By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Shimpo
It has become a tradition at the UCLA graduation ceremony held for student athletes –to end the proceedings with the school’s signature 8-clap and the chant, “U-C-L-A fight, fight, fight!”
So when the time came to ask one of the newly-minted alumni to lead the cheer one last time, the choice came as a surprise to absolutely no one inside Pauley Pavilion.
Perhaps more any athlete UCLA has seen for at least a decade, Katelyn Ohashi has charged the Westwood campus – and fans around the globe – with an effervescent energy, not to mention superhuman feats on the gymnastics mat.
On June 13, wearing her cap and gown, and clutching a box fashioned after the Pyramid of Success championed by legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, Ohashi began to look beyond the life she has lived the last four years.
This season has been a whirlwind for the 4-foot-10 Ohashi, as well as her Bruins team. Along with teammate and Olympic gold medalist Kyla Ross – and a mind-boggling viral video – she made gymnastics the hottest ticket on campus.
“I attribute it to luck in a sense,” Ohashi said. “Everyone around me has worked so hard and gone through hardship, and has had to struggle just as much, and came out on the other side.
“In my case, my work happened to go viral.”
An online video of Ohashi’s floor routine to a medley of pop and R&B hits was viewed more than 35 million times this spring. As much for the astounding physicality of her athletics – her leap into a splits and bouncing back up must be seen to be believed – the video displayed an unbridled joy, a sense of elation in doing what she truly loves.
It wasn’t always such a cheerful story, however.
A native of the Seattle area, the 22-year-old is the youngest of Diana and Richard Ohashi’s four children. From an early age, her energy, flexibility and relatively small size made her a natural for gymnastics.
Like countless other little girls, she dreamed of one day having an Olympic gold medal hung around her neck.
But she soon learned that success has a price, and the cost, at times, proved overwhelming.
“Most kids at the age of 12 were probably playing video games and doing some chores. Me? I was training at least 36 hours a week, plastered on posters and magazines, representing the U.S. National Team,” she wrote in her personal blog in 2017.
Beyond the physical rigors of training, the ugly side of elite gymnastics began to rear its ruthless head. There were comments about body shape and size, and the comments that would crumble the self-esteem of even the hardiest souls.
“It started when I was 13, barely weighing 70 pounds. I’ve been told I looked like I swallowed an elephant or a pig, whichever was more fitting that day.”
There were even times when she would skip dinner, if she felt her legs were getting too big on a given day.
Having moved to Plano, Texas, with her mother – a former high school gymnast – Ohashi began piling up world and national titles, including besting Ross and eventual Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles.
After winning the 2013 American Cup, she required shoulder surgery, effectively ending her path toward elite competition. The Olympic dream was over.
After a hiatus of more than a year, she joined the UCLA team and made an immediate impact. She was named the Pac-12 Freshman Gymnast of the Week four times, and as a sophomore earned a No. 1 ranking for the season. A slew of perfect 10s followed, as well as a National Championship in 2018.
Physically, she was again in top form, but Ohashi has often given credit to Biles and UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field for helping her rediscover the joy in gymnastics.
“Be anxious for nothing and grateful for all things,” is something the coach would often say, Ohashi told The Olympic Channel. “Because there are so many times when we can be negative and find the worst in situations, when there’s so much to be grateful for.”
Ohashi became such a star on campus that she would occasionally lead the pep rally during competitions at Pauley. In the final home meet of her career last March, she scored a 10 in her floor routine – one of 11 perfect marks during her college career –and immediately took a victory lap that ended with her conducting the alumni band and the sellout crowd in UCLA’s iconic fight song.
As she leaves the security of her college team, the fame she has garnered this season is not simply a route to self-indulgence for Ohashi. For her, this is the first step in providing encouragement for others who might see her now as a picture of perfection.
“This is a perfect time for me to leave. It’s not quitting, it’s just that there’s nothing left for me that I haven’t done in gymnastics,” she said. “To have all these doors open in my favor, and to have people hear my message that I have been trying to get out for a while.”
Clearly seeing the opportunity to help others deal with the challenges she faced as a young athlete with ambitions, Ohashi is confident and comfortable leaving gymnastics behind.
“Right now, a lot of what I want to say has to do deal with bullying and body-shaming, and finding joy again, that’s my biggest message,” she explained. “That’s especially true in gymnastics, with all the negativity that can come up.”
For many it might be difficult to imagine someone who has been the new face – and hugely positive face – of her sport could ever leave it behind, but Ohashi has no second thoughts about it.
“Someone asked me, ‘Aren’t you going to miss it?’ And no, it will always be a part of me,” she said.
“My mom is the one who’s freaking out about me leaving gymnastics,” she said with a broad laugh.
Now graduated, Ohashi plans to stick around L.A., to pursue what she hopes will blossom into a career in broadcasting.
“I’d love to go to the Olympics,” she openly revealed, and perhaps half-jokingly, added, “In a perfect world, all that happens, and I would already have been on ‘Dancing With the Stars.’”
Eventually, Ohashi said she’d like realize her dream of living in New Zealand. Her reasons are pretty straightforward.
“It’s beautiful and I won’t have to learn a new language.”
Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo