Katelyn Ohashi UCLA’s Katelyn Ohashi performs at the Collegiate Challenge in Anaheim on Saturday. Ohashi earned a perfect score during a now-famous floor routine that went viral on social media. (Richard Quinton / UCLA)

 

She shimmied and swayed to Proud Mary. She flipped and pranced to Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson. She egged the crowd on with a tongue-wagging swagger. When she did her final run of flips, ending in a dramatic split landing, she rose with a hair-waving flourish that brought the gymnasium down.

The only thing that could break Americans out of their annual NFL playoff craze was Katelyn Ohashi of UCLA, who scored a perfect ten in the floor routine at the Under Armour Collegiate Challenge on January 12, 2019. Her 90-second performance hit the internet like a hurricane, prompting tweets from celebrities and appearances on national television.

The most casual fan of gymnastics in America were re-tweeting the video of her routine and wondering who Ohashi was, and why she didn’t have the gold-medal cache of a Simone Biles or an Aly Raisman. But as experts have cited, her viral routine, which garnered a perfect 10.0 score, was perfect only at the collegiate level. Slate writer and former gymnast, Rebecca Schuman explained the difference in levels in this podcast.

Flip, flip, flip, split jump, and then she lands in the splits. First time she did that, everybody thought it was a mistake. That’s one of these things that’s only in the NCAA because it looks completely amazing, but it’s really easy. It’s really easy. Everybody in gymnastics can do the splits. You learn the splits when you’re five years old. And the floor on a gymnastics mat actually has 16 inches of mats and springs, so it’s almost like a trampoline.

One of the major differences between the elite levels and the collegiate levels of gymnastics is the level of difficulty. In the case of the floor exercise, women at both levels have the same 90 seconds to work their magic. But while the NCAA has a ceiling of the Perfect 10, the elite level has no such ceiling. The more you can work in a higher level of difficulty, the higher your potential score.

If you take a look at Simon Biles’ or Aly Raisman’s floor routines in the All Around finals at the Rio Olympics, there is definitely a lot more high-speed flipping and tumbling at the Olympic levels. Even to my amateur eyes, I can see the elites challenging themselves to four major tumbling runs, while Ohashi does only three. Ohashi spends a lot more time dancing and engaging the crowd between runs two and three than an elite would ever do.

Thus the reason for Ohashi’s seeming overnight fame is rooted not in the revelation that Ohashi should be challenging Biles for a spot on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic squad. It is rooted more in her back story, one that reflects the make-or-break nature of the highest levels of athletic competition, particularly in gymnastics.

Ohashi, the Seattle native, was indeed on track for Olympic greatness. By the time she turned 16, she was a junior national champion and an American Cup champion, where she beat Biles in competition, the last person to actually do so. Unfortunately, she peaked at the wrong time, as Schuman explained.

She was in the tragic of all positions. She was the best elite in the world in the year after an Olympics (2012 London Games). The way the elite world works is gymnasts age out of their peak performance so quickly you generally have your peak years for one or two years at most, unless you’re Simone Biles. Normal human gymnasts peak for one or two years, and then they either injure out, or they just grow, and their center of gravity changes, and they can’t do what they use to be able to do. So Katelyn Ohashi was at the absolute peak of her genius as an elite in 2013. If the Olympics had been held in 2013, she would have won.

And while Biles would go on to win gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, adding fuel to the argument that the USA women’s gymnastics teams of 2012 and 2016 were the best ever, Ohashi fell off the gymnastics map. Her back was fractured. Her shoulders were torn. She competed in physical pain, and through constant hunger pangs. But even greater than the physical pain was the emotional pain. As she explained in a video for The Players Tribune, in the third person, she “was broken.”

Fans would tell her that she wasn’t good enough, that she didn’t look a certain way. She wanted to eat junk food and feel okay the next day, and not have to worry about getting kicked out because she couldn’t make a skill. I was constantly exercising after a meal just to feel good enough to go to bed. She was on this path of invincibility. And then her back just gave out. She wanted to experience what life was like to be a kid again. I was broken.

