Why gymnastics lends itself to parasocial relationships between athletes and fans, and other thoughts from Megan Walker Thigpen — Other gym news

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, Mar. 17, 2023

Continue reading with a subscription to The IX

Get unlimited access to our exclusive coverage of a varitety of women’s sports, including our premium newsletter by subscribing today!

Join today

Bailey Lovett, a fifth-year competitor for the University of Arkansas, retired from gymnastics, effective Monday. 

Her announcement took the gymternet by surprise, because NCAA gymnastics is headed into the postseason this weekend and Lovett has been key to Arkansas’ floor lineup. 

But shock quickly turned into wild speculation as Lovett’s social-media followers looked into her previous posts and likes and saw that she had posted a few memes about mental health and had liked many posts wondering if the coaches at Arkansas had anything to do with her seemingly sudden retirement. All of which culminated in a follow-up post by Lovett Tuesday.  

Also on Monday, Suni Lee posted, then hastily deleted, a TikTok that appeared to be taken in a hospital, while she was coming off anesthesia (I didn’t see the TikTok myself, so I can’t speak for what the content was. But based on the initial reaction, it sounds like she was woozy and had slurred speech.) We had heard that she had a “non-gymnastics health issue” – quality Auburn PR-speak there – that kept her out of competition last week, but the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t TikTok prompted tons of speculation by fans about what, exactly, was going on with Lee, how long she would be out, and, yes, whether her coaches were bad for her. 

The two posts sparked a lot of interesting conversations about the relationship between gymnasts and their fans, and whether a social post is really just a a social post or whether posts and likes contain multitudes of hidden dramas. 

Megan Walker Thigpen, a former Auburn gymnast, wrote a Twitter thread after the above incidents that I found really interesting. 

Thigpen agreed to an interview, which you can read below in Five at The IX. I’m going to let her words carry this topic for the week. 

Other gym news

The regular NCAA season is over, and the postseason begins this weekend with conference championships. Road to Nationals has your regular-season standings. Balance Beam Situation has all your final NQS situations, all the 10s and all the GIFs. College Gym News has all the leotards.

Inside Gymnastics has a schedule of conference championships. 

CGN also has a preview of conference championships.

GymCastic previewed conference champs as well this week. Host Jessica O’Beirne also interviewed Jenny Hansen, college gym legend and holder (with Jamie Danztcher) of the all-time perfect-10 record that Trinity Thomas is gunning for. 

I appreciate that while most programs are out there posting their gymnasts’ top scores, LIU’s Ilka Juk is doing self-promotion. 

KJ Johnson of LSU spoke about her career on the In Off the Bench podcast this week. 

The six finalists for the AAI Award were announced.

Fisk became the first HBCU to host a gymnastics meet

Five at The IX: Megan Walker Thigpen

Megan Walker Thigpen, 29, is a former Auburn gymnast (2012-15) who now coaches at Bay City Gymnastics in Daphne, Ala., where’s she is about to take her Level 6, 7, and 8 gymnasts to the Alabama state meet. Thigpen also does choreography and occasional commentary. She lives in nearby Mobile with her husband and “two adorable dogs.” (They are extremely adorable!) 

Thigpen grew up in upstate New York, where she trained on the elite track at Southern Tier Gymnastics, qualifying junior elite in 2008. She achieved All-SEC honors and was a two-time All American at Auburn, and was part of Auburn’s second-ever appearance in the NCAA finals in 2015. You can find her on Twitter @mewthigpen and  @mrsmegan.thegymcoach on Instagram

As I mentioned above, Thigpen wrote a really lovely Twitter thread about the relationship between gymnasts and their fans. I reached out to her after I read it and requested an interview since I wanted to hear more. She agreed, and I think you, too, will find it a most interesting take. Thank you Megan! 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

You mentioned, both in your thread and in a chat with me, that gymnasts are often treated by fans online both as professionals and as people’s “besties” simultaneously.  There’s a level of admiration for the work the athletes put in, but also a demand for quite a bit of access. Why do you think this is?  

MWT: I think gymnasts, especially on meet day, have this wonderful persona that’s broadcast to the world. For the most part, we try to be upbeat, excited and supportive whenever we’re on the competition floor. I think the atmosphere of an NCAA gymnastics meet creates these versions of our perceived personalities that may or may not be accurate. In many ways, gymnastics is truly a performance. And because we put on an excellent show, a stronger rapport forms between us and the fans. I can’t think of another sport, aside from maybe cheerleading, in which every routine is punctuated by yelling, cheering, smiles, hugs and high fives. It’s accentuated by the uniform and presentation — the glitz, the glam, the sparkle. I think the energy of a gymnastics meet can rival a trip to your favorite theme park! It’s filled with magic. 

