20 Secrets About Professional Gymnastics That Show What Life Is Like Behind The Pristine Routines

In 2017 nearly five million Americans participated in the sport of gymnastics, and a very small percentage of those qualified as a professional. In other words, only a select few know what it’s really like to compete at the top level. But some of those elite athletes have now revealed their secrets. And they tell what it’s really like to be a professional gymnast, as well as how the sport impacts the body.

20. All gymnasts deal with high beauty standards – even decorated Olympians

Simone Biles stands as the most decorated American gymnast of all time with 30 medals from the World Championships and Olympics combined. She quite literally soars above her competitors to the point where judges have marked down her skillful moves to deter others from attempting them and hurting themselves.

And yet, Biles has revealed that she finds gymnastics’ focus on physical beauty to be frustrating, to say the least. The four-time Olympic gold medalist wrote, “In gymnastics… there is a growing competition that has nothing to do with performance itself. I’m talking about beauty. I don’t know why but others feel as though they can define your own beauty based on their standards.”

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19. Gymnastics practice in outfits much different than their competition leotards

Gymnasts slip into leotards to compete for a multitude of reasons. The close-fitting garments can’t get caught or snag on equipment, which makes them safe to wear. Plus, their coaches and judges can more easily see the lines of their body, which they use to assess how finely tuned a routine is.

But most gymnasts look different when they’re working out in the gym. Yes, they’ll wear shorts or tights along with their leotards – and some do so because they prefer to show off less skin. Once it’s competition time, though, athletes wear just the leotard to ensure peak performance and safety. Even so, some admit to feeling self-conscious about donning their short, clingy uniforms.

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18. Gymnasts use their leotards to reflect their personalities

The Olympics see gymnasts performing in an all-around team competition as well as individual events. In the team portion, all of the gymnasts will wear the same leotard. But when their solo events roll around, they can change things up, according to the 2008’s Olympic Individual All-Around champion, Nastia Liukin.

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Yes, Liukin told People in 2016, “For the individual events, you will always have the American flag on your sleeve but this is where you can show your personality a little bit more.” The gold medalist said she chose to wear a pink leotard because it’s her favorite hue. She went on, “You definitely want to feel confident in the way you look because when you’re on the balance beam, confidence is the most important thing.”

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17. Going pro is a difficult choice, especially for female gymnasts

For most athletes, the decision to go pro is an easy one. They sign contracts – usually very lucrative ones – just to compete on a national stage. For gymnasts, though, the path isn’t as clear-cut. They can make money, but mostly from endorsements, which typically won’t come unless they make it to the top tier of their sport.

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But only a few gymnasts make it to the Olympics and even fewer get to stand on the podium. Plus, if an athlete goes pro, they can’t reverse it to compete at the amateur collegiate level. And because most female gymnasts peak very early – most are teens when they do – it can be a difficult decision to go pro and potentially miss out on a scholarship.

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16. A delayed period is not a myth

Professional gymnasts train intensively, both when they make it to the top tier of their sport and in the years leading up to that moment. That’s not a bad thing, but too much physical fitness can have its disadvantages. And a common one for professional gymnasts is a condition called amenorrhea.

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If a gymnast suffers from amenorrhea, she doesn’t have a menstrual period. It might mean she doesn’t get one at all, even after turning 16. Or, it could mean that the cycle stops for a period of six months. The condition tends to affect gymnasts – as well as distance runners and ballerinas – because they tend to have low body weights. That, plus intensive fitness training, can cause athletes’ periods to disappear.

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15. The Olympic village isn’t all-inclusive

You’d think the Olympic Village would provide its guests with all the comforts they’d need outside of the competition. However, according to gold-medalist gymnast Liukin, “There really isn’t shampoo and conditioner” provided for athletes. Instead, athletes tend to “pack the biggest bottle of shampoo, conditioner and hairspray.”

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For Liukin and the rest of the team, though, it’s not a huge bother to bring along their own toiletries. After all, they will have to bunk in the Olympic village for a month’s worth of practice and competition. She said, “I think we’re all pretty particular to what we like. We typically bring our own stuff.”