Fortunately, Ohashi decided that enough was enough.  She dropped out of the elite levels of gymnastics into collegiate competition, attending UCLA with the hopes of finding joy in gymnastics again. She was welcomed by UCLA women’s gymnastics coach Miss Val, and the two formed a bond that emphasized joy and teamwork. As the coach said on Good Morning America, Ohashi said to Miss Val, “I don’t want to be great again. When I was great, there was nothing joyful about it.”

The viral video of her January 12 floor routine was an expression of joy. But the reason why the public, particularly on social media, went wild over Ohashi was the realization that we were seeing her emerge from a long and dark journey. Schuman’s insightful take is that we are relieved, because in a way, we are complicit in the dark journey Ohashi took for our ridiculously high demands for outrageous performance levels, in addition to unrealistic and unfair standards of body shape.

One of the reasons why Katelyn Ohashi’s performance is so magnetic…it’s not just her joy. You can see that her joy is a triumph over something. We also have to think – what do we get out of that? How important to us as viewers, casual or expert, is it, that she has been through the darkness before she gets to the light. How complicit is even the casual viewer who thinks this is the greatest thing they’ve ever seen, because what in her triumph has appealed to them.

So Katelyn Ohashi suffered, trying so hard to be something she was not.

For some, particularly at the highest levels of athletic performance, when the margin for error is so slim, the hard part is coming to grips with the fact that balancing super human performance levels and normal human feelings and urges is beyond the ability of almost everyone who breathes.

No one can be anyone else. You can only be yourself. Understanding that you can only be yourself, if you wish to be happy, is a first big step.

Katelyn Ohashi took that step  when she joined the collegiate ranks and found an ally in Miss Val. That is why we see today the beautiful beaming and ultimately fulfilled young woman we admire today.

 

no tattoo sign

Some of the famous people in the world have tattoos. The US tattoo industry alone is a $1.5 billion business. And many of the 20 million plus foreigners visiting Japan every year are sporting tattoos. But as some visitors are surprised to learn, their tattoos are sometimes frowned upon, and result in being turned away from the hot springs and beaches of Japan.

Rugby World Cup Organizers are excited about the 2019 Rugby World Cup tournament coming to Japan, and have been eager to show respect to their hosts next year. At the one-year-to-go milestone, tournament director Alan Gilpin stated in a press conference that rugby players with tattoos need to cover up their body ink.

“We will make (Japanese) people aware around the facilities that players will use in the country that people with tattoos in a Rugby World Cup context are not part of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia,” added Gilpin.

It’s a socially sensitive statement as there is generally a negative attitude of Japanese towards tattoos – a common rationale being that Yakuza were commonly associated with tattoos. In fact, there is a law against tattoo artists without a medical license, which has been enforced. And signs at pools, hot springs and public beaches commonly explain in multiple languages that people with tattoos are prohibited from entry, or at least asked to cover them up.

The Japan Travel Association (JTA), eager to avoid private establishments from kicking surprised foreign guests out of their establishments, have encouraged hot spring proprietors to relax their rules against people with tattoos. But the reality is, with the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Olympics in 2020, Japanese will see a lot of foreign athletes with tattoos – on the beach, in the pools, all round town.

Here are a few of the Olympic hopefuls who sport tattoos.

Joseph Schooling tattoo
Joseph Schooling – swimmer, Singapore, gold medalist in 100 meter butterfly at the 2016 Rio Olympics
Shaun White tattoo
Shaun White – three-time gold medalist in showboarding halfpipe, American, and potential Olympian in skateboarding at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

 

Simon Biles tattoo
Simone Biles – gymnastics, American, four-time gold medalist

To think that Japan is anti-tattoo is taking a negative perception too far. The fact is the number of tattoo artists (despite the law) has increased significantly in the past 30 years. And foreigners with tattoos who come to Japan feel that attitudes are shifting. According to best-selling Australian author, Tara Moss, “there is a quiet rebellion against these prevailing rules and social norms in Japan.”

