The Oklahoma Sooners won the women’s NCAA gymnastics title last weekend in a joyful celebration of the sport. The competition was the cherry on top of a historic season, witness to sold-out crowds all over the country, hours of live TV coverage and unprecedented levels of media attention. The coverage, by and large, has been glowing; you’d have to be a special kind of curmudgeon to look at scenes of young women sticking landings and jumping up and down in celebration and see anything wrong with that picture.
But we need to be wary of how we contextualize the picture of this sport. Often, the reporting has sought to set the jubilant scenes against the more subdued world of elite and club gymnastics and its well-documented history of abuse, including emotional, physical and sexual. The story, as it is often told, goes something like this: an elite gymnast was abused during her time on the national team but found safety and healing in the joy and camaraderie of women’s college gymnastics.
The concept of the “broken and abused elite gymnast turned college athlete” is nothing new. Back in the 1990s, reporter Scott Reid was working for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the heyday of Suzanne Yoculan’s tenure as head coach at the University of Georgia, during the Gymdogs’ run of 10 national titles. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review in 2018 about his reporting on abuse within USA Gymnastics, Reid — now with the Orange County Register — recalled the Georgia coach discussing the condition of elite gymnasts she encountered.
“The coach told Reid she recruited a lot of high-profile kids who had been in the national team program. ‘They were all broken,’ Reid recalls. ‘It became clear it was her job to put these kids back together. They had substance [abuse] issues, drinking problems, eating disorders, depression, several kids were suicidal and acted out in different ways.’”
This particular narrative has come to define women’s college gymnastics in the U.S., but the story became far more mainstream after the floor routine of UCLA’s Katelyn Ohashi went viral in 2019. After her exuberant routine took off, racking up hundreds of millions of views, Ohashi’s personal story of being “broken” by the U.S. elite gymnastics and then healed by college gymnastics and caring coaching was also shared widely, though perhaps not as widely as the floor routine that made her famous. In interviews, she spoke candidly about being fat-shamed by a former coach and forced to train on serious injuries.
Ohashi described her elite experiences as having sapped her love for the sport she had devoted herself to since preschool. But her relationship to gymnastics changed, as she tells it, when she matriculated at UCLA, where she was taken under the wing of Valorie Kondos Field. And when she went viral again with a routine that included musical cuts from Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and others, what so many remarked upon was not just Ohashi’s gymnastics prowess or engaging choreography, but how joyful she seemed on the mat.
And indeed, she looked joyful. At this point, it had been over two years since the first allegations of sexual abuse against USAG team doctor Larry Nassar were made public, a year after the wrenching victim impact statements delivered in court by woman after woman, recounting how they were abused by Nassar and how that impacted them. It came after some of the sport’s biggest stars — including Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time — had come forward as survivors.
To say that gymnastics fans and the public were hungering for news that wasn’t quite so bleak is an understatement. At the time, I described Ohashi’s floor routine as a “spectacle of female joy,” standing in stark contrast to the painful stories we had been hearing. Though Ohashi’s personal narrative was painful too, it had a happy ending. It reassured viewers, coaches, journalists and fans that those who had been hurt could be made whole again.
And in a sense, Ohashi’s personal story parallels the story of NCAA women’s gymnastics writ large.1 When the sport is written about, it is often treated as a “safe space” or a “beacon of goodness” in an otherwise bleak gymnastics landscape that has become notable not for awe-inducing athletic feats but for allegations of abuse against coaches. (I, too, have been guilty of perpetuating this uncomplicated narrative in my own work. Consider this article my personal mea culpa.) While it is undeniable that many gymnasts have rekindled their joy for the sport while training and competing at the collegiate level, this arc — I was sad and broken and now I’m happy — in no way represents the totality of the college gymnastics experience for all athletes.
To believe this fairy tale version of college gymnastics, you have to ignore many problematic threads that have emerged in recent years: stories about Black athletes subjected to racist harassment from coaches and teammates, then facing retaliation for speaking out; of athletes being subjected to weigh-ins and pressured to lose weight; of gymnasts being encouraged to compete through injuries; and, of course, the scourge of sexual harassment and abuse is also present in collegiate gymnastics. When these stories are reported, they tend to be regarded as aberrations, and these accounts aren’t assimilated into the dominant narrative of the sport.
