Shelby Kisiel-McNamara finds a home and haven in her sport

August 26, 2022
Belicia Tang

Shelby Kisiel-McNamara is a former Team USA rhythmic gymnast. After participating in several sports growing up, she discovered rhythmic gymnastics at age 10. Three years later, Shelby made the USA National Team. By age 16, Shelby had her eyes set for the 2012 Olympics. At the senior level, Shelby became the US National Champion in 2011 and competed at two World Championships. When she did not qualify for the London Olympics, Shelby’s parents forced her to quit gymnastics, marking an abrupt end to her swift but decorated career. Grappling with her premature retirement, Shelby struggled initially to find purpose in her life after gymnastics. Today, she is thriving as the founder of FlexAbilities, a personal training company dedicated to coaching athletes in flexibility development. Shelby’s work as a coach led her to her husband, Trent, whom she married in 2017. Read more to learn about Shelby’s gymnastics career, the transition that followed retirement, and the joys Shelby discovered in her life after sport.

Growing up, Shelby was involved in various sports, including artistic gymnastics, ballet, diving, and figure skating. She discovered rhythmic gymnastics at age 10 and immediately took to the sport. “I was figure skating at that time, and my parents told me I could either choose to do figure skating recreationally—because they couldn’t afford competitive figure skating—or try rhythmic gymnastics. There happened to be a rhythmic gym that opened up in Houston, not too far away from the home we were moving into. My parents gave me a choice to do rhythmic competitively or figure skate recreationally. Since I had my mind set on being on the National Team, I said, ‘Please take me to rhythmic, I want to do it.’ I started rhythmic gymnastics a few months shy of turning 11 years old.”

When asked what it was like transitioning into a sport that most elite competitors begin in early childhood, Shelby says, “In the beginning, I was a mess. I could not catch any [apparatus]. I was a very uncoordinated kid. But I could learn things quickly.”

Talent, hard work and an exceptional learning ability propelled Shelby up the competitive ranks. “I started when I was 11, in Houston, and I competed in Level 6 right away. I performed well in that Level 6 year. I went to Junior Olympics and placed second all-around. Placing second at the Junior Olympics is what put me on the map, and that’s when USAG contacted me, inviting me to be part of the Youth Elite Squad team. I joined the Youth Elite Squad, skipped Level 7, and then competed Level 8 in my second year. Two months before Nationals, my coach in Houston had a baby and suffered from many complications, causing her to shut down the gym for a few months. My parents thought this was going to be the end of my rhythmic gymnastics career and took me out of the sport. My mom wanted me to dance for the Houston Ballet, so she had me try out for a ballet company. I disliked ballet, but it was better than nothing at all.”

From Houston to Chicago

In February 2008, Shelby met Natasha Klimouk, head coach of Northshore Rhythmics in Chicago, Illinois, while aboard a flight to Russia for a training camp. Later that year, Shelby volunteered at the 2008 Visa Championships in Houston, Texas, so she could see her friends compete. “Natasha saw me there and begged my mom to let me continue the sport and move to Chicago so that I could keep going. One month later, I moved to Chicago by myself to train and stayed there for the rest of my career.”

Asked about her experience moving away from home at a young age, Shelby recalls, “I chose to move to Chicago. I was shocked and glad my parents allowed me to move, because that was not something I could see them doing at the time. I have always been an independent person and training kept me busy, so I did not experience much homesickness. I lived with my teammate and fellow national team member, Jazzy Kerber for the first year. After Jazzy’s family kindly took me in for a year, I moved to another host family, a friend of a neighbor in Houston. This family lived 5 minutes away from the gym and I lived in a spare room located in their basement for a year. The ceiling was so low that I could reach up and touch it with my hand. I also did not have closet space, so I lived out of my suitcase for a year. However, these minor inconveniences did not matter to me because I was living the National Team dream! Looking back, I am incredibly thankful that this family was willing to take in a random 15 year-old gymnast. After that, I lived with another host family near the border of Wisconsin, and stayed with them for the remainder of my time in Chicago. They became family to me. I still talk to them to this day and they attended my wedding. This family welcomed me into their home with open arms and treated me like a daughter. I have great memories living with them.”


