How Black Women Are Changing the Sport of Gymnastics

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 22: A detail as Simone Biles of Team United States trains on balance beam during Women's Podium Training ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 22, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Picture Supply: Getty / Jamie Squire / Staff

Black girls have all the time elevated the game of gymnastics, and this previous yr is irrefutable proof of that. From viral floor routines from faculty gymnasts to jaw-dropping, never-before-seen skills executed by Simone Biles, Black gymnasts have lastly been acknowledged for his or her invaluable contributions to the game. However the highlight that is been shone on these athletes is lengthy overdue, and whereas there are indicators of progress in a sport the place Black girls’s efforts have traditionally been overshadowed or erased, there’s nonetheless loads of work to be performed. POPSUGAR spoke with gymnastics insiders concerning the hidden figures of the game, the poisonous tradition that may maintain again Black gymnasts, and the methods their simple presence now will assist form the game’s future.

The Forgotten Legacy of Black Ladies in Gymnastics

Not like Biles, whose identify has grow to be synonymous with the game of gymnastics, many People had by no means even heard of Dianne Durham till her premature demise in February 2021. Durham became the first Black national all-around champion in 1983, beating out Mary Lou Retton, who would go on to win gold on the 1984 Olympics. She was additionally the primary American gymnast and all-around champion to be educated by Bela and Marta Karolyi after their defection from Romania. But it was solely on the time of her demise that the world turned conscious of Durham’s historic firsts and accomplishments within the sport.

“I had the pleasure of understanding Dianne,” mentioned Wayne Wright, a retired USA gymnastics coach who was on the ground on the 1996 Olympics when Workforce USA gained gold, including that he and Durham met at a contest in 1982. “There have been only a few Black gymnasts, and through that point, gymnastics as a sport was not as prevalent on TV as it’s at the moment,” Wright defined. “Sadly, her not making the US Olympic crew in 1984 didn’t enable her the identical notoriety of the opposite athletes throughout that point.” Wright believes Durham would have gained gold that summer season, however she was deemed ineligible to compete as a result of a technicality that was at finest complicated and at worst riddled with racism — one which ended the Olympic goals of the one Black athlete in a predominantly white sport.

Durham is just not the one Black gymnast whose identify has been erased from our gymnastics lexicon. Earlier than Durham, there was rhythmic gymnast Wendy Hilliard, the first Black athlete to represent the US in international competition, and Luci Collins, who turned the primary Black gymnast to make the US Olympic crew in 1980. That historic feat went largely unnoticed, as a result of as Collins instructed ESPN, the media never identified her as Black or as a local of Inglewood, CA, on the time a predominantly Black neighborhood. Her Olympic profession was in the end sidelined by the USA’ determination to boycott the Moscow Olympics.

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 30: Dominique Dawes of the US performs her routine in the Olympic individual floor event 29 July. Dawes took the bronze. (FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY) AFP-IOPP/Eric FEFERBERG (Photo credit should read AF/AFP via Getty Images)

Picture Supply: Getty / AFP / StaffDominique Dawes competes within the particular person flooring occasion on the 1996 Olympics.

In 1992, teammates Dominique Dawes and Betty Okino accomplished that Olympic dream, turning into the primary Black gymnasts to compete for Workforce USA, even incomes a bronze within the crew occasion. Dawes would go on to medal at three separate Olympics — the only American gymnast to do so — and in 1996, she turned the primary Black gymnast to win a person Olympic medal (a bronze on flooring). For some, Dawes’s Olympic run could really feel like a distant reminiscence, however she was an inspiration to many younger gymnasts, together with Hallie Mossett, a former powerhouse at UCLA, whose 2017 Beyoncé-inspired floor routine went viral, even capturing the eye of Queen Bey herself. “She was it,” mentioned Mossett, who, as a younger gymnast, intensely studied Dawes’s 1996 floor routine. “She was superior, and rising up, I’d choreograph dance flooring routines and faux I used to be her.”

“Black gymnasts have elevated the game, making it extra enjoyable and thrilling to observe by bringing in the next ability degree and electrical energy to gymnastics.” — Wayne Wright

These girls paved the way in which for Black gymnasts like Tasha Schwikert, who competed with Dawes on the 2000 Olympics, then went on to win back-to-back national championships in 2001 and 2002, and Gabby Douglas, who turned the primary Black gymnast to win gold within the Olympic all-around in 2012. Then there’s Biles, whose spectacular profession contains seven national championships, six Olympic medals, and 25 World Championship medals. She’s extensively seen as the best of all time — an athlete who has not solely pushed the boundaries of the game but additionally become an advocate and mentor for individuals who will come after her.

On a purely aggressive degree, the affect is simple. “Black gymnasts are swish, highly effective, creative athletes,” Wright instructed POPSUGAR. “I believe Black gymnasts have elevated the game, making it extra enjoyable and thrilling to observe by bringing in the next ability degree and electrical energy to gymnastics.” However to ensure that Black gymnasts to rise to the best ranges of their sport, they must be given each alternative to succeed.

The Boundaries That Preserve Black Gymnasts From Thriving

Faculty gymnastics is basically a microcosm for the problems that also exist within the sport and in society as an entire. Social media has made stars of Black gymnasts like Nia Dennis, Margzetta Frazier, and Trinity Thomas, whose thrilling flooring routines have gone viral. However whereas Black athletes have usually been among the many most recognizable faces in faculty gymnastics, solely nine percent of Division I women gymnasts in 2020 were Black, up from six p.c in 2008.

