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The Gymnast You Won't See Competing At The American Cup

Elizabeth Price shocked many in the gymnastics world when she headed to Stanford last fall instead of competing at the 2014 worlds. Hector Garcia-Molina/StanfordPhoto.com

One year ago, Elizabeth Price became the 2014 American Cup champion and, in doing so, clinched the World Cup Series title -- officially becoming the No. 1-ranked gymnast in the world.

And just more than a month later, she retired from elite gymnastics.

The retirement announcement was the sports equivalent of a mic drop. The American Cup title had been one of many new additions to Price's résumé: She'd just won the all-around and a pair of individual event titles at the 2014 Pacific Rim championships, and finished first and second, respectively, at two World Cup competitions in late 2013. Many considered her a shoo-in for the world championship team to be named later that fall.

Price was also probably the only gymnast in the world who had a credible shot at defeating her American teammate, two-time world all-around champion Simone Biles. Though Biles was out with a shoulder injury during Price's reign in 2013 and 2014, it seemed that the pair was destined to lead the U.S. squad leading up to Rio -- and to battle it out when individual titles were on the line.

"Elizabeth Price left the sport as basically the best person on the planet," former world champion Kim Zmeskal Burdette said with a mixture of admiration and bafflement. "You don't see that coming."

Indeed, most did not. But Price didn't quit gymnastics entirely, either. She had secured an athletic scholarship to Stanford, and opted to end her elite career at that point to join the team that fall. What surprised so many was that she didn't defer admission at Stanford for a year to go to worlds, or for two to attempt an Olympic run, as elite gymnasts routinely do.

"We were hoping that she would at least see it through [2014] because we thought she could make the world team and possibly be the world champion," said Donna Strauss, one of Price's elite coaches at Parkettes in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Price felt differently. "Going to worlds -- sure I could've won more medals, but I don't think that would've really helped me advance in life as much as I wanted to," she said.

Unlike many tunnel-visioned elite athletes who struggle to think beyond the present moment in their sport, Price knows exactly what she wants out of her future, and the 2016 Olympics was not a part of that bigger vision. She hopes to become an engineer like both of her parents and several other members of her family, and since she's especially interested in the medical sciences, she plans to become a biomolecular engineer after graduating from Stanford.

"I've always had this dream of my life -- going to high school, then college and life after," she said. "As far as gymnastics, I never had a clear set goal: 'I'm going to grow up and go to the Olympics and world [championships].' I never even planned on becoming an elite gymnast. I kind of just went to practice, went to competitions and ended up on the national team."

Obviously, Price worked hard. Like most other elites of her ability level, she trained upward of 30 hours a week and was home-schooled to accommodate that schedule. Her trajectory was not as random as she makes it seem. But while most in the sport consider the Olympics to be the be-all-end-all, Price, quite simply, didn't. "I had already done everything I wanted to do in elite gymnastics: making the national team, going and competing internationally multiple times, and winning a lot of medals. I didn't feel like [competing] more would've made me feel more complete about my gymnastics career," she said.

Strauss said that some other coaches questioned her, asking, "How can you not force her to do it?" But Strauss stressed Price's unique temperament. "This is someone, from little one up, [who'd] analyze things, and she would listen to coaches, listen to her parents and then she would make a decision."

Price, for her part, also seemed to relish the opportunity to make this decision on her own. In gymnastics, so much of what happens is typically out of the gymnast's hands -- selection to a team, judges' scores and even the final medal placements -- that gymnasts are rarely afforded this level of control over their fate.

"I just took it into my own hands and decided to go to school instead of maybe waiting around, because anything could happen," Price explained. "I could possibly get injured in a way that would affect my [NCAA] gymnastics career. I didn't want to burn out at the end of next year and not compete at the top of my game for college. [So] I decided to make the decision that was best for me."

The injury threat is a real one: A recurring hip injury in 2013 forced Price to withdraw from the American Cup that year, and kept her from the competing lineup at the 2013 worlds. Risking a scholarship at Stanford when she already felt like she'd accomplished what she wanted in the sport just wasn't worth it.

Now, in the midst of her first NCAA season at Stanford, Price has still been dogged by injuries. She started out competing only a few events due to a lingering foot injury, then missed a couple of meets due to shoulder troubles. Yet she has managed to compete brilliantly when she has been able to perform. In six meets and 11 routines this season, Price won an astounding nine event titles. She even scored a perfect 10 on vault in a dual meet against Oregon State. When she's fully healthy, Price will be a contender for the NCAA all-around title and multiple event titles.

This weekend, two of Price's former U.S. national teammates, Biles and 2014 U.S. vault bronze medalist MyKayla Skinner, will compete in the women's field at the American Cup in Arlington, Texas, outside of Dallas. It's the most prestigious international gymnastics competition in the U.S., and it has been the coming out party for Olympic champions, including Gabby Douglas, Nastia Liukin and even Nadia Comaneci.

But the defending American Cup champion will instead be squaring off against UCLA in a dual meet. She may not have an Olympic or world medal, but Elizabeth Price retired from elite gymnastics at the top of the sport -- and she did it on her own terms.