Written by: Natalie Fuertes
I still remember the first time I saw Laurie Hernandez competing. The Olympic Trials. 2016. Laurie was only 16 years old. She was charismatic, exuded confidence, and made the most adorable faces during her floor routine, the very faces and youthful exuberance that would eventually earn her the nickname “The Human Emoji”. The nation quickly fell in love with her. And I did as well. But for a different reason.
Laurie, a second-generation Puerto Rican, was the first US-born Hispanic female gymnast to be a part of the US Olympic team since 1984. She said in an interview with The Guardian, “Si Dios lo quiere (if God wishes), to represent the U.S. as the only Latina gymnast would be such an honor. I feel I could be a role model to other Hispanic gymnasts interested in the sport but I also want them to understand the importance of being focused, determined, and not giving up, despite all the struggles.” It’s difficult for me to explain how it felt to watch her compete and earn a spot on Team USA. I was inspired. And I was happy. But, most of all, I was proud.
My daughter (who is obsessed with gymnastics) is glued to the TV whenever there’s a competition on. While I love that she is a fan of the sport and tries to copy every move she sees, I won’t deny that I’ve always felt a little upset that almost none of the gymnasts looked like her.
The first time I had to get her hair “competition ready”, I did what most rookie gymnastics parents do: I went straight to YouTube for a hair tutorial. I scrolled through countless videos of parents effortlessly combing their daughters’ perfectly straight and glossy hair into a high ponytail. I looked up from the screen and stared at my own daughter’s hair, which is beautiful and thick and full of healthy curls (and a halo of baby hairs), and started the 45-minute process of attempting to slick it back into a perfect bun that wouldn’t budge while competing. It was difficult. And painful.
Historically, the gymnastics world has favored the Eastern European style of the sport: lithe bodies with long lines, a visual representation of the “perfection” demanded by the judges. But this image seems to have included an implied racial expectation as well. In 2007, USA Gymnastics conducted a diversity study of close to 19,000 gymnasts and found that an overwhelming 74% of gymnasts at the amateur level were white. By comparison, only 6% of the athletes at the amateur level identified as being African-American and only 3% identified as being Hispanic.
Again, I think of my own daughter. An intelligent, kind, adorable, and powerful young Latina and I wonder what she thinks and feels when the overwhelming majority of the gymnasts she watches on TV just don’t look like her.
According to the Women's Sports Foundation, by age 14, girls are dropping out of sports at 1.5 times the rate of boys. By age 17, more than half of girls will quit playing sports altogether. Even more sobering is when you combine the gender disparity in sports with the racial one. At a predominantly white high school, girls have 82% of the opportunities to play sports that boys have. Meanwhile, at a predominantly minority high school, girls have only 67% of the opportunities to play sports that boys have, meaning that for every 100 female students, there are just 20 spots on a sports team (Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC): 2011-12).
Encouraging young women of color to participate in sports becomes even more important when you read through the studies that outline the long-term benefits of participating in athletics. Girls who stay in sports have been proven to have better health, higher self-esteem, greater academic achievement, stronger leadership skills, and improved economic opportunity. Those same female athletes go on to become small business-owners, innovators, and CEOs, transferring the lessons learned in the gym - mental toughness, dedication, teamwork, fortitude - into successes in their professional careers.
The benefits of young women participating in sports are clear. But how do you stay in a sport that’s not inclusive? Imagine being a young gymnast, excited to participate in a sport you love...but no one in the gym looks like you. As a collective gymnastics community, we need to continue to push the sport that we all love forward. To continue working towards a future that is racially diverse and culturally inclusive and moves away from presenting “this is what all gymnasts should look like” and more towards emphasizing the skills required to be an elite gymnast. Unlike your looks, your athletic abilities are not pre-determined by your race. By making this shift, we will help young women of color realize that perfectly straight hair is not going to help you land an Amanar or flawlessly execute a Yurchenko with a preflight twist.
While there is still plenty of work left to accomplish, I feel we are making the right strides. The 2016 US Women’s Olympic Gymnastics team included three women of color on a roster of five. And the 2019 UCLA women’s gymnastics team is filled with gorgeous women of color who are not ashamed of their full-figured bodies. To me, this is a positive signal of an increase in racial diversity in a sport that has been anything but diverse. I firmly believe that people of color are not initially drawn to gymnastics because they do not see themselves represented in it. So for African-American and Latina girls, it’s a big deal to be able to turn on the TV and see a gymnast who looks like them. It’s affirming. It’s motivating. And it reassures them that “Yes, you can do this too!”
I will always remember the summer of 2016. I’m on my couch, sitting next to my daughter. Like millions of other viewers, we’re watching Team USA. But, more specifically, we’re watching Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, and Laurie Hernandez. We’re watching these strong and powerful young women of color. We’re watching them win. And we’re watching them change the landscape of the sport.
I look at my daughter. Her frizzy curls are bouncing as she hops up and down in excitement. I’m inspired. I’m happy. And I’m proud. Because, deep down, I know she’s got this.