When gymnastics worlds collide: Asher Hong keeps it real on balancing elite and college

By Karyssa D'Agostino | July 30, 2023
Asher Hong during the 2022 World Gymnastics Championships men's all-around final (left) and competing rings during the 2023 Winter Cup (right).
© Amy Sanderson

Artistic gymnastics can be divided into two worlds: elite and college, but now, more than ever, gymnasts are choosing to do both simultaneously. In this series, Gymnastics Now talks with athletes who are straddling the line between worlds to highlight the nuances of representing college and country.

Team USA and Stanford standout Asher Hong is no stranger to balancing the two major arenas of gymnastics after a breakout freshman season that saw him simultaneously accrue national and international accolades – feats that the 19-year-old seems to handle with ease, but in reality, are very challenging.

“I couldn’t even get into a rhythm,” Hong said about the fall of his freshman year. “I started the first week – I was training for selection camp – and then the second week, I was gone for the selection camp. So I was like, well, I’m already missing a whole week of school. Was catching up on homework and then [I] made [the] world team, and I was like, well, I’m taking another two weeks off… so that’s great.

“I kind of had to manage emailing professors ahead of time. Thankfully, most of the Stanford professors are super understanding. They work with a lot of athletes throughout the years. So I was very fortunate to have professors who would [be] chill and didn’t call and give me too many headaches, and I didn’t give them too many headaches.”

School work is just one aspect of the balancing act. Hong had to learn quickly how to keep his body healthy, and sometimes, that meant not going to the gym every day.

“I had like three days where [Stanford head coach] Thom [Glielmi] didn’t want me to come in the gym,” Hong said. “[I] got back in, and then we had the Thanksgiving break. And I took full advantage of Thanksgiving break. I think my body really needed that. But at the same time, you’re in shape, you come from the best shape of your life to [taking] a week off, and then you come back. You’re like, well I gotta get ready for NCAA season now, right? So getting into shape, out of shape, and then into shape again, that’s kind of what it’s been through these past two years. Experiencing that for the first time was difficult.”

New year, new lessons

Difficult experiences make for valuable lessons, which Hong learned plenty of in those first few months at Stanford and in the months that followed, when he helped the Cardinal win its fourth-straight NCAA men’s title. (He tacked on the national vault title and an all-around bronze for good measure.)

“Now I have a sense of how it works and what the training plan looks like, in terms of what I need to do, how I need to prepare, when I need to start preparing, when I need to rest and relax… I’m getting these little bits of information and starting to put them all together,” Hong said.

With the 2024 Paris Olympic Games less than a year away, Hong will have to take advantage of that knowledge as he enters his sophomore year.

“Experiencing what I did in the spring this year, and then during the fall into winter last year – where I got out of shape and then had to build into shape – that was very difficult,” Hong admitted. “I don’t see that being very beneficial in terms of this upcoming season and Olympic year. I don’t want to be resting a lot, and then trying to work my way back up for a few weeks, and then having to push my body to its limits, because I think that’s where most guys break down – is when you get out of shape after a big competition, take some time off of the body to rest, let the mind rest, but then when you get back and you have to start building again, you have to build rather quickly because NCAA season and elite season are very close together. It’s very [taxing] on the body and on the mind.”

Consistency is key

Hong is focused on becoming the most consistent and confident gymnast he can be ahead of the 2024 Olympic season. If all goes according to plan, he could be named to the first of potentially multiple U.S. Olympic teams in his career.

“I think every competition and every practice is a great opportunity to better yourself in any and every way. If you go into a competition thinking, alright, this is the Olympic Games – this is a practice for the Olympic Games – and I have to do well here. [I] have to perform to [the] best of [my] abilities,” Hong said. “I think, taking that same mindset into the NCAA world, it will not only benefit my score, but the whole team kind of has that mindset to where a lot of us are getting ready for the 2024 Olympics, and we’re all shooting for it. At the same time, we’re shooting for [the NCAA team title]. It’ll be my second win, but it’ll be the team’s fifth win… We got our sights on that.”

With summer winding down and elite season gearing up, Hong is ready to test upgrades at this week’s Core Hydration Classic before hopefully competing them at the U.S. championships in late August.

Finding the perfect mix of new skills and old

Hong has earned a reputation as a daredevil on vault, but the risk has paid off so far: he consistently performs the exceptionally difficult Ri Se Gwang (a full-twisting double-tucked Tsukahara), and his execution rivals the best in the world.

“I know the vault is extremely hard, and I think the judges are rather, almost malicious, with the deductions on the vault on Ri Se when I do it sometimes,” Hong said. “I know at worlds I got an automatic [three-tenths] because I tuck a little bit early, and that’s just how I trained it, because in order to make it around, you kind of want to tuck a little bit early to make three flips around, right? So it’s a deduction – that’s how they’re gonna evaluate it. So me and my coaches are like, alright, well, [I’m] just gonna have to fix it… so that’s what I’ve been working towards, just kind of cleaning up, refining the vaults, and it’s been going well.”

He’s also working 3.5s to the surface, but for the most part, vault and parallel bars are staying the same.

“I kind of want those two events to be my events where we’re like, alright, this is chill. I’ve done this routine for the past two years now. So I just want complete confidence on those two events,” Hong explained. “Rings I wanted to be one of those events too, but my coach is like, why don’t you try and put a back uprise straight planche for another two-tenths upgrade. So I was like… this is supposed to be my rest event. And he’s like, come on. [I’m] like alright, fine. I’ll do it. That’s fine. So I’ve been working towards that, and it’s been going well.”

Full steam ahead

Keeping your body and mental health in shape, upgrading skills, and giving your all to a sport as demanding as elite gymnastics, at the level Hong is competing, is hard on its own. Throw in attending one of the country’s top universities, and it might make you ask, why not just take a quarter or two off?

Well, the answer isn’t that simple and involves a very typical college student concern: losing campus housing.

“I was struggling a lot, stressing a lot towards the end of the year,” Hong shared. “That is unnecessary stress that I don’t need, especially for next year. So I’m possibly switching majors and possibly even taking spring quarter off next year. Although, I do need to probably start figuring that out now, because if I don’t take any classes during the spring quarter, then I don’t have housing. So I would need to find a place to live, and housing in Palo Alto [California] is pretty expensive. So I don’t know… We’ll see.”

But those typical college kid concerns are minor in the grand scheme of Hong’s Olympic-sized dreams, although they might serve as necessary grounding moments when the athlete is literally and figuratively flying all over the place.

“It’s gonna be a difficult journey,” Hong said. “But I’m willing to pour my heart out into it. I think, if I want this, then I’m gonna have to work 110% and put 110% effort. That’s my goal, is just to dedicate every aspect of my life to the sport this upcoming year. And, hopefully, it pans out.”