Gymnastics is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful sports in the world. It takes a level of grace, technique, and meticulous attention to detail that very few people have shown the ability to master. However, even fewer can master it to the point of making it to the national level, let alone win a national championship. Yet, there was one prodigal talent with such elite skill that she was able to rival that of her peer, Olympic gold medalist, Simone Bilas. That talented young woman is UCLA gymnast, Katelyn Ohashi. Ohashi, known for her exceptional performances under the spotlights having won championships at nearly every level of competition, has recently become a viral sensation for her floor exercise in the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championship, which paid homage to the late pop legend, Michael Jackson.
Ohashi began gymnastics at the age of three in her hometown of Seattle but eventually moved to Missouri with her mother and youngest brother in order to begin training to compete at the elite level. Upon finishing tenth at her first elite nationals, she moved to Texas to at age twelve to attend the World Olympic Gymnastic Academy (WOGA). Ohashi soared through the ranks during her time at WOGA, winning competitions all around the world to the point she was being hailed as a prodigy. Unfortunately, she missed her age eligibility by a handful of months for the 2012 Olympics, forcing her to wait four more years. All was not lost, however, as she managed to not only compete in but win one of the biggest competitions in the world, the 2013 American Cup, at just sixteen years old with an awe-inspiring performance atop a beam capped off by moonwalking to Michael Jackson.
While many people would love the opportunity to perform their craft at an elite level, whatever it may be, the experiences of many young women including Ohashi would show that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. The prevailing image of the ideal gymnast is small, thin, and childlike, making it to the Olympics at barely sixteen years old before quickly disappearing. There’s a reason for this: they usually break under the unbearable pressure and unhealthy culture, both physically and mentally. Injuries ranging from ACL and rotator cuff tears to stress fractures are common. Carly Patterson, having won three medals already at sixteen, ended with the Athens 2004 Olympics as her final major competition due to being diagnosed with several bulging discs in her lower back soon after. London Olympic champion McKayla Maroney officially stopped competing at the start of 2016 indicating a multitude of health such as a concussion sustained before the Olympics in 2012, adrenal fatigue, depression, a broken right toe, a fractured shin, and knee problems. Even future Olympic legend herself, Simone Bilas, revealed last December that she expects the upcoming 2020 Olympics to be her final competition.
But, simply because gymnasts are expected to be small and thin doesn’t mean that they can’t go against the grain of the societal norms placed around the sport they love. In 2017, Ohashi started posting diary entries from her competing days in an effort to start a conversation around body image surrounding the sport.
Katelyn Ohashi, Life, 2018
“I’m used to waking up to the taste of blood or iron in my mouth, as if I might almost throw up from being so hungry.”
Even through all the success she’s found throughout her early years in gymnastics, Ohashi is not invincible. The NCAA champion recounted all the injuries she’s suffered in her career, one of which resulted in her having to get two shoulder surgeries with one of them following her win in the American Cup. Contemplating her future and long-term goals after being unsure if she would ever compete again, Ohashi called up the head coach of UCLA gymnastics, Valorie Kondos Field (a.k.a. Miss Val). Despite having no experience in gymnastics prior to her hiring for the head coach position in 1983, Field became known for her refreshing and more down-to-earth approach to the sport, campaigning individualism and fun over simply winning titles. She encourages all gymnasts to treat the floor and beam as a stage for their creativity. It’s a reputation that is indicative of the difference between elite and collegiate gymnastics, where athletes study full time, are allowed to train a maximum of twenty hours a week, and competition is more about healthy consistency than extreme difficulty. Ohashi jumped at the opportunity and joined the UCLA Bruins gymnastics team for the 2015–16 season.
Field’s ideal of gymnastics and competition would prove to be a breath of fresh air for Ohashi as she tells Life magazine about having actual freedom for the first time in her career, “It’s so weird being in college, because it’s like, you get to cheer for literally everyone, and you’re supposed to,” Ohashi says. “But I would get yelled at simply for cheering for Simone [Biles]. It was difficult because I think I finally had freedom, legit, actual freedom, for the first time.”
Ohashi and many of her teammates have begun to learn the true importance of being able to compete in the sport they love without the enormous weight of winning and expectations on their shoulders. In that importance, they come to champion solidarity and unity above all else, two concepts needed now more than ever following the arrest and conviction of former USA Gymnastics national-team doctor, Larry Nassar, for the sexual abuse of over 250 young women and one young man. For UCLA’s February 4 meet against the University of Oklahoma, coaches Field and K.J. Kindler decided that something had to be done. With the help of their team, they put on Together We Rise, a ceremony held at the end of the meet where both coaches and athletes paid tribute to the bravery of the survivors telling their stories and pushing for change. Upon being asked what it’s like to watch the movement grow in light of what she experienced, Ohashi said it was “a huge step” to see the truth finally coming to light and further expressed her thoughts on her Instagram about what college gymnastics really means for her and her peers, “College gymnastics is the reward we receive after years of abuse,” Ohashi wrote on Instagram in January. “It’s the time of discovery, healing, learning, growing, and having the time of our lives.”
What’s different between now and then? “I’ve discovered things from being severely injured, to having gymnastics being taken away from me, and I realized this isn’t forever,” she says. “When I was in elite, [I was] living in black and white, whereas now I feel like I live more in full color.” Hopefully, even more female athletes of all ages and sizes can take inspiration from Katelyn Ohashi and see that negative stigmas, whether they pertain to weight, appearance, or how you choose to compete or work at your craft, have no bearing on the true happiness and satisfaction of simply doing what you love for the sake of itself.