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Viral sensation Katelyn Ohashi prepares for one final curtain call

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The Roman goddess of dawn had to overcome the night to bring in a sunrise. It was only then that Aurora was able to give her people hope, rejuvenation and energy through her light.

Katelyn Ohashi had her own darkness in gymnastics, a sport marred for years by a sexual abuse scandal and toxic culture at its highest level. The 22-year-old took a step back. It was only then that she rediscovered passions and as Aurora did before her, spread light via energetic dance moves and difficult tumbling passes set to pop music. It was a view of gymnastics the world hadn’t seen much of and Ohashi continued to amaze, reaching a career-total 11 perfect 10s, reading poems and recognizing real issues.

“She broke out of being this little talented robot into an amazing young woman that is multifaceted and you see that in her performance,” coach and UCLA legend Valorie Kondos Field said.

“I hesitate to say I’m proud of her, because I had very little to do with it. She’s the one that did it all,” she said. “But I am proud of the example that she’s showing to other people, especially young girls, that you don’t have to be so myopic to be great at something.”

It is fitting, then, that Ohashi will perform her viral gymnastics routine for one final time at an event named for the goddess of dawn and signifying a new day in women’s sports. The UCLA graduate will make her first and only professional appearance at the Aurora Games in Albany, New York, where the all-female, first-of-its-kind event looks to get off the ground Aug. 20.

It is the most suitable final performance for a viral superstar who has melded gymnastics and gender empowerment so beautifully it all seems destined.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 21: UCLA's Katelyn Ohashi competes in floor exercise during a PAC-12 meet against Arizona State at Pauley Pavilion on January 21, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)
Katelyn Ohashi's routine went viral in part because of the enthusiasm she showed on the floor. (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

What motivates Katelyn Ohashi?

It wasn’t long ago Ohashi told her UCLA teammates and coach she didn’t want to be great again.

The one-time Olympic hopeful for Team USA won the 2013 American Cup all-around title in her Senior Elite international debut. Six years later she is still the last person to defeat four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles, who missed gold by nearly two points.

Yet she’s also the competitor who performed through back pain for two years as a young teenager, who was at first relieved when a doctor said she may never compete again due to it, and who writes openly about body-shaming and toxic environments she faced throughout her childhood.

Ohashi underwent surgery, dropped into the Level 10 circuit and later called Kondos Field to become a Bruin and get an education. Her career at UCLA was at first quieter than if she had gone on to Team USA stardom. Collegiate gymnastics doesn’t gain the same newsy traction as the Olympics.

Unless you’re a gymnast with renewed purpose, joy and exuberance.

“I always think timing is really important,” Ohashi said on a conference call with her coach. “Throughout this past six months everything has kind of really aligned extremely well for me and sometimes I think about it, like why me, do I deserve this type of stuff?”

Ohashi said a conversation she had with a friend stuck with her. He told her the harder you work, “The closer you come to being lucky because luck doesn’t really exist.”

“I feel like it was all the algorithms and the universe aligning for me,” she said. “... I realized how lucky I am to be put in this situation. And how I can continue to use my platform to help lift other people around me.”

Her platform is part female empowerment, part unbridled joy and it was refined through perspective at UCLA.

Katelyn Ohashi, of the United States, during the American Cup gymnastics competition in Worcester, Mass., Saturday, March 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Katelyn Ohashi participated on the U.S. national team for four years as a junior. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Finding her own light in gymnastics

Kondos Field, known best as “Miss Val,” retired this spring after 29 legendary years coaching the UCLA gymnastics team. She led the Bruins to seven NCAA national titles, including in 2018, and was named the NACGC Coach of the Year four times. The largest legacy she will leave behind is how she treated the superstars in her care and her quest for living each moment with joy. She’ll oversee and serve as a sideline reporter of sorts at the gymnastics competition at the Aurora Games.

Kondos Field’s philosophy is to coach the person before the athlete; to nurture, encourage and develop one’s full self to make every aspect greater. She told the Players’ Tribune she wants her athletes to believe they’re more than a stereotype, that they’re unique.

“When you do that it makes their athleticism better,” she said.

She built Ohashi’s trust back and Ohashi built her full self. She found things she was passionate in around her sophomore year, Kondos Field said, and the difference was notable. Two years before her viral perfect 10, Ohashi launched “Behind the Madness,” a collection of writings with her friend and teammate, Maria. She discovered the major she would stick with — gender studies — and became better at articulating the messages she always held. It made “every other part of her life richer, including gymnastics,” Kondos Field said.

