USAG gets new leaders, and…can it be? Real leadership? — Other gym news — Thoughts from Jackson Harrison
The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, June 18, 2022
Happy gymnastics Saturday! It was refreshing this week to listen to two new leaders at USA Gymnastics speak about leading without fear and promoting health and wellness. Chellsie Memmel, the new USAG technical lead, and Alicia Sacramone Quinn, the new USAG strategic lead and Memmel’s 2008 Olympic teammate, spoke to the press Monday for the first time since assuming their new crowns, er, roles.
I never did high-level sports. But I did dabble in a few different sports recreationally, including gymnastics as well as swimming and diving. The common denominator of all of them was that my coaches were all terrifying, and I never got farther in any of them than competing in regional swim meets. The stakes were pretty low. But I remember being told by a coach to go write “I won’t say I can’t” 100 times as punishment for having a mental block about a dive. I remember not being told by my swim coach about a particular rule, but punished for breaking it in competition with no instruction about what to do differently.
Now I watch my kid play rec sports, and his coaches are night and day different from those I experienced. They aren’t necessarily soft on him; there’s plenty of telling him to focus, to try and try again, to work harder. But they are encouraging, they provide positive feedback and tell him how to improve instead of just criticizing him. He confused first and third bases in a t-ball game, probably because he was talking to the kid who was supposed to be chasing him with the ball, and he was told to pay attention, sure, but also got a lesson in how we only run the bases counterclockwise. News we can use.
For decades, the narrative of gymnastics has included the idea that gymnasts cannot be successful without harsh coaching. Athletes were routinely derided as “uncoachable” when they tried to take control of their own training. This, folks, is how we ended up with the Karolyis running the United States gymnastics scene for thirty years.
So to hear (I listened to GymCastic; you can also read Scott Bregman’s write-up of the interviews for the Olympic Channel here) Memmel and Sacramone Quinn talk this week about speaking with athletes – not necessarily just the coaches – about what will make them more competitive, and wanting athletes to leave the sport feeling like the people in charge saw them as a whole person and valued their health, feels absolutely radical. Because this is how it should be, intuitively, but this is not how it has ever been. Because, we have been told for decades, giving the athletes agency is to sabotage the success of the whole. Of the team, of the country. Which is a lot to put on the backs of teenagers and young adults.
I interviewed this week a longtime coach (and a former Olympian) in a different sport, who told me that the primary thing that has changed since he began his coaching career has been the acceptance of failure and the ability of both coach and athlete to dive into that failure and talk about its causes – including mental health.
Memmel and Sacramone Quinn are now working for what I will charitably term a Big Bad. I hope that they will truly be given the freedom to do the things they spoke about this week, because while we may not see immediate results, I do think that if they are given the chance, we will look back and see the 2020 Olympics, Simone Biles’ stand for athlete mental health, and these new hires at USAG as a turning point in the sport. Winning can no longer be rooted in broken bones and broken spirits. We need healthy, empowered athletes and coaches who seek to build up instead of tearing down.
Other gym news
Derrian Gobourne signs an NIL deal with the WWE. Her mom Tikisha (who is awesome in her own right, and a huge advocate for both her daughter and Black gymnasts in both USAG and the NCAA) tweeted out the news. To say we’re excited about this is a vast understatement.
Suni Lee said she’s proud to help turn Auburn from a “football school” into a “gymnastics school.”
Greg Marsden turned down an opportunity to participate in Utah’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, according to his Twitter. “One thing I know is that no man should be featured in this celebration,” he wrote.
Felicia Hano has left Arkansas, where she was the assistant coach under Jordyn Wieber.
Sara Carver Milne, the head coach at Brown for 20 years, will be Auburn’s new assistant coach.
Jordynn Cromartie decommitted from Utah State to sign with Fisk University.
Gabrielle Gallentine is transferring from Florida to Penn State.
Abby Heiskell will return to Michigan for a fifth year and, casually, an MBA.
Two British gymnast sisters pull a Danusia Francis and will compete for Jamaica. Tyesha and China Mattis should receive their Jamaican passports in the next week.
