This weekend, the internet, once again, discovered that college gymnastics exists when UCLA senior Katelyn Ohashi’s floor routine went viral.
Seemingly everyone from Jemele Hill to 2020 hopeful Kamala Harris to Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Chelsea Peretti tweeted the video of the routine. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even used her routine as an argument for free public university tuition. (While I’m fully on board with free public university tuition, I don’t think that Ohashi, who receives a full-ride athletic scholarship to UCLA, is exactly making that case.)
As I have every other time college gymnastics floor routine has gone viral, I was left wondering, yet again: Why this routine? Why now? Why do these things blow up like this in general?
It is probably something of a fool’s errand to try to understand why anything ever goes viral, but I am a fool. So I will try.
There’s something more to it than “people like to watch people do cool shit with their bodies online,” though that is certainly a big part of it. If that was all there was to it, though, then Olympic floor routines would go viral, too. Of course, they’re widely viewed because they are featured at a mega event, so it’s safe to say that more people watched Simone Biles nail her floor routine at the 2016 Olympics than watched Ohashi do the same at a quad meet this weekend in Southern California. But when viewers watched Biles, it was part of the typical narrative of gymnastics competition—compete at the Olympics, win gold. Biles’s floor exercise and astounding tumbling was part of the big event; it wasn’t an event unto itself.
But with Ohashi, the routine was the point. I doubt that most people who were sharing it cared that UCLA won the early season quad meet. Its function as a scoring exercise that added to the team total didn’t matter to anyone other than Bruin fans and the team itself. The reason that it exploded the way it did was probably that it subverts the narrative of women’s gymnastics in the U.S., which has always been one of sacrifice, hard work, and pain, and over the last two years, has also been one of abuse and tragedy.
You don’t get any of that when you watch Ohashi perform. From the opening notes of the music—a snippet of “Proud Mary”—until her final pose, Ohashi exudes joy. It’s a spectacle of female joy instead of pain.
And Ohashi does some really cool shit to boot.
Ohashi’s floor routine is hardly the first to blow up on the internet. The beginning of the “viral NCAA floor routine” era can be traced to 2014 when a performance by LSU gymnast Lloimincia Hall blew up online. That this happened was a total accident. Hall, a powerhouse tumbler and crowd favorite, had earned a Perfect 10 during a home meet in late January. LSU uploaded the routine to YouTube shortly after Hall did it. And there it sat for some time, known to only hardcore gymnastics fans among whom Hall was already very well known.
But a couple of months later the routine was posted by the website Total Sorority Move under the headline, “LSU Gymnast Proves To Be The Baddest Athlete Of All Time, Has Coolest Routine Ever.” (Actually, the headline initially said “Baddest Bitch,” but Hall, who is a devout Christian, objected, and so the language was changed.) And that’s when the routine took off, going viral and resulted in Hall getting interviewed on Good Morning America. The anchor in the clip wondered aloud if Hall was going to go to the Olympics, because for most people, their only association with the sports comes from watching elites compete at the Games. It was hard back in 2014 for viewers to imagine another kind of gymnastics even existing.
(This is why, I, a very shitty low-level gymnast, have had to repeatedly explain to people that I was not anywhere near Olympic caliber. Sarah Palin had a better view of Russia from her house than I did of an Olympic podium.)
This was the first time I felt called on to explain, in a post for Medium, why [insert name of college gymnast here] was not going to the Olympics; why a routine that looked like that with that degree of difficulty wouldn’t appear at the Olympics; and why college gymnastics wasn’t elite gymnastics.
In it, I talk about how college gymnastics is scored differently than elite with lower difficulty requirements which means fewer tumbling passes and more time and endurance for dance. Also, the college gymnasts don’t face down a panel of dour elite judges who do things like ban cat makeup for floor exercise performances. In general, there’s a lot more freedom to choose music and get funky with the dance than there is at the elite level, one that athletes and coaches have taken full advantage of. And these are precisely the kind of things that play well to the audience—college gymnastics is nothing if not a spectator sport—and subvert what you think you know about women’s gymnastics.
That post was the first time I wrote about NCAA vs. elite, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last. When it comes to the college floor routine phenomenon, everyone is like Drew Barrymore’s character from 50 First Dates. No one seemed to remember from one viral floor routine to the next. (The best of 2019’s pieces explaining the phenomenon is Rebecca Schuman’s from Slate.)
Since Hall’s breakthrough in 2014, about once every year or two another routine would go viral. In 2016, this distinction belonged to UCLA Bruin Sophina DeJesus, who famously dabbed and nae nae’d her way to internet fame and a spot on Ellen and a profile in the New York Times.