Ohashi first broke into viral status with her Michael Jackson-themed floor exercise during the 2018 Pac-12 championships that later won her a national title. In January she shattered it with a more refined performance for a perfect 10. She used TV appearances to talk about body shaming and coming back from the depths of the sport. And in March, she changed up her routine slightly and swapped to an all-female soundtrack. It was intentional.

The Aurora Games, Ohashi admits, are the perfect tie-in for not only her major but what she’s brought to the world since January.

Ohashi’s story a moment for the gymnastics, hope

There is no doubt Ohashi has lifted up the entire sport of gymnasticS as it escapes an era in which nearly every headline was about the fallout from a win-at-all-cost culture at the highest levels. In many ways, Ohashi’s story is similar in that she felt the pressure and believes adults neglected her wellbeing for gold.

“Katelyn’s celebrity has come from the fact that everybody knows her story and that it wasn’t always roses and easy and fun, but that she’s able to move forward,” said Kondos Field, who got an unconventional start in the sport and is seen as unconventional in coaching. “And the thing that I find so remarkable is that she’s never placed blame, she’s never called people out, she’s not bitter at all. At. All.

“In fact she will say that it’s those hard times that shaped her to care about the things that she cares about now that she’s really proud about. And that’s a massive statement for people.”

Ohashi maintains her routine is “a light on gymnastics,” a window into its pure joy. She bounces and beams, includes moves that serve no purpose toward a score but get the fans and teammates bopping along. Attendance marks broke records this year at UCLA meets, as well as at the NCAA final, and they both hope a similar occurrence will take place at the Aurora Games.

“Katelyn is a shining example of how to move on in life and how to choose happiness and joy versus continuing to look back and be bitter,” Kondos Field said. “And everything about her transformation and how she is celebrating that, including the fact that the more celebrity she’s gotten the more humble she has gotten, and all of that is just, it’s been not just fabulous for our sport but for sport in general.”

The Aurora Games gets its own perfect 10 for timing. With Ohashi headlining a slightly different take on a gymnastics meet, the sport will get another boost in a non-Olympics year and all women athletes will benefit on the heels of the record-breaking Women’s World Cup.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 11: Valorie Kondos Field (L) and Katelyn Ohashi attend the UCLA #WOW The Wonder Of Women Summit at UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center on April 11, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)
Valorie Kondos Field and Katelyn Ohashi are each doing public speaking engagements. Together they attended the UCLA #WOW The Wonder Of Women Summit in April. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)

Ohashi’s last call on the floor, but not the podium

Ohashi had no intention of going forward with gymnastics after she set down her UCLA leotard one last time and picked up a degree. Where was she going to go, anyway?

Then Jerry Solomon called. The longtime sports marketing executive largely known as the husband of figure skating legend Nancy Kerrigan came up with an idea for an all-female event after the 2016 Rio Olympics. Solomon noted that female athletes seemed to receive less coverage at the games in comparison to men and so was born the Aurora Games, a week-long celebration of women in sports that aims to run every other year.

“[It’s really cool] being able to present [my routine] one more time at the Aurora Games and show little girls, specifically gymnasts, that it’s not just about the Olympics,” Ohashi said. “And [I can] just shed a light on gymnastics in general and I would say the Aurora Games is helping with that.”

It’s named after the Roman goddess and pits The Americas vs. The World for the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Trophy. Competitions include figure skating, hockey, basketball and tennis led by some of the world’s top athletes. McKenna Kelley, the daughter of 1984 gold medalist Mary Lou Retton, and Danusia Francis, the 2016 NCAA beam champion from UCLA, will also headline the gymnastics rosters.

Ohashi and Kondos Field both said they see it as a showcase of women supporting women, and the world supporting each other. It is, Kondos Field said, “greatly needed” right now and she hopes there’s a subliminal message in it all. She said she’s excited for young girls to see the positive energy from women rather than the jealousy and “mean girl” act.

There will be a twist on a standard meet, starting with a group performance coordinated by Kondos Field. Rather than the four typical events, the Aurora Games will have power tumbling, aesthetics gymnastics and parkour, which has its world championship debut in 2020, within a “celebratory” format.

Whether she goes out on top or not, Ohashi has a lot to celebrate. Her calendar is full as she “rides the wave” from January’s breakout moment. She’s traveling, doing speaking engagements, working on finishing her poetry activism book and has thought about moving toward children’s books next. The young star said she has more in the works she’s excited to release soon.

First comes one more breath of light from her floor routine, an energetic hope for gymnastics and women’s sports as she melds it all seamlessly into the Aurora Games.

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