to relearn many skills they used to know.

But with age restrictions raised years ago by the sport's international federation (athletes must turn 16 in the year of the Olympics to compete), this is something the gymnasts in Rio will likely all have gone through.

After an impressive list of her best competition results, Olsen's bio on Gymnastics Canada's website mentions that "her success comes despite growing seven inches over the course of just two years."

"I kind of just had to work with it, because it's not like I could shrink again," Olsen says. "I had to relearn some of my techniques again, because I lost them. It was definitely a struggle getting back those skills."

But at 16, Olsen is still one of the oldest athletes training with Lashina and her husband, Vladimir Lashin, at Omega Gymnastics Centre in Coquitlam, B.C.

Lashina says she sees huge numbers of athletes leave the sport in their early teens.

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The International Gymnastic Federation's director of education, Hardy Fink, says the dropout rate in women's gymnastics peaks around the age of 14. He estimated it was about 80 per cent for high-performance female gymnasts in Western countries.

For him, the most important thing is to make sure coaches know how to protect athletes during the years that they're growing.

For those that stay, maintaining 25 to 30 hours of training each week can also take its toll on an athlete's body.

A gymnast who was previously trained by Lashina, Brittany Rogers, is Canada's oldest female artistic gymnast heading to Rio: a 23-year-old from New Westminster, B.C., who says she's ready to be "the grandma of the bunch."

Rogers, who now trains in Calgary, says in the lead-up to London (when she was 19) that she didn't think she'd make it to another Games.

"I don't think people really understand how taxing gymnastics is on your body," she says, in an interview four years later. "I started when I was 3 and it has literally been non-stop since then … of course anyone that is working out 30 hours a week is not going to feel great every morning."

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After London, Rogers went to college to compete for the University of Georgia and will head there next year to finish up her last year of academics. Like most gymnasts, she's dealt with her share of sports-related injuries along the way.

"I think I'm mentally stronger, physically stronger: I've learned a lot about myself, what works for me what doesn't work for me," Rogers says.

"Obviously I'm done growing now, so my body can kind of adapt, it has been the same way for a couple years now."

The team's therapist, Jean-François Mathieu, says he has seen a trend in Canada that has girls staying in the sport longer. "They are changing the sport to more of a power sport, and for that you need more muscle, and for that you need to be developing muscle mass after puberty," he says.

A coach for more than two decades, Lashina's thoughts on the minimum age requirement have changed over time: She used to think preventing younger girls from competing at the top level was a bad thing.

But, with experience, she says she's realized older gymnasts can bring something the younger ones don't.

The younger athletes can do the tricks, Lashina says, but can't deliver the poise in their presentation in the same way that the older gymnasts, as women, can.


MORE OLYMPICS COVERAGE FROM THE GLOBE

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