You’ve probably seen Katelyn Ohashi. Back in April, the 21-year-old UCLA junior did double layouts to iconic Michael Jackson hooks all over Facebook feeds to an audience of nearly 100 million viewers. It starts with a cool glance to the audience from beneath an imaginary “Smooth Criminal” hat, before alternating mind-bending gymnastic moves with slick moonwalks and finishing with a “Thriller”-like cackle. She performed the routine at fifteen meets this season and got a perfect 10 three times, but it wasn’t until the Pac-12 championships in March, which her college won for the eighteenth time, that the Internet really took notice.
I’ve gotten to see her perform since she was a teenager, winning national and international competitions as one of America’s most successful elite gymnasts, pegged for the Olympics at twelve years old. Yet there was a darker side to all the high scores and praise, one that came through the cracks of Ohashi’s intense focus and skill.
At age three, Ohashi started practicing gymnastics in her hometown of Seattle. However, to be able to become an elite gymnast, she needed to train at a place known for their Olympic champions, so at nine, she moved to Missouri with only her mother and the youngest of her three brothers. She attended Great American Gymnastics Experience (GAGE), a gym owned by head coach Al Fong, who in the ’80s was surrounded by controversy owing to a series of tragic athlete deaths (Christy Henrich from anorexia and Julissa Gomez after being paralyzed in a vault accident). When Ohashi finished tenth at her first elite nationals, at age twelve, she moved to Texas to attend World Olympic Gymnastics Academy (WOGA), also attended by Olympic gold medalists Madison Kocian, Nastia Liukin, and Carly Patterson. The gym was co-run by Nastia’s father, Valeri Liukin, who in 2006 was accused of failing to screen and supervise coaches.
It was at WOGA that Ohashi rose further up the ranks, winning competitions worldwide and being hailed as a prodigy. But she missed the age eligibility for the 2012 Olympics by mere months, meaning that she’d have to wait for another four years (until she was nineteen years old) before her first shot. In 2013, she won the American Cup, one of the biggest competitions in the world, at sixteen years old. Take one look at the videos from the meet, and you can see the commentators are ecstatic, in awe of the skills they’re witnessing. The girl atop the beam there is a world away from the one moonwalking to Michael Jackson.
The prevailing image of the ideal gymnasts is small, thin, and childlike, making it to the Olympics at barely sixteen years old before quickly disappearing. There’s a reason for this: they usually break under the unbearable pressure and unhealthy culture, both physically and mentally. Injuries ranging from ACL and rotator cuff tears to stress fractures are common.
For Carly Patterson, who won three medals at sixteen, the Athens 2004 Olympics were her final major competition; she was diagnosed with several bulging discs in her lower back soon after. "My doctor was like, ‘Carly, you really need to stop if you want to be able to walk when you get older,’” she said in a 2009 interview. London Olympic champion McKayla Maroney officially stopped competing at the beginning of 2016, citing numerous health issues including a concussion sustained before the Olympics in 2012, adrenal fatigue, depression, a broken right toe, a fractured shin, and knee problems. Even Simone Biles said last December that she expects the 2020 Olympics — at which she’ll be 23 years old, likely the oldest on the team — to be her final meet.