As the NCAA season draws to a close, I have noticed a surge in commentary regarding UCLA senior Norah Flatley. It goes without saying that every gymnastics career must come to an end, and this time of year always produces a wave of bittersweet moments as longstanding fan favorites compete for the last time.
But with Norah Flatley it has been different. In Norah’s case the gymnastics community has dedicated extra attention to her career and the thought that this might be the last time we see her in a gymnastics competition. Social media posts speculating on Flatley’s possible retirement have been especially popular and fans have gone as far as to analyze the capitalization of Norah’s Instagram account to find a sign that she will return to NCAA competition in 2023.
As some fans see it, Norah only said this is her last competition as a BRUIN which doesn’t technically exclude the possibility of her transferring and becoming a Razorback, Sooner, Gator or Tiger. Why was Bruin the only word she capitalized? While Flatley hasn’t formally declared for 2023, she has said the decision is something she is still working out.
Regardless of whether we are watching Norah’s final weekend of gymnastics, or her final weekend plus 365 days, there is much to be said over her status as one of the most popular gymnasts in the sport. Unlike most fan favorites, it doesn’t come down to a single reason.
Norah Flatley doesn’t have a massive social media following like Olivia Dunne, she isn’t a celebrity outside of the gymnastics community like Sunisa Lee, nor does she have a viral routine like Nia Dennis. She didn’t belong to a family dynasty like Sydney Johnson-Scharpf, become an Olympian like Jordan Chiles, or achieve non-Olympic success at the senior elite level like Riley McCusker.
And yet, every gymnastics fan will passionately assert that Norah Flatley is as equally loved, respected, and admired as any of the previously mentioned gymnasts. The uniqueness of Norah Flatley’s career is that she became a fan favorite without an Internet algorithm, a major senior elite assignment, or a highly prestigious medal turning her into such a figure overnight.
Norah has an amazing reputation because she worked hard for it and slowly built it up over time. If the potential retirement of Norah Flatley feels more impactful than your typical NCAA retirement, it is because Norah has been a big name in the gymnastics community for roughly a decade.
Of all the great gymnasts the American program has produced that are still actively competing whether it be at the NCAA or Olympic level, Simone Biles is the one who has been actively competing the longest. Simone’s breakout success came during the 2012 and 2013 seasons when she rose from a low ranking junior, to a rapidly rising junior, and eventually an iconic 1st-year senior in those two years.
Flatley achieved her breakout success where gymnastics fans first started taking notice of Norah in 2013 when she won medals at two of the biggest competitions on the domestic circuit. They were a silver on beam at the 2013 U.S. National Championships, and later a gold medal on the same event at the 2013 U.S. Classic. At the time Flatley was just a few months past her 13th birthday, and on both occasions Norah had beaten future Olympic beam silver medalist Laurie Hernandez.
This is the first clue as to why gymnastics fans have had such a sad demeanor in response to the prospect of Flatley competing for the last time. As things stand now, Flatley is currently one of the longest running headliners gymnastics fans have had. Only the mighty Simone Biles exceeds Norah in this regard. For many gymnastics fans, Norah Flatley is the gymnast that has always been there. For young gymnastics fans, Flatley has had an impact similar to Oksana Chusovitina with older fans where she has been around for so long, things will feel oddly absent when Norah is no longer around.
Norah Flatley’s career was unique in that she achieved success at an incredibly young age, and stayed relevant into her early 20s thanks to a long college career. Longevity is one of the key reasons for Norah’s popularity. But even back in her junior days Norah Flatley as a young teenager was abnormally popular. Which brings us to the second element that has been key to her reputation as one of the most popular gymnasts within the gymnastics community.
As a junior Norah had three things going for her. The first was that she had a proven track record by winning medals as a junior. Secondly, she had success from the very beginning of her career and made a name for herself right off the bat. Lastly, Norah was the pupil of a famous coach. All three of these things put together gave Norah instant credibility from the start, and solidified her reputation as the junior that everyone must follow.
The coach in question was Liang Chow who rose to prominence as the coach of 2008 Olympian Shawn Johnson. Not only was Shawn Johnson a proven winner, she achieved abnormally high popularity. Despite winning the silver medal in the All-Around, Shawn successfully rivaled the gold medalist Nastia Liukin in winning over sponsors, appearing in major media events, and building a following for herself.
