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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Lew Alcindor and Coach John Wooden
Lew Alcindor and Coach John Wooden

The 1964 US men’s basketball team had a chip on its shoulder because it was feared they would be the first American team to lose a game in the Olympics, even with NBA champions Bill Bradley, Walt Hazzard, Mel Counts, Luke Jackson and Jeff Mullins, as well as famed coach, Larry Brown. USA took gold fairly handily at the Tokyo Games.

But one could argue, in retrospect, that the 1968 US men’s basketball team had even less star power and a greater chance of losing a game. There were future NBA champions Jo Jo White and Spencer Haywood, but the rest were a collection of (certainly) great athletes, many of whom ended up bouncing around the American Basketball Association.

The person who could have been the center of attention on the team was the UCLA star, Lew Alcindor. Alcindor, who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, led his high school to three straight NYC Catholic championships, and then, from 1967 to 1969, three straight NCAA championships with UCLA.

Abdul-Jabbar was in his collegiate prime, but declined to go to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. In fact, he boycotted the Olympics to protest what he believed to be injustice for black Americans. The now NBA hall of famer and 6-time NBA champion published a book entitled “Coach Wooden and Me“, and explained his rationale, as excerpted in this article from NBC Sports. He wrote that while he wanted to go to Mexico City and play against the world’s best, he felt that it was more important to raise his social activist voice:

…the idea of going to Mexico to have fun seemed so selfish in light of the racial violence that was facing the country. The previous summer had seen two major riots, one in Newark that had lasted five days, and one in Detroit that had lasted eight days. And on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated. White America seemed ready to do anything necessary to stop the progress of civil rights, and I thought that going to Mexico would seem like I was either fleeing the issue or more interested in my career than in justice. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I did go and we won, I’d be bringing honor to the country that was denying our rights.

Coach Wooden and Me

The decision to boycott by the great center for the UCLA Bruins spurred “a firestorm of criticism, racial epithets, and death threats.” But he explained that the UCLA administration and his famed coach, John Wooden, did not try to dissuade Abdul-Jabbar from his conviction to protest. And yet, Abdul-Jabbar, then and for many years later, felt in his heart that Wooden did not approve. Although Wooden never voiced his views, Abdul-Jabbar thought, “I just knew that he was very patriotic. He had been a lieutenant in the navy during World War II. I couldn’t imagine him endorsing my refusal to play in the Olympics and bring glory to the U.S.”

But he was wrong.

Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his book that he received a letter from a woman he did not know about a letter that she got from Coach Wooden, in reply to her letter to him criticizing Abdul-Jabbar’s decision to boycott the Olympics.

Dear Mrs. Hough,

The comments of this most unusual young man also disturbed me, but I have seen him hurt so much by the remarks of white people that I am probably more tolerant than most.

I have heard remarks within his hearing such as “Hey, look at that big black freak,” “Did you ever see such a big N—-r?” and others of a similar nature that might tend to turn the head of a more mature person in normal times. I am truly afraid that he will never find any peace of mind regardless or not of whether he makes a million dollars. He may be able to afford material things, but they are a poor substitute for true peace of mind.

You may not have seen or read about the later interview when he said that there were so many things wrong at present of the treatment of his race in this country that it was difficult for him to claim it as his own.

Thank you for your interest,

John Wooden

Wow. To have one’s perceptions flipped 180 degrees in a moment, to realize that such unspoken assumptions, living quietly in one’s bosom for decades, were false, can be both dagger and balm.

I read the letter again. Then again. Oh, Coach, I thought, I wish I’d known how you felt. If only to ease the burden you’d taken on to defend me. I thought back on my own arrogance at thinking I understood the man by reducing him to the kind of easy stereotype, the very thing that I’d been complaining about my whole life when it was done to me. He’d been too humble ever to say anything to me about the letter. Most people would have made a point of telling me how they’d come to my defense. But Coach Wooden didn’t care about receiving credit. A good deed was its own reward. Seeking praise or gratitude would have negated the deed.

