Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 6: Building a World-Class Gymnastics Team)” (2020)
The final installment in this fascinating and informative documentary series follows MyKayla Skinner as she aims to do what very few other US gymnasts before her have done: leave the US national team to concentrate on collegiate gymnastics which helps her regain her original love of the sport and then attempt to break back into the elite level and win a place on the US Olympics team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Previously Skinner had been an alternate for the team at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro: she still had to practise and work on all her routines for those Games in case she had to replace a team member; unfortunately for her, no-one on the team got sick or injured enough that she was needed. After years of hard work and struggle, and periods when her motivation was flagging, Skinner retreated into collegiate gymnastics (which makes different demands on gymnasts) and rediscovered the joy and her childhood dreams. Moving back into the elite however demanded more exacting standards from her so, with the help and advice of her coach, Skinner changed and upgraded her routines, began the strenuous conditioning and practice again … and somehow, in 2019, got engaged and married to her boyfriend.
The episode explores the politics and sometimes powerful nationalism underlying the team event in major women’s gymnastics competitions like the Olympic Games and the world championships, and how geopolitical events and issues can have a deep influence on the young women competing for Team USA in gymnastics. The boycotts that affected the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, both political in nature, had a huge impact on the team and individual competitions in both men’s and women’s gymnastics: the Los Angeles competitions will always be seen as lesser compared to the 1984 Friendship Games gymnastics competitions organised by the Communist nations in eastern Europe. The example of the team competition during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, in which US team member Kerri Strug famously performed her second vault with a badly injured ankle and collapsed after hitting a perfect vault with no hops and saluting the judges, is described in considerable detail by fellow team member Amanda Borden with archival video film to illustrate her words. Borden also talks about her self-doubts even after making the 1996 Olympic team and the psychological uplift she got when all the other girls on the team voted to make her team captain.
Other gymnasts like Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman, Dominique Moceanu, Samantha Peszek and Betty Okino describe their experiences as US Olympic team members and how at some point in their careers they mentally switched from performing for themselves and their families to performing for the other members of their teams and ultimately for their country at team competitions. Svetlana Boginskaya remembers her time as a member of the Unified Team (formerly the Soviet Union team) for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as bittersweet, as she and other team members won their gold team medals and then went home to new individual nations, never to perform as one team again.
While much screen time is devoted to how changes in team competition rules and scoring affects coaches’ strategies in selecting particular gymnasts for national teams, very little is said about how nationalism might have a pernicious effect on gymnasts’ psychologies and add extra pressure on the girls to perform to the expectations of not only their coaches and team officials but also of the news media in their countries, the corporations that sponsor them and the general public who follow the girls’ progress. Competing at the Olympics, especially if held in a country the gymnasts are unlikely ever to visit again, should be a fun experience where they meet new people and come in contact with new cultures and different ways of thinking and seeing things; instead it becomes an experience often filled with dread, anxiety, even fear and pain, or a reinforcement of ugly chauvinist attitudes and stereotypes about other people and countries.
As the last episode in the series, this installment might have gone out on a high note with various gymnasts and ex-gymnasts interviewed for the series saying what they believe gymnastics has done for them: has it improved their lives, given them opportunities to discover what talents and strengths they have, led them on career paths they might never have had otherwise? What do girls like Skinner, Jade Carey, Sunisa Lee, Morgan Hurd and Jordan Chiles think on their present journeys through the sport – what do they believe will open up to them in their future careers by gymnastics when they finally hang up their hand-grips and leotards for good? Apart from this, the series has been an interesting if perhaps very US-oriented exploration of the recent history and culture of the sport.
Since this series was completed, Skinner succeeded in her dream to represent the United States at the delayed 202o Tokyo Olympic Games but as one of two non-team individual gymnasts, the other being Jade Carey. Consequently Skinner did not compete in the team competition but performed as an all-round competitor in the qualification rounds. She did not qualify to compete in the all-round final but did compete in the vault final after fellow US gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of that competition; Skinner ended up winning a silver medal for vault.