Gymnasts of the Social Media Age

Before Maile O’Keefe even qualified elite, I knew exactly who she was. Before Jordan Chiles stepped foot on the podium of an elite stage, I knew her name and right now I frequently watch the Whitney Bjerken YouTube channel, an 11 year old, level 9 gymnast with elite aspirations and a YouTube following of over 600,000 people.

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YouTube star Whitney Bjerken

It is a funny thing when one thinks of the story of Nadia Comaneci attending the 1975 European Championships and shocking everyone by taking the AA title as an unknown 13 year old. Fastforward 40 years and prior to gymnasts even qualifying elite, when they are just babies, we can see them compete, we can see them train, we know their name, their story, where they train, who their parents are and know their potential once they arrive at competitions. If anything, I had heightened expectations for Maile when she arrived on the elite scene in 2013 at just 11 years old.

Whether it is through a YouTube channel, an Instagram account, a Twitter account or even a Facebook page, parents can record and share with the world every step of their child’s gymnastics career, from the time they are just 4 year old recreational gymnasts to them as 12 year old aspiring Olympians.

When YouTube was founded in 2005, there was confusion and trepidation about what it was and how the public should use it. When parents began uploading videos of their children I was confused and as a gymnastics fan, I stumbled upon the videos of none other than Nica Hults, a name I am sure you are familiar with.


Nica Hults in 2012

In 2007, Nica’s mother, Emer Hults uploaded a video of her pint sized, absolutely adorable daughter competing at the 2006 level 5 SoCal State Championships. Wearing a baby pink leotard and dancing to the familiar sound of the compulsory level 5 floor music, Nica’s talent was evident. I continued to watch the videos her mother uploaded and watched the subscriber number on the YouTube account rise (it now currently sits at 2,433, a modest number in comparison to Whitney Bjerken). Nica progressed at a steady pace, reaching level 9 by 2010, and it was all chronicled on the YouTube channel. Videos were uploaded not just of Nica’s gymnastics but of Nica singing, reciting the constitution, of Nica’s brother and sister, their activities and of Nastia and Shawn at the 2007 Visa Champiosnhips. They were just generally adorable home videos and it was a treat to watch this family grow up.

Nica and family then moved from California to Texas, meaning a gym change from All-Olympia to Texas Dreams. Both of theses gyms being serious, high level, elite gyms, Nica was in the right places to emerge on to the elite scene and compete internationally. This she did in 2011 when she jumped right from level 9 in 2010 to elite in 2011, qualifying to elite, making it all the way to 2011 Visa Championships, finishing 5th on BB there and taking 1st on BB at the 2011 CoverGirl Classic. The videos slowed down after 2011 but I continued to watch Nica blossom on the elite level as a member of the Dream Team and in 2013 Nica really emerged as one of America’s best, making the National Team and competing for the U.S. at the 2013 Mexican Open alongside Laurie Hernandez, Bailie Key and Emily Gaskins. In Mexico, she helped the U.S. team take 1st place and she unofficially took 4th place AA.

Unfortunately we haven’t seen much of Nica in recent years, she has had some injury struggles and a hard time with gymnastics but she came back as a level 10 last season and is committed to compete for UCLA. It was truly remarkable to watch that adorable little baby pink clad girl make the transition to elite, compete internationally for the U.S. and ultimately commit to compete collegiately for UCLA.

Nica and Emer gave the explanation for the videos being posted on YouTube as enabling their family in the Philippines to see Nica’s gymnastics and see the kids growing up, never did they expect people to fall in love with watching Nica and her gymnastics. But for some reason people did, and people continue to love watching young gymnasts pursue their dreams. Look at the sheer volume of followers Whitney Bjerken has amassed, or the amount of followers the channel of Annie LeBlanc or ‘acroanna’ has amassed (currently over 1 million). These children are mini celebrities and regularly get asked at gymnastics meets to have their picture taken!


YouTube star Annie LeBlanc

Sure, every gymnast has home videos of them tumbling around the living room or around gyms or at their first competition where their BB routine simply consisted of a half turn , a questionable leap and a bunny hop off the end of a low beam but they were given a rapturous applause from proud parents anyway. But no longer are these home videos being kept at home, ready to be unveiled at a later stage when their child makes the Olympic team and NBC needs them to make a fluff piece (an ode to the Kyla Ross/McKayla Maroney fluff of 2012 which was pure gold!). But now parents are sharing (sometimes over sharing) with the world their darling child’s gymnastics journey.

With the advent of ‘social media stars’, social media endorsements and the promise of a quick buck made through a viral video or overnight fame, the sharing of a child’s gymnastics journey has taken on a whole new meaning compared to the videos shared by Emer Hults 10 years ago. The videos like Emer’s were simply just home videos, uploaded by a proud and adoring parent who could be heard cheering for their child in the background. Now, whilst I imagine most parents have no malicious intent with regards to fame or money, the thrill of receiving attention, or your child receiving attention is certainly part of the motivation to over share. The instant gratification of a nice comment, a like, a thumbs up, whatever it may be is thrilling, and its addictive.

Just recently we saw a 3 year old gymnast by the name of Emma appear on the Ellen DeGeneres show after the videos that her mother had posted to Instagram had been discovered. Emma was touted as a future Olympian…at 3. Sure, the kid had some talent but no more than the average 3 year old. Either way, not even the most talented gym nerd can predict the destiny of a 3 year old, let alone Ellen DeGeneres and her team (no offence guys). But c’mon it is ridiculous.

It is a funny thing, it is a new phenomenon with many of the pioneers of this phenomenon such as Nica just now reaching the last few years of their gymnastics career. We are only now seeing the full circle of what once was, 10 years ago, a weird, new idea that I for one couldn’t quite grasp the reasoning behind. Why would someone put a video of their child on the internet, I asked myself. (I am now a person who shares quite a lot of my life online, oh how times change!). It confused me but I couldn’t stop watching.

I have enjoyed watching gymnasts like Nica, like Jordan Chiles, Maile O’Keefe and Lizzy LeDuc transform from little kids, competing through the levels to grown up women, competing on the elite level, competing for the U.S. internationally, becoming national champions and competing in the NCAA. It is a nice thing to watch. It is nice to watch them strive for their dreams and reach them and remember watching them as young gymnasts, recognising the talent and hoping that they would stick it out in the harsh sport that is gymnastics. It is certainly the new age of gymnastics, the social media age and never again will the world truly be shocked by a new and exciting talent like Nadia, emerging from nowhere to take a title. Sad, it may be but it is always interesting, if one is bored to trawl through the plethora of videos online of young talent and predict the future, just like this person did….yep, this is definitely a totally realistic prediction.


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