I will have to add “Coach Wooden and Me” to my read list.

CK Yang and Rafer Johnson after 1500 meters
CK Yang and Rafer Johnson after the completion of the 1500 meter race and the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Rafer Johnson was expected to win gold in the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Intelligent, articulate, powerful and handsome, he was selected with great favor to be the US Olympic team’s captain, and flag bearer in the opening ceremonies.

Johnson came close by taking silver in the decathlon in 1956, so he was hungry for victory in 1960. But the decathlon is grueling, both physically and mentally – ten running, throwing and jumping events over two long days. On top of that, his biggest rival was a very close friend, the up-and-coming C. K. Yang from Taiwan. Despite very little English language capability, Yang moved to California to train under UCLA coach Ducky Drake, and train with Johnson, who immediately helped Yang with English, introduced him to his friends, took him to activities and parties, and trained with him.

The Best I Can Be CoverAs Johnson wrote in his autobiography, The Best That I Can Be, they were more than just good friends – they brought the best out in each other.

C. K. taught me a lot, especially about the pole vault, which he was so good at that he later broke the world record. I helped him too, especially with the weight events – javelin, discus, and shotput. We worked side by side, pushing each other like teammates with a common purpose, spotting each other’s weaknesses and helping to correct them. Each of us understood a basic truth: If I help him be the best he can be, he’ll help me be the best I can be. We never faltered in this belief, even at the height of our competition.

It was an overcast and humid day on September 5, 1960 when the decathlon commenced. First up was the 100 meters, which did not start well for Johnson. Even in the decathlon, there are heats, and in Johnson’s heat, the decathletes dealt with four false starts, and in one of them Johnson had already sprinted 40 meters before realizing that someone else had jumped the gun. “I was so bothered by the distraction that I lacked sharpness when we finally ran the race,” recalled Johnson. In the decathlon, there is a scoring system that assesses points to times or distance. His time of 10.9 seconds was 0.3 seconds off his best, or a difference of 132 points. In contrast, Yang won his heat in 10.7 seconds, placing him 86 points in the lead.

In the long jump, Yang again bested Johnson, thus increasing his lead to 130 points. But then it was time for the shotput, Johnson’s strength to Yang’s weakness. Predictably, a powerful throw by Johnson, and a throw that merited 14th best by Yang put Johnson in first place by 143 points. After waiting through a two-hour thunderstorm, the athletes had to re-start their motors. Johnson edged Yang in the high jump. And at 11 pm that evening, they lined up for the 400 meters, where Yang defeated Johnson by 0.2 seconds. By the end of Day One, Johnson had a slim lead of 55 points.

Wrote Johnson in his autobiography, “nearly fifteen hours after taking the field that morning, I collapsed into a seat on the bus and returned to the Olympic Village. By the time I got to sleep it was after 1:00 A. M. Five hours later, I awakened tired and sore. After a light breakfast, I boarded a bus to the stadium. The pressure inside me was intense. I was the favorite, the world-record holder, the captain of my team, trying to complete the quest I had begun nearly ten years earlier.”

1960 Decathlon results table

On Day 2, Yang burst out of the blocks to best everyone in the 110 hurdles. Johnson’s fifth place finish immediately catapulted Yang back into first place overall. Fortunately, the next event was a throwing event, a weakness of Yang’s. The Asian Iron Man as Yang was called finished 11th in the discus, returning Johnson back to the top.

Next was Yang’s best event, the pole vault. As a world record holder in the indoor pole vault, it was expected that Yang would finish first. But Johnson stayed close with a third-place finish and clung to a 24-point advantage, a narrow one at best. Then Johnson threw his javelin a little more than a meter and a half longer than Yang, giving Johnson a slim 58-point lead heading into the final event – the 1,500 meter race.