That these abuses exist in college gymnastics should come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the NCAA. If you only compare women’s college gymnastics to the club system, it comes out smelling like a rose, but if you set it against the rest of the NCAA sports system, it doesn’t distinguish itself except in its in-practice injury rate, which is the highest for women’s college sports. (Over the last several seasons there has been a frightening proliferation of Achilles ruptures.)
This is not to suggest that NCAA gymnastics hasn’t been a good thing for many of the athletes who have passed through it, or that the sport is hiding skeletons in its proverbial closet. Many gymnasts have publicly stated that college gymnastics has been good for them, and their testimonies shouldn’t be discounted. But neither should the stories that contradict the inspirational narrative.
“My expectation of college gymnastics was that I was finally going to get to enjoy the sport of gymnastics again. College gymnastics looked so fun,” Sam, one former NCAA college scholarship athlete, told me. (Sam’s name has been changed, and her college affiliation omitted, out of privacy concerns.) An elite gymnast, she verbally committed to a Division I school after finishing her freshman year of high school. She had been looking forward to what most club gymnasts look forward to experiencing college — being part of a team. Though gymnasts at the club level also have teammates, they generally compete as individuals, so victories and failures tend to be all their own. Sharing this with others on a similar mission can certainly increase enjoyment of the sport, but it can also add to the pressure to be perfect.
“My freshman year, I was, like, really stressed because, yeah, my routines weren’t as hard, but everyone’s depending on me to hit this routine, whereas in elite gymnastics, typically if I fail, I’m the only one that suffers,” Elizabeth “Ebee” Price, a 2012 Olympic team alternate, said of her transition to college gymnastics at Stanford in an interview with Penn State professor Amira Rose Davis on the American Prodigies podcast. (This season chronicles the journeys of Black American gymnasts.)
Jenny Rowland, the current head coach of the Florida gymnastics team, expressed a similar sentiment. As an athlete at Arizona State, she had to navigate the transition from mostly competing as an individual at the elite level — she was a reserve on the 1989 U.S. world championship team — to learning how to handle the pressure of doing gymnastics as part of a tight-knit collective. She said that she found this change intriguing and ultimately learned to enjoy being part of a team, so much so that she became a college gymnastics coach, first at Auburn and then at Florida, which she’s led since 2015.
“This is a messy time for any person of that age range in college, trying to transition to being a student and an athlete,” Kathy Johnson Clarke, a 1984 Olympic silver medalist and a longtime NCAA gymnastics TV commentator, told me. “And now you add in NIL [name, image and likeness rights], and they’ve got all these other responsibilities … they’re juggling a lot.”
Training hours in college gymnastics are capped at 20 per week, which, for most club gymnasts, is far less than they had previously been accustomed to training. At this level, training tends to be far more efficient, with 16- to 20-person teams able to spread out across an entire training facility, unlike at the club, where gyms are often running classes for all levels at the same time, making equipment less available.
Also, for the most part, the skill development part of gymnastics — which is quite time-intensive — tends to end by the time the gymnasts get to college. In college, gymnasts generally focus on choosing the best skills to put in routines, maintaining fitness and staying healthy. They might occasionally add elements during their college careers, but it’s relatively rare. Because there’s less skill learning and development on the schedule, the nature of college workouts can be different, with gymnasts incorporating weight lifting in a way they hadn’t earlier in their careers. It doesn’t hurt that most Division I teams have access to strength and conditioning coaches to help with this. In club gymnastics, parents would have to pay extra for the kinds of services that are de rigueur on most DI sports teams, especially well-resourced athletic departments.
But there are some things that remain consistent between club and college gymnastics: namely, the emphasis on weight. “One thing that was hard for me was having to do weigh-ins and Bod Pods,” Sam said of the device used to measure body fat. “When I was young, one of my coaches used to have us weigh in, but that was it. So having to do that in college, when I already struggled with the way I looked, didn’t help me.”
