Katelyn Ohashi wrote a poem called ” Fame ” that ends “Not everyone’s destiny is going to be the same. Set your own goals and make your own fame.”
As the 22-year old UCLA senior gets ready to compete for the final time at the NCAA Championships, she has lived up to her own words with a trio of viral floor routines that have given her an audience outside the world of gymnastics and a platform to speak out on issues of empowerment. The meet begins Friday in Fort Worth, Texas.
Ohashi is ranked first nationally in floor exercise after recording a perfect 10.0 in six meets. She’s just the fourth gymnast in NCAA history to have a 10.0 national qualifying score on any event.
For as much attention as Ohashi gets on floor exercise, she is also ranked second nationally on the balance beam and leads a Bruins squad that is the defending national champion and has lost only one meet this season.
“I think I finally have really taken ownership of myself and me as a gymnast,” Ohashi said. “It just reminds you that timing is everything. I wouldn’t have been ready for all of this last year. I think this being my last year has set me up for a lot of the things I want to do in my future. I’ve always wanted to have a platform like this. So I think it’s really amazing.”
She is using that platform to try to spread a message of empowerment for women and to stand with survivors of abuse. It’s the theme of her new routine, a reworking of the one that earned her a perfect 10.0 in five of 10 meets and got more than 117 million views on social media , leading to appearances on national morning shows and acclaim from musicians, actors, athletes and politicians.
The routine opens with music from Tina Turner, retains a section from Janet Jackson, and features music and dance moves from Beyonce. The first one featured a medley of songs that also included Earth Wind & Fire, the Jackson 5, and music and dance moves from Michael Jackson.
“That’s kind of why we decided to, you know, go through with all the women musicians and who runs the world? Girls. Like, duh, no brainer,” she said. “I feel like it is important to have that message in a platform because I’m on a team with survivors and my floor coach is a survivor herself.”
The floor coach, Jordyn Wieber, was one of five athletes on the 2012 team who testified they were abused by Larry Nassar, a former doctor for USA Gymnastics who is in prison for sexually assaulting patients.
Ohashi always planned to have two different routines this season. She introduced the new one at the Pac-12 Championships . She earned a 10.0 at the Pac-12 meet and followed that with a 9.95 at the NCAA regional meet.
The change also coincided with the release of the “Leaving Neverland” documentary about Michael Jackson. Ohashi said removing Michael Jackson’s dance moves and music was a conscious decision because, “It’s about joy and if it makes one person feel uncomfortable then that’s never been my goal.”
Wieber said it wasn’t about whether they wanted to support Jackson’s music or not, but more about giving respect to all survivors.
“Katelyn has built this platform for herself where she reaches so many people not just in the gymnastics world but in the entire world. I’m just really excited that she decided to do that,” Wieber said.
The music for the new routine was selected by Ohashi, UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field, Wieber and former UCLA gymnast Ariana Berlin. Berlin spliced it all together. It also features a higher degree of difficulty with extra flips on tumbling passes and more intricate choreography, which Ohashi delivers with an energetic flair and enthusiasm that draws roars and appreciative screams from the audience.
Kondos Field and Wieber felt the pressure going into this season of seeing whether Ohashi could live up to 2018, when she became the NCAA floor champion with a routine that had more than 90 million views. UCLA has had many floor routines go viral , but last year was the first time it was done by a junior.
“We’ve never had to top it so I knew it had to be more exciting and joyful,” Kondos Field said. “All the music that we were finding and that she was bringing to me was cool music. It was artistic. It was really great music, but it wasn’t joyful on a level greater than she had last year.”
Kondos Field, who is retiring at the end of the season, said the whole experience this year has made Ohashi a better person, student and teammate.
“This is a dream come true for a coach to see a student-athlete mature through celebrity,” she said. “She has been inundated with media requests and having to keep up with school and having to be a great team player and not being able to be late for work out. And she’s maneuvered everything so well like a pro.”
It wasn’t a dream beginning, however.
Before Ohashi arrived at UCLA in the fall of 2015, she competed for four years at the elite level and won the all-around competition at the America’s Cup in 2013. But that was her last major accomplishment on the elite stage as back and shoulder injuries derailed her Olympic hopes.
As bad as the physical injuries were, Ohashi was in worse shape mentally because of the pressures of competition and the coaches. Kondos Field and Ohashi went out to lunch regularly her freshman year. The discussions weren’t about routines, but about college life.
Kondos Field also challenged her to use all the time she spent on her phone more productively, like listening to TED talks.
“That is literally when the little bud of a flower started to bloom, and her mind started opening up to things,” the coach said.
Ohashi has been outspoken about issues that matter to her. She has used her poetry to shed light on dealing with fame, body image and anti-bullying. Her love of writing came from years of being in elite gymnastics where the only way to express her thoughts was to write in journals.
She has recently discussed body shaming issues on a blog she started with a friend called “Behind the Madness.”
Ohashi will be riding the momentum of her notoriety for a while. She will graduate in June with a degree in gender studies. Her immediate post-graduation plans include interning at “The Players’ Tribune” and working with women affected by domestic violence.
Ohashi and Kondos Field have received many requests for her time but have put those off until after the season so they won’t interfere with her amateur status.
“What other time in life are you going to have 20 girls behind you in everything you do? But if we had another year, would we take it? Most likely not,” Ohashi said. “I think we both have given everything to the sport and have made the most out of what we have. It’s really cool that we get to walk out together.”
Follow Joe Reedy at www.twitter.com/joereedy