America’s painful journey from prejudice to greatness in women’s gymnastics

CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHOLIS
CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHOLIS

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Before 9:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in August, APEX Gymnastics in Leesburg, Virginia, is already filled with dozens of budding gymnasts. The three-year-olds, dressed in leotards still too big for them and with ponytails that won’t stay up, bounce on the trampoline, while the intermediate-level girls laugh amongst themselves as they put chalk on their hands and prepare to tackle the daunting uneven bars or four-inch balance beams.

Meanwhile, the high school girls gather around the floor, casually knocking out complex, powerful tumbling passes while they wait for class to officially begin.

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There’s a palpable sense of excitement on this particular day, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why. In just days — hours, even — Team USA is scheduled to start competing at the Rio Olympics. While most of these girls (and a handful of boys) are gymnastics fanatics and watch the sport year-round, the Olympics are the holy grail, and the Olympians are their heroes. Be it Shawn Johnson or Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas or Aly Raisman, Olympic gymnasts are the main reason most of these girls are here at all.

This is something their coach, Zerell Johnson Welch, relates to intimately.

Back in 1976, a 12-year-old Welch was couch-bound due to a broken ankle from a skateboarding accident. With nothing else to do, she found herself glued to that summer’s Olympic Games in Montreal. She quickly became enamored with Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who effortlessly and gracefully flipped and twirled her way to three gold medals and a historic perfect 10.

“I think I can do that,” Welch remembers telling herself. “I want to do that.”

Her parents were supportive, and once her ankle healed, they immediately enrolled her in gymnastics, so Welch could chase her budding Olympic dream. But reality quickly set in for Welch when she walked into her first class and realized nobody looked like her.

“I was probably the only black girl, African American, in my class,” she told ThinkProgress. “It was very daunting… stressful, frustrating, isolating, and hurtful at times.”

Welch stuck with the sport, but was constantly bombarded with reminders that she was different, particularly by coaches who were unfamiliar with hair and body types that didn’t fall within the narrow confines of typical gymnasts.

“I remember [a male coach] making a comment about my rump, my bump, my butt,” she said. “I didn’t really become self-conscious of that until he actually brought it to my attention. And it was done in a joking way but it wasn’t a joking way to me at all. Not at all.”

“The idea of seeing someone that looks like you is so profound, and it has such an impact on your understanding of what you potentially can be.”

Still, her love for the sport, hard work, and natural talent propelled Welch through the ranks. That is, until the “exorbitant” cost of competitive gymnastics simply became too much for her family and she was forced to quit at 17.

“It took my family out,” Welch said of the financial burden.

Gymnastics is full of stories like Welch’s. It’s a cycle that has kept the sport white-washed for decades. People of color haven’t traditionally been drawn to gymnastics because they don’t see themselves represented in it. Those who do break the mold and have the opportunity to fall in love with the sport are further deterred by the crippling cost of competing at the top levels — a reality that makes it more difficult for low-income and even middle-income families, which are disproportionately African American and Hispanic, to rise through the ranks.

But this year’s Olympic team might be a sign that the tide is turning. With two black women on the team — three-time world all-around champion Simone Biles and defending Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas — as well as the first Latina on the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team in over a decade, Laurie Hernandez, the gold medal favorites are now a majority-minority team.

Welch knows firsthand that this is far more than a symbolic victory.

“The idea of seeing someone that looks like you is so profound, and it has such an impact on your understanding of what you potentially can be,” she said.

The United States gymnastics team first appeared in the Olympics in 1932. But for 60 years, only white women represented the country on the sport’s biggest stage.

In 1992, Dominique Dawes and Betty Okino shattered the gymnastics color barrier, becoming the first African American gymnasts to compete in the games and win an Olympic medal when the U.S. won bronze in the team competition. (Though, notably, Luci Collins and Ron Gallimore would have broken the color barrier in 1980 had the U.S. not boycotted the Moscow games.)

Four years later in Atlanta, the iconic “Awesome Dawesome” was an integral part of the Magnificent Seven, becoming the first African American woman to win a individual gymnastics medal — a bronze on floor exercise. In the team event, she became the first black gymnast of either gender to win a gold medal.

Welch’s gymnastics career was long over at that point, but the significance of Dawes’ accomplishments in 1996 were certainly not lost on her. By then, Welch’s two children were both gymnastics junkies, and Welch was thrilled that they would be able to see a prominent black woman reach the pinnacle of the sport.

“Being a mom, having my children see [Dawes], I was just ecstatic that they can actually have a sense of inclusion and belonging that I did not have,” she said.

“I was just ecstatic that they can actually have a sense of inclusion and belonging that I did not have.”

Over the next few years, a few other minority gymnasts were able to break through. Amy Chow, an Asian-American gymnast, competed with Dawes and the rest of the Magnificent Seven in 1996, winning a silver medal on the uneven bars. And at the 2004 games, Annia Hatch, a Cuban-American, became the first American woman to medal in vault since Mary Lou Retton in 1984.

