Suni Lee is free to be — Other gym news — Thoughts from @karlainafrica
The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, Nov. 19, 2022
Happy gymnastics Saturday! This week’s post includes a Suni Lee announcement, an interview with @karlainafrica and other gym news!
As you’re reading this, I am running a half marathon in Philadelphia, home of the Liberty Bell.
And speaking of liberty (how’s that for a segue???)…
Suni Lee announced this week that this will be her final season of NCAA gymnastics. She will return to elite after the college season ends and work towards making the team for the Paris Olympics in 2024.
I think instead of seeing this solely as a loss for Auburn or a gain for elite and a possible Olympic team (and it surely is all of the above), we can look at this as an example of how much agency a gymnast has gained in a few short years. Lee is the first Olympic All-Around (AA) champion to compete in the NCAA. That is almost certainly because of the change in NIL rules that allow her to make money while she works as a student athlete.
And Lee has been very vocal on her social media and in interviews about how difficult she finds balancing life as an Olympic AA champion and a college student and an NCAA gymnast. I get the idea that focusing primarily on one of these three things will be beneficial for her.
Lee has said that she did not take in-person classes at Auburn, and the gymnastics team had to hire security to keep her safe. That doesn’t sound to me like a very fun college experience. The reality of Lee’s experience at Auburn post-AA is probably not what she imagined when she signed her NLI.
Playing the what-if game, I imagine that if Lee’s Olympics had gone more to plan (Tom Forster’s plan, anyway; who knows what Lee had planned), Simone Biles would not have gotten the twisties and would have won the AA, and Lee would be a team silver medalist with an event medal or two. A celebrity to gymnastics fans, to be sure, but not on the level that she became after she won Olympic AA gold.
And in other sports, it’s practically de rigeur to attend college for a year or two before going pro, and few fret about pro drafts affecting college football or basketball (men’s or women’s) teams to the same extent that gymnastics fans do when an NCAA star opts to pursue her Olympic dreams.
Being an elite gymnast is not easy, and neither is making a second Olympic team. Lee had far more choices, and far more agency in making them, than did any Olympic champion before her. She did not have to sacrifice college gymnastics to make money, nor does she now have to sacrifice a second Olympic attempt because she has been part of a college team for two years. Auburn’s star may have risen in part because of Lee, but it won’t fizzle out when she is gone. Lee’s star power helped Auburn’s prestige among recruits, and they will continue to build on that reputation for years to come. But they didn’t make it to nationals solely on Lee’s contributions to the team, and I am certain we will once again see them compete in Four on the Floor.
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Other gym news
Banksy revealed a mural of a gymnast doing a handstand surrounded by debris in Borodyanka, Ukraine.
Levi Jung-Ruivivar has switched gyms, from Twin City Twisters to WOGA:
Jung-Ruivivar also verballed to Stanford. Look for that toe point starting in 2024.
More Stanford! Watch Stanford gymnast Ian Gunther try out beam and bars:
Sydney Barros will compete for Puerto Rico going forward. Her nationality switch became official this week.
National team camp is happening this weekend in Texas.
Anique Grenier, formerly a Southern Utah gymnast, will be Air Force’s new assistant coach.
Jessica Gadirova won The Sunday Times‘ Young Sportswoman of the Year award.
**CW: Abuse, eating disorders
Serious allegations of abuse are rocking Finland’s rhythmic gymnastics team. (Article is in Finnish; use Google Translate to get the English version.)
Camp Woodward is asking for a lawsuit against them, alleging that they allowed an inappropriate relationship between a coach and gymnast, be dismissed.
Spanish gymnast Cintia Rodriguez announced her retirement.
Mexican gymnast Alexa Moreno wrote a book!
Maria Paseka and Tatiana Nabieva are coaching in China.
The Paris Olympic mascots were revealed. They are hats. Props for the headline of this article announcing them.
And, in my favorite social post of the week, McKayla Maroney discovered a hard truth about the HOV lane.
Five at The IX: Karla, aka @karlainafrica
And speaking of constitutional rights, another thing that originated in Philly (really, I should go into this segue business)…
Gymternet legend Karla, known on Twitter @karlainafrica, asked the question we all thought when USAG announced this week that 2023 nationals would be held in Tulsa:
Karla (she/her/hers) lives in Queens. She is a hospital staffer and mom to two little girls – one gymnast, one dancer, she reports. I first encountered Karla when she responded to a callout I wrote as an NYT staffer, looking for serious gymnastics fans to discuss the impact of the Larry Nassar sentencing hearing in January 2018. I quoted Karla in an article and have followed her on the socials since. When I saw her tweet about nationals had gone a bit viral among gym fans, I knew I wanted to talk to her about it, and she was kind enough to give me her time and her very thoughtful answers.
