Gabby Wilson’s floor routine is an excellent encapsulation of who she is as both an athlete and an advocate.
In her 90 seconds on the mat, Wilson dives into themes of race that would have been taboo to speak of, much less present in competition, as recently as a decade ago. And, all the while, she throws in powerful dance moves and athletically impressive tumbling passes which only serve to emphasize the overarching message of Black power that she seeks to convey.
The sophomore describes her sharp movements during the second song of her routine, which is, appropriately, an instrumental from the Black Panther soundtrack, as showing how much more work Black Americans have to do to be at the same point as white people, and people in general. She then furthers her statement as the music transitions to an excerpt from the Us soundtrack, another movie which focuses on racial themes.
“And then the last part is kind of interesting, because in the movie Us, everyone has their doppelganger who is evil,” Wilson said. “And I think for me, that was something they were always trying to combat, and I feel like my doppelganger is what people want me to be, what they perceive me to be. I’m constantly trying to combat that and not let that just be me, and that’s what I’m showing in that section.”
These two messages, as well as the general air of self-proclaimed “confident, beautiful arrogance” and powerful movements and tumbling passes that Wilson incorporates into her routine lend an evocative quality to her routine that her final pose hammers home.
She leaves the audience one last reminder of her routine’s motif as she thrusts her closed fist toward the sky.
“It’s really symbolic because it’s at the end of the routine,” Wilson said. “I feel like if I had it in the middle, it would kind of be just glazed over, so I really like that it is literally the last pose. It’s saying, ‘Even though my routine is over, this is a fight that I’m going to have to fight when I leave this arena, when I get off the floor, when I go to school, when I go to the grocery store.’ So it’s symbolic based on the fact that this fight isn’t over, even though my routine is over. It’s still a thing that we need to be conscious of.”
The moment Wilson makes her powerful closing statement is in and of itself a notable signal of progress in the wider world of sports, but it exists amid a long and checkered history of race in gymnastics.
Like nearly every sport at the college and professional level, gymnastics presided as a predominantly white sport for much of its history. Laws and customs of racial segregation in the U.S. kept opportunities out of the hands of Black Americans for decades, just as they did in every major sports league in the country. In 1966, Keith Coleman broke Michigan’s gymnastics color barrier, but this did little to move the meter in terms of sustained diversity.
The sport of gymnastics has a more troubled history than most; people of color didn’t reach the highest level until 1992. It is only then that Dominique Dawes and Betty Okino became the first two African American women to represent the United States at the Olympic games.
“I think that gymnastics was (primarily white) for a really long time because it is a relatively expensive sport,” Michigan coach Bev Plocki said. “It’s the lessons and the training, the uniforms and all the travel. The higher level you get the more travel there is, both across the United States, and, depending on how good you are, internationally.”
Things began to change, though, when Dawes and Okino tore down the Olympic color barrier.
In stepping onto the mat in Barcelona, the pair began a demographic shift that brought with it household names like Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas, as well as a number of collegiate gymnasts of color, but has not made as grand of an impact in percentages as the success of those like Biles and Douglas would suggest. Social structures of inertia have thus far kept gymnastics a predominantly white sport, and signs of change are only just starting to appear, as the percentage of Black collegiate gymnasts has increased from 4.5% to slightly under 10% in the last decade.
Despite the slow tides of progress, though, Wilson credits her presence to those women of color who have established themselves in the sport.
“It wasn’t even just like, ‘Okay, Gabby Douglas went to the Olympics, so I can win a national championship,’ ” Wilson said. “That’s not even how I thought about it. But it was more so seeing them do what they’re doing and being successful at it; I didn’t have a reason to think that I couldn’t do it.
“I think that’s more so where empowerment comes from, because I was the only Black person on my team several times and for several years in a row, but even in that, I do think subconsciously because of gymnasts like Simone Biles, Dominique Dawes, Gabby Douglas, I didn’t feel like I didn’t belong. I didn’t feel like I couldn’t be as successful as other girls.”
