June 13, 2013
Programming note: The 2013 Pro Gymnastics Challenge will re-air on ESPN2 on Saturday, June 15th at 11 a.m. CT.
It was late April when Brie Olson received an unexpected invitation.
The senior OU gymnast had already had a busy month, helping her team to an NCAA regional title and a national runner-up finish at the NCAA Championships in Los Angeles, Calif. Olson had captured her fourth All-America honor at the championship meet and was a finalist for the AAI award, given to the nation’s top senior gymnast.
Olson departed from California believing her competitive gymnastics career was over. Just a few days later, however, she received a call asking her to take part in a new gymnastics skills competition. She immediately recognized it as an opportunity she wouldn’t turn down.
“After Nationals, I was one a few people that was asked to participate,” Olson recalled. “I was told they were having a competition that was all about tricks, not routines. I accepted it because I felt I wasn’t done with gymnastics yet and it was something unique—something you don’t see in gymnastics.”
The event was called the Pro Gymnastics Challenge (PGC) and was set up in a unique format that showcased the sport and athletes to audiences around the world.
The premise of the event drops the traditional format of a meet in favor of a point system: Team USA faces off with competitors from around the world in a skill-for-skill competition between mixed teams of men and women. The showdown features six total events (tumbling, parallel bars/uneven bars, vault, rings/balance beam, rope, high bar/single rail) with an offensive team and a defensive team. The offensive team performs a skill or skill sequence first, and then the defensive team attempts to perform the same skill or sequence better.
The winner for each skill is determined by a judging panel, with the audience serving as a tiebreaker. Winning teams gain a point and offensive control for the next skill. The first team to 10 points on each event is victorious.
Part of the competition’s appeal to many of the participating gymnasts was the chance to pull out big, difficult skills that they would otherwise be unable to use in routines. Because of the nature of the sport and the way it is typically judged, a gymnast might eliminate a particularly challenging skill in order to ensure a clean routine.
“When you compete, you want to compete a routine that you know you’ll hit and that is the cleanest,” Olson explained. “Even though you have a big skill, it may not be worth putting in your routine for a lot of reasons. It’s often about strategy in gymnastics.”
Olson, however, was instantly drawn to the “edgy” vibe of PGC. The traditional emphasis on presentation and cleanliness was eschewed—coaches and competitors would instead focus on putting the biggest skills possible on the floor at all times.
“It wasn’t routines and it wasn’t something you had to be in training for,” Olson said. “It was more about the bigger and better skill you can pull out and which team can do it better.”
Olson took a few days off from the gym upon her return to Oklahoma, focusing on studying for her finals and wrapping up the academic year. Once her schoolwork was in order, she hit the gym to begin preparing for her trip to the east coast.
“I went back in and starting working skills,” Olson said. “There were skills I had done before and old skills I hadn’t performed in a while. I just wanted to refresh my body with different skills I hadn’t used.”
She departed a week in advance of PGC for Lehigh, Pennsylvania, where she spent those seven days in training with the elite roster. It was a surreal experience for Olson, who found herself training alongside both her NCAA counterparts and U.S. Olympic gymnasts.
Unsurprisingly, Olson wasn’t the only Sooner in attendance. She was joined by former OU men’s gymnasts Jonathan Horton, Steve Legendre, Chris Brooks, Jake Dalton and Alex Naddour on the Team USA roster. Olson and the group embraced the chance to represent both their alma mater and the United States on an international stage.
“It was awesome,” Olson said. “It was fun to be out there representing Oklahoma with them, because OU has such strong men’s and women’s gymnastics teams. It just shows that Oklahoma has helped create some really great gymnasts.”
The competition was split into two nights of action between Team USA and Team World. Olson found herself numbered among an impressive array of some of the world’s most popular and electrifying gymnasts on the floor.
|Olson dismounts on uneven bars at the 2013 Pro Gymnastics Challenge.|
The Team USA roster was peppered with a mix of Olympic medalists, former NCAA champions and All-Americans. Olson was joined by many familiar faces from the 2013 NCAA Championship meet, including UCLA’s Vanessa Zamarripa, Florida’s Ashanee Dickerson and Illinois’s Alina Weinstein.
The Team World roster made a formidable opponent for the U.S. team, including famous names in the international gymnastics world like two-time Olympian Catalina Ponor of Romania, Florida gymnast and former British Olympian Marissa King and British Olympic medalist Sam Oldham.
Though the meet’s competitive format and the feel may have been different, Olson tackled the opportunity with the same determination and energy she had brought to the gym at OU for four seasons. She competed on vault, balance beam, uneven bars and high bar on the first evening before performing on balance beam, uneven bars and high bar on the second night.
“We were competing against someone who could do the same skills as us, but the goal was do it bigger and better,” Olson said. “It was all about the wow-factor.”
In the end, Team USA brought big skills and plenty of personality to the gym over the course of the two-day competition, impressing the judges and taking home top honors in the inaugural Pro Gymnastics Challenge. Victory was sweet for Olson and her teammates, but she knew the greatest part of the event was the new relationships she formed with her fellow competitors.
“I really enjoyed getting together with so many NCAA and international gymnasts,” Olson said. “We all had a good time and I think we got along so great. Florida was our huge competition at the NCAA Championships, but they sent a few girls to PGC and now they’re some of my really good friends. It’s turned into a great friendship from just a week there with them.”