What prompted you to tweet about Li Li Leung’s announcement about the location of 2023 Nationals?
K: I needed to call out the hypocrisy publicly. Li Li Leung was asked a direct question by GymCastic host Jessica O’Beirne at the press conference at the 2022 National Championships about what was USAG’s stance on Roe v. Wade and [whether], in the future, will USAG be considering the laws of the state and women’s health care rights when deciding where to have events.
Li Li said (and the audio is available in the August 17, 2022 episode of GymCastic), “That’s an important question and that topic, we acknowledge, it’s divisive and deeply personal. In terms of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, I think many of you know the values of our organization. We are about empowerment, we are about choice, we are about agency, and the overturning of that decision does take away from our value system. There is no question that that is going to be one of our considerations going forward, amongst many other considerations. For sure, we want to be able to align with cities and locations that align with our value system.”
Oklahoma has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. So when Li Li said that USAG was going to be holding events in locations and cities that aligned with their value system, she was either lying, or she just doesn’t care enough to follow through on what she said on the record.
Either way, when 90% of your organization is made up of women and girls, and the name recognition for the sport is for the medals earned by WOMEN, you need to be supporting those women by holding meets in places that respect those women’s rights and autonomy over their body. When you don’t, you deserve to be publicly rebuked for it.
Why would it be important for USAG to keep its word in this case?
K: If we as the gymnastics community as a whole — gym parents and gym fans alike — can’t trust the governing body to do what’s right to protect the athletes, we have a serious problem. The governing body is supposed to work for the athletes! The previous leadership at USAG destroyed the trust that most of us had in the organization by covering up reports of abusers. Li Li Leung coming in as the new head and former gymnast was the beginning of restoring trust in the organization, but to state on the record that the organization will hold events in locations that align with its values and then to do the EXACT OPPOSITE leads one to ask: ‘What else are they lying about?’ Why would we trust them to do the right thing in a host of other scenarios?
Were you a gymnast? And how did you become a gym fan?
K: I was a rec gymnast and a walking disaster and after I broke my arm(s) for the fifth time, I finally stopped doing gymnastics at age 12. I then got my gymnastics fix by coaching the youngest kids at my old gym and then at an elite gym down the street from my high school for volunteer hours.
I became a gym fan because my father loved Mary Lou [Retton] and we had the Wheaties poster of her hung above my Little Tikes table in the playroom when I was 3. Some of my very earliest memories are of going to see [Retton] at the American Cup and watching the 1988 Olympics. (I was very team Dobre that year). I lived overseas for most of my childhood and played tapes of meets (like the 1993 Nationals) over and over; I can still probably recite the commentary from memory. Thankfully, my husband is from a relatively famous gymnastics city in Ukraine (both Latynina & Lysenko are from his hometown of Kherson), so he’s been a huge supporter of watching gymnastics with me the past 10 plus years. Both of our girls are named after gymnasts.
You’re a pretty well-known Gym Twitter name. What do you think will become of Gym Twitter post-Elon Musk?
K: I laugh at being classified as a well-known gym Twitter name. Let’s chalk that up to being around a lot longer than the majority of Gym Twitter fans.
Gym fans will always find one another. We found each other long before Twitter, and we’ll find a way to connect long after. I’m old enough to remember the gymnastics message boards like GGMB, and the gymnastics video trading spaces.
I met my closest friends in NYC through a (gasp!) Facebook group for New York gym fans that started as happy hours and moved into watching meets together & developing our own NCAA fantasy league. We didn’t need Twitter for those friendships. Developing relationships with other gym fans from the outset may require a bit more upfront effort, but we’ll always find each other in the next online community space (or we’ll all spontaneously find ourselves at the bar of the official meet hotel have an epic impromptu meet up!)
If you woke up and were CEO of USAG for a day, what would you do first?
K: Honestly? I’m such a gym nerd that if I were president of USAG for the day, I’d spend half the day watching old training footage of skills gymnasts trained at camp (Tessa Pama’s triple back!) and were never allowed to compete. I’d spend the other half of the day boxing up every file USAG has on reported coaches and dropping them off at the Indy Star’s offices for their investigative reporting team. Someone has to do the right thing and ensure those adults hurting athletes – most of them CHILDREN — under the guise of “coaching” are held accountable.
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