Shawn Johnson went on to become arguably the most popular runner-up in the Olympic All-Around in the entire history of women’s gymnastics. Shawn Johnson’s popularity made Liang Chow popular as well. But it also revealed that Liang Chow had the ability to coach a gymnast to an Olympic medal, while also teaching her how to win over a large percentage of fans while doing it.
After already coaching one of the most famous athletes in the sport, Liang Chow then coached someone who was even more famous. In 2014 Gabby Douglas arrived in Iowa and trained with Liang Chow. It further raised the profile of Liang Chow who was now associated with two of the most iconic names of the era. But Norah Flatley benefited from this more than anyone because it meant she was training alongside the most recent Olympic All-Around champion. Even in 2014, despite Simone Biles’ success, it was still Gabby Douglas who was the most recognizable figure to the wider sports community. When people came to watch Gabby, Norah was alongside her to be noticed too.
If Norah was getting the benefit of being photographed alongside Gabby Douglas, she also seemed to remind people of Shawn Johnson. The Johnson-Flatley connection went beyond the mere association of two gymnasts who happened to be coached by the same man. Shawn Johnson was an Olympic gold medalist on the balance beam and as a junior Norah Flatley achieved breakout success on beam.
When gymnastics fans saw Norah Flatley in 2013, they saw so much promise because Norah had the benefit of a proven coach who successfully produced an Olympic gold medalist, while also progressing in the exact same way Shawn had.
For all the silver medals Johnson won at the 2008 Olympics outside of her success on beam, Shawn might have well have turned them all into gold in the way she utilized her image to grow a large brand. Shawn Johnson’s joyful attitude was unrivaled. Johnson maximized her young facial expressions, youthful personality, and had so many instances where she produced a wholesome moment when the cameras were watching.
It was as if all those traits were instilled on Norah as she competed in junior events with the exact same attitude. It was as if two things were certain anytime Norah appeared in a junior competition. You were going to see Flatley win a medal, and she would be laughing on the podium as she celebrated with her fellow medalists. One additional benefit was Liang Chow has proven to be a popular coach and has avoided the animosity of fans who have come to question the tactics of virtually all his American rivals. In an era where every top gymnastics club is either scrutinized or is a combination of scrutinized and popular, Norah Flatley was the likable gymnast from a coach who himself has remained likable.
Everything about Norah Flatley’s junior career was “likable.” She was the likable gymnast from a likable coach, in an era where gymnastics fans had a more positive viewpoint towards young juniors and the sport itself. This was all before the Larry Nassar scandal brought to light conversations that should have been had long ago regarding the abusive nature of the sport. There was also the wave of junior burnout from numerous Texas Dreams gymnasts as well as Russia’s Ekaterina Sokova. This has resulted in both fans and USAG doing more to pivot the conversation against young juniors like Norah, in favor of a junior career more reminiscent of Simone Biles’ junior career.
The next element of Norah’s career that was key to her popularity was Flatley’s decision to attend UCLA. If Flatley was “gifted” in her association with Liang Chow where she was instantly empowered thanks to her association with powerful figures, UCLA took things to a new level.
UCLA would go on to be such a powerful force that its social media following is not only the largest in college gymnastics, but is greater than the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th largest programs combined. Norah Flatley was a high profile junior in an era where USA Gymnastics was in between its legendary 2012 and 2016 teams, trained alongside Gabby Douglas when Gabby was at the height of her popularity, and was associated with Chow when he was at the peak of his popularity/recognition on the American leg of his coaching career.
Now Norah was a UCLA gymnast competing right in the middle of UCLA’s own golden age. UCLA was so popular that Oklahoma football fans who dared ventured into gymnastics online forums after learning the Sooners had taken the National Championship were flabbergasted that gymnastics fans were posting “UCLA loses” instead of “Oklahoma wins.” The idea that one team is so overwhelmingly popular that their loss is a bigger story than the team that won the season finale would confuse most fandoms of other sports.
But that was UCLA in the early years of Norah’s college career. UCLA had all the famous gymnasts from the elite level and acquired so many fan favorites. The arrival of Norah Flatley, the widely beloved junior was yet another reason why gymnastics fans all seemed to love UCLA. It was as if “of course UCLA has Norah” because there was no better match than the popular figure going to a program known for acquiring popular figures.
