In the history of gymnastics, I am one of only five Black women to win the NCAA individual all-around title. When I won it two decades ago, it was a tremendous accomplishment that made me feel elated.
However, it was also a kind of joy that was tinged with the frustration that Black athletes who excel in a sport where they are one of very few often experience.
I played the sport as a child in the 1980s. I started taking gymnastics lessons when I was three years old and finished my first competition when I was 22. I frequently stood out as the only brown person in a gym full of kids doing handstands, somersaults, and tumbling throughout all of my years of training for the sport.
I was an elite gymnast who competed on the USA Gymnastics (USAG) National Team prior to accepting a full-ride sports scholarship to UCLA. Being one of a few Black gymnasts growing up was normal. Additionally, the sport appeared to only become more white as I rose through the ranks.
I was the only Black female gymnast on my team even during my four years at UCLA, an urban school with a significant Black student body. When I won my NCAA title in 2001, I probably could count the other Black women gymnasts we competed against at top-ranked schools on one hand.
However, I’ve noticed something new about gymnasts today, and you might too. More Black and Brown athletes than ever before compete in the sport. Additionally, they are proving to be a formidable adversary.
My last gymnastics competition was 20 years ago this year. Since then, a lot has changed in the sport, but perhaps the most significant change is the dramatic increase in racial and ethnic diversity. The shift has been nothing short of mind-boggling, particularly in light of the stunning African American women’s victory at the National Championships this past summer.
I had been involved in gymnastics all my life, and I had no idea it would happen to me. It has been amazing to witness the diversity as well as the excellence of the best women of color in the sport.
Simone Biles, of course, does not require any introduction. She is regarded as the GOAT in our sport and is a global icon who has won seven Olympic medals and 25 world championship medals, more than any other gymnast. She has even been argued to be the absolute best athlete of all time by some. Before Biles, there was Gabby Douglas, who became the first Black gymnast to win the all-around at the Olympics in 2012 and became the champion.
Since I stopped competing, it would be difficult to name all of the women of color who have advanced to the sport’s highest levels. At Rio 2016, Puerto Rican gymnast Laurie Hernandez was the youngest gymnast to win a gold medal. Jordan Chiles helped Team USA win the world championships last year. Sunisa Lee, an American Hmong woman who became the first Asian American to win the Olympic all-around title, is another example. The list is endless.
At the collegiate level, the standouts of color have also been impressive. Trinity Thomas, a Florida Gator, has an incredible track record of perfection. Chae Campbell, Chiles, and freshman standout Selena Harris from UCLA continue to make headlines in our sport. Jordan Rucker from the University of Utah and Haleigh Bryant from Louisiana State University are also making headlines, which is surprising because there are too many others to name.
With performances of exceptional style and athleticism, these women of color are breaking records and the internet. There is no other major sport where the ranks have changed so dramatically. Swimming? Golf? Tennis? Not really, no. There have been relatively few breakthrough athletes of color in these predominantly White sports, but the overall complexion of the sports hasn’t changed much.
Access, opportunity, and identity have all been profoundly impacted by structural racism over time, which explains why gymnastics was so popular among White people in the first place. Every aspect of life is impacted in some way by economic inequality’s long arm.
Football, basketball, and track and field are examples of sports in which Black athletes have traditionally been represented. Gymnastics is a very expensive sport that requires a lot of hard work and long training sessions and costs thousands of dollars. Private clubs and elite training facilities, which are few and far between, offer high-quality instruction. To offset the unaffordable high cost of tuition as a child, my family frantically raised funds, worked extra hours at my gymnastics club, and housed visiting gymnasts.
In the past decade, gymnasts of color have not been “created” by magic. Black and brown girls have always had strong, talented competitors who excelled in the sport. Because our society has for so long refused to value or validate Black women, many of the first Black women in the sport, like Diane Dunham and Wendy Hilliard, were simply ignored. The sport, on the other hand, favored a childlike, thin Nadia Comaneci. Many women who resembled me remained on the sidelines as a result. They were not always seen or accommodated by elite gymnastics.
Fortunately for me, exceptions were always made, and these women became my role models. Dominique Dawes and Betty Okino were the pioneers of my time. With their brown bodies and Black girl hair, I knew it was a little more doable for me after watching them compete for Team USA.
When I was 16 years old, I vividly recall lying on the green shag carpet in my living room in Tacoma, Washington, enraptured by UCLA’s first-ever NCAA Title victory and, more importantly for me, Stella Umeh’s.
Umeh was black, muscular, and fierce on the ground; She had just shaved her head; Her floor routine featured pulsating and erratic music. I had never seen a gymnast like her before. After Umeh graduated, I went to UCLA and followed in her footsteps, confidently and fully, not only because she was Black, but also because she reshaped the norm.
I was able to go to the NCAA Metroplex Challenge gymnastics competition earlier this month with my 11-year-old daughter and her gymnastics team. Every school on the floor had multiple Black gymnasts competing.
I couldn’t ignore the significance of the moment as a developmental psychologist who studies youth identity development. As they watched their potential future selves from their front row seats, a real image of who they might become, I couldn’t help but notice the awe in their eyes. Essentially, identity and representation are important. What Black girls think is possible and what they think is not will have an impact on the number of Black girls who play the sport in the future.
In the meantime, gymnastics keeps making progress: Fisk University is the first historically Black college to field an NCAA gymnastics team this year, consisting entirely of Black and brown girls competing in gymnastics. It’s novel. It changes everything. Additionally, it serves as a reminder of what is possible as Black History Month comes to a close.