Collegiate gymnastics provides a platform for social expression.
In a dynamic floor routine this past collegiate gymnastics season, University of Minnesota sophomore Mya Hooten included choreography between somersault passes — she bumped her chest and did a salute to Black Power. In a fun, flirty, and quirky routine, she delivered a message about social justice, racial justice, and the empowerment of black women.
Collegiate gymnastics has exploded in popularity in recent years as young women of color lead routines that generate praise and inspire conversation.
“Every individual and all-around NCAA champion this year has been a woman of color,” said Umme Salim-Beasley, head coach of gymnastics at Rutgers University.
Salim-Beasley says when she got into gymnastics in the 1980s, there were only a few black gymnasts. She didn’t see diversity in elite gymnastics or college gymnastics.
“Those little girls watching gymnastics on TV didn’t recognize it was a sport for them,” says Salim-Beasley. Olympians Dominique Dawes, Betty Okino, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles have helped build momentum to increase representation in the sport. “There’s been a lot more explosion of black girls getting into gymnastics because their parents see it’s a welcoming sport,” she says.
Salim-Beasley says young girls see the fun of sports when they watch college gymnastics. As they progress, these girls may realize that elite gymnastics is not the track for them, but collegiate gymnastics may be a great choice.
“There’s a lot more access to gymnastics,” says Salim-Beasley.
Collegiate gymnastics has several meets each season broadcast on various platforms, from ESPNU to conference television networks to online streaming. But most people watch elite gymnastics every four years during the Olympics, according to Wendy Hilliard, the first African-American rhythmic gymnast to represent the United States at the Olympics.
“You get to follow people for a season,” says Hilliard, founder of the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation, which provides low-cost or free gymnastics classes to girls and boys in underserved communities.
Chae Campbell, a sophomore at UCLA, says she had been training on an elite Olympic track, but an injury put an end to that quest. She turned her attention to collegiate gymnastics and focused on UCLA in her mid-teens.
“Competing in college was one of my main goals,” says Campbell. “As I got older, I discovered what college had to offer. With UCLA, there was something unique and different, and it wasn’t like any other college program. They had star quality; they weren’t just doing the movements. Their directing and performance skills were unique.
The heart of the UCLA Bruins gymnastics program was developed by Valorie Kondos Field, the head coach from 1991 to 2019. She was named Pac-12 Gymnastics Coach of the Century. Kondos Field had been a professional ballet dancer. After retiring from dancing, she attended UCLA and became an assistant coach and choreographer for the gymnastics team. She recruited Campbell before he retired.
“She told me that UCLA wants you to be an individual,” says Campbell. “I took that to heart.”
Viral videos have made a difference in exposing college gymnastics, Hilliard says. The biggest changemaker was UCLA graduate Katelyn Ohashi. A few years ago, Hilliard and Ohashi were doing a gymnastics clinic together when Ohashi said she needed to choreograph another floor routine that would go viral.
“She was thinking in her head about her next routine, which exploded when she did Tina Turner,” Hilliard says. “She choreographed her routine with that in mind. I have to give it to Val Kondos Field. She came from a dance and performance background, so she understood performance gymnastics.
Social media has also had a positive influence on the sport. Salim-Beasley calls college gymnasts “social media freaks.” They use Instagram and Tik Tok to show off their personalities, which resonates with young gymnasts. There’s considerable diversity in her Rutgers roster, and she’s attracting the interest of many young gymnasts of color who want to be Scarlet Knights.
There is still room for improvement, in terms of coaching diversity, as there are only a handful of African American head and assistant coaches in Division I gymnastics. But the launch of new programs could bring more opportunities to this increasingly popular sport. UCLA graduate Hallie Mossett is the assistant coach at Long Island University (LIU), a program launched in 2020.
“I’m grateful to be able to help build the culture of a program that celebrates everyone and is truly inclusive,” says Mossett. “I like to see our progress that we make at each competition.
“I hope to see the sport evolve, and I want to see it more diverse,” she continues. “I want to see more black coaches. I hope that by being there, we can expand diversity in the sport – coaches, gymnasts, judges, administrators, everything.
Earlier this year, Fisk University became the first HBCU to launch a gymnastics program. Corrine Tarver has been named head coach and she is recruiting to compete next season. “Since announcing the first HBCU women’s gymnastics program, we’ve seen an incredible outpouring of support,” said Fisk President Dr. Vann Newkirk Sr.
Salim-Beasley, for his part, is excited to see the development of Fisk’s gymnastics program and anticipates the launch of more HBCU programs.
deliver a message
When Salim-Beasley was a young gymnast in the club world, she performed what the judges were looking for. American gymnasts generally tried to imitate European-style gymnastics to achieve good results. Expressing your personality wasn’t the plan.
As a young gymnast, it was hard not to conform, but Mossett always wanted to stand out. Even as a student-athlete, she choreographed routines for her teammates. Her final year of competition, she wanted to have a floor routine that embraced her culture.
“I started laying on the floor, I had a flexibility pose, but I had a Black Power fist,” Mossett explains. “I had never seen anyone else do that before. I wouldn’t say it was nerve wracking, but it was definitely different. I took on this challenge, and I’m so glad I was able to do it and hope to inspire other viral routines that have embraced Black Power.
Today a lot has changed
“College gymnastics is a very different perspective,” says Salim-Beasley, who says many of the floor routines Rutgers gymnasts perform come from the gymnasts’ own ideas. “University judges look for personality. They accept very well to let the gymnasts play as they wish.
And the sport has evolved into “definitely a platform for expression,” says Salim-Beasley. “A lot of universities have meetups for the purpose of expression. They have diversity and inclusion meet. They want to create awareness in multiple areas.
Last year, videos of floor routines by UCLA gymnasts Nia Dennis, who used step and hip hop, and Margzetta Frazier, to music by Janet Jackson, went viral. Although Kondos Field retired in 2019, Hilliard says she instilled an attention to detail in the program to make the routines exciting.
“Athletes had an additional idea of how they could reach people with a viral floor routine with really exciting music and be able to do the gymnastics and dance that they felt inspired to do,” says Hilliard. “Over the past two years, awareness, Black Lives Matter, being able to speak out, it all fell into place. He gives you the inspiration and the strength to talk to him. It’s their platform and they are using it.
Campbell says she worked on her floor routines with assistant coach BJ Das, who also comes from the dance world. “She understands that dancing is not just about posing; it tells a story,” Campbell says.
Campbell’s most recent floor routine was a tribute to Dancehall and told the story of the joy Dancehall presents when it comes to authentic Jamaican moves that are popular. “I want everyone to be invited into this and experience it with me,” she notes.
“It’s so special, and it shows how far we’ve really come,” says Campbell, who joined his teammates in saluting Black Power at a 2021 Black Excellence meet. “It’s not just UCLA, but other schools are also joining in. Seeing it grow and more people feeling empowered is a sense of unity that I love to see in all schools.