By Philip Hersh | Feb. 29, 2016, 10:51 a.m. (ET)
(L-R)Simone Biles and Gabrielle Douglas celebrate after the all-around final at the 2015 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships at The SSE Hydro on Oct. 29, 2015 in Glasgow, Scotland.


Gabby Douglas was on the uneven bars at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Gymnastics. She was rattling the rafters with the eye-catching moves that would soon transfix judges and spectators during her historic triumph at the London Olympic Games.

The public address announcer at the trials alerted the crowd to what the African-American gymnast known as the Flying Squirrel was up to.

In that crowd was 5-year-old Mya Jones, who also is African-American. She never had seen gymnastics before coming to the HP Pavilion in San Jose, California, with her father that day.

Douglas immediately grabbed Mya Jones’ attention. The little girl turned to her father, Marshall, and exclaimed, “Ohmigod, dad. She’s brown like me.”

A few days later, after she had seen Douglas win the trials in an upset and be announced as a member of the Olympic team, Mya Jones began trying to mimic the champion’s floor exercise routine in the living room and then turning cartwheels in the backyard of the family’s Milpitas, California home. Marshall Jones asked his daughter what she was doing, and Mya replied, “I’m going to be the next Gabby Douglas.”

Mya Jones, who aims to be the "next Gabby Douglas," practices at home. 

Two months later, after she had watched on television as Douglas become the first black gymnast to win an individual Olympic gold medal, in the coveted all-around (and another gold in the team event), Mya Jones was back at the HP Pavilion to watch the post-Olympic gymnastics tour show.

When it was over, she had a chance to go backstage and meet the gymnasts. Douglas kneeled to talk with her and then posed with Mya and a friend for a picture.

“To see someone like you doing it really shows you it can be done,” said Wendy Hilliard, the first African-American to make a national team in rhythmic gymnastics. “It’s that simple.”

Four years later, Mya Jones is a Level 4 competitive gymnast utterly in love with the sport. And much to the third grader’s delight, Douglas is back.

“I never would have thought I would have so much influence on these little girls, especially African-American girls,” Douglas said after I had told her Mya’s story. “To be able to inspire other athletes is amazing.”

Imagine the inspiration possible this Olympic year, because the top two women’s gymnasts in the world are African-Americans.

One, Simone Biles, 18, became the first black world all-around champion in 2013 and has now won an unprecedented three straight world all-around titles. The other, Douglas, 20, finished second to Biles in the world all-around last season, ending her two-year hiatus from the sport with a flourish. They both contributed to the 2015 team gold medal.

The world championships play only to gymnastics fans, a relatively limited audience. The Olympics play to the whole world, with millions of young girls and boys potential converts, especially in the United States, which will get a massive dose of prime-time gymnastics in NBC’s telecasts of Rio 2016.

Given that plus their ability and likeability, think of what that will mean if both Biles and Douglas win a passel of medals or both finish on the all-around podium, neither of which is a stretch.

Dominique Dawes competes on balance beam at the Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympic Games at the Georgia Dome on July 23, 1996 in Atlanta. 

“These two young African-Americans capture the spirit of Black History Month,” USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny said. “They are making history and demonstrating there really are no racial boundaries from the standpoint of participation in our sport.”

Penny said his federation does not chart participation demographically, but his intuition and that of federation Chief Operating Officer Ron Galimore from watching events at all age levels since the 2012 Olympics suggests an “explosion of diversity.” Such a change has been slow coming to the elite level of a sport where public tumbling programs, often free or very inexpensive, give way to private clubs for top-level training, which is costly.

So the history of African-American Olympians in gymnastics is still relatively short and recent, but its chapters already are full of memorable athletes.

* * *

In 1992, Dominique Dawes and Betty Okino of the United States became the first black gymnasts to win an Olympic medal, bronze in the team event. That would be the first of four medals in three Olympics for Dawes, known as “Awesome Dawesome.”

In 1991, Okino was the first black gymnast to win medals at worlds (team silver, balance beam bronze). In 1996, Dawes became the first black women’s gymnast to win an individual Olympic medal, bronze in floor exercise, and also the first black to win a gold medal, in the team event.


 Betty Okino competes on uneven bars at the Goodwill Games on July 29, 1990 in Seattle. 

Dawes, a graduate of the University of Maryland, a mother of two young girls and co-chair of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, was a FOX commentator at the 2012 Olympics. She broke down on national television after Douglas won gold, saying through tears, “I'm so thrilled to change my website and take down the fact that I was the only African-American with a gold medal."

“I only take pride in knowing that I was blessed to have opened doors for other minorities to see the sport of gymnastics as an avenue for them to reach their full potential in sport and later in life,” Dawes said 10 days ago in an email.

“What good is it to achieve and be by yourself… sharing the success and even having others surpass me is great by me.”

There were other outstanding African-American gymnasts before Dawes, including at least two who made the U.S. Olympic team. But they never had the chance to gain similar acclaim at the summer Games and be widely seen as a barrier breaker the way she was.