Shelby’s dedication to her sport soon paid off. In 2009, she made the USA National Team, after only three years in rhythmic– a feat unheard of to most. When she made the Senior National Team, Shelby trained six to seven hours every day. She explains what a typical day at practice looked like. “I usually trained from 1pm to 7:45pm. I warmed up for an hour on my own so I could be ready for routines by 2pm. The requirement was that I had to do two clean routines per event, every single day. If I made a mistake in the beginning of a routine, I had to finish the routine even though I knew it was not going to count. One time I had my CD thrown at me and was sent home for stopping in the middle of a routine, so I learned my lesson not to make that mistake! After I finished doing routines to music, my coaches had me practice certain skills 20-50 times, depending on the day. Some days I was on fire and I could do all four events, all eight clean routines, in three hours, and I’d be done. But there would be some days where I would be pushing 8 o’clock, and I was still stuck on the third event. At that point, everyone was getting frustrated. I’m frustrated, the coaches are frustrated, we all just want to go home. However, Natasha was great at helping me push through mental blocks and I almost always finished my training regimen on time.” 

To accommodate her intensive training regimen, Shelby was homeschooled throughout her gymnastics career. “I was homeschooled before moving to Chicago, so I continued homeschooling when I moved because it was familiar. I woke up at 6am and got to the gym every morning by 7:15am. The gym had an upstairs cafe area with lots of tables to study at, so I made myself a make-shift classroom at the gym and did my education until noon. After school I ate lunch and then started practice at 1 pm.”

For the next couple years, Shelby represented Team USA on the international circuit. For 49 weeks of the year, Shelby trained and competed. The other 3 weeks, she took time off to visit her family in Houston. When asked about the possibility of life balance as an elite athlete, Shelby says, “I did have tunnel-vision when I was a gymnast. But there were also days, usually Sunday, when I completely removed myself from gymnastics. I went grocery shopping with the family I lived with, went to church with them, sun-tanned on the back porch, and made baked-goods that I enjoyed sharing with people. Doing simple things like that was therapeutic. I think these habits created balance in my life, after spending 50 hours a week in the gym.”

Performance Anxiety

On the topic of performance anxiety, Shelby says, “I don’t think I ever had performance anxiety. Of course I got nervous and experienced sweaty hands and a quick heartbeat, but I knew to trust myself and my muscle memory. I reminded myself that I spent 7 hours in the gym every single day, never cheating in practice. Walking out onto the competition floor knowing that I’d put in tons of hard work was comforting to me. My coach was also very comforting. She used to say to me, ‘I don’t care if you make mistakes, just focus on showing confidence.’” 

Shelby shares a pre-performance ritual that helped calm her down before taking the carpet. “I always liked minty smelling things. My teammates knew me as the ‘minty girl’ because I loved the smell of peppermint and slathered my body with Icy Hot, BioFreeze, and China Gel because my body hurt all of the time. If I needed to calm myself down, I would smell peppermint essential oil or one of my muscle creams. I also regularly vocalized my anxiety or concerns to my coaches, and they did a great job helping me keep cool.”

Support Systems

When asked what support systems she leaned on during her gymnastics career, Shelby says, “My support system primarily came from my coaches. They were the ones who coached me, supported me, traveled with me, took me to doctor’s appointments, and drove me home from practice on nights when it was too late for me to take the train, which was very kind of them. I grew up in a challenging home, and moving to Chicago gave me a sense of freedom and independence. The last host family I lived with was a major source of support, too. The mom and dad always checked in to make sure I was doing alright. I am sure they noticed unhealthy habits of mine, such as skipping dinner and turning down Dairy Queen, but they were a positive influence and made sure I knew that they were there for me.” 