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14. Gymnastics can have lasting effects on athletes’ bodies

Elite gymnasts train for at least 40 hours a week, which undoubtedly builds their flexibility and strength as a top-tier athlete. However, so much pressure on their muscles, bones and joints can have ripple effects, even though many of them continue some sort of training regimen after retiring from their sport.

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Among the most common ailments for former gymnasts are stress fractures, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. These problems center on the body parts that take the brunt of the impact from the sport: wrists, knees, ankles, back, etcetera. Many gymnasts also deal with chronic pain, which can flare up when their bodies are under stress, such as when they get pregnant.

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13. Gymnasts love hairspray – like, really love it

Gymnasts rely on a whole lot of products to keep their hair out of their faces when they compete. A simple ponytail won’t do the trick, nor will bobby pins or braids. Most athletes slather their strands in gel or freeze them with so much hairspray that their hairdos stay in place, even when the scrunchies and clips have been removed.

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But there’s a reason why gymnasts want their hair tied up so tightly. Some of them cut their hair short to avoid this issue, too. If their hair gets caught under their hands, it could be a huge problem as they fly over the bars or bounce on the beam.

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12. Gymnasts have an unexpected way of dealing with cuts and tears in their skin

Some ways that gymnasts heal after a tough training session make perfect sense. For example, they will reach for an ice pack when they injure themselves. Or they’ll hop into an ice-filled bath to soothe sore muscles and joints. But some of their other ways to heal themselves – particularly their cut or torn skin – are much less typical.

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Indeed, many gymnasts turn to hemorrhoid treatment Preparation H to soothe the typical cuts and tears they get on their hands. The medication can diffuse swelling, and it also has anesthetic qualities that can dull the pain of such injuries. And if Preparation H doesn’t do the trick, then gymnasts might sometimes try popping a tea bag over the rips.

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11. The sport really does stunt growth

On the one hand, gymnastics might attract more petite participants, much like basketball suits taller athletes. You see, shorter people tend to find it easier to flip, balance on a four-inch beam and throw themselves from the uneven bars, after all. But some research has found that other aspects of the sport might actually stunt gymnasts’ growth.

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For one thing, gymnasts might trim their diets to stay lightweight enough to continue performing their tricks. And without sufficient nutrition – specifically vitamin D, calcium and calories – they could stall their bone growth. Another study found that intense training during puberty can stunt musculoskeletal maturation and, therefore, growth over time.

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10. Coaches can make or break their athletes’ self-esteem

Former gymnasts often say that the sport helped them to grow a thicker skin – and a lot of that comes down to their coaches. Indeed, these trainers have to critique their athletes and, sometimes, they don’t hold back. For instance, they might yell at a team member for under-performing or not even presenting themselves correctly.

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Coaches can further adversely affect their gymnasts’ self-esteem by focusing on their weight, even if it does make competing easier. But athletes with positive trainers have a completely different experience. In fact, they say they are made to feel better by leaders who give them positive reinforcement.

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9. Many gymnasts are superstitious

Once a gymnastics routine goes well, some athletes will go to extreme lengths to replicate it. They practice often, of course, but they’ll also repeat the same preparative steps so that they can have the same lucky result. In other words, they have superstitions – and even gymnasts at the highest level follow through with them.

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For gold-medal-winning gymnast Liukin, it was all about her hair. She explained to People, “For me…I had one lucky clip..I always wore a matching scrunchie.” The Olympian encouraged others to follow suit if they wanted. She said, “It’s really just whatever you feel comfortable with and whatever works for you and whatever you’re superstitious with.”

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8. Gymnasts can tell they’re going to mess up the landing before they hit the ground

The best gymnasts make their routines look effortless. But the truth is, it takes serious power to pull off the medal-winning moves you see on the beam, bars, floor and vault. And to master them in time for a competition, athletes have to repeat their routines over and over again.

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It’s those hours of practice that give gymnasts the ability to tell if their landing will go wrong before they hit the ground. Yes, some elite athletes report that they know in the air that they’ve fumbled the dismount. According to a BuzzFeed roundup of gymnast secrets, one athlete described the airborne time pre-botched landing as “the longest five seconds of your life.”