Galimore and Luci Collins Cummings are officially recognized as the first black U.S. Olympic gymnasts. Unfortunately, their 1980 team was the one that never competed, because the United States boycotted the summer Olympics in Moscow at the request of President Jimmy Carter to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Galimore, whose father, Willie, was an NFL running back for seven seasons, is believed to be the first black gymnast to win a national title. (USA Gymnastics records do not track race). He won vault and floor exercise at the 1977 nationals and had added two more U.S. titles in both those events before the 1980 Olympics.

Ron Galimore, who qualified for the 1980 Olympic team, is credited with being the first black U.S. Olympic men's gymnast.

Had Team USA gone to Moscow, it would have had an excellent shot at its first men’s team gymnastics medal since 1932. And former USA Gymnastics President Mike Jacki thinks Galimore could have won the gold on vault. After all, in 1981, Galimore’s vault for Iowa State earned the first perfect 10 in NCAA Championships history.

So the boycott deprived Galimore of not only of a chance to compete but also a strong chance to win what would have been the first Olympic medal – or medals – by a black gymnast.

“I became an elite athlete when the sport was starting to be televised,” Galimore said. “(Being in the Olympics) would have had a tremendous impact on visibility. It still is shocking to me how many people watch the Olympics.

“As in any sport, all you need is a role model. I want to believe I still encouraged a lot of young people to get involved. But that Olympics would have done quite a bit to attract new sets of eyes to our sport.”

Galimore, it turns out, may not have been the first black Olympic gymnast.

James Kanati Allen of Los Angeles, who competed in eight events at the 1968 Olympics and went on to earn a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Washington, was described as “5/8 Cherokee” in obituaries after his Dec. 31, 2011 death. But Allen had mixed race parents who both were part black, according to his brother, Ramon Eric Allen, former police chief of Compton, California.

“Kanati saw himself as white, black and Native American, and he was not into issues of race,” his brother said. “But in my opinion, if someone subsequent to Kanati said they were the first black Olympic gymnast, they would be in error, because Kanati was black.”

Ironically, as a young boy, Galimore had a poster of Kanati Allen on his wall. But, like nearly everyone else, Galimore was not aware of his predecessor’s full heritage.

Luci Collins Cummings, also from the Los Angeles area, would be frustrated that she did not look black enough for some people to see her that way.

“At the 1980 Olympic trials, there was a lot of attention on Ron (being the first black Olympian) but not a mention of me as African-American,” she said. “I was devastated by the non-coverage because of the way it affected the little community (Inglewood) that strongly supported me.”

Luci Collins, who qualified for the 1980 Olympic team, is credited with being the first black U.S. Olympic women's gymnast.

Collins became interested in gymnastics, a sport foreign to that community, when she saw it for the first time, watching four-time Soviet gold medalist Olga Korbut do a cartwheel on the balance beam at the 1972 Olympics. Collins was soon out in her backyard turning flips on a brick wall, and her mother quickly decided it would be safer to get Luci into a tumbling class. The closest was 20 minutes away at a Gardena rec center.

“There was nothing locally close, because gymnastics wasn’t mainstream in my community or culture,” she said.

Yet Collins, whose parents were Creole, saw that community become very excited by her success in the sport. So it was dismaying when outsiders seemed to brush aside her African-American heritage.

“There was a large amount of disappointment over that in my local community, and it was hurtful,” she said. “I definitely identified as African-American, but there were times I felt I wasn’t a good enough representation.”

Collins went on to compete two years for the University of Southern California, with the 1984 Olympics on her mind. She gave up the sport before then for health reasons, went on to have two daughters and now works for the El Segundo, California, water department.

She is thrilled by the Olympic achievements of black gymnasts over the past quarter-century.

“Dominique and Betty and all who followed me have created a wave of cultural support in the African-American community and a wave of African-American youth to dare to dream of trying gymnastics,” Collins said.

* * *

At the time Luci Collins was on her way out of the sport, a black young teen from Gary, Indiana, was on her way to becoming the top female gymnast in the United States.

Dianne Durham got into gymnastics because her parents thought it would be a good way for her and a sister to burn off the limitless energy that began to wreak havoc on the family’s living room. She would be coach Bela Karolyi’s first elite U.S. gymnast.

Chainey Umphrey celebrates after his rings routine in the men's team gymnastics event at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games at the Georgia Dome on July 22, 1996 in Atlanta.

In 1983, a few days before her 15th birthday, Durham became the person USA Gymnastics identifies as the first black women’s national champion – four times over. She won the all-around, vault, beam and floor exercise. Just a year before the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, she looked a cinch to make the U.S. team.

Injuries and a Byzantine selection process combined to keep Durham from a team on which another Karolyi athlete, Mary Lou Retton, became a transcendent, Wheaties-box-cover star. Retton had finished second to Durham in the all-around at the 1983 nationals.

“Did race play a part? I really don’t know,” said Durham, a coach at various Chicago area clubs the past 17 years.

“I have no regrets. It’s over and done with. But I would still like for someone to come forward and tell me what really happened.”

For Wendy Hilliard, a Detroiter, the impact of being African-American in a part of the sport where black athletes were even rarer than in artistic gymnastics often made her feel out of place.

