From gospel music to hip-hop, women’s gymnastics is anything but routine
‘I get little girls all the time looking up to me, not only because of gymnastics but because I embrace every part of me’
Every four years, sports fans around the globe come together to watch the finest athletes compete in the world’s largest sporting event: the Olympics.
In 2016, 3.6 billion viewers tuned in to watch the Summer Olympics held in Rio de Janeiro. In an Adweek survey conducted shortly before the Games, gymnastics was the most anticipated sport among viewers, with 88% of respondents planning to watch.
Gymnastics can offer a unique cultural experience, making the sport one of the most popular at the Games. But even with talented gymnasts and thrilling routines, there’s a short-lived excitement and patriotism that peaks during performances and wanes before athletes have packed up and exited the Olympic Village.
However, gymnastics takes place every year, year-round, from youth to collegiate all the way to elite levels — even this weekend, as the 2019 National Collegiate Women’s Gymnastics Championships will take place in Fort Worth, Texas.
In recent years, gymnastics has gained an ally in social media to showcase just that. Here, shining moments in gymnastics, with a particular fondness for floor routines, are liked, shared, retweeted and discussed by the masses, leaving an impression on sports fans that spans well beyond the Olympic bubble.
This is due in part to college gymnastics and to the rise of diversity in the sport.
According to the NCAA Demographics Database in 2008, 81.3% of NCAA women’s gymnastics student-athletes were white. Black student-athletes accounted for only 4.5% of female college gymnasts that year, while other races constituted 14.2%. A decade later, the percentage of female gymnasts of color has increased, with various races accounting for 21.8%. The percentage of black female gymnasts has increased from 4.5% to 8%.
Within the popularity of gymnastics videos being viewed by millions, the visibility of gymnasts of color has seemingly been boosted since the first known viral video in 2014, that of former Louisiana State University gymnast Lloimincia Hall.
Five years ago, Hall took to the purple cushioned mat in the center of the arena and prepared for her floor routine. It was early in the season during Hall’s junior year and she was excited about the theme of her routine, which served as a tribute to her parents and featured gospel mixed with old-school hits that they’d often play during her childhood. At the end of the routine, with cheers blaring from the home crowd and teammates giving her a standing ovation, Hall earned a perfect 10.
It wasn’t the first perfect score in Hall’s career, but the routine, like all the others, held a special place. What Hall had not prepared for was the sentiment of her special routine being shared among thousands of others, as she became a viral sensation overnight.
The routine, which was performed weeks before it took on new life across social media platforms, has been viewed 2.9 million times on YouTube.
Since then, Hall has been joined by fellow collegiate gymnasts in a new hierarchy of viral sensations involving floor routines that reach an audience outside of the typical hard-core gymnastics fan base. Moreover, with the help of social media, gymnasts of color are being highlighted in a way that the sport hasn’t yet seen outside of Olympic appearances.
Within the thousands of views and shares, and hundreds of likes and comments, there is an apparent (and important) theme that all of the videos share: a rise in gymnasts’ creative license to stay true to their own identities while inviting a larger audience inside their unique cultures, particularly for gymnasts of color. Floor routines are now examined by an audience more curious than ever about the sport, giving additional exposure to little girls and young women who are often underrepresented.
For Hall, an African American woman who has been involved in gymnastics since she was a toddler and now coaches the sport, there has been a notable increase in young girls of color being enrolled in gymnastics classes.
“I think a culture shift is happening, period,” Hall said. “When you look at the Olympics level and the college level, there are more women of color as a whole. When you look at people like Sophina [DeJesus] and Katelyn [Ohashi], there are more people saying, ‘There are people who have come before me that were successful in the sport, so why can’t I do this now?’ I think that’s more of the thought process. There are individuals who want to step outside of the box. Women of color are getting more comfortable getting into the sport because of the Simone Biles and [Gabby Douglases] and myself, the people that came before them.”
For women of color, the floor routine is much more than a performance to be judged based on their athleticism. For Hall, the self-expression through her choreographed performance offered the audience a glimpse into her life outside of gymnastics.
Every year, Hall provided a different theme. As a freshman, Hall tapped into a drum line sequence, much to fans’ amusement. As the daughter of a pastor, Hall stayed true to her roots by adding a gospel mix the following year, which she says best reflected who she was as a person. When her junior-year routine when viral, Hall’s music was a mix of gospel with some oldies, paying homage to her parents, and in her final year she paid tribute to Louisiana for all the love she’d been shown during her college career.
“I saw how much people really did enjoy [the music],” Hall said. “When I would go on other college campuses, they were on their feet and really enjoying it and being part of it. Really getting it out there is who I am as a person. I learned that in a spiritual realm.
“At church, to really catch the emotions when you want to bring somebody to Christ, you have to catch the heart. You have to catch to see where and which they can feel where you are as a person, so that’s how I incorporated a lot of my floor routines. It wasn’t the music, it wasn’t anything. It was different aspects that touched the hearts and minds of others to say, hey, we came here to have a blessed time. Let’s get together, because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.”
But there was still no way Hall could have predicted how much these moments would impact the sport.
Hall is the first known gymnast to go viral, but a powerful surge from UCLA’s diverse powerhouse of gymnasts renewed excitement and introduced the world to a new era of entertainment in gymnastics.
Two years after her video caught the world’s attention, UCLA’s DeJesus “whipped” and “Nae Nae’d” her way into the hearts of those who admired not only her athleticism but also the fun she brought to her hip-hop-inspired routine.
A year later, teammate Hallie Mossett continued the trend with a Beyoncé-inspired routine.
In January, UCLA senior Ohashi kept the trend rolling with a Michael Jackson-themed routine that’s been the most popular viral video yet, receiving more than 37 million views on YouTube.
