TOKYO — For years, Wendy Hilliard managed a gymnastics program in New York City, welcoming kids into a massive facility with 70-foot ceilings. Her staff introduced them to a sport to which they might not otherwise have had access. She offered free and low-cost classes to the eager children, who were mostly Black and Hispanic, but interest was such that she never needed to turn away anyone.
Then Gabby Douglas emerged as a star of the 2012 Olympics.
“Kazoo, kazah!” Hilliard said. “All of a sudden, everybody wanted to take gymnastics.”
As Douglas became the first Black all-around champion at the Olympics, these kids saw someone who looked like them. So did their parents. Hilliard’s foundation allowed them to test the sport. And her newly created waitlist grew to more than 150 prospective enrollees, a sign that the country’s collection of interested gymnasts had shifted dramatically.
Four years earlier, an entirely White squad represented the United States in Beijing. But following Douglas’s lead was Simone Biles, widely considered the greatest gymnast in history, and other women of color surround her on this Olympic team.
“You know what changes the perception?” said Hilliard, the first Black rhythmic gymnast who performed internationally for the United States. “It’s if you can produce.”
The wave of change started years ago, but Biles embodies how U.S. teams have evolved. She leads this contingent in Tokyo as one of three women of color, alongside Jordan Chiles and Sunisa Lee. At 24, an age once perceived as too old for elite gymnastics, Biles is at her best. If she wins the all-around gold as expected, she’ll become the oldest winner since 1968. Douglas was 16 when she earned the title, and the 2012 Olympic team had an average age of 16.8. Now every member of the U.S. squad is at least 18, and the average age exceeds 21.
“This is the future of U.S. teams,” said Betty Okino, a 1992 Olympian who, at 17, joined Dominique Dawes in becoming the first Black female gymnasts to win a medal at the Games.
Past Olympians point to the power of role models. Look at this squad, which in Lee includes the first Hmong American to make the U.S. Olympic team, and it’s evident the prototypical American elite gymnast is not who she once was.
“When you put things in front of folks’ faces,” said Derrin Moore, the founder of Brown Girls Do Gymnastics, an advocacy organization, “it opens their eyes.”
Trailblazers started to pave the way decades ago. Luci Collins became the first Black gymnast named to the women’s Olympic team in 1980, but the United States boycotted those Moscow Games. Dianne Durham, the first Black national all-around champion, missed the 1984 Olympics because of an injury. Dawes and Okino finally broke through with spots on the 1992 team.
“Now the world could see it — and not just people that follow gymnastics,” Okino said. “It instantly sparked something, like, ‘Oh, wow, I can be Black, and I can do gymnastics.’ ”
That sense of pride and purpose arrived years later for Dawes, a three-time Olympian and member of the 1996 gold medal-winning team. When she watched Halle Berry become the first woman of color to win the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2002, she became tearful with joy. Dawes had no acting aspirations but knew young girls might.
“Now I get it,” she thought, realizing her potential impact in gymnastics.
After the Games, the all-around champion often becomes the name that sticks. That’s usually the gymnast whom the next generation singles out as an inspiration.
So once Douglas stood on the all-around podium in London, “it changed the trajectory forever,” said Okino, who has a Ugandan father and a Romanian mother. Women of color accounted for more than half of the field at this year’s U.S. trials. Biles’s club, World Champions Centre in Spring, Tex., sent six Black gymnasts to nationals.
“It’s not a thing anymore,” Okino said, attributing that shift to Douglas. “We’ve moved from the shallow [thinking] of, ‘This is different.’ ”
The fruits of groundbreaking Olympic moments can be observed at the highest level only over time. Clubs might become inundated with sign-ups, but those gymnasts are at least a decade from becoming the next superstars.
Okino travels the country for coaching lectures, and she works with the national team, focusing on dance and artistry. When she visits gyms, she notices a stark difference in the demographics of participants. During her era, Okino said, there were stereotypes that Black gymnasts wouldn’t be flexible or graceful.
“Now they see a young Black athlete walk in and they think: 'Okay, this could be the next Simone. This could be the next Gabby,’ ” Okino said. “Whereas before, maybe those athletes were — well, I can tell you, when I was doing gymnastics — dismissed.”
Back to school
Umme Salim-Beasley trained alongside Dawes, and she thought the diversity at her club in suburban Washington, D.C., was the norm. With a Black father and a Filipino mother, Salim-Beasley grew up in a Muslim community. Her parents were initially hesitant about gymnastics because their religious principles of modesty stood opposed to young girls flipping around in leotards. Full-length unitards, worn by the German gymnasts in Tokyo, publicize options beyond traditional bikini-cut designs.
Salim-Beasley, now the coach at Rutgers, has family members who attended Howard. When she visited a career fair there as a prospective college gymnast, she asked if the school had a program. A representative said: “Well, we’re a Black school. Gymnastics is a White sport.” Salim-Beasley ultimately chose West Virginia in part because she wouldn’t be the only gymnast of color there. Moore’s organization is now leading the push to add a gymnastics program at a historically Black college.
“HBCU culture is huge in the Black community, and gymnasts have no part in that,” Moore said, adding that athletes are often stuck deciding whether they want to follow the family tradition of going to a particular school or pursuing the sport in college.
In the late 1990s, “you could probably count on two hands the amount of African-American gymnasts that you saw in the NCAA,” Salim-Beasley said. That number has grown. According to the NCAA, about 9 percent of Division I gymnasts self-identify as Black, including some of the most high-profile stars, such as Florida’s Trinity Thomas and UCLA’s Nia Dennis.
Still, 85 percent of Division I coaches identify as White. In the wake of last summer’s social justice movement, some athletes shared stories of racist incidents within programs. There is a “constant conversation” about the lack of representation among judges, said Salim-Beasley, the co-chair of the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association’s diversity and inclusion committee.
Because of the income inequality that exists in the United States, some cite costs as a barrier to the sport for many families of color. The membership of USA Gymnastics is still about 67 percent White, with only 4.6 percent identifying as African American, 5.4 percent as Hispanic and 7.7 percent selecting two or more races, according to data provided by the organization. About 11 percent of respondents did not identify their race.
“It’s such a White-centered sport,” Moore said. “Those communities that are more Black-centered just don’t feel a part of that culture of gymnastics.”
Since Li Li Leung became president of USA Gymnastics, the organization has offered more support to Brown Girls Do Gymnastics. When the governing body shared the petition pushing for gymnastics at an HBCU, Moore saw her organization’s Instagram following skyrocket.
As one of the most popular athletes at these Games, Biles has an outsize influence. She’s debunking narratives about her sport in every regard: What does an elite gymnast look like? What skills are possible? At what age do gymnasts peak? How should these women act?
The 2016 Olympic team featured two Black gymnasts, Biles and Douglas, as well as Laurie Hernandez, who has Puerto Rican heritage. This year’s Olympic team proves that “the train keeps going,” Hilliard said.
Biles will compete in all six women’s gymnastics medal events and could leave Tokyo with as many as five golds. And before she and her teammates arrive home, families of color will have started calling clubs to ask about enrollment — just as they did after the past two Games.
“It’ll happen again,” Moore said. “There will be a push.”