Leap of FaithTokyo’s Olympics Spotlight the Women Changing Gymnastics

Every week, MyKayla Skinner uploads vlogs onto her YouTube Channel documenting her Olympic journey. After being selected as an alternate in the 2016 Rio Olympics for Team USA, she transitioned to the NCAA circuit to compete for the University of Utah. The almost-could-have experience and constant hunger for challenging skills left Skinner dissatisfied with simply staying in collegiate gymnastics; and in 2019, she left one year of eligibility at Utah to make a rare return to elite gymnastics for a shot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic team. With titles like “How to do gymnastics when you’re tired and your body hurts” or “Gymnast vs. husband fitness challenges,” Skinner’s videos remind fans that at age 24, her return is a bit unconventional and odds-defying, both for her own body and for the larger gymnastics community in the United States. In a sport where girls traditionally peak before they reach the age of 20, everyone is rooting for a comeback. (The last time this type of collegiate-to-elite transition happened was in 2004, when Indian American gymnast Mohini Bhardwaj made the U.S. Olympic team after accumulating dozens of accolades competing for UCLA.)

And on Sunday, after making the postponed 2021 Olympic team as an individual athlete but being knocked out after qualifications due to a two-per-country rule, she replaced Simone Biles to compete in the women’s vault final. Skinner finally won a coveted silver medal and ended her long elite career on a high, if somewhat unexpected, note. As the first full-fledged world-stage Olympics cycle since the trial of Larry Nassar forced a reckoning in American gymnastics, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics was under a particularly bright spotlight well before it began. But putative gold medalist Biles shocked the world last week when she chose to withdraw from the team finals due to a mental health issue—namely, a sudden onset of what gymnasts know as “the twisties,” a mind-body disconnect that Biles described in an Instagram story as a feeling of “Not having an inch of control over your body…. Literally can not tell up from down.” The ungenerous and in some cases vicious backlash to Biles’s announcement underscored a larger societal failing to see mental health and physical health as entwined.

When Team USA, without Biles’s difficulty packed routines, won silver rather than the expected gold, many critics—most of whom have never set foot in the sport of gymnastics—labeled her a “quitter.” In fact, Biles’s decision to prioritize both mental and physical health and the team medal at stake was an act of self-preservation and resistance—and part of a growing movement among elite athletes to prioritize the realities of their own safety and health over audiences’ expectations of them as high-performance medal-generating machines. When Sunisa Lee, the Team USA gymnast who went on to win the all-around gold medal after Biles withdrew, was asked to comment on Biles’s withdrawal, she responded by saying, “People forget that [Simone] is human…. We don’t owe anybody anything. We don’t owe you a gold medal. You’re not the one competing.” In a sport where timing matters, female gymnasts have long stayed quiet to ensure their Olympic prospects. The assertiveness with which the 18-year-old gymnast spoke is a testament to the determination of a new generation of gymnasts to rethink the expectations—and reject the abuses—that previous generations endured for the sake of their dreams.

Take the Karolyi ranch, once the U.S. Women’s National Team Training Center and the domain of famed, fearsome coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi. At the ranch, located in Sam Houston National Park in Texas, the Karolyis cut off communication between gymnasts and the outside world. Though most of the elite female gymnasts were under 18, their parents were forbidden from coming to the training center to watch them. Both the conditions and the coaching were punishing—former Olympians recall restricted food and showers that lacked soap. And it was where Nassar was able to sexually abuse dozens of young women gymnasts. But because the United States kept winning Olympic gold, few people publicly questioned the Karolyis’ methods. USA Gymnastics didn’t shut down the center until 2018, when a viral tweet from Biles prompted media scrutiny of the organization’s failure to act.

USA Gymnastics, too, had to fall apart in order for its secrets to catalyze sport-wide change. In June 2015, after 2016 Rio Olympic hopeful and former USA national team member Maggie Nichols reported her abuse by Nassar, USAG dissuaded the athlete and her family from coming forward publicly, ostensibly on the grounds of not interfering with an ongoing FBI investigation. (Her journey and the unraveling of the Nassar case is documented in the 2020 Netflix documentary Athlete A.) In October 2016, Rio Olympic gold and silver medalist Laurie Hernandez reported that her former coach, Maggie Haney, emotionally and verbally abused her; USAG didn’t conduct a hearing into the allegation until more than three years later, and it wasn’t until the spring of 2020 that it suspended Haney for eight years. In 2020, USAG declared bankruptcy amid the flood of legal claims against Nassar. Now, gymnasts in Great Britain and Australia are fomenting their own movements by speaking up about emotionally and physically abusive coaches. 

The breaking of the USAG’s culture of abuse, silence, and other institutional failures has combined with the social-media savvy of a new generation of gymnasts. This means that as fans, we now have unprecedented access to gymnasts as humans first. The fact that we can see Lee, the first Hmong American gymnast to represent Team USA, post TikToks chronicling grocery-store runs with fellow teammates during Olympic trials or go Instagram Live immediately after a competition signals a change in culture. The fact that Lee’s teammate Jordan Chiles posts about Black Lives Matter, or that Morgan Hurd, a five-time member of the U.S. women’s national team, posts about #StopAsianHate rallies and discusses the complex feelings that arise as an Asian adoptee representing Team USA shows their awareness of being potential role models beyond the gym. They’re no longer required to communicate with the world via coaches or mainstream media, and that’s not only crucial for them, but a perspective change for fans of the sport: We get to see what consensual physical therapy should look like; we’re able to better understand training-camp culture; and we can take in the reassuring sight of young gymnasts enjoying a burger and fries after training at the new United States Gymnastics Training grounds in Indianapolis.