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Five at The IX: Jackson Harrison
Jackson Harrison (they/them), 19, just completed their sophomore season at Arizona State University, where they compete for the Sun Devils gymnastics team. They identify as queer and non-binary. They grew up in southern Rhode Island and trained club at Aim High Academy with Danilo Gattei and Tristan Heuvelman. I reached out to Jackson on Twitter and am so excited to welcome them to The IX this week as I spotlight LGBTQIA+ gymnasts and gym community members during Pride month. (But take note, Pride does not end here when June does!) This interview has been edited for clarity.
What would you say to a young gymnast who has not yet come out, but is considering it?
JH: If I could say one thing to a young gymnast who wanted to come out, I would tell them that coming out is one of the hardest things you will have to do, and it will never stop, but it is also one of the most freeing things you can do. These past few years, I learned to treat myself as a person first, and when I feel comfortable as a person, that is when I perform my best. Not having to hide from people lifts an immense weight from your shoulders. It will not be easy, but the best things in life do not come easy.
How – if it has – has coming out impacted your gymnastics career and/or your ASU career, for better or worse?
JH: Coming out has greatly affected my entire gymnastics career.
I first started coming out as gay when I was 12 years old. It was a little scary at first; most of my teammates at this time were older than me and would always talk about girls and other straight guy stuff. And, I wasn’t delusional; I knew I was more feminine than everyone else, so they probably just assumed I was gay, but facing that truth out loud opened up the possibility of not being accepted for who I was. However, when they did, it was freeing. My teammates and coaches at Aim High were supportive, and while I was much different from most of them, they understood me and accepted my differences as just something that was and not something negative about me. My first time coming out opened up my world and allowed me to begin moving through that world in a way that made me feel the most confident. I no longer had to try and convince people that I was something that I was not.
My coming out story took a turn when I began to question my gender. My freshman year of college was primarily spent relearning the person I am. Through understanding myself and my importance outside of the sport of gymnastics, I realized that some of the discomforts I have been feeling are because I am trying to fit myself into a box that I will never fit into. I was trying to live my life as a man when I was not one. But, the funny thing is that I am not a woman either.
Last year, when I came out as non-binary, it allowed me to begin using gymnastics as a vehicle I could use to express myself instead of the tool I used to determine my self-worth. Coming out was the most essential part of my journey as an athlete. It allows me to be my most authentic self and to feel the most comfortable. And we always need to remember that was are all people first. We are people before we are athletes, or coaches, or students, or whatever. We need to allow ourselves to be our most authentic person if we are going to succeed in doing the things we enjoy.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion in gymnastics, both elite and NCAA, often seems like it’s one step forward, a few steps back. What is something you would like to see from coaches, NCAA leadership, or elite leadership that would signal a real commitment to DEI?
JH: I do not think we can move forward in sports, as a whole, without recognizing the faults and the structures of oppression involved.
In men’s gymnastics, that looks like coaches acknowledging the fact that gymnastics has been designed to push the people involved toward a very masculine stereotype. I want people to actually talk about how damaging the environment men’s gymnastics creates can be for people who do not fit into that stereotype, whether those people are queer or not. Acknowledge the facts: There are queer people here, and they may not feel comfortable in this environment, which means it is time to establish some changes to allow everyone, including queer people and non-queer people, to feel inspired and motivated to work hard.
When presented with someone that does not fit the stereotype of men’s gymnastics, it is also crucial for coaches to lean into that person’s differences. Instead of treating them like anyone else, they should seek out what works for that person and play into what makes them unique.
What’s your favorite skill, and favorite apparatus?
JH: My favorite event is definitely floor. It allows me to express myself in [the most] artistic way of all the events. I won floor at two competitions this season and was also a Junior Olympic National Champion on floor in 2017.
My favorite skill is absolutely a double layout. Two flips backward with a completely stretched body. For me, it is the epitome of the feeling of “flying through the air.” I actually tore my Achilles tendon on this skill three and a half years ago, an injury that changed my life. And I think that injury has made this skill even more incredible to me. It tore my life apart, and the feeling of doing it is still one of the most amazing feelings ever.
Favorite color in the rainbow and why?
JH: My favorite color is blue. In the pride flag, the color blue represents serenity and peacefulness. At this part of my life, my goal is just to enjoy each day and find peace at the end of everything. The color blue also reminds me of the ocean, something that I miss greatly living in Arizona after growing up in Rhode Island.
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