As Norah’s career progressed, her legacy was further empowered thanks to Flatley’s presence alongside viral sensations such as Katelyn Ohashi and Nia Dennis. It was an era where UCLA was at the peak of its popularity. Before coaching changes, internal controversies, declining results, and the surfacing of allegations regarding a past coach has decimated much of the “feel good, positive story” that made UCLA so likable. For the second time in her career, Norah was part of a wave of success that immediately ended as her time at that level was coming to a close.
As Flatley’s college career comes to a close, this trend appears to have resurfaced in one additional way. The freshman level of NCAA gymnastics has never been more popular thanks to NIL giving popular Olympic gymnastics such as Jade Carey the ability to crash onto the scene and instantly achieve success as a freshman. All while elite gymnastics is changing and the American system is no longer discouraging its Olympic prospects from avoiding the NCAA.
These developments are overwhelmingly popular, but gymnasts who once used the NCAA level to escape the shadow of famous Olympic gymnasts as Norah had done will find doing so more difficult to accomplish in future years. Norah Flatley was a young junior in a sport that has pivoted to discouraging ultra young juniors in later years. Norah achieved a popular run of NCAA success as an upperclassman, in an era where the sport appears to be on the verge of a pivot towards underclassmen having a larger presence. She was a UCLA gymnast at a time when UCLA peaked in popularity and departs right as the SEC and rival Pac-12 programs are pulling the rug out from under UCLA.
One of the key reasons for Norah’s success is she has taken advantage of windows of opportunity right before they were closed.
But most importantly, Norah’s longevity coupled with her association with first Liang Chow and later UCLA made Flatley a gymnast that for almost a decade, was always around and always in the spotlight. Norah has only bounced from one popular institution to the next. Keeping her directly in the spotlight at all times which is unusual for most gymnasts. This abnormal career trajectory is how Norah achieved the unusual status of a fan favorite whose status as a fan favorite can’t be explained in simple terms.
It is difficult for any gymnast to be in the spotlight for nine years. Even more so to weather that spotlight and always be on the right side of things. Going nine years as a public figure without making a mistake is an accomplishment in its own. Norah Flatley belonged to an era of troubled waters. In her time gymnastics has experienced three major movements. First there was #MeToo when Norah’s national program came to terms with systemic sexual assault occurring within its ranks.
Then there was #GymnastAlliance where the conversation regarding sexual assault was expanded to discussing the rampant coaching abuse occurring within the sport that had harmed so many gymnasts. Finally, there was #BlackLivesMatter when gymnastics which has long been associated with a mostly white demographic had to come to terms with both its failures to achieve a more equally representative demographic, and the exclusion many black athletes already participating in the sport felt when they competed as a minority alongside mostly white teammates and coaches.
During all three of these movements Norah Flatley was always there to either say the right thing, or support her teammates who had thoughts they wanted to share. During the most recent college season this topic was brought to the forefront as UCLA gymnastics mishandled an allegation of racism occurring within its program.
Norah Flatley would take a leadership role as her team was in crisis and questioned the decisions UCLA administrators had made as it tried to end the controversy. Going as far as to publicly tag the UCLA athletic director on Twitter. In the business world, this would be like going around your boss and publicly criticizing his boss for everyone to see at a company event.
It is the least surprising element of Norah’s career that she took a stand in a moment of crisis, and didn’t stop until she had created the largest ruckus possible to make the voice of her team heard. Because Norah has long represented every positive value fans want a gymnast to embody.
Of course Norah would step up to the plate and not stand idle when she was the one numerous people were depending on to be a voice for the rest of the team. Norah was a senior and one of the biggest names within the program, her stance mattered. For a gymnast that has never let the sport down, having the courage and bravery to take a stand for the rest of the team was a foregone conclusion.
In her younger years Norah acted likable, and then gave you a reason to like her with the way she conducted herself. Norah was known to fans as a young gymnast who promptly won everyone over with her cuteness, while also producing strong beam routines that made people take this child athlete seriously. Fans then witnessed her growth and later saw a completely different Norah Flatley. One who had grown into a young adult woman with the strength and ability to criticize powerful administrators who doubled her in age.
Norah Flatley emerged as an adorable junior that many fans fell in love with, and spent the next nine years justifying all that love.