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Women's gymnastics is changing in more ways than one

Gymnasts Shilese Jones, Simone Biles and Leanne Wong pose after placing second, first and third in the all-around competition on the final day of women's competition at the 2023 U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Sunday in San Jose, Calif.
Loren Elliott
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AFP via Getty Images
Gymnasts Shilese Jones, Simone Biles and Leanne Wong pose after placing second, first and third in the all-around competition on the final day of women's competition at the 2023 U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Sunday in San Jose, Calif.

After the U.S. Gymnastics Championships last weekend, many of the headlines focused on Simone Biles, who had just won a record eighth title.

But looking at the top finishers more broadly, it's clear that elite women's gymnastics is changing in some big ways — in terms of race, age and collegiate competition — and moving the sport forward.

The top six women at the meet were Black or Asian American. On the men's side, too, the top three were Black or Asian American.

It's a far cry from the 1980s and '90s, say Betty Okino and Dominique Dawes. They were the first African American Olympic gymnastics medalists, as part of the bronze-winning 1992 team in Barcelona.

"Back in the '90s and '80s when I was competing, there were not a lot of women of color in the sport of gymnastics," Dawes, now 46, tells NPR. "And I know whenever I would go to competitions and represent the U.S., I was one of very few African Americans that were competing or even women of color."

But that's been changing, especially in recent years.

Since the 1990s, most of the U.S. gymnastics teams at the Olympics have had at least two women of color. In 2012, Gabby Douglas became the first Black woman to win the Olympic gold medal in the all-around competition. And Biles, who is Black, has been the top U.S. women's gymnast for a decade.

At last year's U.S. Championships, the top three spots were all claimed by Black gymnasts, to accolades from Michelle Obama. And the women's team that represents the U.S. at next year's Olympics in Paris could end up being the first to be entirely gymnasts of color.

Representation matters, says Okino, 48, who is now on the national coaching staff for USA Gymnastics focused on dance and artistry for beam and floor. She says that young athletes would see her and Dawes on television competing in the Olympics "and think, 'Oh, I could do that.' And more parents also see it and say, 'Oh, OK.' It seems so archaic, but it's not only a sport for white kids ... it is a sport for young Black girls, too."

Betty Okino in October 1992 during the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Paris.
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Getty Images
Betty Okino in October 1992 during the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Paris.

It's the same change, Okino says, that has come to swimming and other Olympic sports.

Dawes says many parents share the stories of trailblazers with their children. She is now the CEO and founder of Dominique Dawes Gymnastics and Ninja Academy in Clarksburg and Rockville, Md.

Simone Biles performs a Yurchenko double pike as she competes on the vault during day two of the U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 25. Biles won her eighth national title a full decade after her first.
Paul Kuroda / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Simone Biles performs a Yurchenko double pike as she competes on the vault during day two of the U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 25. Biles won her eighth national title a full decade after her first.

"It's no different than what I'm doing with my little ones," she says, describing how her family recently met top tennis players Frances Tiafoe and Coco Gauff at a tournament in Washington, D.C. "And I know it's planted that seed of inspiration in my little kids, that maybe tennis would be a sport that they can thrive in as well."

Now in gymnastics, she says, "there's so many people of color that are not just showing up, but they are dominating. They're at the top."

Elite gymnastics is turning into a sport of women, not girls

Simone Biles just took home a record eighth national championship, at the age of 26 — a full decade after her first. While she's the oldest contender for next year's Olympic team, she won't be the only one over 20. The average age of the top five finishers at the U.S. nationals this year was more than 21 years old.

A Washington Post analysis found that the age of competitors at the U.S. nationals has been rising in recent years. "From 2006 to 2019, just 7 percent of competitors at nationals were at least 20 years old. In the past three editions of the event, that mark has risen to 17 percent," the Post reported.

It's happening globally, too. At the Tokyo Olympics, the average age of women's gymnastics medal winners was 20.6, the highest since 1968, the Post found.

What's accounting for these longer careers?

Dawes herself was the rare gymnast to compete in three Olympic Games: 1992, 1996 and 2000. And she suspects part of the answer to why there are older gymnasts today is better equipment and coaching that focuses less on repetition.

When Dawes was coming up, "There were no tumble tracks. There were no pillow mats. I didn't start at a gym that had a pit. And so we were landing on harder surfaces." There was more wear and tear on their bodies, she says.

She thinks that today's athletes — and their coaches — are working smarter, not harder. And achieving amazing results.

"The skills that they're doing today are unreal," says Dawes. "Seeing a female athlete do a Yurchenko double pike — I would have never, ever imagined it, in a thousand years," she says of the vault that Biles performed at the championships — a maneuver so difficult that she is the only female gymnast to have performed one in competition.

And what's more, Dawes says, Biles "doesn't look like she's slowing down."

