Five of the country’s best varsity gymnasts – Trinity Thomas, Lynnzie Brown, Margetta Fraser, Kia Johnson and Nya Reed – spoke with Lonne O’Neill of The Undefeated about black representation and recognition in a sport that has often been predominantly white.
Lonna O’Neil: It’s Black History Month, but it’s actually still Black History, especially in the university gym these days, and I’m really enjoying watching you all. They see you and party – how does that feel? Tell me what it’s like to see people coming to you on YouTube.
Kiya Johnson LSU Athletics
Kia Johnson, LSU: It was just great to see the recognition that we all have and to know that we are encouraging young black girls to do what they want, to do what they want and to let them know that they can do what they intend to do. It was really cool to navigate and mentor the other girls, especially the black gymnasts since there weren’t many of us. But the doors are opening, and I think we’re helping young girls see that they can do it too.
– 19. February: See UCLA host, Utah, at 9 p.m. EN (UNSPSC, Annex ESPN)
Trinity Thomas, FL: Yes, I think it’s very important, and not so much for us who are here now, but for all those who will come after us. It would be nice if someone could see how social media is evolving.
Trinity Thomas Gary McCullough/AP Photo
Lynnsey Brown, Denver: There are so many kids who want to come and take a picture and post it on social media later and tag you … we’re just like you, and I think that kind of hairy element, that you’ll be able to do that someday.
O’Neill: Nia Dennis’ Black Excellence routine has gone viral – is it good for sport, good for society and what are the results?
Brown: I was really excited to see Nia’s routine, because I think she’s rethinking the sport, especially with the negative coverage we’ve seen lately. It’s super positive and uplifting, and people can rethink their ideas of what gymnastics should look like.
Nya Reid, Florida: Something that really struck me when she turned power into a people’s fist. And I think it was a great moment that showed not only how we grew up, and their dance moves and their music, but also in terms of equality and what we stand for. She does what she wants, but it shows she means something. It’s not just about opinions and viral people. This is a more important matter and statement.
Margzetta Fraser Catherine Lotze/Getty Images
Margetta Frazier, University of California I love how black people take their culture everywhere, and it starts with the music. We collect the music that we grew up with, and it’s not new – it’s not a trend unless we do it on purpose, like a little TikTok dance – we really bring our culture into everything. We put a soul in everything we do. I like it when it is accepted by all teams and not questioned.
O’Neil: It is always said that representation is important, but it is not just about representation. You present yourself, in terms of face and appearance and so on, but you also compete and win. How do you welcome this moment, and what joy do you feel seeing it not only for yourself, but for other black gymnasts?
Hold: It bothers me when you see people go viral and you think: wow, it’s an African-American gymnast going viral (….). That’s what you accept. It’s something that should be celebrated in the black community. Or if Trinity or Kia gets a 10, you think that’s possible. That’s amazing. It makes you want more.
Nya Reed AP Photo/Butch Dill
O’Neil: Let’s talk about how to get higher. Talk about the extra things black gymnasts should bring.
Fraser: As a kid, I noticed that black athletes generally had to be of a higher standard than others to be recognizable. As a black woman in a predominantly white sport, we need to do the same. And when it comes to technique and high jumps or being the smoothest, if we’re not the best, we’re not considered the standard, and that’s a shame. For example, I don’t have the most flexible legs. And compared to the rest of my body, the bottom of my feet is white, so if my foot comes off, you can see it from afar. So these are additional things we need to focus on.
Johnson: The little standards, the leos, our hair, our bodies are different. In standing poses, people tell you to put your buttocks under it or squeeze it, and you do your best – you squeeze it as hard as you can – but you don’t accomplish anything, so you get stronger. This is what I look like. That’s what I am. And I think young black gymnasts would love to see how we do our hair, how we do it differently than our peers and teammates, while looking beautiful, doing our job and doing what we love to do, but in our own way and embracing our culture.
O’Neil: Tell me how you found your moment, was it a real moment or was there a gradual realization that I was going to make this sport my own.
Brown: I feel like this change has been very gradual for me and I can’t pinpoint an exact moment, but I was lucky enough to have a graduation ceremony in my freshman year that showed me that I didn’t have to choose, that I could be both a black woman and a gymnast. I think this year I’m really trying to accept myself for who I am. In recent years I have a new reason to participate in races and it makes me even more excited to do it not for the spectators, but for me and my family who know what we have been through.
Linzie Brown Jerome Miron/USA Monday Sports
O’Neil: Tell me why you are entering the competition.
Brown: That was almost two years ago, even though it seemed like yesterday. I lost my mother unexpectedly, and it was very hard for me to want to go back, even from that point to the end of my career. I am very grateful to her for doing everything for me, because gymnastics is not just a sport. It’s much more than that. That’s why I can study, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to. I come from a low-income family. High school was not an option without gymnastics. There are so many things… This race means a lot to me right now, but my mom is the only target for all of this.
O’Neil: What it means to have a community, because that’s what you all have now. They are numerous – they are few, but you are there, and you are seen, heard, and known in ways beyond what we have traditionally seen. What does this mean to you now?
Hold: When you have a community and you see people who are successful at it, you think: Oh, I can try. I can try even better. They set the bar high, because it seems to me that the bar is always set low for African-Americans, or we don’t get a good result. I feel like the bar is really high now because of what we did. African-American girls can say: Oh, they’re part of my community, so I know I can do it, I want to be like them.
Thomas: I have to say that when I see Gabby [Douglas] win the Olympics, for example, and Simone [Biles] win the next Olympics, see them there and be someone who has to stand behind them and watch them work to get there, that helps me feel confident. Seeing someone who looks like you do all these things, and knowing they have to overcome the same challenges and obstacles, makes it all the more special for you.