Black participation in gymnastics increased

TOKYO – There is a phenomenon that occurs every time Simone Biles appears on a screen indoors Power Moves Gymnastics & Fitness.

As if flipping a switch, the young women of color on the gymnasium’s competitive team come to life, fueled by the adrenaline rush that comes from seeing the reigning Olympic champion test the limits of their sport.

“They just have this motivation which is just simply unreal,” said DeLissa Walker, who co-owns the gym just outside of New York City with her sister Candice. “And we’re like, ‘Wow, they’re really inspired. “… They’re like ‘It 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 hanging on – in a sport long dominated by white athletes at the highest level.

Half of the US women’s Olympic delegation that will set foot on the ground – Biles, Jordan Chiles and Sunisa Lee – at the Ariake Gymnastics Center for the Olympic qualifiers on Sunday are minorities. Biles and Chiles are African American; Lee is an American Hmong.

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More than half of the 18 women invited to the Olympic trials in St. Louis last month were women of color. Although the number of university teams is still small, there is progress. Black woman represent nearly 10% of scholarship athletes at the NCAA Division I level, an increase from 7% in 2012. Over 10% of USA Gymnastics members identify as Black.

And while current athletes at the sport’s highest level were already involved when Gabby Douglas became the first black woman to win the Olympic all-around title in London in 2012, the increase in participation among athletes of color since Douglas ‘golden moment at the 02 Dome is real, amplified by Biles’ unparalleled brilliance.

“Simone opened her eyes to so many women of color by saying ‘Hey you can do that too,’ said Cécile Landi, who has been co-coach of Biles with her husband Laurent since fall 2017.“ He didn’t It’s not just skinny little white girls who 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.

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Even if that’s not exactly what Nellie Biles had in mind when she opened the World Champions Center in the northern suburbs of Houston. Yet over the past six years, the WCC has become something of a mecca. The six members of the the club’s elite team is black, and the diversity sprinkled throughout the program – from elite level to recreational kids spending a few hours in the gym to burn off energy – struck Gina Chiles the second her daughter left Washington state. to train at WCC in 2019.

“I remember calling my husband and saying ‘Bruh, you’ll never guess’,” said Gina Chiles. “In our home gym, Jordan was the only one. It was refreshing to be able to see people of all colors. But seeing the number of little black girls doing gymnastics made me feel so good. It is difficult to explain. It was just like ‘Wow’.

It was at one point that Derrin Moore saw the second Douglas come up to the top step of the podium as the Star-Spangled Banner howled. The sight of a black woman standing atop the sport in front of tens of millions of people across the United States sparked an immediate spike of interest from families in the predominantly black neighborhoods surrounding Moore’s Gymnasium in the suburb of the United States. ‘Atlanta.

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“It was huge,” Moore said. “Our phones were ringing all the time.”

Still, 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 under-represented and marginalized groups”.

As Biles and her American teammates get to work helping the Americans win their third straight Olympic title Sunday afternoon in Japan, nearly 7,000 miles away, a group of 100 black and brown gymnasts will converge at Grambling State University in as part of the foundation’s annual conference.

The timing with the Olympics is a coincidence. The place is not. Grambling is in the exploratory process to become the first historically black college and university to offer women’s gymnastics.

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“Our college leadership looks at the young gymnasts in our community and realizes and understands that the road from toddler gymnastics to tumbling at the Olympics for a black and brown gymnast is arduous.” said Raven Thissel, director of marketing and public relations at The Doug Williams Center, located on the Grambling campus. “How can we make it run more smoothly? “

The conference is not only focused on athletic development. Workshops are also planned for parents to educate them on what it takes to rise if their athletes are to progress from entry programs to the NCAA / elite level. It’s something that Moore says can be lost on members of the black community.

“It just gives families a little edge,” Moore said. “We want to give them information so that they can step into the gymnastics arena and be confident and stand up for their daughters.”

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The Walkers, both board members of Brown Girls Do Gymnastics, are already starting to see results. The business they started in 2012 in a space so small it’s now a barbershop is booming. They moved to a warehouse in 2015 before opening at their current location in Cedarhurst, New York – on Long Island, about 20 miles from Manhattan – last August.

Even as they grew up, the majority of their clientele remained athletes of color. Eight members of the Power Moves competitive team will be at Grambling this weekend to participate in the Isla Invitational, an exhibition co-organized with the conference. The Walkers see it as the next step in the growth process for girls – and their families – who are considering a long-term commitment.

It is a commitment that requires a significant investment of time and money. Some members of the competitive team spend five to six hours a day several times a week. The Walkers estimate their monthly dues are about half of what other gyms in the area charge. They offer discounts for siblings and promote fundraisers.

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Moore’s gym limits the number of competitive leotards its athletes use and believes their coaches are willing to work for less because they see their mission more as a calling than a job.

They are bracing for another spike in interest among black communities that is likely on the horizon as Biles returns to the world stage. The walkers, both former competitive gymnasts, are encouraged by what they see, but the work remains to be done.

Even as the number of black and brown athletes grows, the diversity among coaches, club ownership, judges and representation at USA Gymnastics’ highest levels remains a work in progress. While more than half of the athletes at the Olympic trials were women of color, the overwhelming majority of coaches and judges on the court were white.

“We have a role to play in making sure that we are intentionally diverse in this aspect,” said USA Gymnastics President Li Li Leung. “And then the hope is that the athletes lead the way. That the ecosystem that supports the athletes also becomes more diverse from a coaches’ point of view, also from a club ownership point of view. We hope to see that too. “

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Biles has pledged to stay in the sport long after the Tokyo Olympic torch was passed on to the organizers of the 2024 Games in Paris. Three years for now, maybe some of the young black girls who entered the sport following Douglas’s victory in London will be the ones representing the United States in France or scattered in the gymnastics programs of NCAAs across the country, perhaps even historically black colleges and universities.

“Representation matters,” said Gina Chiles. “And Simone set foot in it. She definitely charted this course in many ways. No matter what level you go to, you can be great at that level. And a lot of black girls see that. And a lot of black girls now want to be that.


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