I received several compliments when mine were visible, and one of my favourite moments on our most recent trip was when I had a summer dress on in the subway and my forearm tattoos were showing. One particularly cool young man seemed quietly fascinated, and rolled up his shirt sleeves silently to reveal the very lower edges of his arm tattoos. We were part of some similar ‘tribe’. No words were exchanged, only a nod that my husband could take his picture as he posed nonchalantly against the train door.

If you have tattoos and plan a visit to Japan, Moss writes that you should take the following under advisement:

  1. Expect to completely cover tattoos at any pool, gym and most water parks and beaches.
  2. Tattoos are banned at onsens (bath houses).
  3. Many ryokans (Japanese inns) will not accept tattooed guests.
  4. You should consider covering your tattoos at any temple or sacred site.

And what does Moss suggest are the best ways to avoid Japanese seeing your tattoo?

  1. Use a rashie at the pool
  2. Book a private onsen instead of attending a public one.
  3. Use clothing/scarves.
  4. Try arm covers
  5. Use a bandaid or bandage.

Pita Taufatofua on skis

You may not remember the name, but you surely remember the body.

When Pita Taufatofua walked into the stadium at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Olympics, carrying the Tongan flag at the head of his delegation. And in the doing, he, as they say, blew up the internet.

The taekwando competitor was dressed in native Tongan costume, from the waist down. From the waist up, Taufatofua was shirtless, his muscular upper body slick and shiny with oil. Men stared and women swooned the world over. Jenna Bush, the daughter of President George W. Bush, was one of three NBC anchorwomen filmed rubbing oil over the arms and chest of the Australian born native of Brisbane.

As a fighter, Taufatofua lost his first match in the heavyweight competition at Rio, and that was it.

But once bit by the Olympic bug, it’s hard for some people to walk away. So Taufatofua did the unthinkable, and found a way into the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. And while there will be a taekwondo demonstration team from North Korea, this Tongan will be competing in cross-country skiing. That’s amazing since he didn’t start skiing until 2017.

As you can guess, Taufatofua has not been around snow all that much, but he caught a break when the International Ski Federation changed their eligibility rules allowing skiiers to employ points gained in roller skiing competitions (more commonly organized in warm-weather countries).

As explained in this article, Taufatofua had to work hard to learn a new discipline and spend a lot of money to boot. He formed a ragtag team of experts who coached him in his new discipline, moved to Austria to get his training on snow, and worked to make the minimum time to make the Olympics on the Tongan national team.

“I’m the brokest I’ve been in my life,” he said. But he’s back in the Games.

Can’t Miss Prediction: He won’t go shirtless in the PyeongChang Olympics Opening Ceremony.

Pita Taufatofua on skis 2

Sports Grand Prix Top AthletesAmerican Justin Gatlin is the fastest man in the world today, but can he beat the speed of a ball in freefall that accelerates at 9.81 meters per second squared in the Shotgun Touch competition?

Russian Denis Ablyazin won the silver medal in the men’s vault at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, but can he win the “Monster Box” competition, hurdling a vault over 3 meters high?

New Zealander Tomas Walsh won the bronze medal in the men’s shot put at the Rio Games, but can he defeat All Blacks rugby player and fellow New Zealander, Nepo Laulala, in the excruciating “Power Wall” contest?

If you’re a big fan of Ninja Warrior, you know the incredible obstacle course is based on a Japanese television program called Sasuke, produced by Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS). The same network, TBS, also produces a program called Sports Grand Prix Top Athletes which puts athletes to the test in creative competition.

And being an Olympian does not put you to the front of the class. Ablyazin made it look easy vaulting a horse built up some 2.5 meters high. But near the 3-meter mark, he faltered and lost to a Japanese trampoline competitor. Walsh also made it look easy pushing a movable wall against other competitors who sought to push the wall back, an event that is akin to a reverse tug of war.

