Not so long ago, gymnastics left UCLA's Katelyn Ohashi broken. So how did the Newcastle native rediscover what she loved about the sport and find a voice to influence others?
Katelyn Ohashi’s smile is more important than the score.
On Jan. 12, both were perfect.
In a bedazzled blue leotard, on a worn blue mat, the Newcastle native shimmied and shined. She vaulted through the air like an ax somersaulting toward its target. She swung her arms and flipped her hips, dancing to the music as her teammates mimicked her every move. She clapped along to “The Jackson Five,” snapping her fingers before turning to fly. She whipped her curly brown hair and stuck out her tongue; she contorted and careened and spun and smiled.
The talent has always been there.
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That smile? Not so much.
At the Collegiate Challenge inside the Anaheim Convention Center Arena, Ohashi earned a perfect 10 for her jarringly joyful floor routine. The 21-year-old UCLA gymnast added to an already extensive athletic resume. She hugged and high-fived her teammates as the crowd erupted in a standing ovation.
In less than two minutes on the mat, she transcended gymnastics. Her smile jumped right out of the gym.
“I don’t want to sound pompous, but anybody else could do that routine, and it wouldn’t be the same,” said Katelyn’s mother, Diana Ohashi, who was in the audience that day. “She just has this crazy personality that really draws in the crowd — just so much joy. I just feel like we need that right now.”
Maybe that’s why Ohashi’s perfect floor routine has been viewed more than 113 million times and counting on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as of Thursday afternoon. Maybe it’s why Good Morning America flew the family from Los Angeles to New York for an appearance on national television. Maybe it’s why a senior gender studies major at UCLA has suddenly evolved into a role model for the next generation of gymnasts.
In a sport waylaid by the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, Ohashi somehow managed to infuse a little fun.
“In the Olympics the culture is so different,” Katelyn Ohashi said. “You have young girls that haven’t completely stepped into themselves, and have been coached and taught to be one way, which is the cookie-cutter gymnastics (mentality). You have to be serious in order to be successful. It’s all these things we’re told at that age.
“So when you see college gymnastics that produces results while having fun and having supportive teammates and all this stuff, I think that’s something that’s really refreshing.”
The routine was plenty refreshing … and the aftermath was overwhelming.
“That night I saw it on the Huffington Post and I was freaking out,” Diana Ohashi said. “I (said to my husband), ‘Richard! Do you know how big this is?’ He’s like, ‘What’s the Huffington Post?’
“I was so excited I couldn’t go to sleep until 4 in the morning. Then it just went ka-boom. We just couldn’t even believe it. I just kept saying, ‘Can you believe this? That’s our baby!’ ”
Katelyn is the baby of the family, the youngest of four Ohashi kids and the only girl in the group. And on Monday morning after the event, Diana and Richard Ohashi’s baby girl was driving her parents to the airport when they abruptly decided to turn around.
“(Richard) had to go back to work,” Diana Ohashi said, “and I’m like, ‘You can’t go back! This is happening right now! Just let me call your boss.’ ”
When your baby becomes an overnight viral sensation, work probably has to wait. Richard’s boss obliged.
“Both my parents had never been to New York, so when they got to go out with me for Good Morning America they were so happy,” Katelyn Ohashi said. “My mom was probably peeing herself, she was so happy.”
Added Diana: “It was such a whirlwind. You’re almost in shock, like, is this really happening? I lived back east for a while and never made it to New York, so that was my birthday present from my daughter.”
In the weeks since, the whirlwind hasn’t subsided. More than 10,000 fans attended UCLA’s first meet after the suddenly famous floor routine. The defending NCAA champion Bruin gymnasts have won five consecutive events.
Ohashi returned Sunday to her home state for a meet at the University of Washington, where she performed the routine again, dazzling a record crowd of 7,228 at Alaska Airlines Arena, including friends and family. She strutted. She smiled. And once again, scored a perfect 10.
