Column: Emma Malabuyo among gymnasts keeping their Olympic dreams aflame in their 20s

Emma Malabuyo competes on the uneven bars during the women's U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials in June 2021.
Emma Malabuyo competes on the uneven bars during the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials in June 2021.
(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

In a sport that prizes the fearlessness and flexibility that come with youth, elite female gymnasts often were considered washed up at an age when most athletes are launching their careers.

They’d tumble and pirouette and vault into the spotlight at the Olympics as energetic teenagers, winning fistfuls of medals before wear-and-tear injuries set in and they’d be overtaken by rivals who were more nimble and could do more difficult moves. Their time at the top often was brilliant but almost always was brief.

“When I was growing up, you peaked when you were 16,” said rising UCLA junior Emma Malabuyo, a five-time U.S. national team member and alternate to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic team.


“Gymnastics life is a short lifespan. You’re done at 22.”

Not anymore. And hallelujah to that.

Gabby Douglas, the first Black woman to win the Olympic all-around gymnastics title, is attempting a comeback in hopes of competing at the 2024 Paris Games.

July 13, 2023

The path between sometimes cutthroat elite gymnastics and team-oriented college competition is no longer a one-way street. Many prominent American female gymnasts who are past teenage years are returning to the elite level to make a run at the 2024 Paris Olympics, refreshed physically and emotionally by campus life and performing the less-complex skills required in NCAA competition.

Malabuyo returned to the elite level last month for the first time in two years and won a silver medal on floor exercise while representing the Philippines at the Asian championships. Jordan Chiles, who shared a U.S. team Olympic silver medal in Tokyo, won three world medals last year and earned NCAA titles on the uneven bars and floor exercise this year with UCLA, left school with dreams of Paris. She’s 22 and she’s far from done.

Tokyo all-around gold medalist Sunisa Lee, 20, left Auburn after two seasons to make a run at the Paris Games. Jade Carey, the Tokyo floor exercise gold medalist and twice the Pac-12 gymnast of the year at Oregon State, plans to stay in school while training for a return to the elite level at 23. Louisiana State’s Aleah Finnegan, 20, won two bronze medals for the Philippines at the Asian championships. UCLA’s Ana Padurariu, soon 21, excelled performing a balance beam exhibition at the Canadian championships.

Even 2012 Olympic all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas is following the trend. The 27-year-old announced Thursday she is making a comeback, with the aim of competing at the Paris Games.

Circling back to elite gymnastics after competing in college isn’t a new idea. Most recently, MyKayla Skinner went from elite to college (Utah) and back to elite, winning a vault silver medal at Tokyo at 24. But the current surge of high-profile gymnasts extending their careers has changed the landscape for the better: Gymnasts can fully explore their limits, and their longevity helps fans build deeper connections to them and the sport.

UCLA's Jordan Chiles competes on the uneven bars during the NCAA semifinals in April.
(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

“It’s great. You shouldn’t have to put your life on hold, as far as your education and setting up that next chapter of your life, just to pursue your elite dreams, and that was kind of what was done in the past,” said UCLA coach Janelle McDonald, who accompanied Padurariu to the Canadian event.

“I think now there’s this new trend happening that these goals and these dreams and aspirations can happen simultaneously. It really is inspiring to see them want to be doing both. I think it’s definitely an exciting time for college and elite athletes to really feel like they can do both and do both at a high and successful level.”

Representing the Philippines wasn’t in Malabuyo’s plans. She wanted to perform tougher skills than she had been doing in college, however, and was intrigued when a Philippine gymnastics official contacted her about competing for her grandparents’ homeland.

She got her new passport just in time to travel to Singapore and adapted her college routines well enough to take second in floor exercise and fifth on balance beam.

Through grit and determination, Jordan Chiles excelled at the world championships. The Olympic gymnast heads back to UCLA with renewed confidence.

Dec. 12, 2022

“I really wanted to take this opportunity and see how it goes. And especially after just training in college, I had a lot of fun but I still had this fire inside of me, this desire to continue doing elite,” said Malabuyo, who has resumed training all four disciplines after undergoing surgery on a shoulder problem that limited her activity on the uneven bars for UCLA.

“The competition just felt a little bit more like I had control over my gymnastics. I was able to be myself and have fun and just express who I am, and I think having that flexibility and freedom is what made me really enjoy the whole entire competition and experience. I had one of the best experiences of my life.”


McDonald is impressed with Malabuyo’s willingness to challenge herself. “It’s been really exciting watching Emma grow in her goals again and really have the interest and the desire to get back and compete at the elite level,” McDonald said. “She’s doing so with so much passion and enthusiasm, and that’s something that I’m proud of her for.”

UCLA's Emma Malabuyo finishes a vault routine during a meet against UC Davis and Oregon State in January.
(Amanda Loman / Associated Press)

Malabuyo hopes to compete in the Asian Games later this year and at next year’s Asian championships in hopes of winning an Olympic spot. She said the flexibility offered by colleges and by USA Gymnastics has made it easier for her and others to pursue parallel paths.

“Everyone just seems a little bit more motivated and in a safer space too,” she said. “I think the environment is such a big thing and in college, it just helps with the mental state too.”

Chiles, Lee, Carey and Leanne Wong (Florida) will return to elite competition at the Core Hydration Classic (formerly U.S. Classic) on Aug. 5 in Hoffman Estates, Ill., near Chicago. The entries include another fascinating comeback, though not from the college ranks: 2016 Olympic all-around gold medalist Simone Biles entered the event, which is a qualifier for the U.S. championships. Last week she confirmed her plan via Twitter, saying, “Excited to get back out on the competition floor!”

Biles, 26, hasn’t competed since the Tokyo Olympics, where she was favored to dominate but withdrew from all but one event after experiencing spatial disorientation — the “twisties” — and mental health concerns. She earned a team silver medal and came back to win bronze on the balance beam, adding her seventh Olympic medal to her 25 world championship medals.


A healthy Colleen Quigley will return to the steeplechase at the U.S. track and field championships next month. Then she’ll plunge into triathlon training.

June 22, 2023

Biles hadn’t hinted she was training, so her return was surprising. But not to Malabuyo.

“I always felt like she wanted more,” Malabuyo said. “She is Simone Biles, so she can do anything. She’s an amazing gymnast. She can definitely come back, and I think it’s going to be a great competition for her and I can’t wait to watch her.”

Good luck to Biles — and to all the gymnasts intent on proving their age matters less than their mind, maturity and will.