Clearly, the deviser of the decathlon rules was a sadist, placing the longest running event at the end. Almost all the other events required an intense burst of energy. Even the 400 meter race finished in less than a minute. The 1,500 meter race would be nearly 5 minutes of pain and exhaustion. Neither had to win the race, they just had to finish in front of the other. In order to overcome his 58-point deficit, Yang had to beat Johnson by about 10 seconds. In fact, Yang’s best time in the 1500 was 13 seconds better than Johnson’s best, so Yang had a legitimate chance to come from behind to win gold.

Ducky Drake was in Rome as the coach of the Taiwan track and field team, and thus was Yang’s coach at the Olympics. And yet, as David Maraniss explained in his book, Rome 1960, Drake was impartial, imparting the right advice to his two stars as they readied themselves for the 1500 meter race, in which they would run together.

Johnson’s confidence was not shaken now, but he needed more advice, so he approached his coach a the edge of the stands. How should he run this most important race of his life? Drake had already thought it through. “The key thing is that when C. K. tries to pull away – and he will try – you have to stay with him. At some point C. K. will look back to see where you are, and you have to be there. If he opens up, you have to do with him. You cannot let him build that yardage.”

Easier for Drake to say than for Johnson to do, but still it was a sound plan, perhaps the only plan that could save him. Rafer nodded in agreement and walked back toward the track. About halfway there, he turned and saw none other than C. K. approaching the same spot at the edge of the stands. Ducky, after all, was his coach too. “Ducky said to me, ‘C.K., you run as fast as you can. Rafer cannot keep up with you!” Yang later recalled.” At that moment, Drake was like a master chess player competing against himself. He saw the whole board and was making the best moves for both sides.

Rafer Johnson on CK Yang's right shoulder in 1500

 

Again, after a long day, the runners pulled up to the starting blocks at 9:20 pm. Both Johnson and Yang knew that the outcome of the 1500 would determine the winner of the title – World’s Greatest Athlete. Halfway through the race, Johnson was not far behind

C K Yang Sports Illustrated Cover
World’s Best Athlete – C. K. Yang December 23, 1963 X 9612 (X 9456) credit: Mark Kauffman – contract (BG Eric Schaal)

Before there was Jeremy Lin or Yao Ming, Tiger Woods or Se Ri Park, Nomo or Ichiro, or even Bruce Lee for that matter, there was C. K. Yang.

Iconic Asian athletes are far and few between, but Yang Chuang-Kwang, or C. K. Yang as he was popularly known, was called The Greatest Athlete in the World several times in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Competing in three Olympics as a decathlete – Melbourne in 1956, Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964, Yang of Taiwan set an indoor record for the pole vault in 1963, set the world record in the decathlon later that year, and still is the only Asian to ever hold the world record in that category. And in an epic, down-to-the-wire finish, Yang lost the gold medal to his best friend and biggest competitor, Rafer Johnson of the United States, at the Rome Summer Games.

He did not win the championship, but he made an entire nation, and quite possibly, an entire race proud. And there was one person in particular who was immensely proud – Mr S. S. Kwan.

Yang sat down with Robert Creamer of Sports Illustrated for a lengthy interview, and in this article, Yang expressed his keen gratefulness to Kwan, who was a successful architect and businessman who supported Yang’s development. In fact, Kwan, who was the president of the China National Amateur Athletic Federation in Taiwan, personally financed Yang’s travel and living expenses when Yang visited the United States to get experience in AAU meets.

Ducky Drake
Ducky Drake

Eventually, it was recommended that Yang stay in the US, where he enrolled at UCLA to train under the renowned coach, Ducky Drake, and become teammates with rising star, Rafer Johnson. Kwan supported it all.

“He (Kwan) was like a father, you know,” Yang told Creamer. “And then at Rome, I got second place, Mr. Kwan was so happy. I never saw him so happy as he was at Rome. He said, ‘Ahh! Now I have