Katelyn Ohashi and How a 'Twisted' System Can Corrupt So Much
Elite gymnast Katelyn Ohashi spoke with the authors of ‘Twisted: The Story of Larry Nassar and the Women Who Took Him Down’ about how gymnasts have been subjected to mental trauma and a toxic culture.By Carla CorreaJul 19, 2019 4:13 PM
In May 2018, my colleague Mary Pilon and I were sitting with Katelyn Ohashi in a UCLA Athletics office, interviewing the champion gymnast while reporting our Audible Original, Twisted: The Story of Larry Nassar and the Women Who Took Him Down. We mostly discussed the emotional and physical toll of elite gymnastics, sexual assault and Nassar's crimes, and the murky future of the sport's governing body. Ohashi said Nassar had treated her, but did not abuse her.
During the conversation, Ohashi's eyes darted toward a candy jar on a nearby desk. She paused and announced that she was going to help herself, but I did not partake. In the presence of one of the best college athletes in the country, I thought: What if she judges me for snacking?
Ohashi would have told me to eat a piece. The gymnast -- perhaps best known for this year's viral floor exercise, which scored her a rare perfect 10 -- is a fierce advocate for inclusivity and defying beauty standards.
"The objectification of our bodies is making me sick."
In a sport whose leaders failed athletes at nearly every turn, and where for decades the prevailing image of a champion was a prepubescent-looking girl under the tutelage of an older man, Ohashi and many of her peers have been speaking out, joining the likes of the Olympic champion Dominique Moceanu and the national champion Jennifer Sey in denouncing a toxic culture.
"You have to uphold this image as an athlete, especially an elite gymnast, to look a certain way and be a certain size," Ohashi said. "I think I was like 74 pounds the first time I got called fat and got told that I shouldn't have dinner."
Ohashi, now 22, began gymnastics at age three in Seattle. Her talent prompted her mother to move her daughter to Missouri to train with the well-known coach Al Fong, and then to Texas to work with Valeri Liukin, the former Soviet Olympic champion (who is also the father of the Olympic champion Nastia Liukin and the coach who led the United States' women's gymnastics team after the famed coach Martha Karolyi retired).
Under Liukin, Ohashi said, her gymnastics improved. In 2013, she won the American Cup, beating a young Simone Biles. In hindsight, the commentary during her floor exercise was notable. Nastia Liukin remarked, "She was really excited about this routine, because she said she even gets to smile a little bit in the middle."
There was no visible smile. Ohashi was hampered by injuries; the American Cup would be her last competition as an elite gymnast, and her only one on the senior level.
"I can't really deny his talent as a coach," Ohashi later said, referring to Liukin. "But as time went on, it almost became like it was abusive, in a sense, mentally and emotionally."
Ohashi said she came home from the American Cup in tears. "I wasn't happy," she recalled. "I was just in pain, and I felt like my -- me, personally, and my body was used for the medal instead of like, really watched over." She said she went to the doctor because "I could feel my vertebrae protruding from my back, like sticking out. I couldn't touch it, even in the slightest, without being in tears."
A month after the American Cup, she had shoulder surgery.
"Even now, I watch videos, and you can just see my face in like, agony," she continued. "Things like that, as a 16-year-old athlete? It's sad and scary that I wasn't looked over better."
Ohashi's diaries from the time also reveal a broken gymnast. Three years prior to the American Cup win, she wrote:
"My coach believes that me messing up or falling is a result of me being too heavy, so I have got in the habit of measuring my thighs with my hands every day to see if I have gained any weight... I'm used to waking up to the taste of blood or iron in my mouth, as if I might almost throw up from being so hungry."
(Ohashi said she had "no doubt" that Liukin acted differently with the national team and that "he probably was trying to change the culture in some way or form." In a statement to People magazine in 2017 about another gymnast who had called out his methods, Liukin said: "I have grown as a coach through experience and expanding my knowledge. Today, I firmly believe an athlete's focus should be on training smart, with increased education in the areas of balanced nutrition, fitness, healthy lifestyle and communication.")
The environment at the Karolyi ranch, the women's national team training site on an expanse in Texas owned by the famed coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, did not always help Ohashi's self-esteem. Team members like Ohashi traveled there about every month to train.
"I don't think Martha ever really talked to me much when I was there, but she would talk to Valeri," she said. "After we'd get back, sometimes he would tell me she was unpleasantly surprised by my body."
Nassar was also abusing some of Katelyn's teammates at the ranch. In a 2018 interview with NBC News' Dateline, the Karolyis denied inflicting emotional and verbal abuse, or knowing about Nassar's sexual abuse.
Ohashi said she agreed with others who have said that the girls and women did not understand they were being abused.
"I thought he cared about the athletes," she said, adding that it seemed like Nassar was "the only one that really did truly care about our well-being."
"It was just kind of scary to think about," she added, recalling a conversation she had with Valorie Kondos-Field, who became her coach when she joined the UCLA Bruins gymnastics team in 2015. "She's like, 'How were you not abused?' You know? She's like, 'I was having daily conversations with him about your back before you came in, and you were working with him a lot.' And it's kind of like -- I don't know."
Several gymnasts, including Ohashi, have said that college was the first place they felt comfortable to do whatever, whenever. Eat junk food. Drink. Party. Talk back. Ohashi has said that she did not want to be great at UCLA because she associated "greatness" with pain and unhappiness.
"I needed to get past this anger and this rebellion phase, even though I don't think that'll ever go away," Ohashi said, laughing. "But no, I just -- I realized that my coaches now have good intentions. Their intentions are for us as people and as athletes, so I had to switch my mental state. I had to go to therapy a decent amount."
She said it took about "a full year for me to kind of get out of my head and start semi-listening."
Her passion for the sport, and her bond with her new coaches and team, drove her forward, culminating in her role in the Bruins' 2018 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championship and 2019's viral routine. Her outlook on life has also fueled her poetry. In addition to the verses she spoke at the ESPYs, she has read her poetry -- about sexual assault, body shaming, and other delicate topics -- at open mics and on Good Morning America.
Ohashi, a gender studies major, graduated from UCLA in June. And yes, she still is doing gymnastics: In August 2019, she will compete at the inaugural Aurora Games, an all-women's sports festival.
Photo by: UCLA
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