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.
In May, reigning Olympic floor champion Jade Carey announced she would continue competing for Oregon State while pursuing a spot on the U.S. team for the 2024 Paris Games – an anomaly among the growing ranks of athletes balancing NCAA and elite.
The default choice for many gymnasts is to defer college enrollment or take a season off from NCAA, but Carey did that already, opting to focus on the 2020 Games (held in 2021) before joining the Beavers in the fall of that year. Now, Olympic and world gold medals already secured, Carey is determined to do both simultaneously.
“I’ve grown a lot and gained a lot of confidence throughout my time here in college, and so we kind of figured why do something different if what I’ve been doing is working,” Carey told Gymnastics Now.
‘It’s not going to last forever’
“There’s going to be a quicker turnaround after the college season into elite, because the Olympics are a little bit closer than worlds normally are, so it was kind of a hard decision, but also not at the same time,” Carey said. “Because I’m really happy here, and I have everything that I need here. So we all were kind of like, well, if we’re all in then might as well just stay here.”
Olympics training and NCAA training are very different. If Carey was solely competing elite, she would likely be back home training under her dad, Brian Carey, at Arizona Sunrays – her club gym. Instead, the merging of her elite and college training means both Brian and the Oregon State coaches working together to get Jade the instruction she needs. In this case, Brian has been coming up to train with Jade every week, spending more time in Corvallis than Phoenix.
“Right now, my dad comes up to Oregon all the time,” Jade said. “He’s basically just home in Arizona on the weekend, so I’m really fortunate enough to have him do that. He’s here a lot helping me with my elite stuff. But my college coaches have been really great at helping me with my elite stuff, too, especially [head coach] Tanya [Chaplin] on beam. I feel like I’ve really gained a lot of confidence on beam and really learned how to compete beam. So that’s been really nice to be able to have her teach me that for college and elite.”
Carey’s growth on beam is apparent in both arenas; the 23-year-old finished second on the apparatus at the 2022 Paris World Challenge Cup and most recently tied for second at the 2023 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships, where she qualified as an individual.
Carey missed out on qualifying as an all-arounder, or on any of the other three events, due to an “off” day at the Denver Regional, where she still finished with a 39.650 total and a 9.875 on vault, 9.925 on bars, and 9.975 on floor. During the regular season, Carey was the top all-arounder in the country with a National Qualifying Score (NQS) of 39.820. She was also No. 1 on floor (9.985), second on beam (9.975) and vault (9.960), and fourth on bars (9.965).
The qualifying situation caused a stir among gymnastics fans, who called into question the individual qualifying process for nationals and whether it should be revised in order to have the best gymnasts in the country competing for individual titles.
“I was a little bit disappointed because I feel like I had such a great season and then to have one okay meet and not to be able to compete in the all-around was sad, but to me, college is all about the team,” Carey said of the situation. “So it was kind of just, okay, well, we got the team as far as we could, and now this is just a bonus for me to get to go do beam. As much as I would have loved to do the all-around at nationals, I did have a lot of fun, still, rotating with Kentucky and doing beam and probably doing one of the best routines that I’ve done. Overall, it was still a good experience.”
Carey isn’t planning to do elite and college at the same time while keeping them fully separate; she’s looking forward to incorporating the things she’s learned in NCAA into her elite routines, especially the changes in how she performs and approaches elite meets – where the atmosphere can be much more stern and serious.
“It’s definitely gonna be a challenge, but I’m looking more at it as an exciting challenge,” Carey said. “I think it would be really cool to be able to do both, and I just feel like college has brought out the best to me. So I really want to transfer that over into elite and just really have fun with it and enjoy every moment that I am doing gymnastics, because it’s not going to last forever.”
Setting the plan in motion
This is uncharted territory.
Carey’s Olympic teammates Jordan Chiles and Suni Lee have returned to their club gyms to train for Paris, leaving their college programs behind. Meanwhile, Carey and her coaches are in the midst of figuring out how to best make this work as they aim to build a plan that allows Carey to enjoy both sides of the sport that she loves so much.