Despite the accomplishments of these groundbreaking women, the face of American gymnastics remained overwhelmingly white. A 2007 study conducted by USA Gymnastics found that the vast majority of gymnasts at the amateur level were white — a whopping 74 percent. In contrast, African Americans comprised just 6 percent of the 18,994 gymnasts surveyed; Hispanics just 3 percent.

Those odds didn’t stop Gabby Douglas. Twenty years after Dawes burst onto the scene, a 16-year-old Douglas made history at the London Olympics in 2012 as the first African American woman to win the all-around competition.

Working as a Fox commentator at the time, Dawes broke down in tears after Douglas won gold, saying, “I’m so thrilled to change my website and take down the fact that I was the only African American with a gold medal.”

Biles, who just missed the age cutoff for the London Games, arrived right on Douglas’ heels; the 4’9” powerhouse has won the last three world championships by a significant margin and clearly established herself as one of the best gymnasts — if not athletes — of all time.

Simone Biles at the 2016 U.S. women’s gymnastics championship CREDIT: TONY GUTIERREZ, AP
Simone Biles at the 2016 U.S. women’s gymnastics championship CREDIT: TONY GUTIERREZ, AP

O f course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the trailblazers. Change has never been easy.

Like Welch, Douglas faced racist and discriminatory behavior during her time as a young gymnast, a fact she revealed during an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2012. Douglas shared that she had faced racially motivated bullying during her years as a young gymnast at Excalibur, where she was the only African American student. In one instance, Douglas recalled teammates referring to her as their “slave.”

The comments didn’t end when she became a household name; during her London breakout, Douglas was even subjected to racially-charged criticism about her hair.

Douglas has always been open to discussing race and discrimination with the media, clearly considering it an integral part of her story. Biles, however, feels differently. She doesn’t dwell on the fact that she was the first African American gymnast to win the world championships, a feat she’s accomplished three times. She wants to just be known as a gymnast, not a black gymnast.

But that’s easier said than done. In 2013, following Biles’ all-around victory at the 2013 World Championships, Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito said in a video interview that “next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win too.”

Inflammatory comments from Italian Gymnastics Federation official David Ciaralli further exacerbated the issue. In a Facebook post, Ciaralli wrote, “Carlotta was referring to a trend in gymnastics at this moment, which is going towards a technique that opens up new chances to athletes of colour (well-known for power) while penalising the more artistic Eastern European style that allowed Russians and Romanians to dominate the sport for years.”

While both Ciaralli and Ferlito apologized, their remarks reflect common racial stereotypes about black athletes that label them as powerful, nearly superhuman beings.

It’s no secret that gymnastics has historically favored grace and European standards of beauty over power and athleticism. This idealized image of a graceful, lithe, and in most cases, white, gymnast can alienate girls of color, painting a picture of a sport that is not for them. But the success of Biles, Douglas, and now Hernandez is challenging the either/or notions of those standards.

“I’m still kind of realizing how much impact I have made,” Douglas said in a February piece by USA Gymnastics.

A s the mother of two gymnasts, Alexandria Brown has seen firsthand the importance of representation in the sport.

Her daughters are half African American and half Hispanic, and Brown estimates that her 10-year-old daughter Sara has watched The Gabby Douglas Story, the made-for-TV movie about Douglas’ life, over 100 times.

“You know, I remember seeing so many tears and all after she recognized the hard work that Gabby Douglas had gone through,” Brown said. “She learned a lot from the experience of this girl.”

It wasn’t just Douglas’ race that connected with the Browns; it was her story of financial struggles and family sacrifice.

On average, classes for competitive gymnastics range from $180 to $300 a month, and that doesn’t include the money spent on pricey gymnastics attire, coach’s training fees, gymnastics summer camp, and travel expenses to go from meet to meet. The costs for leotards and warm-up suits alone can range from $300 to $500. Adding up all of these costs amounts to over $1,000 per month.

And that’s just for gymnasts at the amateur level.

Kendra Lee and Sara Brown CREDIT: ALEXANDRA BOLANOS BROWN
Kendra Lee and Sara Brown CREDIT: ALEXANDRA BOLANOS BROWN

The financial burden for Olympic hopefuls is much higher. Forbes estimates the average cost of raising an Olympic-level gymnast is about $15,000 per year. Multiply that by the five to eight years of training, and parents can find themselves shelling out around $120,000.

The financial commitment is a significant one for all families with children in costly sports like gymnastics, but that burden is often felt the most by African American and Hispanic communities, which have the highest poverty levels in the nation.

Brown did absolutely everything she could to keep up with the multiplying bills as her daughters’ talent and interest in gymnastics grew. She bartered services, such as babysitting and house-sitting. She took a part-time cleaning job at the gym. The owner of APEX even provided her with a partial scholarship. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t enough. If she was working too much, she couldn’t be available to transport the girls to and from the classes. If she wasn’t working, she couldn’t afford the bills. It was too much to overcome.

