Last weekend at the Pro Gymnastics Challenge in Pennsylvania, seniors Alyssa Pritchett and Vanessa Zamarripa didn’t know whether they were competing as gymnasts for the last time in their lives or for the very first time as professionals.
That’s because last weekend’s competition was the equivalent of a pilot episode for a new professional gymnastics league, where the athletes would be paid a salary and compete in regular competitions like players in any other American sports league, Pritchett said.
If it succeeds, the league will offer gymnasts an alternative to the limited options they currently have for continuing to perform after graduation. As it stands now, coach Valorie Kondos Field said, the athletes essentially only have one option.
“The real professional world for them is in circuses so a lot of them do Cirque du Soleil,” the coach said. “That’s where they’re able to maintain their sport and get paid for it.”
The lack of options is exacerbated by an issue more prevalent in gymnastics than in major league sports – peak age. Unlike basketball or football players, who typically reach their peak performance in their late twenties, gymnasts typically peak in their mid- to late teens, Kondos Field said.
That relatively young peak age is typically why gymnasts, from the most talented to the least, don’t have much of a gymnastics-related career path to follow after college.
This sudden drop-off has historically been a problem for the serious college and Olympic gymnasts and, if the Pro Gymnastics Challenge doesn’t receive high enough ratings to warrant the formation of a professional league, the post-college transition may continue to be an issue for athletes like Zamarripa and Pritchett.
Last weekend, the two former Bruin gymnasts got their first taste of what their professional future could be like at the Challenge, with each earning over $5,000 in prize money.
But to start earning regular money, Zamarripa and Pritchett need to hope that the Challenge’s broadcast on ESPN2 from May 20 to 22 earns high enough ratings for the sports network to want to continue it.
“They wanted to test how (a professional sports league) would work with gymnastics,” Pritchett said. “Most likely it will be received really well and they will want to continue it.”
However, if the competitions to come are anything like the Pro Gymnastics Challenge was, they won’t be much like Olympic or collegiate gymnastics. Last weekend featured a simpler version of the sport designed to better appeal to the masses.
Like a gymnastics-style game of horse, one team’s athlete performs a skill which the other team then tries to replicate – competitors can’t perform a different skill that might earn a similar score like they can in an NCAA gymnastics meet – and the referees, or the audience in the case of a tie, determine the winner.
“It’s easier for the audience to understand because they don’t have to know the requirements; it’s just comparing who did what skill better,” Zamarripa said.
But Zamarripa and Pritchett have already considered their backup plans should the league not succeed. Although their options in the field include circus-type work, as well as gymnastics coaching or judging, both Zamarripa and Pritchett plan on pursuing careers as stunt performers.
Zamarripa and Pritchett wouldn’t be the first former UCLA gymnasts to go into stunt work – they would follow in the footsteps of Heidi Moneymaker (’99), Natalie Padilla (’08) and Ariana Berlin (’09) among others, Pritchett said.
“A lot of seniors get burned out by the time they finish college, but the ones that don’t, a lot of them transition into stunt work,” Pritchett said.
Gymnasts like Zamarripa or Pritchett already know how to fall without injuring themselves and can perform well under pressure, which makes them ideal candidates to be stunt doubles for actresses in anything from commercials to movies.
Ultimately, however, both athletes have long-term careers planned out that don’t rely on their physical fitness. Pritchett said she plans on using her history major to become a schoolteacher and Zamarripa said she plans on attending graduate school to pursue a nursing career.
Until then, the two are looking to get the most out of their extraordinary physical fitness, whether that’s in a sports league spawned out of the Professional Gymnastics Challenge or as stunt doubles in Hollywood.
“Obviously, I’m not getting any younger and if I’m going to (do stunt work), the best time is to do it now,” Zamarripa said. “School is always going to be around so I might as well take advantage of all the opportunities I have now in entertainment.”