Sports

Why Isn’t All Gymnastics This Fun?

Katelyn Ohashi’s viral floor exercise routine could only exist at the NCAA level, and only at UCLA.

Katelyn Ohashi throws a sassy expression directly at the camera at the end of her floor exercise routine.
UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi
Screengrab/Youtube

January brings with it few constants, but among these are everyone giving up carbs for precisely three weeks and the NCAA gymnastics season. And so, although elites such as Simone Biles and Morgan Hurd are lying low and working on “upgrades” (i.e. making their difficulty somehow even more difficult), gymnastics fans still have plenty to enjoy. And by “plenty to enjoy,” I largely mean the always-entertaining, sometimes-mystifying, often-infectious floor exercise routines of the reigning NCAA champion UCLA Bruins.

Ever since the paleolithic age of 2015 when humans did Facebook, there has been a “viral UCLA routine.” You may remember Sophina DeJesus, who Nae Nae’d, Dabbed, had spiffy blue hair, and went on Ellen with all of her teammates. Last year’s respite from the nightmare of the news cycle came courtesy of Katelyn Ohashi, the teeny-tiny portable delight-emanator, aka the Michael Jackson set. As the outrage-industrial complex ground us down, the 4-foot-10 former elite, then in her junior year, moonwalked our hearts halfway back to humanity—and herself onto the first-place podium at NCAA nationals—with 90 seconds of pure Gloved One stupendousness (and a sky-high double layout for good measure). The routine was viewed millions of times online, bringing NCAA gymnastics, and the Bruins squad in particular, to a whole new audience.

This year, UCLA is obviously keen for a repeat, and all early signs pointed to the joyful, strutting, floor-thrusting rollick of freshman Margzetta Frazier, set to legendary voguing anthemDin Da Da.”

But Frazier—or Marz, as she’s more commonly known—already has some stiff competition from Ohashi’s 2019 sequel, which despite its lack of wide televising has gone megaviral on Twitter, and earned more than its share of breathless media coverage:

I’ll give you a moment to tend to your whiplash from the music, which is a truly vertiginous mix of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s shoved into a blender—samples include but are not limited to “Proud Mary,” “September,” “Kiss,” “I Want You Back,” “Rhythm Nation,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and “Thriller.” This exercise is also remarkable in that it earned Ohashi a perfect 10 and featured a super-innovative first tumbling pass: a double layout with a split in the first rotation, last seen in major competition about the time “Rhythm Nation” was charting.

It’s all so incredibly on-brand for UCLA, an nth-degree encapsulation of the Bruins’ mastermind of choreography, attitude and branding: head coach and former classical dancer Valorie Kondos Field, known to all by her ballet-mistress name Miss Val.

In the 28 seasons that Miss Val has been head coach, UCLA hasn’t always been on top of the nationals podium, but the one constant—from the high drama of Yvonne Tousek in the early 2000s to Angi Cipra’s crowd-favorite “iPhone routine” in 2016, to this season’s “escaped asylum inmate” performance-art piece from Gracie Kramer—has been the Bruins’ multifaceted, high-concept, complex floor and beam choreography. It is only fitting that in her final season—Miss Val announced her impending retirement this past September—every exercise in the UCLA catalog is Val to the max. (In Ohashi’s case, it’s Val to the power of Val, on a triple espresso.)

This is all so fun! It really, really is. Man, college gymnastics is fun. And I bet you’re wondering: If gymnastics can be this fun, why do most Olympic floor routines look like awkward misery? Why don’t the Bruins go to the Olympics and show them all how it’s done?

One word: difficulty. The NCAA—where many elites go after they’ve “retired” from international competition—has different rules than Olympic-style gymnastics. Remember that infuriating open-ended scoring system in Rio? That system means that there is literally not a limit to how much elite gymnasts can tumble, and because they get extra points the more difficult those tumbling runs are, and because the routine length is still the same 1 minute 30 seconds it’s been since the days of Nadia and the piano, that means that on the rare chance these (sometimes very) young women get to stop defying death for four seconds, they have to do über-difficult “dance” elements like full-twisting switch leaps and quadruple pirouettes. There’s no time to moonwalk.

In her teens, Ohashi wasn’t just one of these elites—she was the best in the world. (She is, in fact, one of the last people to have ever beaten her good friend Simone Biles in a major competition.) Check out her floor exercise from the 2013 American Cup, which features much more difficult tumbling, and lots of it. (Or her legendary 2013 beam routine, still considered one of the most difficult the world has ever seen.) But in 2015, nursing a serious shoulder injury, Ohashi found that her body and her spirit were broken and dropped out of elite competition. It was only after joining the Bruins in 2015 that her joy in the sport returned. And lucky us!

You see, in the NCAA world, there are rules more befitting the humans of Earth. Instead of being pegged to the international elite level, the difficulty and execution code of points comes from what’s called JO Level 10 (in fact, the majority of most college teams are recruited out of the Level 10 ranks). On floor, this means exactly three tumbling passes and a maximum start-value of 10. And because of this emphasis on execution rather than difficulty, NCAA gymnasts have the time and incentive to train in dance. Simultaneously, because elite gymnasts don’t really dance anymore as NCAA choreography has become more dynamic, with few notable exceptions (such as Dutch wood sprite Eythora Thorsdottir), elite choreography has become … belabored, which is the official gymnastics term for eeeeeeeeeech. The days of Bolshoi-trained masters of the avant-garde such as Svetlana Boginskaya or Olga Strazheva are as forgotten as a Yakov Smirnoff set.

Additionally, because gymnastics culture, and especially American gymnastics culture, is conservative by nature—most elites are underage, homeschooled, and forbidden from dating or going to parties—the choreography, especially in the American tradition, has always been kinda cutesy. It is unlikely that even in 2019, an elite American floor routine will, like UCLA’s Margzetta Frazier, werk it in tribute to drag legend Kevin Aviance. But just because the gymnasts of NCAA are allowed to be playful and slightly bananas on floor doesn’t mean they all can be. Most college floor-ex routines are peppy and cocksure; many employ what I am pretty sure young people call the Hot Dance Moves of Today—but as of yet, nobody but Miss Val can conjure that je ne sais quoi (or perhaps I should say je ne sais shamon) that makes the internet lose its collective mind.

With Miss Val’s encroaching retirement, you may fear that the days of hyper-expressive (or at any rate, hyper-viral) NCAA floor choreography will end, and this is a valid concern. Though other top teams are often stepping up their choreo game—Trinity Thomas of the 2019 Florida Gators is looking particularly wow—nobody has ever come close to Val-era ’zazz. (The closest any non-UCLA squad has yet come is BYU junior Shannon Hortman-Evans’s Super Mario Bros. routine. It has flossing in it. Really.)

We’ll have to see what the Bruins squad brings out in 2020, the first year of their new epoch. (If you hear the dulcet strains of Madonna, Bell Biv Devoe, or literally any Jackson whatsoever, that’s the tell that Miss Val banked a few routines before she left.) Maybe the Bruins will come out looking more like their competitors’ perky cheerleader types, and we can all mourn together. For now, at least, you can bask in the frenetic joy of Katelyn Ohashi—if the whiplash doesn’t get you.

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