Recently retired U.S. gymnast Mattie Larson told IG she is eager for new challenges outside the gym, but plans to stay involved in the sport that defined her for so many years.
During Larson's international career, she trained under coaches Galina Marinova and Artur Akopyan at All Olympia Gymnastics Center in her hometown of Los Angeles. Larson gained global popularity for the finesse and charisma of her performances. She placed first on floor exercise and second all-around at the 2010 Visa (U.S.) Championships, and was a member of the silver medal-winning U.S. team at the 2010 World Championships in Rotterdam. NBC News-owned site TheGrio.com named Larson among its list of "100 History Makers in the Making" during Black History Month in February 2011.
Larson left elite competition in 2011 and enrolled at UCLA, where she competed under coaches Valorie Kondos Field and Chris Waller. Last March she dislocated her left knee and suffered a partially broken patella. The injury, Larson says, was one factor which prompted her retirement, but not the only one. In this IG Online interview conducted at UCLA on Jan. 19, Larson details her decision, reflects on her accomplishments and outlines her upcoming agenda.
IG: Why exactly did you decide to retire?
ML: I think it was a whole process since I've been at UCLA. I've known Miss Val (Kondos Field) and Chris since I was about 7, and they've known that, yes, I've had a lot of success in gymnastics, but it's taken an emotional toll. It's not an easy sport. My process here at UCLA made me feel that I could finally have a voice and make decisions for myself. For a while, I think I was ready to move on, and they finally gave me the chance to do so. I couldn't imagine making this decision anywhere else or at any other time. I finally got clarity.
Mattie Larson, who recently retired from competitive gymnastics
IG: How much did last year's knee injury impact your decision to retire?
ML: I didn't plan on retiring at the point of my injury, but I think the injury gave me a very new perspective of the team, and I got to see it as a non-competitor, from someone who helps out and supports people rather than thinking about my gymnastics. That also might have impacted my decision of coming back next year as being a team manager. I love the team so much, but it was competing in gymnastics that I was ready to move on from, not the UCLA gymnastics program.
IG: How much of the decision was based on other factors?
ML: For so long I was the kind of gymnast who kind of had trouble getting "up" for practice and training, but loved performing. I tried to show that through my gymnastics. I think what got me to my point (of deciding to retire) was that, yes, training was the same, but I didn't have that same spark when I was performing and I just didn't look forward to it anymore. That's what brought me joy, and it wasn't (joy) anymore. I made the decision pretty recently - just before winter break, about a month ago.
Larson on beam for UCLA
IG: What is your plan for transitioning from being a gymnast this year?
ML: Miss Val has given me such a great opportunity to not define myself just as a gymnast anymore, because that's what I've been doing my whole life basically. I come and go in the gym all the time. I live with three other gymnasts and two girls on the diving team. I'm still really involved with my friendships but not the actual (doing gymnastics). I'm doing stuff with the team, but not managerial things this year. (Kondos Field) thought it was really important that, if I do retire, that I take this year to see what else is out there and what else I like.
IG: Now that you are thinking about life outside of doing gymnastics, what are you focusing on in terms of life beyond school?
ML: I just got into my major this year – psychology. I'd love to be a psychiatrist, but the whole graduate school thing is not easy (laughs). So I don't know what I want to do after I finish school, but I'm finally taking classes that are more involved with psychology. I love it. My childhood development class is my favorite class right now. I would love to get outside the realm of sports. I would always like to work with things like substance addiction. I'd love to be a psychiatrist. I don't know...there's a lot you can do with psychology.
IG: Have you had any regrets about your decision to retire?
ML: Right now it's very fresh, but definitely not. I still think I'm in the phase that "Wow, I'm actually done with gymnastics. I don't have to go in the gym and warm up..." It's all new right now. I didn't want to make the decision until I was 100 percent sure I wouldn't have regrets, and I think that's why it took me so long. I could have retired last year, or even before coming to UCLA, but there was no clarity. I was very, very sure I wouldn't have regrets, and I'm pretty positive I won't.
IG: How much of a relief is it for you, physically and emotionally?
ML: It's different, like not waking up at a certain time every morning and preparing for practice and meets. Gymnastics is so structured. It's weird not having that structure. I do like structure, so I'll probably find structure in some other way. It's nice. I feel that some weight is off my shoulders, especially because this decision has been weighing on my mind for so long. It feels nice. It feels like I can take a deep breath.
IG: Looking back, what are the most memorable moments of your career?
ML: I think the 2010 nationals (U.S. championships) was a great meet for me. I felt so much joy at that meet. That was the first time that, more on a national-scene level, people got to see that I had worked really hard to get to that level. I'm going to miss all of the silly things with all the girls on the national team. I made best friendships, and I'm going to miss that kind of thing.
IG: What are you taking with you from gymnastics?
ML: I definitely think that, if I hadn't done gymnastics, I wouldn't have become as strong a person. I think that it's shown me that, if I want something, I can work really hard and get it. It's taught me so much. I love that elite (international) gymnastics taught me discipline, and UCLA gymnastics taught me how much I love working with a community.
IG: What do you hope you've left to gymnastics?
ML: I really hope I've left a legacy where I loved to infuse the dance aspect of gymnastics. Every coach I've had, growing up, really enforced artistry. I think that's so important with gymnastics, because it's artistic gymnastics, and sometimes people lose sight of that. I hope people remember that I really liked to put a lot of thought into the little details, and I really cared about my performances.
Like I said, training wasn't where I shined. I loved to shine in performances. I really think it's because of the fans in the audience. If nobody was there, I don't think I would have enjoyed performing. I hope people remember me as a performer, and the fact that, if I didn't have people cheering for me, I don't think I would have enjoyed it for as long as I did.
IG Magazine Related Features:
"Rebound" – Larson interview (March 2011)
2010 World Championships special issue (January/February 2011)
2010 U.S. Championships coverage (September 2010)
"All for One" – All Olympia team feature (July/August 2009)
"Meet a Real Show-stopper" – Larson junior profile (November 2005)
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