From 'Tears' to Cheers: UCLA Gymnast Katelyn Ohashi Opens Up About Finding 'Joy' Again in the Sport

Nearly six years ago, gymnast Katelyn Ohashi was riding high as the all-around champion at the 2013 American Cup. But shortly after, Ohashi underwent shoulder surgery, leaving her competitive future in the sport in jeopardy — which, she tells PEOPLE, felt like a relief

UCLA Women's Gymnastics, Los Angeles, USA - 04 Jan 2019
Katelyn Ohashi. Photo: Ben Liebenberg/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Nearly six years ago, gymnast Katelyn Ohashi was riding high as the all-around champion at the 2013 American Cup. But shortly after, Ohashi underwent shoulder surgery, leaving her competitive future in the sport in jeopardy — which, she tells PEOPLE, felt like a relief.

“I was literally told that I might not ever do gymnastics again, which kind of felt like a weight being lifted off my shoulders at the time,” Ohashi, now 21, admits.

The University of California Los Angeles senior made waves on the internet last week when footage of her perfect 10-scoring floor routine went viral. Ohashi’s routine featured impressive passes and flips and was soundtracked by upbeat music like Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” The Jackson 5’s “ABC” and several of Michael Jackson’s other hits, such as “The Way You Make Me Feel.”

Her high score helped contribute to the Bruins’ overall total of 197.00 at the Under Armour Collegiate Challenge, which earned them first place.

The routine is “extremely difficult,” says Valorie Kondos Field, the celebrated longtime coach of the women’s gymnastics team at UCLA, adding, “There’s not another gymnast in this country besides Simone Biles that could do her passes.”

“The whole routine is so hard and her dance is hard and intricate, and I think that’s one of the things that subconsciously people clue into — just how difficult the whole routine is and that she is having so much fun and brings so much joy to it,” continues Kondos Field, 59.

Finding joy in gymnastics has been a long road for Ohashi, who started the sport at age 3 while growing up in Seattle.

“My mom was a high school gymnast,” she explains. “I don’t even know if I knew what I was doing, but I was constantly back at the house setting up the mini trampoline by the couch.

By age 9, Ohashi’s dominance in the sport was clear — with the young gymnast leaving behind her dad and two of her brothers to train in Missouri at the Great American Gymnastics Experience.

“And that’s kind of when gymnastics got more serious,” she says, noting how her mom and one of her brothers moved with her. “Like I’m going for it. You know, moving across the country to Missouri and then to Texas three years after that, when I had made the national team.”

Ohashi competed with USA Gymnastics’ junior national team for four years, the Washington Post reported, but missed the age eligibility for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Her training was intense, she recounts: “So I eventually went to homeschooling [in the] seventh grade. I was in the gym seven hours a day, six times a week, and Sunday was my day of rest. So there wasn’t a lot of time that I had to myself, and obviously that kind of ruined the joy of the sport.”

Ohashi says during that time she realized that the level of intensity required for elite gymnastics was not making her happy. As for the wear and tear on her body, it all came to a head at the 2013 American Cup.

“I had been going through a really bad injury during that time … and I was in a lot of pain throughout that week,” Ohashi recalls. “I was trying to take minimal tries, but it got to a point where I couldn’t even touch my back even a little bit without cringing in pain. And at the same time my shoulder was bothering me and I landed short on something, so my ankle was like a little bit sore.”

In her international debut as a senior, a then-15-year-old Ohashi won the all-around title at the competition with a score of 59.199, which included impressive showings on the floor, vault and uneven bars.

American Cup Gymnastics, Worcester, USA
Katelyn Ohashi competing at the 2013 American Cup. Charles Krupa/AP/REX/Shutterstock

But, according to USA Gymnastics, it was Ohashi’s routine on the balance beam that earned her a 15.333, her highest score that day.

Coming in second behind Ohashi was her teammate and then up-and-coming gymnastic star Simone Biles — now the most decorated American gymnast in history.

The victory, Ohashi says, was vastly overshadowed by her pain. “When I got back home, although it was so exciting that I had won, I couldn’t even smile about it,” she admits. “I got home and I was just in tears. And my mom realized something was wrong.”

Surgery on both shoulders and months of rehab and recovery followed.

“After that I didn’t really feel like I had a choice,” she explains.

Noting the impact of the change, she tells PEOPLE, “At the same time I was like losing myself basically, because it was like, that was the only thing I knew how to do. So after time went by, and I was getting x-ray after x-ray and MRI after MRI, it was kind of like my body couldn’t uphold the training that I was forced to do.”

Choosing to compete on the college level — and at UCLA — has helped Ohashi find herself in the sport again, she says. The team camaraderie is key, as the ladies support each other — something Ohashi says is “different from what we were ever used to” on the elite level.

“When we talk about Katelyn and her joy and where she came from just having a broken spirit, broken body, broken soul, though her experiences with elite gymnastics, people just say, ‘How did you coach her?'” Kondos Field tells PEOPLE. “And I just think it comes from the fact that I see them, our student-athletes — they’re people, they’re human.”

Ricky Lee/UCLA

Ohashi tells PEOPLE she knew her routine was going well while she was competing last week, but she wasn’t thinking about her score. The online response, however, has been a total surprise.

“I would have never guessed I have like senators reposting me,” she says, referencing the likes of now-presidential candidate Kamala Harris. “It’s just crazy and honoring.”

Now, the talented athlete is preparing to face down another challenge: life after college.

Her dream? A turn on Dancing with the Stars — but beyond that, she’s hoping to pursue “a lot of projects that have to do with writing and photography.”

And her coach knows she’s bound for greatness.

Says Kondos Field: “What I’m so proud of is, it’s not just about Katelyn Ohashi, this talented joyful athlete, but I think what comes through is she has such depth as a person outside of the gym. Her intention and attention goes to really serious social issues like body-shaming issues, abuse issues and homelessness. And that is what I am most proud of with her: she is not a two-dimensional athlete — she’s a three-dimensional human.”

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