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.

Fred Hansen with gold medal
Fred Hansen and his gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

It’s February, 1964 and Fred Hansen is fiddling with his grip.

The then-world record holder for the pole vault, fellow American named John Pennel commonly held the 17-foot pole nearly 15 feet up from where the tip hits the vault box. Hansen’s coach, Augie Erfurth, is trying to coax Hansen to place his grip higher than 14 feet. It’s scientific reasoning. “We’ve got him gripping at 14-2 and 3,” explained Erfurth to a reporter of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. “If the pole reacts, he’ll have more bend.”

Since George Davies won a pole vault competition using a fiberglass poll in May of 1961, it became clear to all that the space age technology of fiberglass was more flexible and stored more kinetic energy in the pole than the more traditional materials of bamboo, steel and aluminum.

If you watch gold medalist, Don Bragg, win gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics, you can see his aluminum pole bend, maybe, 45 degrees at best, as he lept to an Olympic record of 15′ 5″ (4.70 m). Pennel, Hansen and other pole vaulters vying for a spot on the Olympic team to compete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were routinely getting over 16 feet, trying to figure out how to get their poles to bend 90 degrees, and maximize the kinetic energy stored in the pole that propels them over the bar as the pole unbends.

The higher the athlete holds the pole, the greater the potential in bend. But as the Rice University graduate, Hansen explained in the article, “vaulting is just like a golf swing. There are so many things to remember.”

You have to be clear in the number of steps you take down the runway, when to hit maximum speed and where to plant your foot when you slip the pole vault into the vault box. You have to be conscious of the position of your arms as you launch to get maximum bend, and of your legs as you approach the bar, efficiently rotating your body vertically so that you are upside down as you climb. Then you have to time your hip extension just as your pole is unbending and releasing its stored energy, sending the athlete to his or her maximum height. Rotating the body horizontally at the right time so that you come down feet first without touching the bar is the final act of the complexity of the pole vault.

In other words, you have to be muscular and flexible in all the right places. Hansen’s training routine was becoming more sophisticated – in addition to isometrics, weightlifting and running, Hansen added a full program of gymnastics, thanks to advice from a fellow American competitor, Brian Sternberg of Seattle, Washington.

“I went to an all-comers meet in California,” Hansen told me. “Brian beat me. He had the most beautiful form I had ever seen – this guy’s got something, I have to find out more.” When Hansen approached the Washington native, Sternberg said he did a lot of gymnastics training, and Hansen thought he should start doing the same to keep up. “I devised a program that was gymnastic oriented. I trained on gymnastics apparatus – the seven phases. I would replicate vault movements on the various apparatus. I don’t know if anybody else was doing that.”

Anybody other than Sternberg, who was a trained gymnast who pole vaulted. Leveraging his gymnastics background and the power of the fiberglass pole, Sternberg twice set a world record in the pole vault in April and June of 1963. The twenty-year-old Sternberg was at the top of his game, very close to being the first person to clear 17 feet, with his coach speculating he could fly over 20 feet one day. Certainly, Sternberg was a shoo-in for the Olympic team headed for Tokyo, destined for golden glory.

Until tragedy struck.

Brian SternbergSternberg did a lot of training on the trampoline, and was training for a competition in the Soviet Union. It was July 2, 1963 and he was doing flips and turns on the trampoline, when he attempted a double-back somersault with a twist. It’s a difficult move, according to this article, that Sternberg had made thousands of times. This time, he landed in the middle of the trampoline, on his neck. The accident turned Sternberg, the best pole vaulter in the world, into a quadraplegic.

“This is a change,” Sternberg said ten months after his accident to AP. “Any change can be a good sign. The pain is mine: I must endure it.” And beyond the expectations of medical science at the time, Sternberg endured it, in pain, for 50 years, passing away on May 23, 2013.

“Brian helped me out with several things I was doing wrong when he was the world’s best,” Hansen said in a Seattle Times article about Hansen’s Olympic triumph in Tokyo. “The only thing that could make me happier at this moment would be if he were here too.”

Fujitsu 3D Gymnastic Modeling

The robots aren’t quite taking over by 2020. But they will be assisting gymnastic judges at the 2020 Olympics.

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) intends to employ laser technology in order to provide data and recommendations to judges instantaneously to supplement their own judgment based on what they see with their own eyes.

Fujitsu, which is a Tokyo 2020 Gold Partner, has been focusing its 3D sensory technology on the world of gymnastics in order to provide real-time feedback on techniques a gymnast is attempting and making, the elements of which can be hard to catch by the naked eye. This technology, an advance on the more familiar technology of applying motion capture balls all over the body of an athlete, does not require the subject to apply anything. Instead a device that emits lasers from a single point, one that looks like a camera, feeds data that processes, essentially, 360 degree views of the subject.

