Editor’s Note: Onnie Willis Rogers is a former collegiate gymnastics champion at UCLA and a professor of psychology at Northwestern University whose research focuses on human development, diversity and equity and education. The opinions expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
I’m one of just five Black women in history to win the NCAA individual all-around title in gymnastics. It was a tremendous accomplishment which, when I won it two decades ago, left me elated.
But it was a particular kind of joy, tinged with the frustration often felt by the Black athlete who excels in a sport where they are one of only a very few.
I grew up in the sport in the 1980s. I took my first gymnastics class at the age of 3 and finished my final competition at the age of 22. Throughout all of my years training in the sport, I was often the lone brown face in a gym filled with tumbling, somersaulting, hand-standing kids.
Before accepting a full ride sports scholarship to UCLA, I was an elite gymnast, a member of the National Team for USA Gymnastics (USAG). As a Black gymnast growing up, being one of few was normal. And as I progressed up the ranks, the sport seemed only to get whiter.
Even during my four years at UCLA, an urban school with a sizable Black population, I was the only Black female gymnast on my team. In 2001, the year I won my NCAA title, I could probably count the other Black women gymnasts at top-ranked schools we competed against on one hand.
But I’ve noticed something different about gymnasts today, and perhaps you have, as well. There are more Black and brown athletes in the sport than ever before. And they are turning out to be a force to be reckoned with.
This year marks 20 years since my last gymnastics competition, and a lot has changed in the sport — but perhaps nothing so much as the dramatic increase in racial and ethnic diversity. The change has been nothing short of astonishing — especially at last summer’s stunning National Championships, when African American women swept the podium.
I’d been involved in gymnastics my entire life, and I never saw it coming. The diversity — and the excellence — exhibited by the top-performing women of color in the sport has been something to behold.
There’s Simone Biles who, of course, needs no introduction. She’s a global icon who has earned seven Olympic medals and 25 world championship medals — more than anyone else in gymnastics — and is regarded as the GOAT in our sport. Some have even argued that she is the greatest athlete of all time, period. Before Biles, there was Gabby Douglas, who was crowned the 2012 Olympic all-around champion, becoming the first Black gymnast to capture that title.
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To be honest, it’s hard to name all the women of color who have made it to the top ranks of the sport since I stopped competing. Laurie Hernandez, who is Puerto Rican, was the youngest gymnast to earn gold in Rio 2016. Jordan Chiles helped Team USA secure the gold at last year’s world championships. And there’s Sunisa Lee, a Hmong American who became the first Asian American to win the Olympic all-around title. The list goes on and on.
The standouts of color at the collegiate level have been no less impressive. Florida Gator Trinity Thomas holds a breathtaking record of perfection. UCLA’s Chae Campbell, Chiles and freshman standout Selena Harris continue to grab headlines in our sport, as does Jordan Rucker of the University of Utah and Haleigh Bryant of Louisiana State University — and, astonishingly, too many others to name.
These women of color are setting new records and breaking the internet with performances of exceptional style and athleticism. I can’t think of another major sport that has seen its ranks change so dramatically. Swimming? Golf? Tennis? No, not really. These predominantly White sports have seen a relative few breakthrough athletes of color, but overall the complexion of the sports haven’t changed much.
Over the years, structural racism has powerfully shaped access, opportunity and identity — all of which help explain why gymnastics was so White in the first place. The long arm of economic inequality touches every facet of life, including sport.
Sports where Black people have been represented have traditionally been those accessible through schools, such as football, basketball and track and field. Gymnastics is a very expensive sport, costing thousands of dollars and requiring long, intense training hours. High-quality instruction is only accessible in private clubs and at elite training facilities that are few and far between. Growing up, my family fundraised furiously, did extra jobs at my gymnastics club, and housed visiting gymnasts to offset the unreachable high cost of tuition.
There is no magic that has “created” gymnasts of color in the past decade. There have always been strong, talented Black and brown girls capable of excelling in the sport. Many of the first Black women in the sport, like Diane Dunham and Wendy Hilliard, simply were not acknowledged because our society has for so long refused to value or validate Black women. Instead, the sport favored a Nadia Comaneci-style waif, thin and childlike. That doubtless kept a lot of women who looked like me on the sidelines. Elite gymnastics did not always see them or make space for them.
Luckily for me, there were always exceptions, and these women became my inspirations. Betty Okino and Dominique Dawes were the trailblazers in my day. I watched them represent Team USA with their brown bodies and Black girl hair and I knew it was a little more possible for me.
I vividly remember being 16 years old laying belly down on the green shag carpet in my living room in Tacoma, Washington, captivated as UCLA — and even more significantly for me, Stella Umeh — clinched its first-ever NCAA Title.
On the floor, Umeh was Black, full-bodied and fierce; her hair was a close shave; the music for her floor routine was rhythmic and pulsating. She was unlike any gymnast I had ever seen. I attended UCLA after Umeh had graduated, but walked confidently and fully in her footsteps, not simply because she too was a Black woman, but because she remade the mold.
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the NCAA Metroplex Challenge gymnastics competition with my 11-year-old daughter and her gymnastics team. There were multiple Black gymnasts competing for every school on the floor.
As a developmental psychologist who studies youth identity development, I couldn’t ignore the significance of the moment. I couldn’t fail to register the awe in their eyes as they watched their possible future selves from their front row seats, a real image of who they may become. In short, identity and representation matter. How many Black girls even enter the sport in the future will be influenced by what they see as attainable or impossible.
Meanwhile, the breakthroughs in gymnastics just keep coming: This year, Fisk University is the first HBCU to have an NCAA gymnastics team — an entire team of Black and brown girls doing gymnastics. It’s radical. It’s transformative. And as Black History Month draws to a close, it’s a reminder of what is possible.