Why Everyone Loves Whitney Bjerken

Whitney Bjerken recently announced her retirement from gymnastics, only she didn’t use the word “retire” while saying it. Whitney repeatedly used the word “quit” instead. The word “retirement” has connotations attached to it and is often used by gymnasts after a long and successful career. But that’s not the tone Bjerken wanted to take. Instead, Whitney wanted to reflect a message that she herself has given up, and has turned her back on goals that will now go unfulfilled.

Gymnastics often produces stories of the warrior athlete who never quits. Gymnasts such as Oksana Chusovitna, Gabby Douglas, and Yulia Biryulya. Gymnasts who serve as amazing role models teaching us to fight through adversity, to never stop trying, and to never turn your back on your own goals. Chusovitina, Douglas, and Biryulya provide an important teaching moment.

But so do gymnasts who retire young like Denisa Golgota and now Whitney Bjerken.

Gymnasts should never be afraid to say “no” to the sport. That gymnastics is important, but so are other things in life. Gymnastics is a sport that is supposed to give gymnasts joy, not be a burden. For Whitney Bjerken, gymnastics had become exactly that. Whitney summed up her feelings by saying:

“I love the sport but I hate doing it at this point. And I hate that I hate doing it, but I just do.”

Whitney has spent almost her entire life as a role model for young children. She is best known for a gymnastics themed YouTube channel that now has 1.6 million subscribers. The channel has been around for so long that Bjerken who recently turned 18 has videos on her channel going back to when she was only 5 or 6 years old. Whitney was effectively a child star on YouTube and amongst the first generation of such child Internet personalities to exist.

But like her contemporary Olivia Dunne of TikTok fame, gymnasts who double as social media celebrities are often subjected to unfair criticisms that they aren’t great athletes. Outsiders treat them as figures who are only relevant because they have a large personal fanbase, and refuse to believe they are also accomplished athletes. In Whitney Bjerken’s case, she was as much a decorated athlete as she was a popular YouTube personality.

In her younger years Bjerken consistently ranked as one of the top-100 gymnasts within her age group at the national level. Whitney was on track for a strong career where she would have broken into the elite level, perhaps qualified to the top domestic competitions such as the U.S. Classics or National Championships. If things went well, perhaps Whitney could earn a spot on the National Team.

The only reason that never happened is because gymnasts need a little bit of luck in order to succeed and Bjerken had the worst kind of luck. Injuries to the elbow is not the most common type of injury in gymnastics. But for the gymnasts who have injuries to this area of the body, it quickly becomes a major career obstacle. Then came a growth spurt which for a young aspiring teenager like Whitney, only made it that much harder to succeed.

Despite the misfortune, Whitney kept at it and was able to make her commitment to the University of Alabama. Even though there wouldn’t be an Olympics for Whitney, gymnastics fans continued to hold her in high regard. Gymnastics fans consider Bjerken the best at performing wolf turns and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that many feel she is the very best in the world at performing this specific skill.

Gymnastics purists don’t view Whitney as some irrelevant low-grade gymnast who only gets mentioned because she has a popular YouTube channel. They followed her career closely and when the day came that Bjerken announced she is quitting gymnastics, the comments ranged from one fan calling it a sad day, another saying “I’m going to miss her gymnastics.” The departure of Whitney Bjerken provoked a reaction from gymnastics fans as emotional as any major retirement in recent memory.

But how does a gymnast who spent her life building up a large gymnastics fanbase on social media, quit gymnastics? Whitney herself called it nerve-racking and stated she is worried that she will experience a mass exodus of fans leaving her channel. At one point, Whitney called it “scary” and then corrected herself to say “actually it’s terrifying.” For Whitney, her social media platform isn’t just for fun, it is her livelihood.

Fan reactions on Twitter to Whitney Bjerken’s retirement announcement.

It speaks to the bravery and courage of Whitney Bjerken that she is taking on this challenge, and the risks associated with it. But Bjerken wants to do what is best for herself and pursue the activities that make her happy. Placing that above all else. The single biggest reason Whitney gave for her departure is that she wanted to start focusing on the activities that she will be able to do for the rest of her life. Not gymnastics where under the best case scenario, she would have been retired four years from now when her NCAA eligibility runs out.

Whitney does this all while having the courage to say she simply lost her passion for the sport and willpower to keep doing it. Whitney could have easily lied, claiming she was retiring for medical reasons and no one would have known otherwise. But Whitney had far too much integrity to avoid being truthful, even when she didn’t have to be.

Bjerken leaves behind a gymnastics channel that provided so much value to the sport. Whitney Bjerken was the quintessential role model, providing videos that were every bit as educational as they were entertaining. Whitney gave a real perspective on what gymnastics competitions were like. She published videos that didn’t just show her routines, but her apparatus warmups, even the pre-competition warmups, and how she carried herself in between rotations.