Dawes says it's possible Biles could compete at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, if she takes breaks and trains at her own pace. She would be the first American gymnast to compete in four Olympic Games, which Dawes says "would be pretty spectacular."

Leanne Wong, left, is congratulated by her coach Jenny Rowland after competing in the floor exercise at the championships. Wong competes at the University of Florida, where Rowland is her coach.
Jed Jacobsohn / AP
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AP
Leanne Wong, left, is congratulated by her coach Jenny Rowland after competing in the floor exercise at the championships. Wong competes at the University of Florida, where Rowland is her coach.

New NCAA rules have opened up doors for elite gymnasts

The NCAA's new rules that allow college athletes to make money off their name, image and likeness (NIL) have been a major change for gymnasts.

Because top gymnasts hit the elite level in their early teens, they can receive sponsorship offers years before college. In the past, that meant if a gymnast accepted an endorsement deal, she was signing away her ability to compete in college gymnastics — and receive an athletic scholarship.

Okino "absolutely loves" that today's elite gymnasts can accept some endorsement deals and still compete in college gymnastics. "It would have been such a gift to have that," she says.

She recalls how at age 14 she had to make a choice: sign with an agent — and accept money and endorsements — or decline all of that in order to pursue collegiate gymnastics and scholarships.

"You don't know that at 14, especially when you're like, 'This is what I want to do forever and ever.'"

Okino took the Reebok contract, and said goodbye to college gymnastics and the scholarship that would go with it.

Dawes made the same decision.

"I always think about if I went to Stanford," she says, explaining that in 1994, she signed to compete with the university but later backed out. "Back then, there were not NIL deals, so I felt as if I had to choose" between staying with her coach and training for another Olympics, or going off to college. She chose the former, and went on to compete in two more Olympic Games.

She says there was a stigma in her era that if you competed in college gymnastics, you were no longer a top-level athlete.

"There was the college gymnastics, and then there was elite, and there was a stark difference between the two. Even with the body types," she says — college athletes had gone through puberty and looked more like women than girls. "And that was not going to be embraced in the elite level training for the Olympics. If you look at my Olympic team in 1996, none of us looked like we went through puberty and none of us looked like we were women."

The 1996 U.S Olympic women's gymnastics team, left to right: Amanda Borden, Dominique Dawes, Amy Chow, Jaycie Phelps, Dominique Moceanu, Kerri Strug and Shannon Miller.
IOPP / IOP/AFP via Getty Images
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IOP/AFP via Getty Images
The 1996 U.S Olympic women's gymnastics team, left to right: Amanda Borden, Dominique Dawes, Amy Chow, Jaycie Phelps, Dominique Moceanu, Kerri Strug and Shannon Miller.

At nationals last weekend, several of the top female finishers compete in the NCAA, and more are headed that way. Leanne Wong, who placed third in the all-around, was at the meet with her coach at the University of Florida.

Most of the Tokyo Olympic team have gone on to compete in college, including Suni Lee, Jade Carey, Grace McCallum and Jordan Chiles. MyKayla Skinner competed for the University of Utah before making the Tokyo team, and opted to go pro afterward.

NCAA gymnastics has long been a louder, looser affair than elite gymnastics. And some of that vibe is flowing back to elite gymnastics along with the gymnasts who are doing both.

Case in point is Jordan Chiles, who now competes for UCLA. At the U.S. Championships last weekend, NBC's broadcast delighted in showing her antics — dancing between events and pumping up the crowd to give a standing ovation for Biles' floor routine.

College athletes "bring a different sort of energy back to elite gymnastics. ... Being in that team environment where the athletes are screaming for each other and it's all about the team, really changes how they approach the team environment on the elite level as well," says Jill Geer, spokesperson for USA Gymnastics.

For USA Gymnastics, the last several years were defined by the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal — which resulted in the conviction and jailing of the former Olympic and USA Gymnastics doctor who abused more than 150 girls and women — and a larger reckoning with the sport's often toxic culture.

Geer says the looser vibes at the recent meets is evidence of a larger shift. "The culture of the sport top to bottom, but especially on the elite level has really changed in the last several years. ... Now we see athletes dancing, cheering, calling on the crowd to get into it. And that, more than anything else, is really what any sport should be about, is having fun and enjoying it," says Geer.

Not everyone believes the culture has changed enough. And recently, a reporter who has consistently covered USA Gymnastics' woes was denied a media credential to the championships.

Still it's clear that for the gymnasts, the chance to go to college — to go to classes and have gymnastics be part of life, but not all of it — is a way to move forward with more balance.

"They can take the endorsements and they can get their college paid for and have the college gymnastics experience," says Okino, the 1992 Olympian and now coach. "It's a win-win. It's a very, very great time to be alive, I think, for a young female athlete."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.