The whole performance takes about a minute and a half. Twenty-one-year-old Katelyn Ohashi takes to the floor at the Collegiate Challenge, helping her UCLA team beat out three other schools with a gymnastics floor routine that the judges will score a perfect 10. The video went viral--it's had about seven million viewings so far--not just because it's a flawless routine performed to Michael Jackson and Tina Turner, but also because of the unmistakable look of joy on her face from beginning to end. 

Does doing gymnastics really make Ohashi as happy as it looks like? She says yes. "Performing is my favorite thing," she told The New York Times. "What you see is how I feel."

It wasn't always that way. In the past, Ohashi competed as an elite gymnast. In 2013, she beat Simone Biles to win the American Cup before Biles went on to become an Olympic gold medalist. Ohashi had been just a bit too young to join the U.S. Olympic team in 2012, but everyone expected great things from her at the 2016 Olympics. 

She didn't even go. Instead, she dropped out of the sport. It turned out she had been competing with a fractured back and two torn shoulders. And her psyche was even more injured than her body was. "That girl that you would think had it all, all these medals in her room, or the podium that she's standing on? She felt like she had nothing," Ohashi says in a self-narrated video by the Players' Tribune. 

Despite being a champion gymnast, she struggled with body image issues. "Fans would tell her that she wasn't good enough. She didn't look a certain way," Ohashi says in the video. "I was told that it was embarrassing, how big I'd become." As she advanced through her teenage years, Ohashi grew out of the sylph-like adolescent look prevalent among elite gymnasts, who mostly are adolescents. Soon she was "constantly exercising after a meal to feel good enough to go to bed," she says. In 2010, she wrote this in her diary: "I'm used to waking up to the taste of blood or iron in my mouth, as if I might almost throw up from being so hungry." She was 13.

In 2014, after she'd won the American Cup, Ohashi had surgery on her shoulder and then on her back. But she didn't want to return to the misery of elite gymnastics, so she made the surprising choice to enroll in college and compete in that less prestigious world instead. Initially, her mother was displeased, she says in the video, but changed her mind when she saw how much happier her daughter was. Ohashi's major is gender studies, which seems like a perfect fit after all she endured as a teenage gymnast. 

She helped the UCLA team to the NCAA championships last year, as well as this weekend's win. And Ohashi, who looks serious and somber in her videos as an Olympic hopeful, is now clearly having the time of her life. 

So how do you define success? Competing while starving and miserable at the most revered level of gymnastics, or being a joyful competitor on a college team? Even if she hadn't wound up with a viral video to show for it, Ohashi made the right choice. It's especially true for gymnasts, but really true for all of us that whatever we gain from the many hours we devote to our careers will quickly be forgotten. What a waste it is to spend all those hours doing something that fails to bring us joy.

On Monday, UCLA Gymnastics tweeted a video of Ohashi at school. She is asked, "What does a viral sensation do the day after going viral?"

"Shake that laffy taffy. Shake that laffy taffy," she replies, singing and laughing and bopping along to the D4L song playing in the background, slightly off the beat as the interviewer notes. 

"Where are you going, Kate?" the interviewer then asks, as Ohashi heads for the door. "Class," she answers. "Being a student, then athlete." Whether inside or outside the world of gymnastics, I'd guess she has quite a future ahead of her.

Ohashi and Kondos-Field appear on Good Morning America on January 17.

Published on: Jan 17, 2019
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