Stanford gymnast Ian Gunther has heard the same question almost everywhere he goes, from class or elsewhere around campus to competitions around the country, over the past few years.
Are you that guy from TikTok?
In addition to being a four-time NCAA champion with the Cardinal, a 10-time All-American and a former member of the national team, he is indeed that guy. And it's a role he's embraced and takes seriously.
Since starting his account in March of 2020, just days before the COVID-19 pandemic became a national emergency, the 23-year-old has amassed just under one million followers and 143 million likes on the platform, as well as several hundred thousand others on his various other social media accounts. But he didn't start with a grand vision for internet fame. He created it when he saw his teammate Riley Loos have a post go viral and he thought it looked like a fun creative outlet.
"I wasn't really expecting anything from it," Gunther said. "I could never have imagined this, even in my wildest dreams. I'm an introverted person so I never would have seen myself as an 'influencer' or a content creator with this amount of followers, or especially where I'm at now, where I'm making a career out of it. Never."
But when the pandemic shut down the remainder of the NCAA season shortly after, Gunther found himself at home, bored and unable to train. He turned his attention to his TikTok account, initially mostly posting previously-shot practice footage, often combined with music or visual effects like slow-motion, and earning a modest view count. One day, nearing the end of March, Gunther was feeling particularly disappointed about the anticlimactic end of the season and he posted his pommel horse routine, something he was particularly proud of, and calling it "the hardest routine" he had ever done in the caption. It racked up nearly a million views.
Gunther looked on in amazement as his views, likes and follower count grew, actively refreshing his phone and reading each and every comment. He was hooked. And it wasn't just because of the instant gratification that comes with going viral, Gunther realized almost immediately the opportunity he suddenly had.
"I remember being like, 'Oh my gosh, people actually want to watch a pommel horse routine,'" Gunther said. "It was a transformative moment. To me, it had always been, no one wants to watch men's gymnastics, no one comes to our meets, and suddenly, getting over 900,000 views on one of my routines felt like a proof of concept that people did actually want to see it and actually might be interested. My account could bring more attention to it."
From there, Gunther began posting at a prolific rate, with at least one new video a day. Always with "a million ideas" racing through his head, he estimates he's posted over 2,500 since he started. Gunther's TikToks run the gamut in terms of content. Some are funny, others are informative. Some are from practice, in which he might be trying a new skill or attempting to replicate someone like Simone Biles' hardest routines, some are bloopers of his falls during training or competition, while others look at iconic routines from the sport's past or just explain some of gymnastics' idiosyncrasies that might seem obvious to those immersed in the sport but strange to those not familiar. Gunther has done multiple videos on the use of honey on parallel bars -- it makes them stickier -- and the role of the spotter on the high bar.
"When you're in a niche sport like gymnastics, you have to frame something to be digestible and interesting to someone who has no idea what the sport is," Gunther said. "No one cares about men's gymnastics so I'll make them care. I use the comments for feedback and that informs what I do for my next videos. So for example I would post videos from the high bar, and I would see a lot of questions like, 'Who's the guy with the mat?' When you've been doing gymnastics forever, it's easy to wonder how someone doesn't know that but then you step back and realize, 'Maybe it's actually not that obvious.' Some of my most viral videos have been me explaining things like that."
While his coaches initially saw it as an occasionally annoying side project, it didn't take too long for most around the program to embrace Gunther's mission. His teammates and coaches frequently appear in his videos and are often asking him about his latest follower count.
While Gunther's NCAA career is now over -- having helped lead the team to its fourth-straight NCAA team title last month -- he remains on campus as he completes his master's degree in Sustainability Science & Practice. Set to graduate in June, Gunther will then stay in the area to train with his focus on competing at this summer's U.S. Classic and U.S. Championships and ultimately earning his spot on the national team. He said the income he's making from his TikTok account, as well as some freelance social media advising and UX design, will allow him to train full-time without needing to get a traditional job.
He is hopeful of making the 2024 Olympic team but will retire from competition no matter what following this Olympic cycle. He's ready for the next chapter, both physically and mentally, and wants to become an entrepreneur. Gunther doesn't intend on continuing his social media accounts forever, but he has no plans of stopping anytime soon. He is proud of what he's achieved and believes there is even more he can give to help the sport he loves.
"There is nothing better than when someone comments and says they're trying the sport for the first time because of me, or when they say they're going to start watching it," Gunther said. "It's the best feeling in the world and that's really what the sport needs. I've had people come up to me at competitions and say, 'I started gymnastics because of you and now I'm Level 5.' It's so cool to think I'm tangibly driving involvement in the sport and, you know, maybe it's just a little bit right now, but helping the sport grow. I wouldn't have believed any of this was possible, just doing gymnastics videos, when I first started."