“My first two years, I felt so much pressure to look and be a certain way. I felt small comments were made that would always make me feel like I needed to be slimmer. I sometimes would have extra weigh-ins, extra cardio, meetings with nutritionists when others didn’t have that,” Sam said. She did note that this seemed to improve during her final years of eligibility, and she didn’t feel the same kind of pressure by the time she was a senior.
Sabrina Cheney, a former Auburn gymnast, also mentioned the use of Bod Pods during her time on the team. While she said that she wasn’t personally troubled by the scans, she said that some of her teammates struggled with the emphasis on weight in their training. “There were some cases where the coach, I think it was our head coach, would tell some of the girls that they had gained too much weight, or they needed to look like this person.” She also recalled that one teammate became fixated on the Bod Pod output and drastically reduced her food intake. “She felt like she needed to lose weight or she needed to lose a certain body fat percentage.”
A spokesperson for the Auburn athletic department said the Auburn coaching staff had no comment.
Other programs have seen similar issues. In 2016, Penn State gymnastics coaches Jeff and Rachelle Thompson were called out by former athletes in the college paper for body-shaming and forcing them to train and compete with injuries; the Thompsons eventually resigned.
In a 2019 interview with U.S. Olympic silver medalist and former UCLA Bruin Samantha Peszek, Kyla Ross, a member of the 2012 gold-medal-winning Olympic team, spoke about struggling with her weight when she first arrived at UCLA after a decrease in training hours, which had essentially been halved from what she used to do as an elite level gymnast. Ross said that Ohashi, who had already managed her own physical transformation from elite to college, essentially had to intervene and speak to Kondos Field — who retired in 2019 — to get her to back off as Ross figured out how to work with her new, more mature body. In her #gymnastalliance statement, Alyssa Beckerman, a 2000 U.S. Olympic alternate and UCLA gymnast, wrote of being pulled from the floor lineup after, as she recalls, Kondos Field told her she “was overweight and … would injure [her]self.” Beckerman was precisely the kind of gymnast that NCAA gymnastics was supposed to save: a former international elite who had come out of a gym with an abusive reputation, who had been torn down by the national team training camp system, looking for healing and redemption at the collegiate level. Eventually, Beckerman’s scholarship was pulled right before the start of her senior year, when it was too late for her to transfer to compete for another school. In a statement posted on Twitter in 2020, Kondos Field wrote, “I have made many mistakes in my coaching career and regret the times that I was bullish, sarcastic and mean,” and pointed out that during arbitration, a panel supported the rescission of Beckerman’s scholarship.
The close scrutiny on weight that college gymnasts have reported experiencing is also found in other sports. Last year, former members of the Oregon women’s track team alleged that regular DEXA scans, which measure body composition, triggered body dysmorphia and disordered eating behaviors in the runners. One athlete reported that she was told by a nutritionist to lower her body fat percentage despite the fact that she had not menstruated for over a year, something that she says the nutritionist was aware of when she made the recommendation. College gymnastics cannot be a “safe space” from the body shaming and weight stigma that gymnasts experienced at the club level because college sports, as a whole, aren’t immune to this particular pathology.
Nor is college gymnastics immune to the phenomenon of being forced to train and compete through injuries. Beckerman reported her coach responding with disappointment after she decided to undergo much-needed wrist surgery during her time at UCLA. (She did it anyway.) Former Iowa State gymnast Kristen LaFrance wrote about training on injuries, some quite severe, both during her club career and during college. Of course, this isn’t the reality across the board. Sam said that her college training staff did a great job of helping her manage her pre-existing injuries and that she didn’t feel pressure from the coaching staff to compete when she was hurting. But the positive examples don’t erase the more negative ones that don’t serve the popular blithe narrative.
