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.

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Hilton Announces Sponsorship With USA Gymnastics Team
Former CEO and President of USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny

Since March of 2018, the American federation overseeing gymnastics, USA Gymnastics, has lost three leaders to resignation. The first one, Steve Penny, knowingly covered up allegations of sexual abuse by USA Gymnastics coaches. He was recently arrested. Kerry Perry was hired to bring calm to the brewing storm, and yet left USA Gymnastics for hiring a supporter of serial abuser, Dr. Larry Nasser. A month later, Mary Bono resigned as head of USA Gymnastics. One would think that after Penny and Perry, USA Gymnastics would be highly sensitive to the issues, and the reasons for the demise of the former heads, but they went and hired Bono, who lasted only four days.

USA Gymnastics. Tone Deaf.

USA Gymnastics Head, Steve Penny, Arrested for Evidence Tampering on October 17, 2018

Former CEO and president of USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny, was arrested for tampering of evidence in relation to the countless number of sexual abuse cases between coaches and gymnasts, apparently arranging for documents to be removed from the USA Gymnastics training venue at Karolyi Ranch in Walker County, Texas, and delivered to Penny. Authorities say the documents are still missing, and Penny had already been indicted for tampering on September 28.

It was also reported that Penny was aggressively attempting to build influence with the FBI office in Indianapolis, where USA Gymnastics is headquartered, by asking for advice from the FBI about how to position the scandal to the public, writing in an email to the FBI, “We need some cover.” The New York Times reported that Penny had talked to the head of the FBI field office in Indianapolis about a possible job as head of security of the USOC. While Penny had no authority in the hiring of that position, and that there may have been no direct conflict of interest, one could assume that the reason for Penny’s influencing activities was to curry favor with the FBI.

Mary Bono
Former CEO and President of USA Gymnastics, Mary Bono

USA Gymnastics Interim Head, Mary Bono, Resigns On October 16, 2018

Interim president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, Mary Bono, resigned after serving only four days. The selection of Bono, a trained gymnast who also served as a US congresswomen for 15 years after she filled the vacancy of her late husband, Sonny Bono, was criticized very quickly by top American gymnasts. Four-time Olympic gold medalist, Simone Biles noted in a tweet only one day after Bono’s hiring that Bono was one of the vocal protestors of the Nike ad featuring football quarterback and political activist, Colin Kaepernick. In fact, Bono, showed a picture of her covering up the Nike logo on her shoes. Biles tweeted in response:

*mouth drop* don’t worry, it’s not like we needed a smarter usa gymnastics president or any sponsors or anything

Biles’ teammate on the gold-medal winning US team from the Rio Olympics, Aly Raisman, was more direct in her criticism, attacking Bono’s connection to the law firm that advised USA Gymnastics regarding the sexual abuse allegations of the national team doctor, Larry Nassar. Nassar is now currently serving a prison term of 40 to 175 years. Raisman claimed in her tweet that the law firm Bono worked for, Faegre Baker Daniels, knew about the sexual abuse by Nassar for 13 months and did nothing.

My teammates & I reported Nassar’s abuse to USAG in 2015. We now know USOC & lawyers at Faegre Baker Daniels (Mary Bono’s firm) were also told then, yet Nassar continued to abuse children for 13 months!? Why hire someone associated with the firm that helped cover up our abuse?

Kerry Perry
Former CEO and President of USA Gymnastics, Kerry Perry

USA Gymnastics Head, Kerry Perry, Resigns September 4, 2018

After Penny resigned on March 16, 2018, USA Gymnastics hoped to turn a page on the leadership affiliated with the sex abuse scandals by hiring their first female leader in 20 years, Kerry Perry. Perry was an executive at a sports marketing company, Learfield Communications. Unfortunately, in the nine months as leader of USA Gymnastics she assumed leadership, Perry was criticized for not spending enough time at hearings of sexual abuse victims during the Larry Nassar trial, as well as her ability to make changes to the USA Gymnastics organization. One of the few changes she made was met with immediate protest – the hiring of gymnastics coach, Mary Lee Tracy, a person initially defended Nassar publicly. Tracy, who called Nassar “amazing,” was fired only a few days after being hired.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, who was the ranking member of the Senate subcommittee overseeing the USOC, said this about Perry’s tenure.

Throughout her disastrous nine-month tenure as president of U.S.A. Gymnastics, Perry demonstrated nothing but a willful and heartless blindness to the concerns of survivors who were abused by Larry Nassar. As president, Perry perpetuated U.S.A.G.’s complicity with Nassar’s horrific actions with her stunning and utterly shameful appearance before Congress in July and utterly misguided hiring of Mary Lee Tracy as the organization’s new elite development coordinator.

USA Gymnastics Head, Steve Penny, Resigns March 16, 2018

Only three months after the end of the 2016 Rio Olympics, and the impressive victory of the Final Five, the USA women’ gymnastics team that won gold, the gymnastics world was rocked by allegations of sexual abuse, and that USA Gymnastics had covered up the abuse over decades. The Indianapolis Star revealed over 50 accounts of sexual abuse of children under the care of USA Gymnastics coaches, allegations that eventually led to the resignation of Penny.

To understand the culture of sexual abuse and cover up within USA Gymnastics, here are a series of articles I wrote over the past two years.

 

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.

She was a six-year-old when she walked into a placed called Bannon’s Gymnastix in Houston, Texas. Simone Biles was there on a day-care field trip, watching other gymnasts, mimicking their moves, apparently so well that one of the coaches took down her name. The parents were contacted and Biles fate was sealed.

Today, the Columbus, Ohio native is not only the very best female gymnast in the world right now. Biles, who is the first woman to win three consecutive all-around world championships and the recipient of the most gold medals (10) in the history of world championship competition, is considered by some the best ever.

Simone Biles
Simone Biles at the 2015 P&G Gymnastics Championships where she won her third consecutive.

 

High performance athletes are different from us mere mortals. In the Biles’ family, January 1 is not about non-committal new year’s resolutions. Goals are set. Concrete ones. Ones that you are held accountable for. Here’s Buzzfeed’s Dvora Meyers explaining what Simone’s mother, Nellie, told her:

Nellie told me that her daughter had tried to delay their goal-setting talk that day. “She just avoided me like the plague,” she said. But Biles couldn’t avoid her mother, just as she could no longer avoid questions about the Olympics as she had in previous years. That morning in January, I watched Aimee Boorman, Biles’ longtime coach, write out the 2016 competition schedule on a large, laminated calendar to be hung on the gym walls: the American Cup, Classics, national championships, the Olympic trials, and a whole month blocked out for training camps and then the games. Everything was oriented toward Rio — and all eyes were on Biles.

Nellie is not actually Simone’s mother, she is her biological grandmother who, along with her husband Ron, took Simone in after Simone’s biological mother struggled with substance abuse. Clearly, the grandparents changed Simone’s destiny.

Today, Biles is considered a game-changer, her power and speed never before seen in women’s gymanstics. As the Huffington Post gushed, “she has an immensely difficult tumbling pass named after her, a double back layout with a half twist. If you’re the first person to complete a new trick in competition, you get that trick named after you forever. This is the Biles.”

At Rio, Simone Biles is a sure thing to win gold in at least the all-arounds. The question, like with Kōhei Uchimura for the Japan mens’ team, can Biles lead the US women’s team, the current reigning Olympic champions, to gold. Golden glory awaits.