A talented gymnast who was once an Olympic hopeful has candidly opened up about how the elite level of her sport left her ‘broken’ — and how becoming a college athlete helped her find happiness again.
Katelyn Ohashi, 21, explained in a moving clip for The Players Tribune what drove her to drop out of elite gymnastics even as she seemed unbeatable, due to persistent injuries and body image issues that destroyed her self-esteem.
The gymnast, who has since found success as a member of UCLA’s gymnastics team, recounts in the video: ‘There was a time when I was on top of the world… an Olympic hopeful. I was unbeatable. Until I wasn’t.’
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Candid: Gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, 21, has candidly opened up about how the elite level of her sport left her ‘broken’ — and how becoming a college athlete helped her find happiness again
Struggles: The gymnast explained what drove her to drop out of elite gymnastics even as she seemed unbeatable, due to persistent injuries and body image issues
In 2013, Katelyn, then a teenager, defeated her teammate Simone Biles, now 21, and won the American Cup.
The competition was one of the last times that Simone was beaten in a major all-around and Katelyn’s triumphant victory was one of the highlights of her senior elite career, coming as the result of a childhood and adolescence that was spent training relentlessly in the face of significant pressure from her coaches.
But while Katelyn’s elite career might have come to an end in a negative and painful way, it certainly didn’t start like that – quite the opposite in fact.
‘This girl’s joy is just being present,’ Katelyn says in the new clip as archive footage of herself practicing as a child plays.
‘She just keeps going and going like nothing’s stopping her. Living day by day and enjoying every second of it. Flipping and flipping even at a young age.
‘Even when she didn’t have gymnastics she was still in the gym. Gymnastics was her world. That girl that you would think had it all, all these medals in her room, podiums she’s standing on… She thought she had nothing.’
Even as she had an air of ‘almost invincibility’, Katelyn explained she was struggling with body image issues.
‘Fans would tell her that she wasn’t good enough. She didn’t look a certain way,’ she recounted.
Going way back: ‘This girl’s joy is just being present,’ Katelyn says in the moving video as archive footage of herself practicing as a child plays
Past: Katelyn said that despite winning medals and getting to be on podiums, she still felt as though she had ‘nothing’ and wanted to live a normal life
Changes: Eventually, after suffering a fractured back and tearing both of her shoulders, the athlete decided to drop out of elite level gymnastics and pursue a collegiate career instead
‘She wanted to eat junk food and feel okay the next day and not have to worry about getting kicked out because she couldn’t make a scale, then constantly exercising after a meal just to feel good enough to go to bed.’
Katelyn said she yearned to feel like a child again, adding: ‘I was broken.’
Eventually, after suffering a fractured back and tearing both of her shoulders, the athlete decided to drop out of elite level gymnastics and pursue a collegiate career instead.
Her body image issues followed her to the UCLA campus as she began her new life.
‘No one ever fully knew what I was going through and I never really could say or publicize what was wrong with me,’ Katelyn said.
‘I was happy to be injured. I was told that it was embarrassing how big I’d become. I was compared to a bird that couldn’t fly.’
After struggling to accept herself and wrestling with self-hate, Katelyn was thrilled to find her place with UCLA’s team, under the guidance of her beloved coach Valorie Kondos Field, also known as Miss Val.
Her mother, who wasn’t ‘exactly happy’ when her daughter left elite gymnastics, changed her mind when she saw how happy Katelyn was in her new environment.
Looking back: ‘I was happy to be injured. I was told that it was embarrassing how big I’d become. I was compared to a bird that couldn’t fly,’ she said
Moving on: Katelyn and Simone Biles have remained close friends, despite once competing against each other
The gymnast has since supported the athletes who were sexually assaulted by pedophile doctor Larry Nassar, and penned a poignant poem about sexual assault earlier this year following his sentencing.
Katelyn has also spoken out against the pressures many of them face when it comes to remaining a certain size or not surpassing a specific weight.
In August last year, she shared distressing diary entries she wrote as a young athlete to give a clear picture of the pressures and expectations she experienced at the time, and how detrimental they were to her mental health.
‘Ever since I made the team last year, I have felt pressure to live up to a certain standard and fit the stereotypical body type of a gymnast,’ she wrote in a 2010 entry shared on the Behind The Madness
‘My coach believes that me messing up or falling is a result of me being too heavy, so I have got in the habit of measuring my thighs with my hands everyday to see if I have gained any weight.
‘Normally I can get halfway up them but today when I tried, I couldn’t.
‘I immediately freaked out and told myself I couldn’t afford to finish my half of a sandwich for lunch this afternoon, and my dinner consisted of vegetables and hummus.
Finding her bliss: Katelyn (pictured as an elite US athlete with Olympians Simone and Kyla Ross) has thrived as a collegiate athlete
Former teammate: Simone, meanwhile, has returned to national team, and on July 28 made her comeback at the US Classic in Columbus, Ohio (pictured), where she won the all-around
‘I am currently experiencing some hunger pains, but if I go to sleep right now I can sleep it away. I’m used to waking up to the taste of blood or iron in my mouth, as if I might almost throw up from being so hungry.’
Katelyn has thrived as a collegiate athlete. She’s a two-time All-American on beam and has become increasingly outspoken about the need for the mindset in elite gymnastics to change.
‘I think gymnastics can be a very brutal sport but I don’t think it’s supposed to be a brutal sport,’ she said in the new video.
‘I just hope that in 10, 20 years there will be people leaving the sport feeling untouched by it.
‘At the end of the day I think this should have been my path. I haven’t been able to feel this type of happiness in a long time.
‘I found my joy, my voice, myself, and my love for the sport. It’s not the outcome. It’s not me standing on a podium with medals. It’s me being able to walk out with a smile on my face and truly being happy with myself and that comes first.’
Simone, meanwhile, has returned to national team, and on July 28 competed for the first time since the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
She made her comeback at the US Classic in Columbus, Ohio, where she won the all-around.