There is more continuity between club gymnastics and the college level than we like to acknowledge. The coaches move between the two realms; club coaches end up in college and vice versa. And there is a symbiotic, not antagonistic, relationship between the two. College teams need clubs to train their future stars and the clubs need the colleges to send recruiters to offer their athletes scholarships and walk-on positions; being known as a club that gets kids positions on DI teams is good for business.
One of the things that has given college gymnastics its generally positive reputation in media and sports is the joyous celebrations that have become routine in competition. When a gymnast does a vault, the entire team seems to charge the landing mat to hug her. When a gymnast sticks the landing, she gets a crown or a stick or a comically large set of sunglasses; the shtick varies depending on the program. Often, when a gymnast is doing her floor routine, her teammates will perform the choreography along with her from the sidelines. It looks like a lot of fun, something that hasn’t been lost on the fans, journalists and commentators. This exuberance has become part of the product that NCAA gymnastics is selling. But is it genuine, performative, or some combination of the two?
“I think when you see the teammates cheering and jumping up and down, it’s genuine,” Sam said. “You put your whole heart into the team and program. Competitions were always fun.”
But for other gymnasts, it could be simultaneously fun and performative. “On TV, you see everybody, how happy they are and how much fun they’re having. But it’s almost like a show sometimes rather than reality,” Cheney said. “You got told that you need to act happier, you need to be happier, you need to do this for your teammate. It’s almost like it was forced to be happy.” And Sam said that “there were times when we didn’t have good energy and our coaches would say we need to cheer more.”
While it’s not abusive to be told to act happy even if you’re not feeling that way, it is a little bit troubling when you consider that so many gymnasts have talked about how they had to mask their true feelings during their club and elite careers, particularly hiding pain, both physical and emotional. College gymnastics should be a space where the gymnasts are free to express joy and exuberance, but only if that’s what they’re feeling at any particular moment. But women’s college gymnastics is not a sport for introverts.
There’s also something particularly gendered about this demand, to “smile” and “dance” and “have fun.” I’ve lost count of the number of times that college gymnastics TV commentators have suggested that a gymnast should smile more in their floor routines, as though this is the only acceptable way for young women to emote. The allowable emotional range for female gymnasts appears to be about as narrow as a balance beam.
Cheney said that she was suspended from practice for a week by the Auburn coaching staff for appearing less than thrilled during a competition. “They had told me that I wasn’t interacting with the team enough, that I was focusing on just myself and I wasn’t being there for my teammates and I wasn’t supportive of them,” she recalled. “I have pictures of me jumping up and down on all events, high-fiving everybody, happy at that meet. …There was only a max 5 minutes that I maybe wasn’t 100 percent engaged.”
The reason that Cheney was unhappy in the first place was that she hadn’t made the lineup after she had a fall in a previous competition. “It was hard when I never got another chance when I messed up one time, because I felt like I wasn’t allowed to mess up,” said Cheney, who was a walk-on to Auburn’s gymnastics team until she was cut before her senior season. “… If you’re not a favorite, they’re not going to put you back in.”
Many stories written about college gymnastics have highlighted the experiences of former international elites who represented the U.S. and other countries at the world championships and Olympics. (Perhaps the most prominent gymnast currently in the NCAA ranks is Suni Lee, the 2021 Olympic all-around champion who has been a game-changing athlete for Auburn, which placed fourth — its highest finish in program history.) But their experiences don’t offer a complete picture of what the sport is like at the collegiate level. The experiences of less-heralded gymnasts also give us information about NCAA gymnastics. Arguably it is how the walk-ons are treated that gives us the true measure of a program — not to mention that the walk-ons often come out of the same abusive contexts as do the elites and scholarship athletes. They are also trying to recover from the same kinds of ill treatment and its traumatic effects. Their arcs matter too.
Walk-ons are simultaneously indispensable to the team’s efforts, because they add depth to the roster that can be thinned over the course of a long season by injury, but also may be treated as disposable by some coaches since they may not be the highest scorers on the team. It should come as no surprise to learn that star athletes and walk-ons do not necessarily enjoy the same treatment from coaches.