Never was that discomfort greater than when the national team coaches, mostly Russian émigrés, tried to keep her off the six-member U.S. team for the group event at the 1983 world championships. She recalls them telling her. “Wendy, you don’t fit in. The group event is synchronized, and you stand out.”

None of the other 12 U.S. women contending for the six group-event spots was a person of color.

“For me, it was because I was black,” Hilliard said. “I knew I was good enough.”

Hilliard would successfully make the case that rules called for the team to be picked on rankings. But the experience left such an impression it was a catalyst in the creation 20 years ago of the Harlem-based Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation, which has opened both artistic and rhythmic gymnastics for free to thousands of inner-city kids.

The mother of two boys, one a gymnast, she has been highly visible as a TV commentator, coach of 1996 rhythmic Olympian Alaine Baquerot and first black president of the Women’s Sports Foundation – a constant example of “if you can see it, you can be it.”

“It used to be if you said you were a gymnast in the black community, they looked at you like you had four eyeballs,” Durham said, laughing. “I really hope the impact of Gabby and Simone will bring a boom of black girls trying the sport.”

Donothan Bailey competes on the high bar at the Visa Gymnastics Championships at Xcel Energy Center on Aug. 17, 2011 in St Paul, Minn.

Donothan Bailey, a member of the 2015 men’s national team from Lake Forest, California, who has been recently struggling with injuries, admits to having had moments of feeling ill at ease as a black athlete in the sport. He has come to realize that is why he looked up to fellow African-American Chainey Umphrey, a U.S. champion and member of the 1996 Olympic team.

“At first, I didn’t think of (the connection) that way,” Bailey said. “Looking back, I can see he was important to me because he was one of the few leading African-American gymnasts in the country.”

In 1996, two-time Olympian Jair Lynch became the first black men’s gymnast to win an Olympic medal, silver on parallel bars. Over the two decades since, the number of blacks on the men’s national team has grown, and three current members are candidates for the 2016 Olympic team – 2012 Olympian and three-time world medalist John Orozco, two-time world medalist Donnell Whittenburg and 2015 Pan American Games gold medalist Marvin Kimble.

“Having so many more African-Americans on the national team and as Olympic hopefuls really makes a statement that you can be successful with any sport or with academics,” said Bailey, a 2014 University of California graduate in integrative biology.

That statement became a shout when Biles and Douglas finished 1-2 in the all-around at last year’s world championships. Biles, who had heard of Dawes but cites more contemporary (and white) gymnasts Nastia Liukin and Alicia Sacramone as her role models, has utterly dominated the sport for three years, winning a record 10 world gold medals with routines that seem to defy the space-time continuum. A third black gymnast, Nia Dennis, also is on the current 10-member national team.

“Gabby and Simone doing so well gives young African-American gymnasts hope,” said Tasha Schwikert-Warren, a black gymnast who won a team bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics. “It lets the world know it’s not just a sport where white girls can dominate. And I know many young girls, regardless of color, who look up to Gabby and Simone.”

But the new world order has proved disconcerting to some in the sport.

When Biles’ historic all-around victory at the 2013 worlds followed Douglas’ historic all-around victory at the Olympics, Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito said in a video interview that “next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win too.” In defending Ferlito on Facebook, an Italian federation spokesman exacerbated the racially charged comments by citing old stereotypes about physical characteristics.

“It is what it is; you can’t help what other people say,” Biles said in a recent phone conversation.

Mya Jones, who was inspired by Gabby Douglas, competes on uneven bars.

Ferlito apologized on Twitter. The federation apologized on Facebook and its website. Douglas brushed it off as jealousy. Penny said USA Gymnastics accepted the apologies and moved on, but he still thinks the quotes are unfortunate.

“I was very disappointed but not shocked,” Hilliard said. “It’s very hard for people to accept things they’re not used to. Only folks not subjected to those types of feelings don’t realize how prevalent they are.”

***

Barring injury or illness that keeps them from Rio, there seems little doubt Biles and Douglas will be among the centerpieces of NBC’s exhaustive 2016 Olympics coverage. The spotlight focused on them likely will attract young girls of every color to try the sport and make those already in gymnastics dream bigger and work harder. And there also is no doubt they will have a special appeal to young African-American boys and girls.

“To me it’s just a very diverse sport, but I think the impact will be strong because you don’t see a team like ours very often,” Biles said. “It will be very fun if little kids looking at it think hopefully they can do anything they put their minds to.”

Just think of that connection between Dominique Dawes and that little kid from Virginia Beach, Virginia, Gabby Douglas, who had started cartwheeling around the house at 4 years old to mimic her older sister.

“I am so grateful to have a really mature and amazing role model in Dominique,” Douglas said. “When she said (in London) she had passed the torch to me, that was incredible.

“For me to be on this platform and send positive vibes to other athletes is amazing. I’m still kind of realizing how much impact I have made.”

She needs only see Mya Jones, now 9 and just promoted to Level 4, who finished seventh of 15 overall in her Level 3 section of the state championship last November, getting third in vault and fourth on beam. Mya still watches “The Gabby Douglas Story” every night before a competition and YouTube videos of Douglas’ routines on her iPad every morning before a competition.

Philip Hersh, who has covered 17 Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.