At the 2017 World Championships in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG), Morgan Hurd won the All-Around (AA) title. It marked the United States experiencing its first major success in the post-Karolyi era. It marked only the second instance in WAG history that a gymnast of Asian descent won a major AA title, but it also represented something else.
Morgan Hurd’s 2017 victory set the tone for the 2017-2021 Olympic quad and established a trend that would evolve to become one of the key storylines of the current Olympic cycle. USA Gymnastics is experiencing a massive and unprecedented wave of success from Asian-American gymnasts.
The most recent example of this was the American Cup which is typically one of the most prestigious competitions an American gymnast can aspire to win. On three consecutive occasions this competition has been won by an Asian-American gymnast, Morgan Hurd in 2018, Leanne Wong in 2019, and Morgan Hurd again in 2020.
The current era of American WAG has been defined by Simone Biles, and for good reason. Of all the qualification spots American WAG accumulated at the 2019 World Championships for AA/Event Finals, Simone Biles was responsible for 50% of them. But another 40% had been earned by Asian-American gymnasts.
The first was Kara Eaker who is a 2x gold medalist at the World Championships and only narrowly missed out on the first medal of her career in an individual event with a 4th place finish. The second is Sunisa Lee who prior to COVID-19 forcing a stoppage to major sports competitions, was being viewed as the “young gun” of American WAG and its new breakout star. That’s the more conservative interpretation of Sunisa’s career. Others were going as far as to proclaim Sunisa Lee as having firmly established herself as the best American gymnast after Simone Biles.
The gymnasts themselves have commented on this trend. On numerous occasions in 2019 Morgan Hurd posted a group shot of herself with her Asian teammates captioning the photos with phrases such as “just a bunch of asians” and “asian babes.” Besides the previously mentioned names, other appearances in Morgan Hurd’s Instagram posts include Kayla DiCello, Emma Malabuyo, and Ciena Alipio.
DiCello and Alipio were strong juniors in the American program in 2019 only to be sidelined as their senior careers were taking off in 2020 due to COVID-19. Kayla DiCello was actually the U.S. Junior National Champion in 2019 and finished 2nd to Morgan Hurd at the 2020 American Cup. Meanwhile Malabuyo is a perennial fan-favorite with strong junior results, but her breakout success in senior competition has been hindered by injuries in recent years.
This is not the first time gymnasts of Asian-American descent have had a major impact on WAG. During the Karolyi era gymnasts such as Sabrina Mar, Doe Yamashiro, Amy Chow, Ivana Hong, Anna Li, and Kyla Ross provided a continual Asian-American presence in every single decade of the last forty years. Some have Olympic gold medals, or an Olympic medal in an individual event, or an AA title at the U.S. National Championships.
But whereas Asian-American gymnasts have been contributors to Team USA’s success in the past, in the current cycle they are doing far more than that. As of the writing of this article, of the 18 gymnasts listed as members of the senior WAG team on USAG’s website, 8 of 18 of them (44%) have an Asian background.
Asian-Americans are having so much success right now that a team comprised entirely of Asian-Americans could realistically win the team gold medal all by itself. At worst it would win “only” a team silver or team bronze medal.
One compelling aspect of a hypothetical scenario where USAG sends an all-Asian American lineup of gymnasts to the Olympics, there are so many strong candidates to choose from (Hurd, Sunisa, Wong, Eaker, and DiCello) that even the alternate would be stronger than most.
Sidenote: I’d also like to point out that at the college level Katelyn Ohashi made herself into one of the most famous gymnasts in the world and she is also of Asian descent.
While Asian-Americans in WAG have been leading the way, men’s gymnastics (MAG) and rhythmic gymnastics (RG) are also witnessing a spike in Asian-American success. In MAG Yul Moldauer has won the American Cup three consecutive times. As well as an AA title at the U.S. National Championships in 2017 while being the runner up in 2018 and 2019. Moldauer is effectively the #2 ranked gymnast in the American MAG program.
Meanwhile in RG, it is a sport where the American program is usually seen as an afterthought on the international stage. But 2016 Olympian Laura Zeng is helping to change that notion. Before the arrival of Laura Zeng, American RG typically finished either in the bottom 19th-24th spots of an AA finals, or failed to qualify any gymnast at all to an AA finals.
Laura Zeng has helped elevate American RG to new heights by consistently placing in the top-10 of AA finals on numerous occasions at the World Championships. While American RG has failed to win a medal in major competition, it accomplished something else. At the 2019 World Championships Laura Zeng won the Longines Prize for Elegance.