But one would have thought that racing a falling ball to a spot requires pure speed, and that the fastest man in the world should win hands down. The “Shotgun Touch” competition requires a runner to touch a button which releases a ball from the ceiling (an unknown number of meters above the ground). The object is for the runner to get any part of their body, usually hands and fingers, on the ball before it touches the ground.

For competitors like track stars Kenji Fujimitsu and Gatlin, as well as Kansas City Royal Whit Merrifield, or J-League soccer star, Kensuke Nagai, getting to the ball 12 meters away was not so difficult, but another 50 to 100 centimeters, and the ball can seem to be accelerating faster than the law of physics. In some of the early attempts around 12 meters, Gatlin made it look easy with the ball hitting him in the back or his arms.

And yet, he actually missed at 12.60 meters and twice at 13 meters, disqualifying him from the rest of the competition. As he learned, diving technique is as important as speed. There’s no way Merrifield would beat Gatlin in a 100-meter sprint, and yet he was able to succeed at 13 meters. In the end, it was J-League soccer star Nagai who triumphed the shotgun touch competition.

Kinda silly, kinda fun…that’s how I spent my New Year’s evening.

The Gregory Brothers

The Gregory Brothers are an amazing group of musicians who have used pitch-correction software to turn verbatim into joyous song. The video below is of a song they call “Speechless,” stitched together with the words of joy of 2016 Rio Olympians. See Olympic stars Monica Puig, Mo Farah, Andre deGrasse, Kevin Durant and Simone Manuel in their singing debut.

On December 5, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned the Russian National Olympic Committee from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, taking a significantly bolder stance than they did at the 2016 Rio Olympics when they only delegated that decision to the international sports federations.

As the actual team was not banned, individual Russian athletes will still likely be able to apply for participation on their own if it can be shown they were not involved in the state-doping program for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. If they are allowed to join the PyoengChang Olympics, they will participate under the banner of OAR (Olympic Athlete from Russia), and if they win a gold medal, they will hear the Olympic Anthem, not the Russian anthem.

Several days later, the head of the International Fencing Federation (FIE) and billionaire Russian national, Alisher Usmanov, wrote a letter to the IOC with an appeal. While Usmanov makes no defense of those athletes who have used doping as a systematic part of their training and development, he claims that those Russian athletes who are “clean” should not be treated unfairly.

Even though discrimination in any shape or form contradicts the principles of the Olympic Movement, the IOC’s decision certainly does put clean Russian athletes on an uneven playing field with athletes from other countries. Having gone through the purgatory of the Olympic qualifications, clean Russian athletes will (a) have to wait for months for the final decisions by the special commission of the IOC, (b) be deprived of the customary support of the NOC of Russia, and (c) most importantly, be denied the right to see their national flag and hear their national anthem.

What is interesting, and perhaps ironic, is the appeal to fairness:

One of the principles of Roman law states: “Nullum crimen, nulla poena sine culpa”. (“No guilt – no punishment”.) The innocent shall not be punished and put down to knees. This approach violates the basic human rights and undermines the trust in law and justice. Athletes dedicate their rather short life in sport for this one moment when they can see their country’s flag in the sky and hear the sound of their national anthem. This is the pinnacle of their glory, their personal conquest of Everest.

This very principle of fairness is what got the Russian sports machine in trouble. The well-documented state-sponsored doping regime in Russia may have very well resulted in the cheater assuming the medal podium. When a doper wins a medal, clean athletes are deprived of the glory of claiming gold, and the potential of financial gains among other things. Clean athletes who finish fourth, fifth or sixth are deprived of receiving any medal and thus public recognition.

I understand Usmanov’s appeal. And he is actually right. However, a little more empathy about how other athletes feel about the Russia doping scandal could have helped.

