Gymnastics at the highest levels is serious business: A minor stumble can mean losing a medal, and stepping out of bounds could keep you off the team entirely.
At a college meet over the weekend, Katelyn Ohashi of UCLA delivered a brilliant technical floor routine, with nary a step on her landings. But a YouTube video of that performance has attracted millions of viewers not because of her skill level but rather the unabashed fun she seems to be having while doing it.
“Performing is my favorite thing,” Ohashi said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “What you see is how I feel.”
In the viral routine, Ohashi waves her arms and encourages the crowd to clap. She breaks out dance moves to the music of Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and Earth, Wind & Fire.
She performs with self-confidence and charisma, complemented all along by her bouncing curls and an infectious grin. At the end of the routine, she executes a leaping split followed by a curl shake and jubilant smile.
Another huge part of the video’s appeal is the joyous reactions from Ohashi’s teammates as they watch from the sidelines, matching many of her moves in perfect synchronization.
“Those are my girls,” Ohashi said, noting that the team usually mimes one another’s moves. “They picked up on mine really quick.”
Ohashi’s score for the routine? A perfect 10, the sixth one of her collegiate career. UCLA won the meet over California, Michigan State and U.C. Davis.
Gymnastics aficionados may remember Ohashi, now 21, as a world-class gymnast not far off an Olympic berth. She won the American Cup in 2013, defeating none other than Simone Biles (who went on to be the 2016 Olympic champion).
But injuries and unhappiness with gymnastics derailed Ohashi’s career. “I was broken,” she said in a Players Tribune video published this summer. Criticism that she was too heavy bothered her. “I hated myself,” she said in the video.
But coming to UCLA and competing at a lower level has made all the difference. “My teammates and my coaches have all allowed me to step into my individuality,” she said Tuesday, “and not be defined by just being a gymnast.”
Last season, UCLA won the NCAA gymnastics title, and Ohashi was co-champion in the floor exercise after finishing the regular season ranked No. 1 in that discipline.
She devised this new floor routine for the new season with the help of her teammates and coach. Her primary inspiration, she said, was YouTube videos of Janet Jackson’s song “Rhythm Nation.”
Ohashi’s routine has drawn praise from Sen. Kamala Harris of California — “This is just fantastic” — and Jesse Jackson — “The ground is no place for a champion.”
“It’s like all these people who have impacted my life who I have always looked up to,” Ohashi said. “It’s crazy to see. I’m humbled and star-struck.”
It’s not the first UCLA gymnastics video to go viral. Three years ago, Sophina DeJesus, a one-time teammate of Ohashi’s, broke out the whip and the nae nae in a routine that caught the world’s attention (and also included exuberant and supportive teammates).
“Most of the time, if the entertainment value is in a floor routine, it can only help their score,” Samantha Peszek, an Olympic silver medalist, said at the time of DeJesus’ viral routine. But, she added, “international judges seem to appreciate more traditional style of floor choreography, so a floor routine like this would not score as well as it does in collegiate competition.”
Ohashi’s Olympic dreams stalled in part because of injuries, including a fractured back. “That was scary, because they didn’t know how stable my back was at the time,” she said.
Though she has found happiness at college, she is realistic about the sport’s injury risks. “We peak when we’re 16, so it’s hard to keep going,” she said of gymnasts. “I’m healthy — for a gymnast. There’s days when my body’s better than other days. It still gives me problems.
“But it’s very manageable. Rehab is forever my friend.”
She plans to keep the viral floor routine all the way through the NCAA championships in April, where it may bring home a second consecutive title to go with all the clicks.