Katelyn Ohashi is enjoying gymnastics, which isn’t something she could always say.
Technically, Ohashi has not been a gymnast since birth.
It actually started even earlier.
“My whole pregnancy I’m like, ‘This kid’s doing cartwheels,’ ” Diana Ohashi said. “Then she used to play under the kitchen table, in a headstand, with her knees up against the table. She used to climb up the door jambs.
“I’m like, ‘I’ve got to get her in gymnastics. She’s vaulting over my couch.’ ”
At three years old, Katelyn traded in Diana’s couch for more legitimate equipment. At nine, she moved to Missouri (then later, Texas) to further pursue the sport. She spent four years on the United States national team, even topping future four-time Olympic champion Simone Biles to win the 2013 AT&T American Cup.
She was winning, but she was hurting. She certainly wasn’t smiling.
“When she was at American Cup we were watching it on TV, and I saw her putting her hands on her back and I said, ‘Her back hurts.’ I just knew it,” Diana Ohashi said. “I picked her up and she’s crying. I’m like, ‘What’s the matter? You just won the biggest meet of your life and you’re crying.’ ”
Katelyn competed with a fractured back and two torn shoulders. She struggled to feel comfortable in her body, later writing that she was once compared to “a bird that was too fat to lift itself off the ground.” She worked out late at night until she felt skinny enough to sleep.
Ohashi was also diagnosed with a rare skin disease called granuloma annulare, which left unsightly bumps and discolored circles on her skin. She suffers from ulcerative colitis, a chronic bowel disease that causes long-lasting inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract. In Katelyn’s case, it manifests itself with vomiting, sharp stomach pain, uncontrollable bowel movements and bleeding.
Little by little, Ohashi was suffocating under the weight of astronomical expectations. Her body was wilting from within. Like a parasite, gymnastics betrayed her, sapping her strength and stealing her smile. In a video on The Players Tribune, she said the sport had left her “broken.”
So in 2015, she traded Olympic dreams for a college campus. She dropped elite gymnastics and enrolled at UCLA.
She let go of the pressure. Katelyn Ohashi cut out the parasite and pursued her passion anew.
“My entire college career has kind of been me stepping into my joy,” Katelyn said. “I wouldn’t say that this moment or this viral stuff has defined me or made me a happier person.
“I think just being able to experience college gymnastics the way I have has allowed me to really express myself and have so much fun in the sport.”
Want to see a joy so pure it threatens to shake the gym?
That’s easy enough; it radiates throughout the entire floor routine that ripped a hole in social media.
It was also on display in Seattle on Sunday.
It’s hard to imagine that Katelyn’s smile could actually get any bigger. The fierce 4-foot-10 gymnast has continued to transcend her sport, spreading a message of inclusiveness and body health on various talk shows and in interviews. Several years ago, she started a blog to share her own experiences and allow her voice to influence others.
“Writing and putting that stuff out there has really given me the courage to really be who I am and be comfortable in my skin,” Katelyn said. “I was just on a panel the other night about body image and eating disorders.
“It’s so amazing to hear everyone’s story and what they’ve gone through. So I know sharing mine has helped so many people.”
In the months and years to come, Ohashi will be here to help. She’s set to graduate from UCLA in June and plans to work with nonprofit organizations focusing on homelessness and domestic violence, “anything that I can do to give back and use my platform in the right way.”
Turns out, Katelyn Ohashi is so much more than a viral sensation. She’s more than a gymnast, than a perfect score and smile.
“I just feel blessed that she’s so confident, and she’s got an idea of what she wants to do,” Diana Ohashi said. “When she was in school she was Joan of Arc. I kind of think about her that way sometimes. It was really cute. I dressed her all up and she did a play at church. I just feel like she’s a crusader.
“It’s so neat to see, because she wants to help the homeless. She wants to help the NCAA work through some of the kinks. She’s got a lot of spirit, and I think it’s great. She’s helping women. I can’t believe we made her. I tell Richard, she’s what we could have been.”