Today's Paper Latest After 9/11 Coronavirus iPad Core Values Weather The Article Story ideas Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive
ADVERTISEMENT

Black gymnasts on rise in sport

by The Associated Press | July 24, 2021 at 2:19 a.m.
Gold medalist Simone Biles (second from right), Sunisa Lee (right) and Jordan Chiles — all minorities — make up half of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. Biles and Chiles are Black, while Lee is Hmong-American. (AP/Ashley Landis)

TOKYO -- There's a phenomenon that happens every time Simone Biles appears on a screen inside Power Moves Gymnastics & Fitness.

As if flipping a switch, the young women of color on the gym's competitive team spring to life, fueled by the jolt of adrenaline that comes with watching the reigning Olympic champion test the limits of their sport.

"They just get this motivation that's just unreal," said DeLissa Walker, who co-owns the gym just outside New York City with her sister Candice. "And we're like, 'Wow, they're really inspired.' ... They're like, 'This can be me.' "

Maybe because more and more, it is.

The face of gymnastics in the United States is changing. There are more athletes of color starting -- and sticking -- in a sport long dominated by white athletes at the highest levels.

Half of the U.S. women's Olympic delegation that will walk onto the floor -- Biles, Jordan Chiles and Sunisa Lee -- at Ariake Gymnastics Center for Olympic qualifying on Sunday are minorities. Biles and Chiles are Black; Lee is Hmong-American.

More than half of the 18 women invited to the Olympic Trials in St. Louis last month were women of color. While numbers are still low on college teams, there is progress. Black women account for nearly 10% of the scholarship athletes at the NCAA Division I level, an increase from 7% in 2012. More than 10% of USA Gymnastics membership self-identify as Black.

And while the current athletes at the top level of the sport were already involved when Gabby Douglas became the first Black woman to win the Olympic all-around title in London in 2012, the rise in participation among athletes of color was amplified by Biles' unmatched brilliance.

"Simone has opened the eyes to so many women of color saying, 'Hey, you can do this, too,' " said Cecile Landi, who has served as Biles' co-coach along with husband Laurent since the fall of 2017. "It's not just little skinny white girls that can do it. Anyone can do it. And then it's a Black-owned business, so I think it attracts its own families that way."

Even if it's not exactly what Nellie Biles had in mind when she opened World Champions Centre in the northern Houston suburbs. Yet over the last six years, WCC has become a mecca of sorts. All six members of the club's elite team are Black, and the diversity sprinkled throughout the program -- from the elite level all the way down to the recreational kids who spend a few hours in the gym to burn energy -- struck Gina Chiles the second her daughter moved from Washington state to train at WCC in 2019.

"I remember calling my husband and saying, 'Bruh, you will never guess,' " Gina Chiles said. "At our home gym, Jordan was the only one. It was refreshing to be able to see people of all colors. But to see the amount of little Black girls doing gymnastics, it just did my heart so good. It's hard to explain. It just felt like 'Wow.' "

It's a moment Derrin Moore saw coming the second Douglas climbed to the top of the podium as "The Star-Spangled Banner" blared. The sight of a Black woman standing atop the sport in front of tens of millions in the U.S. provided an immediate spike in interest from families in the predominantly Black neighborhoods surrounding Moore's gym in suburban Atlanta.

"It was huge," Moore said. "Our phones were ringing off the hook."

Yet getting Black kids into gymnastics is one thing. Keeping them is another, one of the reasons Moore founded Black Girls Do Gymnastics in 2015. The foundation is dedicated to providing "scholarships, coaching, training and other forms of support to athletes from underrepresented and marginalized groups."

Even as the number of Black and brown athletes rises, diversity among coaching, club ownership, judging and representation at the top levels of USA Gymnastics remains very much a work in progress. While more than half of the athletes at the Olympic Trials were women of color, the overwhelming majority of the coaches and the judges on the floor were white.

"We have a role to play in making sure that we are intentionally diverse in that aspect," USA Gymnastics President Li Li Leung said. "And then the hope is as the athletes pave the way."

Biles has vowed to remain in the sport long after the Olympic flame in Tokyo is passed along to organizers for the 2024 Games in Paris.