For the world of college gymnastics, the attention has been a beautiful thing, and for the gymnasts whose skills have launched them into newfound fame overnight, the experience has been entertaining yet eye-opening.
When DeJesus attained viral fame in 2016, it had been one of the first routines in her final year of college. DeJesus, who has trained in the sport since she was 2 years old, felt a shift during her college experience. DeJesus didn’t feel much like herself, and in between balancing studies and juggling the new responsibilities and independence that college brings, gymnastics was placed on the back burner. DeJesus hadn’t competed much during her first three years of college but was determined to make the best of her senior year. She spent the summer before her last year of college training vigorously for the upcoming season and was determined to go out with a lasting impression.
“I wanted to get back to my true diva self by incorporating hip-hop and my personality into my floor routines,” DeJesus said.
To DeJesus, the moment was simply a young gymnast having fun and getting back to doing what she loved. To the rest of the world, her routine was the best they’d seen since Hall’s in 2014. The attention was surprising yet welcome.
“I do love attention,” DeJesus said. “I love attention because I’m a big people person, and my favorite thing is to perform. It was a shock completely. The next day when my coach and my mom were calling me and telling me my floor routine was going crazy, I was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ”
An unexpected yet pleasant effect of the viral video was DeJesus, who is African American and Puerto Rican, realizing how many young girls of color are learning to embrace their own cultural identities by watching her video.
“I do think it is a cultural shift happening, because it is a culture that is more into this sport than it has ever been,” DeJesus said. “I think also in this era, we are really focusing on women empowerment and black lives, and that’s really been bringing that culture into every single thing. Even in swimming, you see more black women and men. That’s usually something that doesn’t happen in a lot of different sports. They’re being praised, and it makes me feel really happy because I get little girls all the time messaging me and looking up to me, not only because of gymnastics but because I embrace every part of me.”
With such a diverse group of gymnasts, embracing the cultural identity seems to be woven into the fabric of the program. But how does UCLA do it?
It all starts with Valorie Kondos Field, affectionately known as Miss Val to the young women she coaches and mentors. Kondos Field, who will retire this year after 29 seasons as UCLA head coach, entered the university armed only with experience she’d gained as a professional ballet dancer, but she has turned UCLA women’s gymnastics into one of the most successful programs to date.
In 1983, UCLA hired Kondos Field to be a choreographer and assistant coach under head coach Jerry Tomlinson. Although Kondos Field was never a gymnast herself, she was able to use her expertise to bring elements to the gymnastics program that are often overlooked.
“I’m constantly talking to [the gymnasts] about presentation,” Kondos Field said. “About how you stand, how you sit and how you walk into a room. On floor, if you do leaps, if you’re tucked before but your hands aren’t pressed, you’re not going to get a deduction, probably, but the overall perception of you will be diminished. And when you do thrash your hands and your arms, it’s how everything comes alive. Same thing with your focus. I choreograph the face and their eyes as much I do their arms and their legs, because your face is part of your body, so why wouldn’t you choreograph the face? A lot of gymnasts have never been told what to do with their face. …
“Everything that you do is being scrutinized. Someone is watching you at all times. And they have really important life lessons to be aware of how you are presenting yourself.”
Kondos Field began with little changes that, unbeknownst to her at the time, had a large impact on the program. But when she received the call from UCLA’s athletic director asking if she’d lead the women’s gymnastics team, there was still a natural reaction of disbelief.
“I laughed out loud and I said, ‘You know I don’t know the first thing about gymnastics,’ ” Kondos Field said. “And she said, ‘Well, I observed how you work with student-athletes and I like that, and I trust that you will figure the rest out.’ I was like, ‘OK, give me more,’ but that was all that I got. I guess I did pretty well.”
Kondos Field fell into her own routine as a coach. Presentation and choreography were always second nature, but for the more technical aspects of gymnastics, Kondos Field relies on trusty assistant coaches who know the ins and outs.
But viral videos were new territory for everyone.
When DeJesus went viral, there was an influx of positive messages flooding social media platforms. The moment was being picked up by news sources and blogs alike. Interview requests poured in. The world was watching.
And then, it happened again. And again. And again.
In that moment, Kondos Field realized why her gymnasts were becoming so popular.
“I think that familiarity is part of the attraction,” Kondos Field said. “They make you happy. They are not totally dramatic pieces. At first, I kind of felt a little bit of a rebel, not using the traditional-style agnostic music and choreography. But then, I’ve learned the last many of years that all athletics is entertainment and we are buying for the entertainment dollar, and that means that we need to be entertaining. And so that’s what I try to do with all of our floor routines, is to make them entertaining.”
Although Kondos Field does realize the viral trends of gymnastics videos so far have highlighted women of color, she does not believe this has caused an increase in the number of women of color in the sport in recent years. She does, however, believe college gymnastics has become a more welcoming sport for women in general.
“I think that the sport has evolved to embrace all different body types. And so it doesn’t matter what your body type is in collegiate gymnastics, if you execute your skills well, perform well, you do the floor well. A perfect example of that is Katelyn Ohashi. I mean, her video is the most-watched sport video of any sports in 2019.”
DeJesus believes this won’t be the last of the viral videos featuring talented college gymnasts, and she hopes to see more cultures being celebrated through these routines.
“I really do think [gymnastics] will continue on this route,” DeJesus said. “It’s definitely going to be a lot more where this came from. We’ve already seen it within these couple of years since I’ve been out of college, that everyone is starting to incorporate some shape or form of different culture into their routines. I definitely think that it will, for sure, continue to evolve. As the world grows, so will the gymnastics community.”