In the United States, the Junior Olympic system governed by USA Gymnastics is the reigning competitive system for young competitors. The system is divided into 10 levels – five compulsory and five more advanced optional levels. Each compulsory level establishes minimum performance requirements to ensure the safety of young gymnasts.
The Compulsory Levels
Levels 1 through 4 correspond respectively to ages 4 to 7. Level 5 also applies to gymnasts age 7. To graduate from one level to the next, a gymnast must perform certain skills on the vault, bars, beam and floor. For example, a 4-year-old has to perform a straight jump on to a 16-inch mat, kick up to a handstand and then fall to a flat back to complete the requirement for the Level 1 vault. The level of difficulty increases for a 5-year-old in Level 2, who has to now jump into a handstand, according to the USAG. By age 7 in Levels 4 and 5, the gymnast has to do a handspring over the vault table.
Preparing for Competition
The first three levels are considered developmental. Young gymnasts forge a solid foundation of basic skills. By the time a gymnast reaches Levels 4 and 5, they’re able to enter into competitions. For example, the floor routine for a 7-year-old at Level 5 requires some tricky maneuvers, such as a forward flip or salto, a straddle jump and a 360-turn in forward passé. Before she can advance to Level 6, she also has to do a round-off into a back handspring and then a back flip.
Advancing to Routines
Levels 6 and above are optional. Each level has guidelines or restrictions on difficulty, and the gymnast can invent her own routine within them. USAG assigns a letter value to each skill, ranging from the easiest as “A” to the most difficult as “E.” For example, a routine in Level 6 must have at last five A skills and one B skill. To complete the Level 6 beam, she must do one acrobatic move that begins and ends on the beam. It also requires a 180-degree jump or split, 360-degree turn on one leg and a minimum of an A-ranked dismount.
Level 9 still puts a few restrictions on D- and E-ranked moves. Gymnasts must meet special requirements on the bars, beam and floor. For example, a Level 9 balance beam routine must include an acrobatic series, a 180-degree split jump and a 360-degree turn on one foot. The restrictions drop off when a gymnast reaches Level 10. It also means she can try out for the Elite program, which is necessary to get an invitation to the Olympic trials.