With that amount of data captured, the software is able to assess exactly how the body has moved through the air. Benchmarking against standards of excellence inputted into the software, the system is then able to provide a report to judges what techniques were attempted or made, and then assess points to those series of techniques. In essence the 3D sensory system can do the gymnastic judge’s job.

Clearly, there is an advantage a non-human system has over a human – a “robot” will not get tired or cranky at the end of the day, nor will it allow unconscious biases about nationality, race, appearance, etc to seep into its judgment. But there has been some concern, as there should be.

According to this article, whenever you place your measuring and evaluating systems in the hands of algorithms, you are subject to hacking of some sort.

“In gymnastics, you can have 10 to 100 independent moves the system is trying to score. If the algorithm were manipulated by even a small portion you could affect the overall outcome score and it would be very hard to detect,” said Betsy Cooper, the executive director for long-term cybersecurity at UC Berkeley.

Fujitsu 3D Sensing Technology for Gymnastics
Fujitsu 3D Sensing Technology for Gymnastics

Any technology that relays information from an external source – like this 3D sensor does – to a computer is at risk. Mix the technology with a scoring panel of judges, and there is room for manipulation. “You can manipulate the algorithms to change the score one out of every five times, making it hard to detect. That area is most disconcerting. Whoever has an interest in the outcome of these major sporting events will also have an interest in trying to take advantage of any such system,” Cooper said.

This is why, the plan is to have 3D sensory system only assist judges, not replace them.

Perhaps the greatest impact will be in faster development of gymnasts. Coaches and gymnasts can examine the data, understand the micro-movements that keep their points down, and apply their practices to improving their movements to get their points up.

In other words, the next generation of gymnasts will grow up on this feedback, understanding what specific things they need to do for perfection at very early stages in their career. In this new age of digital analytics and 3D modeling, athletes are able to approach perfection at a faster rate than ever before.

Zach Railey in a Finn
Zach Railey in a Finn

Outside of Title IX in America, one of the most powerful levers for gender equality in sports have been the IOC. As I mentioned in this post, the IOC has added new sports categories and re-shuffled events so that Tokyo 2020 will have a female-male participation rate of 48.8 to 52.2%. That’s up from a 44.2% female participation rate at the 2012 London Olympics.in this post

Take a look at this list of planned Tokyo 2020 events and you’ll see that there is equality in almost every sports category. Can’t say that for much of the work world!

Interestingly, there are a handful of events that are gender-specific. In other words, there are still events that only men can compete in, and some that only women can compete in. In part one of this series, I will look at the men-only events, and part two will feature the women-only events.

No Women Allowed

  • Greco-Roman Wrestling: There has never been an Olympic competition in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Olympics, and there are currently no international tournaments devoted to women in that sport. It is unclear to me why Greco-Roman wrestling, which disallows grabbing of legs and kicking of legs compared to freestlye wrestling, is not encouraged for women. One of most significant physical differences between men and women is muscle mass, particularly in the upper body, but no one is saying that men and women should compete against each other in Greco-Roman wrestling. While the IOC has pressured the United World Wrestling Federation to improve gender representation in their tournaments, Greco-Roman, for whatever reason, has not had a high female participation rate historically. The biggest challenge for the wrestling federation, as I understand it, is to increase the popularity of Greco-Roman wrestling for women so that they can put together a competitive enough field. This may take until after Tokyo 2020 to hit critical mass and allow for gender equality in Olympic wrestling.
  • Finn – One Person Dinghy: This sailing discipline is apparently the greatest sailing test for an individual. According to sailor Zach Railey in this article, “It is well documented that overall people throughout the world are getting bigger, stronger and fitter, and the Finn is really a true test of power, endurance, and mental strength. Anyone who has sailed a Finn in steep chop and 20 knots can tell you just how physically hard the boat is to sail.” So strength again emerges as a differentiator. And perhaps as a result, the number or women who compete in Finn has not reached critical mass. The question is, with the strength requirements for the Finn, is it too dangerous for the fairer sex? Who knows.
  • 50km Race-Walking: I can’t find any decent explanation for why the 50-km race walk is male only in the Olympics. Both men and women can compete in the 20-km race walk as Olympians. And women appear to have raced competitively in the 50k race walk in IAAF competitions through much of the 21st century. Who knows?
  • Rings: Again, men have the advantage in upper body strength vis-a-vis women. So perhaps the number of women competing in this gymnastics discipline never reached critical mass. And yet, according to this site, women competed in the rings (or as they used to be called, “the flying rings”, at the 1948 London Olympics as a part of the Women’s Team All Around competition. Women never competed in the rings again after the ’48 Games, and I don’t know why.
  • Pommel Horse: Hmmm….the pommel horse discipline in gymnastics appears to be a less popular discipline for men than say, the floor exercise, the rings or the parallel bar for example. This article explains that the pommel horse “caters to a different body type. Having long arms helps, giving the gymnast greater separation from the horse, and in turn, room for his hips and legs to swivel underneath him. And the basic motion – going around and around on a horizontal plane – is the opposite from the up-and-down motion of the bars, rings and vaults.” And yet, I can’t find any explanation as to why women have not traditionally competed except for the reason it’s true for the rings – greater requirements for upper body strength have discouraged women from training on the horse, and so a critical mass of women fit for competition may have never emerged. Again, who knows?

