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Top U.S. gymnasts coached at home

Nancy Armour
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado

SAN JOSE, Calif. ” Used to be that gymnasts were frequent fliers, crisscrossing the country in search of the best coaches.

Now, three of the top U.S. women don’t have to go beyond their front door. The best coaches for them are the same people they see every day at the breakfast table, the folks who tucked them into bed when they were small.

Former world champion Chellsie Memmel now trains with her father, Andy. Two-time U.S. champ Nastia Liukin works with her dad, Valeri, a double gold medalist at the 1988 Olympics with the Soviet Union. And world silver medalist Jana Bieger is coached by her mother, Andrea, who was an Olympic gymnast for West Germany.



“It’s pretty easy for us. I love having my mom as my coach,” Jana Bieger said. “We get along well and we communicate well. She knows me as well as anyone can or anyone would.”

Elite gymnasts spend six to eight hours a day in the gym and, unlike in some sports, the athlete-coach relationship is intense. These coaches don’t simply put their athletes in the pool and tell them to swim 100 laps. They’re there all the time: watching, teaching, correcting, sometimes even getting out there and doing it themselves.



Now try being the parent, too, and it can make for some hard times.

“That’s why we sent her away at the very first. Because she was younger, and I wanted to be just the parent,” said Andy Memmel, who took over as Chellsie’s coach three years ago at her request.

“Could I do it? And would I disappoint her?” he said when asked what his biggest fears of coaching his daughter were. “Because she did look up to me as a father. I didn’t want to disappoint her at two different levels, as a coach and as a parent.”



For these top American gymnasts, though, it works. The three already have a slew of medals from the national and world championships, and they’re among the favorites when nationals begin Wednesday in San Jose, Calif.

Not to be left out, men’s defending champion Sasha Artemev is coached by his father, Vladimir.

While the Americans may make the family affair look easy, it has taken considerable work. The relationship between a parent and child is complicated enough ” especially in the teenage years ” without adding in a coach’s demands and the pressures that come with world-class competition.

The key, the parents said, is to make sure what happens in the gym stays separate from life at home.

“We try not to talk gymnastics at all. We don’t want to burn her out,” Valeri Liukin said. “She’s having a regular, normal life at home. She loves to be on the computer talking to her friends, she loves to read. She goes upstairs to her bedroom and we don’t see her anymore.”

And for Jana and Nastia, they’ve worked with their parents for so long, they really don’t know any different. Nastia Liukin had other coaches ” including her mother, Anna, briefly ” but she’s worked with her father since she was 8; she’s now 17. Andrea Bieger began coaching her daughter after they moved to the United States 11 years ago, and the partnership just kind of continued through the years.

“I have to admit, as a mother, when she got to the higher level, I thought, ‘Do I really want to do this with her?'” Andrea Bieger said. “But she had so much fun. … I never push her. She even pushes once in a while me. ‘Mom, come, we have to go to the gym.’ Everything comes from her.”

For the Memmels, the situation was a bit different.

Andy Memmel and his wife, Jeanelle, own their own gym, but they sent their daughter elsewhere to train for most of her career. Chellsie would occasionally go to her parents for help ” Andy Memmel put a training plan together for his daughter in 2003, when she went from being a late alternate at the world championships to a double gold medalist ” but her parents were very careful not to push.

So when Chellsie decided at 16 that she wanted to train with her father, boundaries had already been established.

“If it’s about something that we’re doing, like about practice, I always ask permission to talk to them about it,” Andy Memmel said. “Like, ‘Hey, I have an idea about practice tomorrow. Can we talk about it now? Or do you want to wait until we’re in the car going to the gym?'”

The double duty has gotten easier as the girls have gotten older. All can drive now, which gives them more independence and makes the separation between “work” and home that much clearer.

And unlike when they were younger, and time at the gym consisted of mom and dad telling them what to do, there’s much more give-and-take now. The girls aren’t shy about sharing their thoughts on what works and what doesn’t.

“I have to respect the fact she has her own feelings. She was doing the growing up, and now it’s my turn to grow up,” Valeri Liukin said, laughing. “The very, very good thing that helps me is Nastia’s a very smart girl, and she’s such a self-driven individual. She understands she’s not going to get things done if she doesn’t work.”

While trying to be both coach and parent would be too daunting a task for some, Andrea Bieger, Valeri Liukin and Andy Memmel say they wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

They get to spend the majority of every day with their daughters ” precious extra time that few parents get. Their “work trips” double as family vacations, and they’ve gotten to see the world.

Best of all, they’ve had a front-row seat for the biggest moments in their daughters’ young lives.

“When I’m watching her compete, I’m watching her as a parent. I’m done coaching,” Andy Memmel said. “That’s probably the coolest part, you can be that close as a parent. … I get the first hug when she comes down. And I get to hug her if something doesn’t go exactly as planned.”


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