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Simone Biles' gym shows how to develop winners and champion diversity

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  • Tokyo Games
    Tokyo Games
  • Simone Biles
    Simone Biles
    American Olympic gymnast
  • Jordan Chiles
    American artistic gymnast

ST. LOUIS — It is already a unicorn-like occurrence for one gym to send four athletes to the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Looking at the gymnasts from the World Champions Centre, however, and you will see just how unique this group is. In a sport that has long struggled for diversity, WCC’s entire elite team – there are two more gymnasts in addition to the four at trials this week – are all Black and brown women.

“We are making a statement that no matter what color you are, no matter who you are, you can still do things that you love,” said Jordan Chiles, one of WCC’s gymnasts and a favorite to make the Olympic team.

“There's so much racism that's been out there that’s like, 'Oh, you can't do this because you're this color,’ ” Chiles continued. “If you go out there, and you do what you're supposed to do, it shouldn't be about your color, about your ethnicity, about your age, about how skinny or what weight you are. It should just be because of what you went out and showed the world.

“And I feel like WCC has done that. I feel like we've put out a statement because of who the elite team is.”

It does not hurt that WCC’s star is Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast the sport has ever seen. The opportunity to train alongside her, and with coaches Cecile and Laurent Landi, were what drew Chiles to WCC outside of Houston.

But knowing that Biles’ parents own the gym, and that it would be a warm and welcoming environment to her and other gymnasts of color, provided an added bonus. From the elite team to toddlers who are just starting to learn how to tumble, WCC is filled with gymnasts of every race and ethnicity, proof that gymnastics does not have to be a homogenous sport.

“The little ones, they’re like, 'Well, all of them (on the elite team) are girls of color and look at me, I'm a girl of color.’ So I think they feel like they're going to be successful,” Biles said. “And that's the most exciting part is seeing the kids just come and say hi to us and be so excited because we look like them and they think they can do it and they can do it because we've proven that you can.

Simone Biles and Jordan Chiles embrace during the U.S. Gymnastics Championships earlier this month.
Simone Biles and Jordan Chiles embrace during the U.S. Gymnastics Championships earlier this month.

“So it's just really exciting, but it is very rare.”

Though the last two Olympic champions were Black women – Gabby Douglas and Biles – and there have been at least two women of color on all but one U.S. Olympic team since 1992, gymnastics remains a predominately white sport.

And representation at the elite level is actually better than it is at the club or recreational level, said Derrin Moore, founder of Brown Girls Do Gymnastics.

USA Gymnastics has only been tracking racial demographic data for two years, but in the most recent survey, 67% of participants identified as white. Ten percent identified as Black (4.6%) or Hispanic (5.4%), and 8% identified as two or more races.

Outright racism remains a problem. After Douglas won gold in London, she was criticized mercilessly on social media about her hair. Moore, who has coached in Georgia for 25 years, recalls the judge who once congratulated her not because “my girls (did) well, she was congratulating me for keeping them off the street.”

“This was rural Georgia!” Moore said. “If that’s how you see them …”

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But accessibility is an issue, too. Gymnastics is an expensive sport, and gyms are not often located in areas that are predominantly Black and brown. That means on top of the financial burden, parents have to find ways to get their kids to and from classes or practice, often while also juggling work.

Now imagine doing that knowing your child will be one of, if not the only child of color.

“The catchphrase is, 'Representation matters,' but it really does make a difference,” Moore said. “I talked to a lady three weeks ago who had wanted to do gymnastics and every gym she went into, her mom didn’t feel comfortable leaving her Black baby there. 'Are they going to mistreat my child? Is my child going to feel like she belongs there?’ ”

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Li Li Leung, president of USA Gymnastics, said it’s those fears that make it imperative for the federation to promote diversity beyond it being a sound business practice. The governing body has made athlete safety a priority in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal and revelations of the toxic culture that allowed him to prey on young gymnasts, and Leung said that can’t just mean physical safety.

“When someone, newcomers to the sport or thinking about getting into sport, see someone who looks like them, they can identify with that and they feel more comfortable about participating in the sport,” she said. “You cannot have a safe or psychologically safe environment without also having a diverse population.”

Moore created Brown Girls Do Gymnastics in 2015 to help support and be a resource for gymnasts of color. The group is also leading a campaign to get HBCUs to add gymnastics programs, and is holding a conference next month at Grambling State that will include an exhibition and invitational.

USA Gymnastics has been helpful in promoting the HBCU campaign, and Moore said the organization has been taking a more active role in promoting diversity.

But there is always more that can be done.

Moore would like to see diversity and inclusion training required for everyone involved in the sport, at every level, on at least a biannual basis. Moore also recommended that USA Gymnastics partner with smaller clubs and community organizations, particularly in urban areas, that might not have traditional gymnastics programs but could help build interest with more kids of color.

“I definitely think it needs to be more intentional,” Moore said. “All of those things would really make a difference rather than, `Oh look, there are Black girls.’”

That is not to discount the power of the WCC team, and the visibility of gymnasts such as Douglas, Biles and Chiles. When Moore saw a photo from nationals of the WCC gymnasts, she didn’t have words to express how proud she was to see that kind of representation.

“It’s a culture that you have to build,” said Nellie Biles, Biles’ mother. “That's the culture that I want to build in here, and that is from preschool to the elite level. Every gymnast, regardless of color, should be able to come and feel welcome, and feel like they're not being given less of an opportunity or less chances of excelling. They should never feel that way.”

Successful gymnasts don’t develop out of thin air, and neither does diversity. WCC is providing a model for how to do both.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021 Olympics: Simone Biles' gym develops winners, champions diversity