Opinion: Is Katelyn Ohashi changing the culture of gymnastics?


By Audrey Fisher, Round Table newsroom managing editor

Katelyn Ohashi. A senior at University of California Los Angeles. You may have seen her viral floor routine of this year. Or perhaps the one from last year too. But the legacy and impact Katelyn has goes beyond her scores and ability to perform.

Last year, after her 2017 and 2018 season floor routine went viral “The Players’ Tribune” released her story, titling it, “Katelyn Ohashi was the Best Gymnast in the World, Until She Wasn’t.” And that’s the truth. Ohashi was an amazing elite gymnast. She trained among current reigning Olympic and World Champion, Simone Biles. In fact, she and Biles were set to go to UCLA together before Biles career took off.

So why stop? What causes an athlete that is at the peak of her career to just decide to stop? Injuries, yes, but it goes beyond injuries for Ohashi. In her interview with “The Players’ Tribune” she talks about how she began to hate the sport. As someone who competed gymnastics for most of her life, I can understand how.

Gymnastics isn’t always fun. Often times, athletes struggle with burnout at an early age. Then, when you add this into the demands and pressure coaches put on their athletes to be “perfect,” of course they start to hate it. For Ohashi, that’s exactly what happened.

It was until a year and a half after she quit that she decided to come back. And what better place to do this than UCLA? Miss Val, the UCLA head coach is known for her ability to make gymnastics fun for her athletes again. And that’s exactly what she did for Ohashi.

Once Ohashi’s floor routine went viral again this year, her story went viral too. Now, it’s not uncommon to see Ohashi on the news or being interviewed as she and her amazing floor routine have taken the world by storm, but for the gymnastics world it’s uncommon for such a hard story to be brought to light.

It’s true that in these last few years the culture of gymnastics has been changing. After the news of the long time sexual abuse scandal in the gymnastics community it has become a top priority to create these changes. We all saw the stories of the former gymnasts testifying and heard their amazing statements, but while stories of gymnasts who are pushed too hard or taught that unless they are perfect they aren’t good enough, are common, we rarely see or hear about them.

For instance, I could name multiple teammates I had that struggled with eating disorders after they quit. I could name even more that still struggle with anxiety or depression as a direct result of the sport and their coaches. Most of my former teammates have had surgeries similar to mine. Almost none of my former teammates still compete, and not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t.

When I was a level five I remember hearing the level tens at the gym talk about how everyone quits by level seven. I remember thinking to myself, “this can’t be true, why would anyone quit this?” But the older I got, the more I understood. If most girls I knew started to notice these changes by level seven, I can’t imagine how the girls who train at an elite level feel. That’s why it was shocking to hear of Ohashi’s story. Because while we all know about these things, hardly anyone ever speaks of them, let alone comes back from them.

With Ohashi’s story becoming such a national sensation, I can only hope that we start to see more of these stories. The culture of gymnastics will not change unless we all make an effort to change with it. I think that accepting these changes for what they are and praising these athletes for their bravery in coming forward about the physical and mental turmoil gymnastics put on them is just another step in the right direction.

It’s not that we need to place blame on anyone. In fact, you can’t blame the coaches or the officials. When you are coached a certain way and grow up to be a coach, you coach the same way you were taught. And as that cycle began, it was hard to stop. I only hope that everyone in the gymnastics community takes advantage of the power we all have right now. We are in a transition period, and if we seize our opportunity, we will be able to pave the way for a better culture.