Now, to be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with having to fight for a spot in the lineup; there are a limited number of spots, and one of the key jobs of the coaching staff is to put the highest-scoring lineup out on the floor to have the best chance at winning. No one has an absolute right to a lineup position. And it’s also understandable that certain gymnasts who have high scoring potential might get more opportunities to make mistakes than more precariously situated athletes. This is all very normal in the zero-sum game of college athletics.
But to then demand that those athletes who get booted out of lineups never be allowed to express even the slightest hint of disappointment is a ridiculous expectation. “The last thing I had said was that I feel like you should be able to feel all of your emotions that you’re feeling. I don’t think that happiness should be the only one you’re allowed to feel,” Cheney said.
The disparate ways that star athletes versus walk-ons are treated even extends to literal crimes. In 2016, Missouri gymnast Morgan Porter — who was, by far, the best gymnast on Mizzou’s team — was suspended for just one competition for committing misdemeanor fraud against her then-roommate and fellow Mizzou gymnast Storee Yzaguirre. (Porter eventually pleaded guilty in 2017.) While I don’t find it troubling when a young person’s future isn’t ruined by one dumb transgression, it is important to note that Yzaguirre wasn’t shown the same kind of consideration that her more gymnastically successful teammate was shown. After refusing to let the team handle the matter “internally,” she reported being told by head coach Shannon Welker that she wasn’t going to get a chance to compete and that if she wished to continue her gymnastics career, she would have to leave Mizzou. “I was released two-and-a-half weeks before school started, kind of leaving me without time to transfer,” she told Columbia, Missouri, TV station KOMU. In the same story about the unusually high number of departures from Mizzou’s gymnastics program, Rachel Updike shared that, not only had she been cut from the team, Mizzou made it virtually impossible for her to transfer and compete anywhere else, in effect, ending her gymnastics career. (This season, Mizzou, still under Welker’s tutelage, made the national championships for the first time in program history.)
In the summer of 2020, in the middle of the Black Lives Matter uprisings, former University of Alabama gymnast Tia Kiaku posted about experiencing racist harassment during her brief time on the team. She eventually withdrew from school despite the fact that she had one year of competitive eligibility remaining. Several other Black gymnasts who had competed for a range of schools from Florida to Auburn also posted about racist incidents they experienced during the course of their college gymnastics careers. And then, as the 2021-22 college gymnastics season was getting underway, UCLA — a program that had become the poster child for diversity — came under scrutiny after the coaches and athletic department failed to properly address an incident involving one gymnast’s use of a racial slur. Current athletes on the team, including seniors Margzetta Frazier and Sekai Wright, spoke to the media about an environment in which the feelings and needs of a white gymnast were prioritized ahead of those of Black gymnasts who had been harmed.
“They use the Black women on the team as branding horses who gallop around, and say, ‘Look at UCLA, we’re still here. Jackie Robinson came here. Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] came here. Look at us!’” Frazier told actress Amanda Seales on her podcast Small Doses. Much of UCLA’s popularity was built on the backs of its Black gymnasts whose floor routines had gone viral. Before Ohashi exploded online, Sophina DeJesus had garnered national attention with a routine in which she incorporated the dab and the nae nae. Nia Dennis first went viral with a Beyoncé-inspired “Homecoming” routine; then, the following year, she went viral again with a routine that included musical cuts from Kendrick Lamar, Tupac and several other artists. Frazier flirted with virality with her Janet Jackson/Rhythm Nation routine, which garnered the attention of Jackson herself.
Given the ubiquity of racism in American life, it’s not exactly shocking that Black gymnasts have experienced racism in their respective programs and found administrations that haven’t exactly been responsive to their needs. In fact, the whole of college athletics that profits off Black labor has been likened to a plantation system.
“I regret a lot of the interviews that I did praising the program,” Frazier told Seales.
If college gymnastics is truly a place where gymnasts can go to finally be happy, what does that mean for Black gymnasts whose concerns have been dismissed and minimized by their athletic departments? And what does it say about us when we traffic in certain fairy tale narratives that don’t leave room for these kinds of stories and experiences?