Retirement and Transition out of Rhythmic

Shelby retired from competitive gymnastics in October of 2011. She explains what went into her decision to leave the sport. “In December of 2010, my mom gave me an ultimatum: I had to qualify for the 2012 Olympics or I had to quit. This was hard on me because I was still new to the sport, and having this pressure as a 15 year-old– needing to make it to the Olympics, or being forced to quit– was extremely hard. I did not qualify for the 2012 Olympics and finished my career with the Pan American Games. I flew home in a dreadful state. Once I arrived back home, I wasn’t allowed to leave.”

 “I never got a chance to say goodbye to my coaches and teammates, which was hard. I did go back to the gym and visited a month later to pack up my things, which was really sad. I will never forget Natasha looking me in the eye and saying, ‘I really miss you. We really wish you were still here.’ It was a difficult and abrupt transition out of the sport. I felt too young to quit and had more potential to show, but it was cut off so soon.”

The years that followed her abrupt retirement were difficult. “I became extremely depressed when I returned to Texas, and I developed a severe eating disorder. I suffered from depression and an eating disorder for three years. I saw a therapist who sent me to an eating disorder clinic in Houston, but it was too expensive for me to get the help I needed. To cope, I threw myself into work and exercising. It was a rough time because I felt my life was ‘over’. The turning point was when I met my now husband. We met in 2014 and he helped me find purpose again. Shortly after we began dating, everything started to fall into place. Slowly but surely.”

New Beginnings

When Shelby moved back home at the end of 2011, she was contacted by a figure skating team in Houston that requested flexibility training for their skaters. She started teaching flexibility classes to these skaters, and soon after began offering private lessons. Thus marked the beginning of her flexibility coaching business. 

It was through her work with figure skaters that she met her husband. “My husband is the older brother to one of my former students. In the summer of 2014, he was home from university to help out the family as his mother was battling cancer. Every week, he came to pick up his sister from practice and we briefly met in passing. After two months of seeing each other but not having the time to engage in a real conversation, he asked me out on a date, and I said yes. We’ve been together ever since! We are now approaching our 5-year wedding anniversary.”

 In 2020, Shelby took her flexibility training business online with the creation of her website, FlexAbilities. “My husband inspired me to create a website with my flexibility lessons so I could expand my reach. I started building the website from scratch and learned how to produce my own videos. I launched the website at the beginning of 2020, two months before the COVID lockdowns. When the world shut-down due to COVID, I transitioned from in-person lessons to primarily virtual private lessons. The business is doing great and I am grateful for the opportunity to work with athletes from all over the world.”  

Reflecting on the outcome of her gymnastics career, Shelby says, “To this day, I still think about my time in gymnastics and how I left the sport. But then, I look at where I am now in life and in my career. I live a great life with a fabulous husband, and it’s possible we would not have met if  I didn’t come home when I did. It’s the yin and yang of life.”

Advice for Gymnasts

When asked what advice she would give to her younger self and other gymnasts, Shelby says, “Relax! Stop racing through life and thinking everything is do or die. Enjoy the process and take life one step at a time. Soak in experiences – the good and the bad – and learn from them. Take time to reflect on an experience and do not be afraid to make mistakes.” 

“Stop being overly concerned about what other people think of you. I know it takes time, maturity, and confidence, but embrace who you are as a person and stop trying to copy what other gymnasts are doing. Don’t be afraid to be yourself!”

 “My last piece of advice has to do with transitioning out of gymnastics. Quitting a sport is a hard transition, whether you are an Olympic gymnast or not. Going from spending every waking moment in the gym to nothing at all was one of the hardest things I’ve experienced. My advice is to think about a new goal and begin working towards that goal. Spend your time building the future, not reminiscing on your past. Involve yourself  with new friend groups and start hobbies that bring you happiness. Expand your horizons and know that there is a life for you outside of sports. Sports do not define who you are, they are just what you do!”


Follow Shelby on social media:

Instagram: @shelby.flexabilities 



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