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7. Coaches determine what you wear – right down to your nail polish

Every coach’s rules will be different, of course. But according to Olympic champion Liukin, they tend to dictate what gymnasts get to wear at meets. This can come all the way down to nail polish colors, she said. In her experience, bright hues were off the table, although athletes could sport pale polishes or natural nails.

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On that note, Liukin revealed that the coaches also limited the jewelry that their gymnasts could wear. The girls could only have on earrings, and stud-style baubles, at that. It made sense, though, considering that the athletes would need their hands ring and bracelet-free while flying on the uneven bars.

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6. Even pro gymnasts fear the balance beam

Of all the apparatuses with which gymnastics perform, the balance beam has to be the most demanding. For one thing, it’s only four inches wide – the slightest misstep can cause an athlete to slip and fall to the floor. That’s what makes otherwise simple moves, such as a split jump, so much more difficult when done on the beam.

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Still, leaps and splits pale in comparison to the difficulty presented by beam-based flips and dismounts from the four-inch-wide surface. And all of that combined may begin to explain this: many gymnasts admit that the balance beam makes them the most nervous and scared of all the events they do.

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5. Gymnasts do wear underwear under their leotards, but it can’t show through

It may seem like a leotard is an all-inclusive garment, but Olympic gymnast Liukin told People that she and her fellow athletes have to wear their own underwear underneath. She explained, “We normally find a nude sports bra. […] By the end of the day you can’t wait to take it all off because it’s really tight and you’re spending a lot of hours in it.”

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Liukin added that designers sell undergarments that fit perfectly beneath their leotards. And that was good news for the gymnasts, whose scores depended partly on their outfits looking perfect. She explained, “It is a deduction if your bra strap is out so you have to look after that. It’s a lot to think about.”

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4. You can’t pick a wedgie or you’ll lose points

Perhaps you’ve watched gymnasts contort their bodies in Spandex and wondered, “Don’t they get wedgies?” The answer is, of course, yes – but the athletes can’t fix that while they’re on the floor. As Liukin revealed to People, doing so is an automatic point deduction. But there are ways around it.

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Liukin explained, “You’re not allowed to [pick a wedgie] or else you get deducted. So a lot of people use sticky spray [called TuffSkin] for your butt so your leotard doesn’t move.” But the Olympic gold medalist said she and most other athletes at her level didn’t rely on the tacky material – they just ignored their leotards’ shifts until their routines ended.

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3. Gymnastics can cause eating disorders

Sometimes coaches can put too much pressure on their team members to lose weight. And a 2006 study of former and active gymnasts, as well as judges and coaches, found that this pressure on an athlete’s measurements could cause disordered eating.

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However, the study revealed that each group had different views on eating disorders in the sport. For instance, retired gymnasts saw it as more of a problem than active athletes. In the end, though, one thing was clear: the more pressure a gymnast was under to lose weight, the more likely they were to go to extreme measures to get there.

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2. Age is not just a number in women’s gymnastics

Gabby Douglas won the gold in the Olympic individual all-around event at the 2012 Olympics in London. She was 16 at the time, and she told the Washington Post afterwards that she was determined to make the team for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. But such a dream was a lofty one for a female gymnast of her age.

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The head coach of the 2012 women’s U.S. Olympic team, John Geddert, explained how the sport had evolved to edge out older competitors. He said, “Without sounding condescending to young women, this is a little girl’s sport. With their body changes and the wear-and-tear everybody goes through, once they become women, it just becomes very, very difficult.” For what it’s worth, though, Douglas defied the odds and competed again in Rio.

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1. It’s normal to pee when you tumble

All of that high-powered flipping and flying has an unexpected side-effect: some gymnasts pee a little bit when they tumble. There are multiple reasons why this might happen to a gymnast. Perhaps they don’t have a completely tight core, or their gluteus muscles don’t have the power required to hold it all in during an aerial move.

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Sometimes, a bad landing can cause a little bit of leakage post-tumble, too. Regardless of the reason, it’s a very normal side-effect of tumbling, so it doesn’t make gymnasts feel embarrassed. And, of course, it’s a minimal amount, so all the audience sees is a strong athlete flying through the air – which is the most important takeaway when watching this incredible sport.

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