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NCAA gymnastics roundtable: What it’s like to be a Black collegiate gymnast

Five of the top collegiate gymnasts in the country — Trinity Thomas, Lynnzee Brown, Margzetta Frazier, Kiya Johnson and Nya Reed — sat down with The Undefeated’s Lonnae O’Neal to talk about representation and recognition as Black athletes in a sport that’s often been predominantly white.

Lonnae O’Neal: It’s Black History Month, but really it’s Black history always, especially in collegiate gymnastics these days, and I have so been enjoying watching you all. They’re seeing you and they’re celebrating you — how does that feel? Tell me a little bit about what it feels like for people to come up to you and say, “I saw you on YouTube.”

Kiya Johnson, LSU: It’s been really cool just to see the recognition for all of us and just to know that we’re encouraging young Black girls to do what they want to do — to go for it full out, and let them know that they can accomplish the things that they set their mind to. It’s been really cool to kind of navigate and lead the way for other young girls, especially Black gymnasts because there’s not very many of us. But there’s doors opening, and I think we’re helping younger girls see that they can do it as well.

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Trinity Thomas, Florida: Yes, I think it’s super important, and not so much for us who are here now, but everybody who’s going to come after us. It would have been nice to have somebody to look up to and see all over social media growing up.

Lynnzee Brown, Denver: There’s so many kids that come up to us, and want to take pictures and they post it later on social media and tag you … we’re just like you and I think that kind of furthers the element of, “You can do this one day.”

O’Neal: Nia Dennis’ “Black Excellence” routine went viral — is this good for the sport, is it good for the community and what does it bring?

Brown: I was super excited to see Nia’s routine, because I think it’s redefining what the sport looks like, especially with the negative light that we’ve been seen in recently. It’s super positive and uplifting, and people can redefine what’s in their brains about how gymnastics is supposed to look.

Nya Reed, Florida: Something that really stood out to me was when she did the power to the people fist. And I think that was a huge moment, not just showing how we’ve grown up and her dance moves and the music, but it also tied into equality and what we’re fighting for. She’s doing what she loves, but it’s showing that she stands for something. It’s not just for the viral views and for the people. It’s for a bigger thing and for a bigger statement.

Margzetta Frazier, UCLA: I think it’s so beautiful how Black people bring their culture everywhere they go, and that starts with the music. We’re picking music we grew up with and this isn’t anything new — it’s not a trend unless we do it on purpose, like a little TikTok dance — we truly do bring our culture into everything. We bring soul into everything we do. I love seeing that be accepted, and undeniably accepted across all teams.

O’Neal: They always say representation matters, but it’s not just representation. You’re representing, in terms of the face and the look and all of that, but you’re also out there competing and winning. How are you embracing that moment, and what joy are you finding in seeing that, not just for yourself, but for other Black gymnasts?

Reed: It sticks with me, when you see people go viral and it’s like, “Wow, that’s an African American gymnast that went viral … It’s something that you take in. It’s something that you can glorify for the Black community. Or when Trinity or Kiya get a 10 you think, “Man, that’s possible. That’s amazing.” It makes you want to push harder.

O’Neal: Talk about that notion to almost sail higher. Talk about that extra sort of thing that Black gymnasts have to bring.

Frazier: I’ve noticed growing up that Black athletes, in general, do have to be a tier above the rest to be recognized. Especially being a black woman in a predominantly white sport, we have to do the same thing. And when it comes to technique and jumping the highest or being the most flexible, if we are not the most and then some, we will not be seen as the standard, which is unfortunate. For example, I don’t have the most flexible feet. And compared to the rest of my body, the bottoms of my feet are white, so if my foot does flex you see that a mile away. So it’s extra things like that, that we do need to focus on.

Johnson: The little standards, the leos, our hair, our bodies being different. In handstand positions, people telling you to stick your butt under, or squeeze your butt and you’re doing everything you can — you’re squeezing it as hard as you can — but it’s not going anywhere, that’s how we’re built. That’s how I look. That’s who I am. And I feel like that’s really good for younger Black gymnasts to look up to, just to see us putting our hair back, slicking it back different than our peers and our teammates, but still looking pretty, doing our job and doing what we love to do, but doing it in our own way and embracing our culture.

O’Neal: Talk to me a little about finding your moment, whether it happened in an actual moment, or whether there was a gradual realization like, I’m going to make this sport my own.

Brown: I feel like for me, it was a very gradual shift, and I couldn’t really pinpoint a certain time, but I was lucky to have a senior when I was a freshman that just really showed me I don’t have to choose, I can be both a Black woman and a gymnast. I think this year I’m really trying to embrace who I am. I have a new reason to compete these last few years, and it just makes me more excited to get out there and not do it for whoever’s watching, but do it for me and my family who just knows how much we’ve been through.

O’Neal: Tell me about that reason that you’re competing.

Brown: It was almost two years ago now, even though it feels like yesterday, I lost my mom unexpectedly, and it was really hard to want to come back, even from now to the end of my career. I’m just super grateful that she did everything she could to make this happen, for me, because gymnastics isn’t just a sport. It’s so much more. It’s the reason why I can get an education, because I would not have been able to do that. I come from a low-income family. College was not an option without gymnastics. There’s so many things — what competing means to me now — but my mom is the sole purpose for all of it.

O’Neal: What does it mean to have community, because that’s what you all have now. There’s enough numbers there — it’s small, but you guys are there and you’re making yourself seen and heard and known in ways that are outside of what we’ve traditionally seen. What does that mean to you now?

Reed: When you have a community and you see people being successful in your community, it’s like, “Oh, I can strive to do that as well, I can do even better.” You set the bar high, because I feel like for African Americans, the bar is always set low, or we’re not given the big grand outcome of things. I feel like the bar is set high now because of what we’ve done. African American little girls can be like, “Oh they’re part of my community, so I know I can do that, I want to be just like them.”

Thomas: I would have to say that seeing, for example, Gabby [Douglas] win the Olympics and then Simone [Biles] went and won the next Olympics, I think just seeing them up there, and being somebody who was behind them and got to watch them work their way to get there, it’s just something that helps my confidence. Seeing somebody who looks like you do all those things, and knowing that they have the same struggles and the same obstacles that they’ve had to overcome, it really makes it that much more special for you.

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