“Gymnastics is dear, and I consider that entry and affordability into aggressive gymnastics applications are elements that contribute to the systemic erasure throughout the sport,” mentioned Wright, who has coached the ladies’s gymnastics applications at Stanford and San Jose State College.

Even when Black gymnasts make it right into a health club and onto the mat, they usually encounter challenges that white gymnasts merely don’t. “Black women are already overshadowed within society, and sadly, it is no totally different within the sport of gymnastics. We stay with the struggles of what it means to be Black and a lady, in a pool of non-Black individuals. It’s a totally different journey that we expertise,” Mossett mentioned. “I had great household help and nice teammates, however the way in which I used to be spoken to within the health club, for instance, was not an expertise that my teammates ever needed to encounter or cope with.”

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 27: Nia Dennis of the UCLA Bruins raises a fist during her floor routine during a meet against the Oregon State Beavers at Pauley Pavilion on February 27, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

Picture Supply: Getty / Katharine Lotze / StaffUCLA gymnast Nia Dennis raises a fist in solidarity throughout a Black Excellence-themed meet in February 2021.

Mossett is just not alone. Final summer season, following George Floyd’s homicide, Black faculty gymnasts opened up concerning the microaggressions and blatantly racist remedy that they had skilled from teammates, coaches, and directors. Tia Kiaku, a former College of Alabama gymnast, tweeted that athletes and workers in this system had repeatedly used racial slurs and made racist jokes, later telling ESPN that the fallout that resulted from her reporting this behavior in the end led to her exit.

The ESPN report included numerous tales from Black gymnasts throughout the nation, who recalled feeling remoted and excluded from their groups after participating in protest, being held to Eurocentric magnificence requirements in scoring, and extra. Their collective voices have helped ignite change within their sport and society, however it’s a heavy burden to hold as scholar athletes. Lasting change means addressing the systemic points that enable these issues to persist, and sometimes that begins on the prime.

A Promising Future For Ladies’s Gymnastics

When requested from the place she attracts her energy, Mossett mirrored on her household. “I’ve an awesome village of help with sturdy Black girls as fashions to exemplify,” mentioned Mossett, who was named after her great-grandmother Hallie. “I used to be proud to be Black — however when I didn’t see myself represented, there will be that feeling of wanting to slot in. My mother let me know that it was OK to be me and to face confidently as a Black lady, even when there are others who could attempt to knock you down.”

And attempt to knock her down, they did. However regardless of the shortage of illustration Mossett witnessed as a younger athlete, and the challenges she confronted at larger ranges of the game — together with not getting the popularity she deserved for her choreographic contributions at UCLA — she has continued to forge new paths in gymnastics. Right now, she’s the assistant coach for Lengthy Island College. “It has been rewarding,” Mossett mentioned. “It’s a new program, and we now have constructed it from the bottom up.”

Recruiting extra various coaches is a method gyms and faculty applications might make gymnastics extra welcoming for Black athletes. “I did not see loads of Black coaches within the sport, and all through my profession, I used to be by no means coached by a Black coach,” Mossett instructed POPSUGAR. “Illustration and visibility are so essential, and as a coach, my firsthand experiences within the sport have resonated with the few Black gymnasts on my crew. I perceive their journey, which permits us to have candid conversations about hair or the burden of illustration, a dialog that others could not perceive.”

ST LOUIS, MISSOURI - JUNE 27: Jordan Chiles and Simone Biles pose following the Women's competition of the 2021 U.S. Gymnastics Olympic Trials at America's Center on June 27, 2021 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Picture Supply: Getty / Carmen Mandato / StaffJordan Chiles and Simone Biles have fun after being named to the US girls’s Olympic gymnastics crew.

Requested if the game is altering, Mossett mentioned she believes it’s, although there’s extra work to do. She pointed to the Black Lives Matter-themed meets that occurred on the faculty degree this previous season and to the rising variety of Black gymnasts who’re carrying pure hairstyles now, whereas she was pushed to straighten her hair. “These numerous microaggressions form how we painting ourselves, and I’m completely happy to see Black ladies simply being themselves,” Mossett mentioned. “I could not be prouder that they’re getting the popularity they rightfully deserve.”

“Illustration issues. I had tears in my eyes when slightly Black woman drew an image of me.” — Hallie Mossett

Wright agreed that there was progress. “I believe we’re transferring in the fitting route by way of extra alternatives and applications turning into accessible, equivalent to Brown Girls Do Gymnastics, that work to help and advocate for Black gymnasts within the sport,” he mentioned, including that there are additionally extra gyms opening up in beforehand under-resourced communities. Nevertheless, “one main situation that also must be addressed is the shortage of the chance for younger Black ladies to see collegiate and elite Black gymnasts compete — I hope we see this modification sooner or later.”

Gymnastics appears to be coming into a brand new period, one wherein there are whole meets devoted to Black Excellence and Biles — whether or not she’s competing or not — is lauded as the best of all time in a sport that has traditionally left Black girls on the periphery. Mossett understands the magnitude of this second and what it might imply to the subsequent era of would-be gymnasts.

“Illustration issues. I had tears in my eyes when slightly Black woman drew an image of me,” she mentioned, reflecting again on her faculty profession. “It was a full-circle second, as I didn’t have as many Black gymnasts to look as much as.” Hopefully the occasions of the previous yr could have a long-term affect on the game — one that won’t solely encourage extra Black athletes to pursue gymnastics but additionally make sure that Black gymnasts are lastly given the help and recognition that they deserve. | How Black Ladies Are Altering the Sport of Gymnastics


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