 

Woman on Rings

Dale Kephart_2_Janie Speaks, Marie Walther, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Metheny, Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan, Doris Fuchs.jpg
Team USA 1964: Janie Speaks, Marie Walther, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Metheny, Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan, Doris Fuchs, from the personal collection of Dale McClements Kephart

The US women’s gymnastics trials were done. The women’s team was set.

Doris Fuchs, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Methany, Dale McClements Kephart, Janie Speaks, and Marie Walther were selected to represent the United States in Tokyo at the XVIII Olympiad in 1964. The USSR and the Czechs were heavily favored, and the US women were not expected to medal. But you still have to play the game. You still have to believe you have a chance.

But even world-class athletes balance their emotions on the razor’s edge of confidence and collapse. Going into major competitions, many demand that they keep to their routines, and be steered clear of interruptions and distractions. And yet, the women’s gymnastics team faced the ultimate of distractions – a second trial to again determine which gymnasts would compete in the Tokyo Olympics.

According to a member of the women’s gymnastics team, Dale McClements Kephart, the head coach, Vannie Edwards, unexpectedly held an intra-squad competition on October 15, only a day prior to the start of the women’s competition. Of the 7 members of the women’s gymnastics team (including the alternate), four were asked to join the competition: Fuchs, Grossfeld, Speaks and the alternate, Kathy Corrigan.

Dale Kephart_3
Dale McClements Kephart, from her own collection

This is how McClements Kephart described the day in her diary, through her 19-year old eyes:

October 15th:  All the teams competing with us worked with us in the competitive gym and it was run like the meet.  We marched in, a gong was sounded at the beginning or our workout at an event and at the end.  We had 30 minutes.  then we marched to the next event, etc.  Our order of competition will be F.X., vaulting, Bars and Beam.  As far as our team is concerned, the order is not good, but it probably won’t matter that much.  Again we ended up making fools of ourselves (officials).  Here all the other teams made good use of the time by going through approximately 2 compulsories and an optional.  Instead three of us had a meet and all we worked was compulsories.  Doris, Muriel and Kathy competed compulsory and optional and Janie in only 2 events. 

A big strain was put on all of them and Linda, Marie and I didn’t get to hardly get up on the equipment because they had to all warm up and go through compulsories and optionals.  Then we had our little meeting and Doris was named the alternate.  This wasn’t really a shock, but it still hurt to know they were making such a big mistake.  Doris did crack during the competition.  Many of the Japanese, the Czechs and Russians feel it is all wrong and cannot understand it.  I do know the officials dislike her as a person and I’ve decided that this is what really happened.

When McClements Kephart wrote the word “officials”, she was referring to George Gulack, the head of the chair of AAU Gymnastics, and his wife, Fay Gulack, who was the women’s team manager in Tokyo. McClements Kephart felt that the Gulacks, for some reason, did not like Doris Fuchs personally.

At the end of that impromptu competition, the alternate on the team, Corrigan, was added to the starting team, while Doris Fuchs was unceremoniously switched from starter to alternate.

Abie Grossfeld, who was the assistant coach of the men’s team, and who observed this intra-squad competition, watched as Fay Gulack judged Speaks, and watched as Speaks fell off the balance beam twice. Muriel Grossfeld told me that Fay Gulack claimed Fuchs’ performance in the trial’s uneven bar competition was flawed, that her split – a leap off of the beam with legs spread – wasn’t high enough. But Fay Gulack didn’t buy that explanation because she also saw Speaks fall off the beam in the compulsory twice.

To the Grossfelds, Speaks performed poorly, and Fuchs was the third best member of the team as well as a superior performer in the uneven bars, so the change in team roster was seemingly inexplicable.