Wilson credits those who came before her for enabling her to reach the heights that she has — a prominent figure on a top-five team in Division I gymnastics — but this humble statement belies the trailblazing qualities of what Wilson does with her position. While most in gymnastics see the floor exercise as a place for expression and individualism, Wilson is among the first, if not the very first, in the NCAA to incorporate such a direct and powerful social message into her routine, according to Plocki. And this makes a great deal of sense when one looks at what Wilson does when she is off the mat.
In talking about Wilson’s off-the-mat actions, both Plocki and assistant coach and floor routine choreographer Maile’ana Kanewa-Hermelyn rush to praise a video Wilson recorded talking about current racial issues in the United States.
“I am so proud of not only Gabby, but Sierra (Brooks) and many other members of our team, as well, for some of the statements they’ve made,” Plocki said. “But, in particular, Gabby made an incredible video that I just thought was unbelievably outstanding. She did it all on her own, and it was an incredible message.”
Beyond even this high praise, Plocki’s decision to nominate Wilson to serve as a representative on the NCAA Diversity Committee for Women’s Gymnastics signifies Wilson’s commitment to social justice. The nomination occurred this past summer, during heightened tensions in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Such a situation clearly called for thoughtful, insightful voices to take the NCAA forward on a better path as the United States experienced a racial reckoning.
Wilson did not disappoint.
“The feedback that I’ve gotten from my other coaching colleagues that are on that committee is that she’s been unbelievable as one of the student athlete representatives,” Plocki said. “And so I really applaud her and I’m very, very proud of her for the stance that she’s taken and the thoughtfulness and the passion that she’s put into all of this.”
The way Plocki sees it, this comes at no surprise.
Wilson raises the Black Power fist at the end of her floor routine because she is an advocate, through and through. And while she would be quick to point out that she is one in a growing line of Black women carving out their place in gymnastics, she goes to extraordinary lengths, both on and off the mat, to see that place expand.
In 2020, Gabby Wilson was one of just 102 Black female gymnasts among a total of 1,087 competitors, but she delivers a message true to herself in hopes of inspiring other women of color to feel confident in expressing themselves through gymnastics.
Wilson’s actions off the mat certainly exist in the larger trend of athlete and student-athlete pushes for social justice, but her actions on the mat lie within a greater trend as well.
According to Plocki, the range of expression available to student-athletes in their floor routines has widely expanded in recent years. Remembering a time when all routine music was played by an in-house pianist, Plocki explains that the relatively recent introduction of full instrumentals has broadened the musical selections available to student-athletes in a way that allows for diversity of messages as well. In a bygone time where piano music was the only option available to gymnasts, Wilson’s routine would not have been possible, but modern liberty over music choice allows her to make a statement.
“In college, it’s a lot about entertainment, but also about being a role model and spreading really positive messages,” Kanewa-Hermelyn said. “I think it’s awesome that they don’t have to do it in an interview, to talk about what the message they’re trying to get across or the statement they’re trying to make. They don’t have to do that verbally, they can do it through their dancing and their emotion.”
As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.
“It’s not just dance, it’s a performance,” Kanewa-Hermelyn said. “It is a message and it is their own. It’s their voice.”
And in cases like these where the messages can reaffirm somebody’s value of and belief in themself, they can have powerful effects.
“I think you see a lot of hype around that on social media with different routines from different universities really spreading positive messages,” Kanewa-Hermelyn said. “They give the younger gymnasts and the younger athletes something to look up to and look forward to to be able to create their vision of what they’re going to want to be one day as a college gymnast.”
As college gymnastics becomes a more and more diverse space, routines like Wilson’s give further push to that trend by staking a claim for people of different backgrounds in the landscape of gymnastics. People of more and more backgrounds will see a place for themselves in the sport as they have role models to look up to that represent their experience and show them the power of being themselves.
And in that way, when Wilson thrusts her fist into the air in each of Michigan’s meets, she does for a younger generation of Black American gymnasts the same thing that Dawes, Douglas and Biles did for her.