And let’s not forget that Larry Nassar was a college gymnastics story too. Nassar was the trainer for Michigan State’s gymnastics and rowing teams, and abused several members of both teams as well as athletes in other MSU sports. MSU gymnastics’ former head coach, Kathie Klages, was notified about Nassar’s abuse nearly two decades before the first allegations about his abuse were published.
Yet Nassar’s abuse is not regularly incorporated into the larger narrative of college gymnastics, even as he has become inextricably — and quite deservedly — woven up in the story of elite women’s gymnastics in the U.S. The reason for this is not difficult to discern: Nassar’s rampant sexual abuse of gymnasts fit well with what we already knew about elite and Olympic-level gymnastics — it was rife with emotional abuse, injuries, overtraining and bodyshaming. It’s harder to square Nassar’s abuse with the idea that college gymnastics is generally a healthier place for its athletes. But Nassar’s abuse happened in college gymnastics too, and so it must be included in the story of the sport.
As college gymnastics increases in popularity, closer scrutiny of it will likely follow. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we will start hearing the same sort of horror stories that have emerged out of elite and club gymnastics in the U.S. over the past five years. It does appear that despite its problems — which are the problems of most Division I sports — women’s college gymnastics is overall a healthier space for gymnasts.
“I get the sense that they’re all on a very steep learning and maturation curve,” Johnson Clarke said of the coaches and gymnasts dealing with the increased attention on women’s college gymnastics. The sport is on television every weekend, with highlights from competitions becoming regular SportsCenter top 10 features. “I think what people need to understand is that NCAA gymnastics is in the midst of rapid, rapid growth. The enthusiasm, the viewership, the excitement, not just within the gymnastics community.”
“I felt it at SECs [championships] too, a lot more pressure,” Johnson Clarke said. “They’re managing it pretty well.”
Rowland, the Florida coach whose team placed second this weekend, just 0.125 points behind the Sooners, acknowledged that the gymnasts, too, have been feeling the pressure. “Pressure is a challenge. Something we talk about is pressure and looking at it as a privilege,” she said. “Not everybody has this opportunity to be able to do this, be on TV or be able to take an NIL opportunity or this or that. But yeah, I’m not gonna lie. There are pressures in all kinds of areas.”
Sam said she experienced a lot of good during her four years competing in DI gymnastics and felt that her college gymnastics experience was altogether more positive than her elite club one. But, of course, there were bad aspects, too. “I think coaches, ADs and the NCAA need to treat everyone like people … People cannot always be perfect,” she said.
“College sports is a business,” she added, “and if you don’t fit that criteria, you will be cut off the team the following year.” For all the talk about safe places and sisterhood, we’re still talking about high-level sports where coaches have a mandate to win. If coaches don’t think that a gymnast is helping the program advance their goals, they can be cut. Scholarships can be pulled. The college sports system, regardless of the intentions of individual coaches and administrators, doesn’t exist to improve the lives of the athletes or heal them from past harms.
“There is nothing that’s going to guarantee that it’s going to be this magical place where it’s all lollipops and rainbows and sunshine and everything’s gonna feel good,” Johnson Clarke said.
While I don’t think that any of the gymnasts who participate in college gymnasts harbor any such delusions, it would behoove us — those who watch women’s college gymnastics and those of us who report on it — to be able to appreciate the sport for what it is, and not simply for what it is not — club gymnastics. Simply being an improvement over a bad model should not, in and of itself, be cause for celebration. What we need to do instead is resist the impulse to simplify the narrative of women’s college gymnastics into something that makes us feel good about consuming the sport. The stories we tell should be as challenging, beautiful and complex as the gymnastics that the athletes put out on the floor.
CORRECTION (April 19, 2022, 11:30 a.m.): An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed claims of excessive weight monitoring to former members of the Oregon State women’s track team. The claims came from athletes who competed for the University of Oregon. This story also characterized Katelyn Ohashi as older than Kyla Ross, though Ross is older, and incorrectly described Auburn’s championship history — the Tigers never before made the final four in a gymnastics championship but did compete in the former Super Six.