 

Abie Grossfeld
Abie Grossfeld

 

 

A day away from the biggest competition of their lives, the team was in turmoil, and the issue was escalated to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). In a hastily arranged “trial”, Abie and Muriel Grossfeld argued the defense of Fuchs, explaining that Fuchs had already made the team in the trials and should be one of the final six members of the team. The Grossfeld’s explained that she wasn’t the seventh best on the team, she was actually the third best overall performer.

But the passionate appeal fell on deaf ears. When all was said and done, the USOC official said that it was the head coach’s decision. The head coach of the women’s gymnastics team was Vannie Edwards, who refused to change his mind. According to Abie Grossfeld, after the gymnastics teams arrived in Tokyo, Edwards told him that George Gulack, wanted Doris Fuchs to be the alternate. Grossfeld said that Edwards went along with the decision because “he was afraid that GG (Gulack) would hurt his future gymnasts in competition.”

In the end, Speaks finished worst on the American team in the all-around individuals, 62nd of 83 competitors. But to be fair, Marie Walther and Muriel Grossfeld finished 60th and 58th respectively. The team overall finished an underwhelming ninth, as the powerful Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Japan teams took gold, silver and bronze.

Then again, was the team given a chance, prepped to be their best on the biggest stage in their sport? Probably not. 

 

Usain Bolt and the Holy Redeemer

    Usain Bolt and the Holy Redeemer

The bigger picture at the Rio Olympics:

Cambridge Bolt and Brommel

Michael Phelps
The incredible Michael Phelps

Gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, representing Uzbekistan, competed in her seventh Olympics in Rio at the age of 41.

American cyclist, Kristin Armstrong, won a gold medal in the individual road time trial in Rio, the third consecutive Olympics she has done so, at the age of 42.

Equestrian Phillip Dutton won a bronze medal in individual eventing for America at the age of 52.

Relative to Chusovitina, Armstrong and Dutton, swimmer Michael Phelps is a spring chicken. But at the age of 31, Phelps’ phenomenal Olympic career, particularly based on his results in Rio, is most definitely an outlier vis-a-vis his rivals and rival-wannabes. According to The Washington Post, “over the past 10 Summer Games, the oldest athlete to swim in the finals for the same events in which Phelps is scheduled to compete has been 29 years old, with the average age just under 22 years old. And, not surprisingly, times get slower as an athlete ages.” (Yes, Anthony Ervin winning gold in the 50-meter freestyle at the age of 35 is an even greater outlier.)

Michael Phelp's Aging Curve Compared_Washington Post

Role models are so important to aspiring athletes. And it’s not just adolescents and teenagers whose passions are ignited by their heroes. It’s Gen X. It’s even the Baby Boomers. They see Chusovitina and Phelps as trailblazers for those of us in our 30s, 40s and 50s, whose daily lives are filled with marketing meetings, children’s soccer matches, evening social gatherings, and attempts to overcome sleep deprivation on the weekends.

More and more commonly, men and women past their “prime” are making the time and taking the challenge to up their game in high performance athletics. The “Olympics” for athletes of age groups from 35 to over the century mark is the World Masters Games. The number of participants since 1985 has grown from over 8,000 to close to 30,000 in 2009, which was more than twice the number of athletes who took part in the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.

Oksana Chusovitina in Rio

As the nations of the industrialized world see their populace age rapidly, the people with the most money and influence are the aged demographics. Clearly, their interest in staying healthy and happy grows as they collectively age. As the human body’s production of hormones that enhance the benefits of physical exertion diminish from the age or 35, we can feel very clearly our strength diminishing over time. But considerable research and thought is going into how to increase flexibility, strength and staying power the older you get.

And the research tells us that exercise, low intensity or high, done on a consistent basis, will yield positive results for practically everybody. But the fact of the matter is, our busy lives demotivate so many of us from making that daily effort. This personal coach explains that making the effort is just a matter of making a decision.

The hard part about this for maturing athletes is that job and family responsibilities may make getting to bed early difficult. You need to make a choice as to the type of life you want to lead. If you’ve made the decision that you want to live a healthy, fit life, then going to bed early is part of it. That will likely mean the end of midweek social events, skipping TV after dinner, and strict adherence to stopping work after 8:00pm.

But to get to competitive levels of athletic performance, no matter your age, you need to dream. Photojournalist, Susana Girón, has followed these silver athletes taking their pictures, and concluded that age is not an issue if you have that burning passion for excellence

Sport in the elderly is not simply an issue of health. It is said that once you become older, you stop dreaming and become less passionate about things. The bodies of these athletes might dwindle with each year, but the passion with which they live and face the events remains stronger than ever, especially as they become aware that every championship might be their last. Living with passion means to remain forever young.

Phillip Dutton in Rio
Phillip Dutton