The award is considered highly prestigious in the gymnastics community and for the gymnast who wins it, it is a sign that he or she is widely revered as one of the most respected gymnasts in the international community. In a sport that is overwhelmingly dominated by European athletes, for an American to win such a highly sought after award, it was a milestone and a sign that USA Gymnastics’s RG program is no longer considered an afterthought on the international stage. Laura Zeng wasn’t just the first American to win this award, but the first gymnast from a country outside of Europe to win it.
Men’s gymnastics (MAG), women’s gymnastics (WAG) and rhythmic gymnastics (RG) are by far the three most important gymnastics disciplines in terms of audience viewership, popularity, and revenue generated. It is a testament to just how significant the Asian-American community has been to Team USA’s success that this demographic is dominating not one, not two, but all three of the major gymnastics disciplines.
Only two Americans get to advance to AA finals in a gymnastics discipline in major international competition. At the 2019 World Championships in all three of those disciplines an Asian-American gymnast earned one of those two spots. If ever there was a golden era of Asian-American gymnastics, we are currently in the middle of it.
And it is existing alongside an unprecedented wave of violence and hate against the Asian-American community.
The acts of violence Asian-Americans have been subjected to have been so severe that most readers are already aware of the problem. Because the first COVID-19 cluster was identified in China, it has caused the Asian-American community to be subjected to false blame for causing the current pandemic. Acts of discrimination, harassment, and violence against the Asian-American community quickly followed.
It has led to vicious attacks against Asian-Americans in incomprehensible ways. From a 39 year old woman who was attacked with acid, to an 83 year old who was punched so hard she lost consciousness, to a stabbing attack involving children as young as 2 and 6 years old. None of these being isolated incidents, but a terrible trend where even the extreme examples have ceased to become a rarity. The most brazen style of attacks representing only the tip of the iceberg of all the Asian-American community has faced in the past twelve months.
Yul Moldauer revealed he had been targeted by someone in a road rage incident while he was driving. Morgan Hurd stated:
I’m constantly worried if the next news story I see will be a name I recognize and/or someone that I love.
These are the experiences of a community that is under attack. Some of whom have personally experienced such attacks, others who live in fear for themselves, their families, their friends, and their community.
Even before COVID-19 gymnastics fans were openly discussing the significance of Asian-Americans dominating the gymnastics lineup at the Tokyo Olympics. But in the wake of COVID-19, that same trend of Asian-American gymnastics dominating the lineup has taken on a far greater significance.
For the Asian-American community, it will be a sense of pride for a demographic that has experienced so much difficulty in the past year. For American audiences as a whole who will be watching the U.S. Olympic trials and the Tokyo Olympics, it will be a very visible reminder that the United States has a strong Asian-American community. One that empowers the United States and makes the country stronger, not hinder it.
And for those who were part of the discrimination, violence, and hate, watching these athletes achieve success will send them a clear message. That in spite of everything, they have failed to marginalize a community that refuses to be marginalized. It will prove that the Asian-American community is as strong as ever and those who think or want otherwise are on the wrong side of history.
Women’s gymnastics has a longstanding history of producing compelling storylines in the context of larger political issues. Most notably during the Cold War when the sport was dominated by the United States and various communist countries who each had inner rivalries with each other. Vera Caslavska famously dominated the 1968 Olympics immediately following the Soviet invasion of her country. In 1972 Olga Korbut became a celebrity in the Western world at the height of Nixon’s detente. These are just some of the examples where every Olympic quad there are examples of political significance existing just under the radar.
These examples didn’t stop occurring with the fall of the Berlin Wall. And in 2021 the United States will be sending the strongest lineup of Asian-American gymnasts it has ever compiled in a period of history that will be infamously remembered in textbooks as a low point in the way American society treated its Asian-American citizens.
Call it coincidence or call it fate, but once again gymnastics finds itself at the forefront of being an apolitical sport occurring inside a context of larger political elements. As usual, WAG will be front and center with the bulk of the athletes in question being teenage girls. Some of who have an interest in political commentary, others who wish to remain publicly indifferent and want the focus to be purely on their athletic performance.
But while these Asian-American gymnasts focus on putting together a strong performance at the U.S. Olympic Trials, for those watching it their presence sends a powerful message. One of positivity, inclusion, and overcoming hate.