Her videos while training at her home gym went more or less the same way, with Whitney showcasing what a full practice session looked like. Whitney allowed people to learn about the gymnastics lifestyle in a way they can’t see when one watches a gymnastics competition on television or any professional documentary. Bjerken avoided showing merely “highlights” which is how virtually every type of visual media covers gymnastics.

What Whitney did instead was give viewers the uninterrupted version of a practice session. Whereas your typical gymnastics documentary would show a bunch of gymnasts training on a row of beams, only showcase a couple of difficult skills with no explanation of what they were working on or how they got to that moment, Whitney took a different approach.

Whitney would show what skills she warms up with, how many times she practices a specific skill before she tries something else, while viewers can watch her get better and better as she does the same skill a couple of times in a row. You could see how often she took a pause to get some rest, how she reacted when she couldn’t complete a skill she was trying to learn, and how she reacted when she fell.

Valeri Liukin and Whitney Bjerken

Whitney would show what a true, extended, and dedicated beam session looks like in training. Not the hurried, frantic mess that outsiders only see in podium training during a gymnastic competition. Whitney replicated this methodology for every aspect of her gymnastics life. No other form of gymnastics media gave as much of a complete picture of the sport as Whitney Bjerken’s YouTube channel.

In a sport where film crews focus all their efforts on the super difficult skills like a Yurchenko double pike, Whitney built a popular brand for herself where the backbone of her channel was boring, repetitive, mundane, strength building exercises that were so simple anyone can do them. But her success proved that this was the content gymnastics fans wanted, a glimpse into the life of a gymnast that was genuine and unedited.

Bjerken did stuff like film an episode about how she suffered dozens of warts on her hands. An issue gymnasts are susceptible to as gymnasts frequently stick their hands into a shared chalk bucket, while simultaneously cutting their skin while griping the uneven bars. It was an example of Whitney providing an awareness to one of the little known hassles that gymnasts have to deal with. Her content provided so much educational value that some of her videos can be used as a tool for websites like this one to show casual sports fans some of the finer details of gymnastics that they may otherwise not know about.

Whitney Bjerken and Elena Arenas

But there was also the young gymnasts who watched her channel and looked to Whitney for guidance. Whitney could always be counted on to be a role model for them. From her positive behavior when fans wanted to meet her at competitions, to her willingness to answer questions from viewers offering advice on how to compete while going through their menstrual cycle. For a YouTube channel that has been around for more than a decade, Whitney managed to cover every topic about gymnastics from the most serious to things as trivial as what she packed in her gym bag before a competition.

When Whitney framed her departure from the sport as “quitting” rather than “retiring,” it was because she had one last video to make. Whitney spent her entire life documenting the life of a gymnast, showcasing every conceivable scenario or impasse a gymnast will experience in her career, and giving viewers a chance to experience it themselves. The one plot point that every gymnast will reach is the day they leave the sport.

For a gymnast who had spent eleven years documenting everything, Whitney was going to document this as well. Bjerken preserved footage of all the steps she took as she underwent the process of quitting gymnastics. From calling her future coach at the University of Alabama to inform her she would not be attending, to requesting a family meeting with her longtime club coach where both sides knew exactly what such a request meant. Whitney didn’t simply announce she had quit, she had spent months documenting the entire process of withdrawing and included it alongside her announcement.

This is Whitney’s last gift to gymnastics, showcasing this experience to her younger viewers so that they are better prepared for the day when they too might have to embark on the same painful process. Perhaps this is why Whitney did not say she was “retiring” from gymnastics. For her young viewers who compete recreationally at the lower level, they don’t “retire” from the sport. They simply quit. Whitney Bjerken decided to frame her departure in a way that matches the perspectives of the gymnasts who look up to her.

Whitney explained the difficult process of coming to terms with quitting, and overcoming the emotions where you feel like you have left your coach and family down. It follows a career where she frequently explained her thoughts before or after competitions. In her career Bjerken had undoubtedly helped countless gymnasts who were at or below the L-10 level. Young gymnasts who were able to watch Whitney’s videos and used her words to get a better understanding as they faced those same bad feelings themselves.

When Whitney Bjerken started pivoting towards music within the past year, gymnastics fans took note and at times questioned her sudden interest in this topic. But a surprising detail about Whitney Bjerken’s YouTube channel that is so widely known to the gymnastics community, her very first video actually had nothing to do with gymnastics. It was a singing video. Music has become the defining topic of her life as Whitney is entering her adult years, while gymnastics seems to define it less and less.

As Whitney completes her pivot to music, it is almost as if she is returning back to where she belongs and gymnastics was lucky to have had her for the time that it did.


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