“If we do not have the help, there’s no way we can do it,” Brown said. “There’s no way. I would love for her to keep going but I don’t think we can afford it.”

Welch, who coached the “immensely talented” Sara at APEX, said seeing girls leave is particularly heartbreaking because gymnastics is more than just a sport — it’s a social outlet and a second family for many of them. Plus, it was tough to see one of the few non-white families at the gym forced to walk away because of time and money.

“When one girl has to drop, I feel a lot of anguish,” she said. “I also feel a lot for the parents.”

Gabby Douglas at the 2015 World Artistic Gymnastics championships. CREDIT: MATTHIA SCHRADER, AP
Gabby Douglas at the 2015 World Artistic Gymnastics championships. CREDIT: MATTHIA SCHRADER, AP

Following Douglas’ historic win at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, thought, “If there’s more Gabby Douglases out there, I want to find them.”

Of course, acknowledging that is one thing. Actually going out and putting the necessary programs in place to attract more minorities to the sport is another.

In order to get more minorities involved in the sport in the grassroots level, it’s important to build accessible, affordable facilities in their communities. But there also need to be grants and sponsorships available to help transition these gymnasts to the elite level if they have the talent and commitment.

Wendy Hilliard, an African American woman and former gymnast, has been working on the first part of this equation for decades. In 1996, she founded the Wendy Hilliard Foundation to bring gymnastics to children and families in Harlem, a predominantly black and Hispanic, low-income community.

The idea for the foundation was primarily borne out of Hilliard’s personal experiences with the sport, when gymnastics was housed in schools and YMCAs in urban centers. Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, the quality of Hilliard’s instruction was high — the Detroit Recreation Department had hired four coaches from Ukraine — while the costs remained low. The Detroit team found success on the national and international circuits, with its athletes even making two Olympic teams. And in 1978, Hillard herself became the first African American to represent the U.S. in international competitions.

Seeing the lack of minorities in the sport, Hilliard knew she wanted to give other children the same opportunities she had as a gymnast. Serving the Harlem community for nearly 20 years, Hilliard’s Foundation has provided free and low cost gymnastics classes to well over 15,000 children — an average of 1,000 kids every year. Hilliard has found that her program has been successful in drawing more families from the community into the sport, and has also attracted older teens to learn how to teach gymnastics. She’s now working on setting up a similar foundation in Detroit.

“It’s almost like you gotta take the sport where the people are,” she said.

USA Gymnastics, meanwhile, has a few grassroots initiatives in place, but is mainly focused on diversifying the sport through the media. Ron Galimore, now the Chief Operating Officer for USA Gymnastics, says that promoting successful gymnasts like Biles and Douglas is one way the organization can “take the sport to all ethnicities.”

Though there has not been an updated study on diversity in the sport since 2007, Penny and Galimore both believe there has been a growth in diversity following the success of athletes like Biles and Douglas. A look at the elite level of the sport suggests that might indeed be the case. For instance, at the 2016 Secret U.S. Classic, eight of the 20 gymnastics in the junior division were either black or biracial. And among those that qualified for the junior national championships, 31 percent were black, 24 percent were Asian, and 8 percent were Hispanic.

But professor Rob Ruck, a sports historian at the University of Pittsburgh, wants to see more. He believes that every local sports club needs to make a conscious effort to bridge the affordability gap and increase minority participation in gymnastics.

“Where resources are invested, talent is developed,” Ruck said. “When people make an effort, things change and happen.”

Four years ago, Welch made the most difficult decision of her coaching career when she decided to stop commuting three hours a day to work at a gym in Maryland, which was very diverse, and start teaching at APEX, which is less so.

But ultimately, she realizes that she can have an impact no matter where she goes.

“It is just as important for those who do not look like you to be exposed to you,” she recalls her mother telling her when she made her decision. “Diversity goes both ways and exposure goes both ways.”

Welch praises APEX for its efforts to diversify, which include offering scholarship programs and recruiting a diverse staff. But she still thinks more can be done.

For one, the cost of training has to decrease, she says. She also believes community support is key in making sure the sport is accessible to every child, such as the existence of local sponsors that are present in other sports like baseball and basketball.

“It is just as important for those who do not look like you to be exposed to you.”

“The community as a whole has to change their mindset and believe every child should have access,” she said. “And then, when they understand that there’s a lack of equity or accessibility, they come together and provide scholarships for children.”

Ultimately, she wants the diversity on Team USA’s women’s gymnastics team in Rio — which is already being considered one of the most talented Olympic teams of all time — to be the rule, not the exception. She wants all races to have the chance to participate in a sport that has taught her discipline and friendship, hard work and, most importantly, fearlessness.

“[Gymnastics] forces you to deal with fear in such a way that if you can get through this, most of the time the encounters that you face after you leave this gym, you’ll be able to say they’re doable,” Welch said.

“It forces you to actually have a conversation about what you thought was the impossible.”

Celisa Calacal is an intern at ThinkProgress.