© John Cheng

By Nick McCarvel

Kyla Ross remembers her first international elite competition very well: It was in Aracaju, Brazil, in 2009. The practice gym was outside, covered by a high tarp, and the competition gym was a bus ride – a long bus ride – away.

Many years, many gyms, and many bus rides later (including a famous one on a London double-decker), Ross has decided it’s time for her to walk away from elite gymnastics to the start the next chapter of her life.

“The past year has been a little rough,” Ross, 19, told USA Gymnastics last week. “I’ve dealt with a lot of injuries, and it hasn’t been my best year competition-wise. I tried to push through, but it was getting difficult to train. I didn’t want to go through with it if my heart wasn’t in it.”

“It” was the attempt to make back-to-back Olympic gymnastics teams, Ross having been a part of the 2012 “Fierce Five,” which won team gold at the Summer Games.

“This is the right time,” said Ross, who will join the UCLA gymnastics team when she starts there this fall. “I feel like in 2012 I was really passionate about making that Olympic team and giving it my all. I didn’t have that same feeling this year. I didn’t have the same desire. I wanted to concentrate on getting ready for college.”

In elite gymnastics, Ross will be remembered equally for her consistently clean and elegant style as much as for her quick-to-smile personality away from competition.

“Kyla is a team player; very supportive of all of us,” said fellow Olympian Jordyn Wieber, who is now the team manager at UCLA. “She was always so sweet and supportive and genuinely wanted everyone to do well. She’s one of the hardest workers I know.”

Ross has the hardware to back up such statements, too. Along with her team gold from London, she owns five World Championship medals, including the team title in 2014 when she was third in the all-around. As a senior, Ross has seven medals at the P&G Championships, most notably two silvers in the all-around, in 2013 and 2014.

“The Olympics was a goal of mine, but being able to compete in London was a huge goal that I accomplished,” Ross said. “I competed at two Worlds, too. I’ve had a successful career. Going to college is the next step. I’m excited to start a new chapter of my life. I’ve been doing elite gymnastics for a while, but I’m excited for the team aspect.”

Aly Raisman was part of that London team in 2012, as well as the four-athlete team that went to Brazil in 2009. As Raisman continues her own Road to Rio, she was sad to hear that Ross won’t be trying to join her there – again.

“I’m sure it was a hard decision for her,” said Raisman. “I wanted to cry when I heard! We were in this team situation of trying to go back-to-back. I know how much she wanted it, and I know if that’s what she decided in the end, she had to follow her heart.”

Ross has been following her heart from the beginning, when she started gymnastics at the age of 3. She said she never thought the Olympics were a reality until the year prior, in 2011. At home in Southern California, Ross is eagerly awaiting her start at UCLA, where she hopes to go into bioengineering.

Gymnastics will still be a large part of her life, and she hopes her story will continue to motivate young girls to chase their own dreams – big or small.

“The biggest part of gymnastics is being passionate about it and having fun,” Ross explained. “We always wanted to enjoy what we were doing. For me, it’s about having supportive parents and coaches. It’s important to do something you love.”

The list of memories is a long one: Ross said she loved thinking back to the string of morning-show TV interviews that the “Fierce Five” did in New York after winning gold in London. Raisman recalled Ross being distraught over the team missing the band One Direction perform at the Closing Ceremony at the Olympics.

“They were her favorite band at the time and it was the only time I saw Kyla distraught the whole time in London,” Raisman said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Kyla, we have Olympic gold medals around our necks. You have to let it go.’”

On a recent recruiting trip, Wieber said she and Ross were reminded by another teammate of their historic performance in London as the national anthem played at an event they attended at UCLA. Wieber, who will be a senior in the fall, looks forward to Ross becoming a Bruin.

“I can’t wait to have her here,” Wieber said. “To be back together next year in L.A., it’s going to be pretty special. I haven’t seen her much the last three or four years so I’m excited.”

Ross also remembered meeting President Obama in the Oval Office, even sitting in his chair: “Not a lot of people get to do that,” she said.

Not a lot of people get to do what Kyla Ross has in her life. And, though her journey won’t go full circle back to Brazil, Ross is happy – content, even – with her decision, and what’s to come next.

“I’m excited to be able to have more time to do things other than gymnastics,” she said. “I’m going to be really busy with school. I want to go out and meet new people. I’m going to live on campus. Those are all things I really am looking forward to.”