And I think that magic can blur the lines between the fan and athlete relationship. It bends the normal rules and creates a bubble in which gymnasts are expected to simultaneously be professionals (and are held to that standard) and somehow also be incredibly approachable, accessible, and like a friend to the fans. And we love being accessible to the fans, don’t get me wrong. My favorite moments of my competition days were after meets, waiting at the exit, taking photos, signing shirts and talking with the thousands of little girls that came to watch us that night. We aren’t rushed away from the fans, but rather, we’re encouraged to stay and interact. It’s a gift. But, it’s also a double-edged sword because that unique fan-to-athlete relationship can make boundaries difficult to define.

As a former gymnast and as a current coach, what do you think gymnasts would like to see from their fans in terms of social media interaction? 

I can’t speak for everyone, nor do I intend to. But, I think as athletes in general, we are incredibly comfortable with the fans critiquing our gymnastics. Most of the time, the information put on the Internet regarding our skills/routines is accurate, and yet, still subjective. That’s the nature of the sport. Not everyone is going to like Jane Doe’s sheep jump and that’s 100% okay. As someone who coaches club and watches college gymnastics, I loathe wolf turns, get aggravated when there’s no deduction taken on late blind-fulls, and think over-scoring is a massive problem.

A part of the problem on social media stems from some fans treating athletes like gymnastics is all they do and it’s all they are. Admittedly, many gymnasts have a hard time recognizing their own identity when gymnastics is over. We have to work really hard in the gymnastics community to ensure that our young women understand that gymnastics is just something they do. It’s not who they are.

When you decide to talk about our family matters, severe injuries, suspected disordered eating, mental health issues, breakups or whatever else you find out about our lives, practice empathy before speculating or creating rumors. Please stop tagging gymnasts directly. When you subtweet or post in a forum, just keep in mind that the gymnast probably sees that, too — algorithms are incredibly smart. 

I’m not saying the fans shouldn’t have opinions. Sometimes, things happen and you’re going to feel passionately about it. All I ask is that fans remember that NCAA gymnasts are not professionals. Being a college student in itself is difficult; add in athletics and it’s a different ball of wax. Your anonymity vanishes and your privacy is invaded constantly. 

We know that’s part of what we signed up for, but I have a life motto of sorts: If you have the means and ability to make someone’s day a bit easier with a simple act of kindness, you should try to do it. 

What do you think makes gymnastics fans different than, say, football or basketball fans in terms of creating these parasocial relationships with the gymnasts and teams they follow? 

MTW: I think there’s a couple of reasons these parasocial relationships are so prevalent in our sport. I already mentioned the performance nature of gymnastics contributing to this phenomenon. I also think the number of athletes is much smaller in comparison to other mainstream sports. A football team carries 100+ players on the roster. On a team of that size, there’s many players fans never get to know at all. It’s not like in gymnastics. You see the same 15-20 faces on your screen every week and there’s only 80+ schools that carry the sport at all. The fans feel like they know every person on the team, they see their faces up close and personal, and the performance itself fosters an exciting energy that helps fans feel very much a part of the moment. 

I’ll also add that there’s an expected approachability that comes with being a popularized female sport. As women, we are generally expected to be friendly and sociable — on the floor, in interviews, with the fans. On the flipside, male sports are applauded for being confrontational, aggressive and even outspoken. We are not often afforded that same option. 

I’m not against Gymnastics releasing black-and-white injury reports the way football or basketball does. The general write-ups about knee or hip injuries are fine by me. But…it’s a compassionate choice to be thoughtful before delving into their issues at length on Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

How can gymnasts best enforce boundaries with their fans? We’ve seen many scenarios, not just this week with Bailey Lovett and Suni Lee, but with Livvy Dunne and other gymnasts with popular social feeds where those boundaries are getting crossed, sometimes alarmingly so. 

MTW: Unfortunately, the gymnasts have to be quite guarded about what information they choose to share. I’d remind the athletes that not everything needs to be shared on their social media platforms. They have to understand that fans are going to be curious and I don’t blame them for that, so if we want the fan/athlete relationship to have these empathetic boundaries, athletes will likely need to hold some information more privately. Like I’ve stated before, we do not have the gift of anonymity like most of the gymternet. Many fans have vague usernames, non-specific profile pictures and you don’t know who they are, but they still wield the power of the keyboard. 

What can fans do better to support gymnasts? 

MTW: I want to be clear, I love the fans (and a special shoutout to the Auburn family is certainly in order). For the most part, fans are incredibly supportive, interactive, and they help make competition day in this sport a beautiful and wonderful experience. I simply encourage fans: 

In the moments when drama starts to stir, trauma reveals itself or the tea is about to spill, ask yourself, “How can I give grace? Can I be more compassionate? Am I being respectful or doing my best to give someone privacy in a moment of need? Am I choosing kindness? In this moment, could I stand to be more empathetic?”

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Lela Moore