But a venture such as this means there will be a noticeable change in Carey’s on-the-floor impact for the Beavers next season.
“We don’t really have a set in stone plan yet. Kind of just going to get through this elite season and then kind of reevaluate to see how I’m feeling, but I definitely know that I won’t be doing the all-around at every single meet like I pretty much have been,” said Carey, who competed all-around in all but two of Oregon State’s regular season meets in 2023.
“I know we’ve been talking a lot about, especially on bars and beam, doing a little bit of harder routines, just to get used to competing those harder skills. Not necessarily as long as [elite] routines, but just a few of the harder skills that I feel like I want to get out there and compete. And as far as vault and floor goes, we’re not really sure yet. Kind of just gonna see how I’m feeling and what I’m up to and what we all think is best.”
Carey is going to be training harder skills more consistently, for sure, but does that mean the laid-out triple-double is still in the cards?
She teased the unnamed skill during podium training at 2021 nationals, but it hasn’t seen the (public) light of day sense, and unfortunately, it seems the likelihood of Carey getting the skill named after her (by competing it at a FIG-sanctioned event) is doubtful.
“I mean, honestly, right now, it’s not in the cards,” Carey admitted. “I still train them sometimes, but really just to kind of help me with my double-doubles and just for fun.”
Oregon State fans don’t need to fret, though. Just because Carey is going to be particularly focused on perfecting her elite skills during the NCAA season doesn’t mean she isn’t willing to step up when the Beavs need her most.
“It’s really hard to know what’s going to happen,” Carey confessed. “I feel like if we’re put in a situation where my team really, really needs me to go, and maybe I wasn’t planning on it or something like that, that I would just kind of do something simpler, just to be able to go and help them out. Because I still really want to be a part of the team. I want to help them out, and I want to get them to where they want to be.”
The first Olympics was a hard dream to achieve; the second Olympics could be even harder.
Carey will be part of one of the strongest fields of U.S. Olympic contenders in recent history next summer, with Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Chiles, Lee, and plenty more in the running for only a five-woman team.
A goal like this one isn’t achieved by just one person going at it alone. Even though that independent drive is crucial, Olympians have massive support systems that make the impossible possible. In Carey’s case, her village just so happens to include a team of gymnasts clad in orange and black and, occasionally, wielding a chainsaw. That team has imparted important lessons on one of its stars.
“After the last Olympics, I felt like it was a success for me, but not as much as I hoped,” Carey admitted. “I felt like there [was] something more that I could give. I just didn’t want to leave gymnastics with regrets…
“We’ve talked a lot about everything being a celebration. And so I feel like I want to take that over into elite, because we’re doing really amazing things and so, no matter what happens, you should be able to celebrate what you’ve done.”
Carey is looking forward to hopefully experiencing a true celebration on the sport’s biggest stage after winning her 2020 gold medal with no fans due to COVID-19 restrictions. Three years later, she’ll be better equipped than ever to embrace the moment and her accomplishments in Paris.
While her team won’t be in the stands, she knows they’re going to be cheering her on and celebrating with her every step of the way.
“I definitely think they will be helpful,” Carey said of her found family at Oregon State. “I love going to the gym with them every day, and we all have so much fun and help each other out in every way that we can. I know that they’re not taking it personally that I’m not going to be competing for them as much. They understand, and they want it for me just as bad as I do. So it’s just nice to know that and to have them.”
With the 2023 NCAA season in her rearview, Carey is looking forward to another elite season representing Team USA. She’s planning to compete bars and beam at the Core Hydration Classic in early August before ramping up to compete in the all-around at the U.S. championships.
Despite Carey’s experience and accolades, this second Olympic push feels like a new beginning in some regards. Paris is the goal, but when you’ve built a life on your own terms, you can truly enjoy the journey, not just the destination.