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The 21-year-old UCLA senior wowed the judges—and the Internet—on Saturday, January 12, with a floor routine that combined infectious personality, challenging moves, mesmerizing choreography, and pure joy. Her skill and pizzazz during the collegiate-level competition earned her a perfect 10 score, and to date, more than 33.9 million views via the @UCLAGymnastics Twitter account, which shared a clip of the crowd-riling performance. Thousands of Twitter users—including Senator Kamala Harris and journalist Jemele Hill—took note, saluting her A-plus-plus performance.
Yet Ohashi is much more than an overnight social media sensation. As a former Olympic hopeful, the world-class athlete has a long, complicated relationship with gymnastics and an empowering message about body positivity in a sport rife with critics. There's also much more to her wow-worthy performance than its obvious viral-ness. Here, four things to know about the skilled and inspiring athlete.
1. As fun as it looks, Ohashi’s perfect routine was far from easy to execute.
Set to a toe-tapping mash-up of popular throwback songs, including Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire, the Jackson 5′s “I Want You Back,” and Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” the performance on Saturday marked just the second time Ohashi has executed the routine since debuting it at a meet against Nebraska on January 4, according to the Los Angeles Times. And as you can probably tell from Ohashi's animated facial expressions throughout the 90-second routine, she really enjoys routines like this.
“Floor is where I get to express myself,” Ohashi told NBC News. “That’s like, my party time, like my play time.”
That said, while the routine is undoubtedly fun, it’s also extremely difficult.
“Her whole floor routine is ridiculously hard,” UCLA Women’s Gymnastics head coach Valorie Kondos Field told the Daily Bruin, the school’s student newspaper. “Every single thing about it, including the backward split that she does after her leap pass.”
When she stepped onto the competition floor on Saturday, Ohashi brought number one game. “I’ve never seen her perform like that,” Kondos Field told the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve never seen her facial, her performance quality, be that professional as I saw tonight.”
2. It wasn't her first viral performance, though.
Last year, at the 2018 Pac-12 gymnastics championships, Ohashi won the collegiate title in the floor division with a Michael Jackson–themed performance—complete with mid-routine moonwalking and the iconic “Thriller” handclap—that, to date, has more than 4.5 million views on YouTube.
3. As a teen, Ohashi was one of the top ranked gymnasts in the world before injuries and burnout sidelined her Olympic dreams.
Ohashi is one of the last gymnasts to have bestedSimone Biles in a major competition. The Seattle native spent four years on USA Gymnastics' junior national team, and at age 16, won the 2013 American Cup, one of the most prestigious competitions in the world. (Check out her nearly flawless floor exercise and her extremely challenging beam routine from the competition). She was, by all counts, on track for the Olympics.
But everything changed when, according to an emotional first-person testimony shared in a Players’ Tribune video released last year, Ohashi learned that she had been competing with a fractured back and two torn shoulders.
“I think gymnastics can be a really brutal sport,” Ohashi revealed in the video, titled “I Was Broken.” “I don’t think it’s supposed to be a brutal sport."
Because of these injuries, as well as mounting pressure to conform to a certain body type—"I was told it was embarrassing how big I had become," Ohashi revealed in the video. "I was compared to a bird that couldn't fly."—she decided to leave the pro world in 2015. "I was so mentally drained and devastated," she told NBC News. "I didn't enjoy the sport as much."
Later that year, after joining the UCLA Bruins gymnastics squad, she regained her joy and love for the sport. “At the end of the day, I think this should have been my path,” she told Players' Tribune. “I haven’t been able to feel this type of happiness in a long time.”
4. Aside from her obvious athletic skills, Ohashi is a writer who blogs regularly about body image and other health topics.
Ohashi maintains a Wordpress site, Behind the Madness with a friend, Maria Caire, on which the two discuss “the various body-image issues athletes endure.” Ohashi’s posts, which also talk about her struggles managing both a rare skin disease and ulcerative colitis, are insightful and candid.
“In life we are told to do or be so many different things and expected to fit so many different expectations; I think that’s something I always had a hard time with,” Ohashi wrote in a 2017 post titled “Dear No One, This is For Me” about athlete body shaming and the pressure that she has felt, both as a gymnast and a female, to look a certain way. “Women are ‘expected’ to have skinny waists, yet still be voluptuous. People surrounding us tell us we need to eat but then look at us in disgust if we cross the invisible line of overeating...Ignoring the opinions of those around me and focusing on what I believe in has been one of the greatest impacts on saving me. Why should we allow anyone else to dictate how we feel about ourselves?"
While the rest of us won't be going out and mimicking Ohashi's splits, jumps, and flips anytime soon, her messages about self-acceptance and body image are relatable and inspiring, whether you're a pro athlete or not.