"Representation does matter," Gina Chiles said. "And Simone has put her foot in it. She's definitely set that path in a lot of ways. Whatever level you go to, you can be excellent at that level. And a lot of Black girls see that. And a lot of Black girls now want to be that."

Girls wait in line to practice gymnastics, Thursday, July 22, 2021, at Power Moves Gymnastics and Fitness in Cedarhurst, N.Y. The face of gymnastics in the United States is changing. There are more athletes of color starting — and sticking — in a sport long dominated by white athletes at the highest levels. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Girls wait in line to practice gymnastics, Thursday, July 22, 2021, at Power Moves Gymnastics and Fitness in Cedarhurst, N.Y. The face of gymnastics in the United States is changing. There are more athletes of color starting — and sticking — in a sport long dominated by white athletes at the highest levels. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Girls participate in dance moves, Thursday, July 22, 2021, at Power Moves Gymnastics and Fitness in Cedarhurst, N.Y. The face of gymnastics in the United States is changing. There are more athletes of color starting — and sticking — in a sport long dominated by white athletes at the highest levels. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Girls participate in dance moves, Thursday, July 22, 2021, at Power Moves Gymnastics and Fitness in Cedarhurst, N.Y. The face of gymnastics in the United States is changing. There are more athletes of color starting — and sticking — in a sport long dominated by white athletes at the highest levels. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Alema Roberts, 13, center, trains on the balance beam, Thursday, July 22, 2021, at Power Moves Gymnastics and Fitness in Cedarhurst, N.Y. The face of gymnastics in the United States is changing. There are more athletes of color starting — and sticking — in a sport long dominated by white athletes at the highest levels. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Alema Roberts, 13, center, trains on the balance beam, Thursday, July 22, 2021, at Power Moves Gymnastics and Fitness in Cedarhurst, N.Y. The face of gymnastics in the United States is changing. There are more athletes of color starting — and sticking — in a sport long dominated by white athletes at the highest levels. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
A young athlete flips off the balance beam at Power Moves Gymnastics and Fitness, Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Cedarhurst, N.Y. There's a phenomenon that happens every time Simone Biles appears on a screen inside Power Moves Gymnastics & Fitness. As if flipping a switch, the young women of color on the gym's competitive team spring to life, fueled by the jolt of adrenaline that comes watching the reigning Olympic champion test the limits of their sport. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
A young athlete flips off the balance beam at Power Moves Gymnastics and Fitness, Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Cedarhurst, N.Y. There's a phenomenon that happens every time Simone Biles appears on a screen inside Power Moves Gymnastics & Fitness. As if flipping a switch, the young women of color on the gym's competitive team spring to life, fueled by the jolt of adrenaline that comes watching the reigning Olympic champion test the limits of their sport. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Candice Walker, left, and her sister Delissa, co-owners of Power Moves Gymnastics and Fitness, pose in their facility, Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Cedarhurst, N.Y. The business they started in 2012 was in a space so small it's now a barber shop. They moved to a warehouse in 2015 before opening at their current location last August in Cedarhurst, just east of New York City. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Candice Walker, left, and her sister Delissa, co-owners of Power Moves Gymnastics and Fitness, pose in their facility, Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Cedarhurst, N.Y. The business they started in 2012 was in a space so small it's now a barber shop. They moved to a warehouse in 2015 before opening at their current location last August in Cedarhurst, just east of New York City. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Girls participate in a gymnastics camp, Thursday, July 22, 2021, at Power Moves Gymnastics and Fitness in Cedarhurst, N.Y. The face of gymnastics in the United States is changing. There are more athletes of color starting — and sticking — in a sport long dominated by white athletes at the highest levels. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Girls participate in a gymnastics camp, Thursday, July 22, 2021, at Power Moves Gymnastics and Fitness in Cedarhurst, N.Y. The face of gymnastics in the United States is changing. There are more athletes of color starting — and sticking — in a sport long dominated by white athletes at the highest levels. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Print Headline: Black gymnasts on rise in sport

ADVERTISEMENT

Sponsor Content

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT