Katelyn Ohashi: 'I wanted to bring the joy back to gymnastics'

Behind the scenes of Katelyn Ohashi's Body Issue shoot (4:20)

Katelyn Ohashi discusses the physical and mental challenges she has faced in gymnastics and the floor routine that made her a viral sensation. (4:20)

Katelyn Ohashi, Liz Cambage, Brooks Koepka and NFL stars such as Myles Garrett and the Eagles offensive line are featured in ESPN's 2019 Body Issue. To see interviews, pictures, videos and more, visit our full 2019 gallery.

I started gymnastics when I was 3 years old. My mom used to say I did cartwheels in her stomach. I would never get out of the gym, and when I was at home I'd set up mini-tramps behind the couch and flip over them. It was so much fun.

I became an elite gymnast when I was 12 years old, and everything became less about me and what I wanted and more for everyone around me. The Olympics was the ultimate goal, but it was never my goal. It was put in front of me because of my talent, and my coaches kept pushing me toward it. I felt like I couldn't give up because my family had made so many sacrifices. I became miserable. My voice was so suppressed. I still loved the sport, but the joy was diminished. I believed the medals were worth so much more than I was.

When I was 14, I started hearing comments about my weight: "You look like you swallowed an elephant." "You look like a pig." "Your face is three times the size it was this morning." "You remind me of a bird that's too big to fly." People whose opinions I valued said this to me. My friends and I would try to eat 500 calories or less when we were training seven hours a day. At parties, we would go to the bathroom and try to vomit up the food.

We were never really educated on what to eat or why it's important to eat a certain way. We were just told, "Don't eat this" and "Don't eat dinner." I had a horrible relationship with food and didn't really understand why I was supposed to hate it, but I loved it so much at the same time. It was so normalized because all the girls around me, my close friends, were doing the same thing. I didn't have open communication with a lot of people. My mom would hide food for my brother that she didn't want me to get into.

There were times I couldn't even get through a floor routine because I was so exhausted. I would fall, and my coach would be like, "What's wrong with you?" I'm like, "All I've had today are raspberries." And they looked at me like it wasn't an issue.

Gymnastics defined me. That's all I did. I was home-schooled, I was pushed to win. Every gold medal, every international competition I won -- that gave me my worth.

But then I got injured. I was 16 years old, right before my first senior competition, the American Cup in 2013, and my back started bothering me. It got worse and worse. It was like a vertebra was sticking out. By the time I got home -- after winning the competition -- I was in tears. My mom asked, "Aren't you happy?" I was like, "No, I'm broken." Mentally, physically, emotionally. My vertebrae were hitting each other and shifting. They told me I might never do gymnastics again. When I was coming back, about a year later, I tore my shoulder, so I had to get surgery for that as well. It was a full two years before I could step back onto the competition floor.

I was forced to back away from the sport, and it was such a relief because I had been so miserable for so long. Since quitting wasn't an option, I thought maybe this injury was my way out. I didn't want to go near the sport again. I felt like I didn't know who I was.

It took a full year for me to miss gymnastics. That's when I called Miss Val [Valorie Kondos Field] at UCLA. My teammate Madison Kocian had told me about her, and I decided to give her a chance. I started taking ownership of my path. I told her I didn't want to do the Olympics anymore. I changed my path to college gymnastics and knew I wanted to go to UCLA. That's what brought me back.

I finally found my passions outside of the sport. In elite, your full attention has to be on gymnastics. But in college, Miss Val really allowed us to express ourselves uniquely and find what drives us. She would take me to lunch and make a conscious decision to not talk about gymnastics. We'd talk about school, boys, whatever. And then if I brought up gymnastics, that was the only time it was acceptable to talk about it. We had nutritionists and trainers who worked with us on our bodies, which helped me realize why it's so important to fuel it correctly. It created a better environment for me to accept my body and not be super weird about eating. I don't prevent myself from eating anything. Once you release your mind, your body can relax and do what it's supposed to do.

I got to have a full social experience, and I figured out that I'm really passionate about helping homeless people and figuring out why people stay in abusive relationships. I started writing and realized how much that saved me. I started a blog about what I'd learned in college. Then my friend and I decided to do a body-shaming series because we had both gone through it. We went through our personal experiences, and it blew up. It resonated with so many people, and they told us it helped them. I realized that not everyone was so open to share, and I kept pushing for hard topics that I had felt so alone with.

I have a skin condition called granuloma annulare. It covers my entire body. Some look like bruises; some are complete circles. It actually doesn't affect me, but people are like, "What's wrong with your stomach?" I used to feel ashamed. I didn't like posting pictures in my swimsuit or showing my stomach. But now I feel like it's important to show it because so many people try to hide it. Recently someone said, "I was able to take the bandage off my hand to show my granuloma because you inspired me." That was such an amazing thing to hear. Why should we have to hide?

When my routine went viral in January, what stood out to people was that it was so joyful. People are so used to watching Olympic gymnastics, when you see more of the robotic, stiff gymnastics that is taken very, very seriously. But Miss Val comes from a dance background, and she teaches us how to perform and fully express ourselves. I think the routine went viral because it was so relatable and people could feel joy watching it. A crazy amount of people reached out. Athletes, but also Sen. Kamala Harris, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Gabrielle Union. Janet Jackson herself tweeted it. I never, ever could have imagined that. For the past two years, we've only heard negative things about gymnastics and how it's abusive. But the sport isn't abusive. It was the culture. That video put gymnastics in a different light, and people have been able to see the beautiful side of the sport.

I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis two years ago. I feel like I've had symptoms for a really long time, and a lot of people say it's caused by stress. I would never consider myself a stressed person, but the life I was put into since I was a little girl was extremely stressful. I went through things I never let myself feel fully. When I was diagnosed, I blamed myself a lot because I felt like I could have prevented it if I had been less stressed and had taken more ownership.

Doing the Body Issue is important because I'm able to take full ownership over my body and not allow anyone else to have power over how I feel about myself. I feel really accepting of the things I used to be insecure about. I have gone through eating disorders and body shaming, and here I am today standing [laughs] naked in front of a camera doing this shoot for millions of people to see.

An original poem by Katelyn Ohashi
A line of dots following a pattern but one stands out,
it's clearly an outlier that's direction needs to reroute.
alienated and put to the side in order to not be seen,
studied through a screen,
thinking that maybe if we can match a name to it, we'll all suddenly become immune like any vaccine.
experiencing anything that isn't explained or doesn't belong to the majority will make you alone,
and anyone who wants to stay "normal" will hide in order to not be shown.
the outlying dots were marked on my skin,
to remind me that being different is no longer sin.
these marks are the reminders of everyone fighting around.
the ones that are no longer seen because they were cast down.
the ones that aren't lost just never wanted to be found.
and the ones that just needed someone else to make a sound.
multiple mediums where too many negative energies can surface.
as if not commenting the hurtful message would somehow be doing a disservice.
each time my skin sheds away making more room to grow.
not to make room for anyone else but to let my own true colors show.
proud of who I am and what my body reveals,
no longer am I concerned about who it appeals.
too thin, too fat,
but it's not anyone else's job to decide all that.
having a voice loud enough blocks everyone else out,
but when there's that lingering doubt every compliment received will go unnoticed like a drought.
amour de soi is the only natural form of self-love.
once that's reached, nothing will rise above.
we weren't meant to have it all, but make the best out of what we have every single day.
I'm proud of my body and all its imperfections, that's all I have to say.