Why NCAA Women’s Gymnastics should be your Lockdown viewing.

Thanks to the coronavirus, our worlds have all been shrunk to the size of our houses. All forms of entertainment have been confined to our TV screens and book pages, and sport has vanished from the social sphere. Saturday morning muddy football matches, browsing independent bookstores, queues outside theatres and laughs over almond lattes with friends have all been brought to a resounding close.

Despite this social standstill, there are loads of ways to stay culturally engaged thanks to the phenomenon that is the internet. The National Theatre, The Globe, and Andrew Lloyd Webber are among hundreds of institutes that are live-streaming their shows for free. All over the world, musicians and artists are collaborating to provide glimpses of creativity through Zoom boxes on screens. We can’t go to the theatres, and so the theatres have come to us.

And yet sport does not seem to have the same online appeal.

Usually, sport is a season-long investment. You may love football or basketball, but there’s something about the personalities in a team and the dramatics from the fans that elevates it into a social spectacle. You are not just a basketball fan – you love the skills, the theatre of a game. You are not just a football fan – you are an ardent follower of Manchester United, or Real Madrid. And you are not just a fan of them because they’re from your hometown – you’re a fan because you’re truly devoted to the narrative of that team; their wins, their losses, their joys, their heartbreaks. This is what keeps fans invested season after season.

So why hasn’t this translated into the corona-online sphere?

Because sport, unlike the arts, doesn’t have the complete story in a one-time watch. While you go to the theatre and see an entire show in around 2 hours, fans follow their teams’ stories throughout a whole season. Each match is tense and exciting precisely because you have no idea what the outcome will be. Re-run matches hold some nostalgia, but don’t have anywhere near the same grip as watching it live.

And so, here we all are. Two months into a deep re-acquaintance with the four walls of our homes. Boredom has probably kicked in. You are probably desperately in need for some new entertainment that doesn’t involve mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. Maybe you’re missing live sport. I present to you… US College Gymnastics.

College gymnastics has received a lot of big press recently, thanks to the fun viral floor routines that have come out of UCLA Gymnastics. These routines showcase twenty-something year old girls, spreading body-positivity and joy through 90 second flip-filled dance numbers. But fun floor routines are not all there is to college gymnastics. It is full of tragedy, hope, drama, excitement and all-consuming team spirit.

Much like Olympic gymnastics, a meet takes us through four rounds; the vault, the uneven bars, the balance beam and the floor routines. Each apparatus requires a unique set of skills, poise and rhythmic ability, and only the best of the best compete at college. Throughout each routine, gymnasts are aspiring for the coveted ‘Perfect-10’ – a perfect score. The search for this perfect routine is career-long for most athletes, and college is their last opportunity before retirement, so the stakes are high.

Over a 4-5 month long season, colleges compete against each other in weekly meets that test the gymnasts endurance, strength, skill and, most importantly, ability to entertain. Think dance party meets The Rock. If you need any further convincing, then search ‘Katelyn Ohashi Floor Routine’ into YouTube.

The gymnasts all have individual routines, custom-tailored to show their personalities. This only makes it all the more entertaining, as you get a sense of humanity behind the insane displays of skill and strength. These girls have struggled, these girls know perseverance. It requires absolutely no knowledge of gymnastics whatsoever to enjoy these meets, but you pick it up very quickly and soon enough you’ll be critiquing the toe points and the split jumps right alongside the commentators.

But the reason why this should be your lockdown viewing, even if you don’t give two hoots about sport, is because college gymnastics transcends a sporting event.

A large proportion of the female gymnasts competing at college right now were a part of the USA Gymnastics programme that saw the largest, prolonged case of sexual assault in sporting history, under Team Doctor Larry Nassar. Nassar assaulted and groomed hundreds of young female athletes, some as young as 9 years old, under the pretense of giving them physiotherapy and sporting treatment. The staff at USA Gymnastics turned a blind eye, even after complaints were filed. Furthermore, the emotional abuse from the coaches at USA Gymnastic was so systemic and severe, that many girls refused to eat or talk while at camps, for fear of being rejected for the Olympic team. Over the past 3 years, scores and scores of survivors of this horrific abuse have testified against Nassar and USA gymnastics, exhibiting tremendous bravery and strength. A large proportion of these survivors now compete, week in, week out, in college.

And so, watching these brave, powerful women stand up on the podium and showcase their talent, perseverance, and love for their team is not just a sport. It is a massive middle finger in the face of emotional and physical abuse. These women are shining lights that life after abuse can be difficult and draining… but a fulfilled, joyful life is possible. As for its relevance in the times of ‘Rona? It shows that strength comes from adversity. It asks us to find light and happiness from within ourselves, and not our extenuating circumstances.

Many of these gymnastics meets are on YouTube, and so it’s completely free to watch. May I recommend starting with UCLA and LSU Gymnastics. Just search into YouTube, and choose any meet to get started!

Joyful, uplifting and a celebration of female strength. You have to watch.

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