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And, after years of colleges profiting from these women’s bodies, we can also watch the tides turning. The bodies of young women have generated millions of dollars in revenue for both USAG and the NCAA collegiate-gymnastics circuit. But outside of athletic scholarships, the athletes themselves made nothing unless they turned pro. This has been true of all NCAA athletes, of course, but female gymnasts face the unique dilemma of deciding whether or not they will go pro (and reap the financial benefits that come with endorsement deals) well before they’re eligible for college at all: Many young gymnasts make verbal commitments to university teams by the age of 15 or 16. But injuries and other challenges can change their lives in an instant; furthermore, with the reduction of Olympic team slots, the guarantee of a professional gymnastics career is less assured than ever. However, the power dynamic is about to shift.

In June 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA isn’t above antitrust law in its treatment of its athletes, meaning that amateur-status student athletes will now be able to be paid for internships, laptops, and other significant academic expenses. Meanwhile, in California, thanks to the Fair Pay to Play Act, athletes will be able to begin monetizing social media and accepting endorsement deals by 2023. In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, the NCAA announced an interim policy that allows student athletes to earn money from their names and images, including endorsement deals and leveraging their social-media presence.  In other words, student athletes can now make their own decisions about their narratives and financial futures, rather than being subjected to the power of a governing organization or universities and coaches that reap major profits. For many female athletes in sports like gymnastics, where professional careers are highly unstable, collegiate athletics and beyond can finally be a place where they leverage their work and influence. Livvy Dunne, a former elite and current Louisiana State University gymnast who has more than 5 million followers across TikTok and Instagram, is just one of the young women set to benefit from this rule change. “I really love gymnastics, and I really love social media,” Dunne wrote in a post on LSU’s website. “So why not do both?” 

The sea change in women’s gymnastics has the potential to make a sport with a narrow life cycle in the United States healthier, better-paid, and more rewarding for athletes.

The sea change in women’s gymnastics has the potential to make a sport with a narrow life cycle in the United States healthier, better-paid, and more rewarding for athletes. And as more gymnasts like Biles and Lee speak bluntly about the capitalist imperatives that have circumscribed their choices and words, it’s possible to imagine a sport that is nurturing rather than punishing, transparent rather than secretive. Biles has already had an economic influence: In April 2021, she left former sponsor Nike for an endorsement deal with the woman-focused brand Athleta. In contrast to Nike—a company whose history of you-go-girl branding is contradicted by its history of penalizing pregnant athletes like Allyson Felix—Biles said Athleta’s supportive of her “not just as an athlete, but just as an individual outside of the gym.” And Biles’s parents, Nellie and Ron Biles, built and own the World Champions Centre, whose entire elite team is composed of women of color, including fellow Olympian Jordan Chiles. This upcoming fall, many accomplished female gymnasts will go on Biles’s Gold Over America tour across the country. Touring, previously reserved as an Olympian-victory lap sponsored by the bankrupt USAG, now represents a celebration of “exciting female athletes in a way you’ve never seen before… their way!” With a star-studded lineup that also includes non-Olympians, the focus is on each gymnast’s unique journey and her own definition of success while inspiring the next generation. In an expensive and predominantly white sport, Biles has taken an approach that goes beyond simply being a role model in competition: She’s using her economic power to reinvent what it means to be a gymnast and break down the structural systems that have long ruled the sport. 

Chelsie Memmel, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist and world all-around champion, hosts her own YouTube channel, “Chelsie’s Adult Gymnastics Journey,” which follows the 32-year-old mother of two as she jumps and coaches and plans for an elite comeback. It might sound implausible, but Memmel is performing more difficult skills than she was at so-called “peak” age levels in her teens, and her journey poses questions worth considering. What if young women didn’t have to burn out their bodies before they fully mature? What if they were trained to last beyond one or two Olympic cycles? What if they could take time to start a family, grow a business, pursue community within collegiate gymnastics, and return to the world stage? I’ve been on the edge of my seat watching Team USA shine this summer in Tokyo, even amid the unexpected shuffles. But as the gymnastic events close, I find that I’m even more excited to see their futures beyond the gym—as athletes, students, activists, and more. With the sport becoming more focused on prolonging women’s bodies and their mental and emotional health, we might just see quite a few girls who did not make the team this cycle compete in the NCAA. And if the Olympics are no longer the highest measure of success, we may see gymnastics become as rewarding as it is breathtaking.

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by Helen Li
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Originally from the suburbs outside Richmond, Virginia, Helen Li is an American writer and educator currently based in Asia. She is the producer of Fresh Off the Vote, a podcast on politics and civic engagement among Asian American youth. Her multi-lingual writing focuses on the intersection of pop culture, international affairs, and identity. She is a lover of solo travel, cooking tutorials, and is currently learning Kathak, one of the eight major forms of Indian classical dance. She aspires to learn more about the human experience through different forms of storytelling.