The following year, Aja Sims of Alabama also had her routine take off on Facebook, but there was far less fanfare for her performance than there had been for Hall’s or DeJesus’. There was no profile in a major publication or spot on a daytime TV program.
And then last year Ohashi experienced her first bout with viral fame when her Michael Jackson floor routine took off on Facebook, garnering more than 80 million views. (I actually prefer this routine to the one that took off over the weekend.)
This led to a video profile in The Players’ Tribune in which the gymnast, who had previously been a standout junior gymnast—she was the 2011 junior national champion—and Olympic hopeful talks about how she had been once been the best in the world but had been “broken” by elite gymnastics and had found the joy in the sport again when she matriculated at UCLA.
And when the 2019 gymnastics season started, someone—most likely a UCLA Bruin—was expected to go viral again. During the Bruins’ first meet, which was televised on ESPN2, the commentator kept mentioning Ohashi’s viral credentials and wondering aloud if this routine would go down the same path.
Ohashi’s routine was essentially reverse-engineered to go viral. There were so many cuts of Top 40 hits that one blogger noted that it induced a feeling of “sonic whiplash,” and its choreography was very similar to what she used in her viral performance from last year.
But Ohashi’s routine wasn’t my top pick for Bruin routine. I, like many other gymnastics fans, had pinned the “definitely going viral” badge to freshman Margzetta “Marz” Frazier’s floor exercise after seeing it for the first time at UCLA’s pre-season exhibition. Frazier, like Ohashi, is a former elite gymnast and national team member. She performs her routine to the famous vogueing song, “Din Da Da” replete with dance moves right out of Paris Is Burning.
Frazier didn’t compete floor during her first competition as a Bruin, so it didn’t make the broadcast, which meant there were no videos of it floating around online to be picked up and shared on social media. And though she did compete for the first time this weekend in the floor lineup ahead of Ohashi, who is the anchor of that lineup, that meet wasn’t televised. The videos we have from it come from UCLA’s own videographer, Deanna Hong. Ohashi’s floor routine was shared on their social channels almost immediately, which is how it spread across the interwebs.
“I think UCLA has a wide following that goes beyond gymnastics fans, including several celebrities who go to meets and follow them on Twitter, so it’s not surprising that two of the biggest viral floor routines from Sophina DeJesus and Katelyn Ohashi both came out of UCLA,” Lauren Hopkins, creator and one-woman show at the Gymter.net, one of the most popular gymnastics sites, wrote to me in an email. “They’ve always been one of the ‘showiest’ of teams with standout choreography.” (I am friends with Hopkins.)
A gymnast like Nina McGee from the University of Denver probably never had a chance to achieve viral fame even though her routine had seemingly everything. Difficult tumbling passes, music straight from Beyonce, performed attitude to spare. McGee was appreciated by gymnastics fans, her team, and the judges, but that’s about as far as it went.
What she didn’t have was the backing of a top program with a slick media apparatus or the dumb luck of some random sorority website finding the video and putting it up.
Before the internet and social media was a thing, there were plenty of routines that were worthy of this level of acclaim but never got it because they were broadcast—if they were lucky—on television, probably on tape delay, never to be seen again. Only gymnastics fans kept track of these and when YouTube became a thing, they started digitizing their tape collections and uploading them to the platform.
Stella Umeh, a Canadian Olympian, was also a Bruin and one of the most fluid movers to ever grace a floor exercise mat. Her routines were soulful and graceful.
Then there was Liz Reid. As Linda Richman would say, she moves like “butta.”
These are just a couple of my favorite routines from the NCAA gymnastics floor vault. These gymnasts moved beautifully and interpreted the music in interesting ways. But what they don’t do is express “fun” in the way that the viral routines of today do. They pleased crowds, for sure, but they weren’t engineered to do so.
A floor routine that feels almost algorithmically derived to achieve mass popularity makes sense entirely, given the way media now works; whether or not a routine is engineered to transcend the sport’s usual audience, there’s no reason to be surprised if one that does lacks a certain organic quality. Of course something that hits the pleasure centers of the brain in an easily parsed way, and does so for a lot of different types of people, and says positive things about the person sharing it—that they like joyful things, and that they would like the people on their social media feeds to feel joyful—has the potential to do well, and to work along the vectors that distinguish between something that gets around among enthusiasts and that goes beyond them, which are determined by what the mass audience likes. And there’s nothing wrong with something working on that level. I can’t help but wonder what might be lost, though, if instead of expressing what they feel, gymnasts start worrying about what the public wants to feel, and how they want to be made to feel it.