Poised on the balance beam, elite young gymnasts steady themselves on one of the world’s toughest stages. As they climb the ranks, a gymnast’s career can be a whirlwind. The sport demands more of these athletes at the elite levels than most sports. Healthier, faster and lighter, a typical gymnast will peak in her teens — sooner than most athletes do. With the flipping and flying fast speed of the sport and their careers, young girls have to stare down some tough decisions when it comes to what to do with the sport they love.

Do they give it all up for endorsements or do they hang onto their amateur status a little longer for the chance to experience the tight bond that is a collegiate gymnastics team?

At the amateur level, gymnasts can compete at elite level competitions, go to international events and dream of a gold medal. But after the lucky few that make it all the way to the Olympic stage achieve their dreams, where do they go? That’s the big question: to become a collegiate athlete or a pro athlete?

Many have faced and wrestled with this decision. Jordyn Wieber, 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist for Team USA is a fine example of how truly hard this decision is. At 17, after competing as part of the Fierce Five in London 2012, Wieber decided to retire from elite competition and go professional. Though reaping the benefits of her endorsements, this UCLA Bruin saw what she was missing. NBC Olympics quoted the now 21 year-old Wieber: “It’s kind of a bummer. Gymnastics should be the exception. It’s too bad girls can’t do both because gymnastics is so unique.” As she wrestled with the choice, those around her saw that the decision was excruciating. Jordyn made a thoughtful decision though and has made the absolute most of it. Realizing how much she loved college life, Wieber halted her intense training and stepped aside to be UCLA’s Team Manager and is now stepping up as a volunteer assistant coach for the team. If you ask me, this world class gymnast is definitely making the most of her choice while still giving back to the sport she loves.

But for some, the decision really isn’t that hard. Bridget Sloan, now 24, was the youngest member on the 2008 Olympic Team. She decided to remain eligible and to go on and compete for The University of Florida. For Sloan, college gymnastics or going pro didn’t even cross her mind in the beginning of her elite career. In response to how hard the decision was for her, Sloan, via an email interview, let me in on what gymnastics truly meant to her:

“To be honest I never thought of college gymnastics or taking money in the beginning of my elite career. I was simply competing because I love to perform and because I wanted to be a 2008 Olympian. It wasn't until after the 2009 World Championships that I even considered going pro. It was a short-lived consideration and I realized I wanted to keep doing gymnastics because I loved it, not because it was my job which is what I would have considered it if I would have gone professional. After making up my mind, it was an easy decision to know that I was going to do college gymnastics.”

Bridget expressed that her main focus was to fall in love with the sport again. She believed that for her, going pro would take the fun out of the sport. Bridget wanted to whole-heartedly love what she was doing. She wanted to be competing completely for her school, and in her eyes, if the NCAA let athletes take money, they would be competing for sponsors and not for their school. “It is a tough decision for people to take sponsorships or take a scholarship.” Bridget explained.

This year’s Olympic Team is full of those who have made their decisions. Signing deals with Kellogg’s and Ralph Lauren, now 22-year-old team captain Aly Raisman went pro even before the London Games (see FloGymnastics post from 2011). Fellow London champion, Gabby Douglas, also went pro before the London Games in 2012, FloGymnastics also reported. Her endorsement deals including P&G and Kellogg’s. Last year the one who is now being named the best in the world, Simone Biles, pulled out of her UCLA commitment to go pro, USA Today reports. Biles found herself showered with deals. Now she partners with companies such as Hershey’s, Nike and United Airlines. Even 16-year-old Laurie Hernandez announced in early August that she would be pulling out of her commitment to The University of Florida and pursuing the professional life. Seen here on her Instagram:

The only one who appears to still be on the NCAA track is Madison Kocian, committed to UCLA:

There is no doubt, winning a gold medal or even making the Olympic team alone puts a young girl on top of the moon. But the decisions they have to make about their futures so quickly can seem harsh and unfair. The NCAA stands by their rule though, whether the gymnastics world appreciates it or not.

espnW reported on the stigma that exists in an article titled: “Why can’t Laurie Hernandez have it all?” The article speaks to how young women who choose collegiate gymnastics over the many endorsement offers, are praised. Those who give up their scholarships for endorsements are overlooked in a sense. Yes, they no longer have the opportunity to compete for their college, but who is to say they can’t still go to college? Nastia Liukin, 2008 Olympian, went pro but still pursued her education at NYU.

Still, the NCAA gets some heat for this rule that by the way, applies to track stars and swimmers along with gymnasts. The bottom line is some young Olympic gymnasts just want to benefit from their commitment to a sport they love. espnW puts the center of the controversy perfectly:

“Sure, shooting leotard ads and energy drink commercials might occasionally pull them away from training — but do you really think a school like UCLA, where Biles had committed before deciding to go pro last year, would turn down the chance to spotlight a celebrity student-athlete?”

For now, young Olympians everywhere are faced with what could be a life altering decision. Each gymnast perceives the decision differently; some wrestle with it while to others, their decisions seem to be pretty clear and easy. Regardless, the debate continues, as both sides have strong points and everyone has different opinions. The NCAA doesn’t want student athletes to be endorsed but some athletes just want to take advantage of their Olympic-sized hard work while also representing their school.

The NCAA remains firm and young gymnasts remain under pressure.

Lead Image Credit: Bryan Allison via Flickr Creative Commons