By Allyson Chiu / The Washington Post
As the first strains of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” filled the Anaheim Arena on Saturday, Katelyn Ohashi came alive.
Executing a quick body roll with a giant smile plastered across her face, it was clear that the 21-year-old UCLA gymnast was in her element, as she kicked off her high-energy floor routine with a massive tumbling pass that ended in a flawlessly stuck landing. In the course of about one minute and 30 seconds, Ohashi stunned the crowd, coaches, teammates and judges, earning a perfect score for an electrifying performance full of gravity-defying flips, killer dance moves and a healthy dose of sassy confidence that has since gone viral with many heralding it as one of the best floor routines they have ever seen.
But perhaps the most notable feature of Ohashi’s routine was the sheer joy she exuded, which starkly contrasted the revelations she made this August about her decision to step back from her Olympic dreams several years ago after the sport left her “broken.”
“A 10 isn’t enough for this floor routine by katelyn—ohashi,” the UCLA Gymnastics official Twitter account tweeted Sunday, sharing a video of Ohashi’s stellar showing at the Collegiate Challenge, where the UCLA Bruins earned first place. As of early Monday morning, the video of the routine had been viewed more than 13 million times.
For Ohashi, a one-time Olympic hopeful, viral fame is nothing new. At the 2018 Pac-12 Gymnastics Championships, she moonwalked her way to the title of NCAA floor champion with a Michael Jackson-themed routine that now has more than 4 million views on YouTube.
Coming into this year’s season, UCLA Coach Valorie Kondos Field told the Los Angeles Times that the big question was, “How’re we gonna top that?”
The answer came in the form of an impossibly challenging routine set to an instrumental medley of classic R&B and pop hits, including “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire, The Jackson 5′s “I Want You Back” and Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Saturday’s flawless performance was only Ohashi’s second time doing the routine since debuting it at a season-opening meet against Nebraska on Jan. 4, the Times reported.
“Her whole floor routine is ridiculously hard,” Kondos Field told the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper. “Every single thing about it including the backwards split that she does after her leap pass — it’s insane.”
If Ohashi was at all nervous about her intimidating routine on Saturday, it didn’t show. She was all smiles as she strutted and danced to the music between jaw-dropping tumbling passes, at one point even cheekily sticking out her tongue. On the sidelines, Ohashi’s teammates were equally enthusiastic, erupting into raucous cheers every time she stuck a landing and dancing in unison with her.
On social media, the routine — especially the final split landing, described by one person as “mind-bending” — left viewers gobsmacked.
“I would tear every ligament I didn’t know I even had,” one Twitter user commented.
“This is the most exciting floor routine I’ve ever seen,” a former gymnast tweeted. “So much energy and perfectly executed.”
The UCLA senior even earned praise from Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., the Atlantic’s Jemele Hill and Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith, who all shared the video of her routine on Twitter.
“This is fantastic,” Harris wrote in a tweet congratulating Ohashi and the Bruins.
“Note to self: Go to a UCLA gymnastics meet,” Hill tweeted.
Smith also pledged to watch the Bruins the next time he was in Los Angeles, describing the routine as “All around brilliance.”
But for many, Ohashi’s performance stood out simply because she appeared to be having fun, a rare sight in an often stressful and grueling sport that demands perfection from its athletes.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone visibly having this much fun while competing,” one person tweeted.
Another person wrote,”Not only was it perfect looking, her joy is absolutely contagious.”
Though it may seem hard to believe based on the video, gymnastics was not always a source of happiness for Ohashi. Born in Seattle, Ohashi spent four years on USA Gymnastics’ junior national team. In 2013, she won the American Cup, beating then-teammate Simone Biles, who would go on to become a four-time Olympic champion. But in her Players’ Tribune video, titled “I Was Broken,” Ohashi details her emotional journey away from that elite gymnastics scene.
“There was a time where I was on top of the world, an Olympic hopeful,” Ohashi narrates. “I was unbeatable, until I wasn’t.”
Ohashi went on to describe the intense pressure she faced competing at the elite level — fans telling her “she wasn’t good enough,” constantly stressing about what she ate and being compared to “a bird that couldn’t fly.” In video clips of her at meets during that time, Ohashi rarely had a smile on her face. When she finally made the decision to retire from elite gymnastics with the hopes of becoming a college athlete, she had been competing with a fractured back and two torn shoulders.
“It took me finding Ms. Val [Kondos Field] and UCLA and having a different goal and path to follow, to finally find joy and love within the sport again,” Ohashi said in the video, adding, “I haven’t been able to feel this type of happiness in a long time.”
She continued: “It’s not the outcome. It’s not me standing on the podium with medals. It’s me being able to walk out with a smile on my face and truly being happy with myself.”
Following Saturday’s perfect score, Ohashi appeared to only have one criticism of her routine: “now i just gotta learn how to clap on the beat.”
Ohashi competed in the Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships at Comcast Arena in 2012.