Aly Raisman _60 MInutes
Aly Raisman in 60 Minutes Interview

Aly Raisman is already a two-time Olympian with 6 medals from the 2012 London and 2016 Olympics, including gold medals in the team competition, while serving as captain. She is also the latest gymnast to step forward with allegations of sexual abuse against USA Gymnastics and their team doctor, Larry Nasser.

Thanks in part to the powerful coverage of the Indianapolis Star, and also in part to the recent wave of “#MeToo” revelations against men in power who prey on women, dozens of young women have come out publicly about Nasser, who has been arrested and been slapped with lawsuits.
In an interview with John LaPook of 60 Minutes, Raisman spoke about the denial, confusion and anger she went through upon realizing that she had been abused, and her advice to other girls who may be in an uncomfortable situation alone with an adult. Her words are powerful, and I want to note them:

Denial

Raisman: I was in denial. I was like, “I don’t thi– I d– I don’t even know what to think.” It– you don’t wanna let yourself believe but, you know, I am– I am– I am a victim of– of sexual abuse. Like, it’s really not an easy thing to let yourself believe that.

Raisman: I was just really innocent. I didn’t really know. You know, you don’t think that of someone. You know, so I just– I trusted him.

LaPook: You thought it was medical treatment.

Raisman: I didn’t know anything differently. We were told he is the best doctor. He’s the United States Olympic doctor and the USA Gymnastics doctor, and we were very lucky we were able to see him.

Simone Biles tweets support for Aly Raisman
Simone Biles tweets support for Aly Raisman

Confusion

Raisman (when asked quite suddenly by an investigator to comment on Nasser): And I said, you know, “Well, he– his touching makes me uncomfortable, but he’s so nice to me. And I– I don’t think he does it on purpose because, you know, I think he cares about me.”

LaPook: So it was only after the investigator left that you began to put the pieces together.

Raisman: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s important for people to know too I’m still trying to put the pieces together today. You know it impacts you for the rest of your life.

 

Anger

Raisman: Why are we looking at why didn’t the girls speak up? Why not look at what about the culture? What did USA Gymnastics do, and Larry Nassar do, to manipulate these girls so much that they are so afraid to speak up?

LaPook: You’re angry.

Raisman: I am angry. I’m really upset because it’s been– I care a lot, you know, when I see these young girls that come up to me, and they ask for pictures or autographs, whatever it is, I just– I can’t– every time I look at them, every time I see them smiling, I just think– I just want to create change so that they never, ever have to go through this.

 

“Grooming”

Raisman (explaining the predatory practice of “grooming”): He would always bring me, you know, desserts or gifts. He would buy me little things. So I really thought he was a nice person. I really thought he was looking out for me. That’s why I want to do this interview. That’s why I wanna talk about it. I want people to know just because someone is nice to you and just because everyone is saying they’re the best person, it does not make it okay for them to ever make you uncomfortable. Ever.

 

Where Were the Parents?

Lynn Raisman (Aly’s mother): We were there. But if she’s not knowing that it’s wrong — never in a million years did I ever even think to say, “Hey, when you see the team doctor, is there someone with you?”

LaPook: If you could hit the rewind button, is there anything you would have done differently?

Lynn Raisman: I think the most important thing, if anyone takes anything away from this interview is sit down with your kids and explain to them that predators aren’t just strangers. They can be highly educated. They can be very well-respected in the community. It could be a family member, it could be a family friend. So, you know, that’s really, the, I mean, if I could go back in time, I would do that.

 

The Advice

As 60 Minutes explains, USA Gymnastics has always had a policy that an adult should “avoid being alone with a minor.” Clearly that policy was not publicized or enforced. But as far as Raisman is concerned, it’s time to publicize and enforce.

Raisman: Nobody ever educated me on, “Make sure you’re not alone with an adult.” You know, “Make sure he’s not making you uncomfortable.” I didn’t know the signs. I didn’t know what sexual abuse really was. And I think that needs to be communicated to all of these athletes, no matter the age.

 

Watch the 60 Minutes’ interview here.