Diane Durham to Simone Biles: ‘American Prodigies’ analyzes how Black women revolutionized gymnastics

Sports February 24, 2022
Listen to ‘American Prodigies’

While previous seasons of Blue Wire’s podcast focused on singular prodigies who changed the game, Freddy Adu and Ken Griffey Jr., the third season focuses on the Black girls and women who revolutionized gymnastics. Once on the outskirts of the sport, Black women have become the core of U.S. gymnastics. “American Prodigies” has been rightfully renamed to feature the many Black women who have elevated the sport beyond anyone’s wildest expectation and speaks with coaches, trainers, journalists, mentors, and athletes who have blazed new trails.

Hosted by Amira Rose Davis, historian and professor specializing in the intersection of race, gender, sports, and politics and host of the “Burn It All Down” podcast, “American Prodigies” will be a six-episode series on the Black girls and women of gymnastics. Amira tells us that each episode will be focused on one Black gymnast, with episodes told in both semi-chronologically and thematically. While each episode will revolve around one figure, many other voices will be a part of their stories.

In this podcast, Amira speaks with a plethora of the Black women who changed not only the face of gymnastics, but the prodigiousness of it. Once a predominantly white sport, also owned, administered, and judged by white people, gymnastics is finally getting some diversity. While Olympic viewership has been in a sharp decline over the years, women’s gymnastics events (even the freaking Olympic Trials!) beat out the NBA Finals playoff game happening that same night. Simone Biles can most definitely be thanked for that – her floor routine had viewership peaking at 6.6 million. But she did not get here alone. Black gymnasts like Betty Okino and Dominique Dawes, who dominated in the ’90s, laid out the four-decade path for these moments.

From sparkles and smiles to pain and healing

Which is where Amira and this season of “American Prodigies” comes in: the professor of history and African American studies wants to track the change over time. And sadly, no discussions of the state of U.S. gymnastics today can be had without discussing the horrific abuse and cover up committed by the USAG.

The amount of people and trailblazing Black gymnasts featured in this podcast is nearly too lengthy to list, but we’ll try. Jordan Chiles is the main focus of the first half of the first episode. The episode opens up with the Gold Over America Tour, which was the 2021 post-Olympics gymnastics tour. This was the first post-Olympics show not run by the USAG.

The 2016 Kellogg’s Tour of Champions was happening just as news about Larry Nassar’s abuse was breaking, accusations of sexual assault corroborated by more and more and more accusations. For two decades, he abused over 300 athletes, most of them gymnasts, including Olympians Gabrielle Douglas and Simone Biles, and many people in the USAG were implicated in covering it up. The sport, which before this had been “marketed as pretty little white girls flipping and bouncing around – no matter how they felt or what was happening to them,” as Amira says, was now so much more than the “sparkles and smiles.”

This tour, featuring Chiles, the silver medalist from the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, was emotional, joyful, painful, and healing. As Amira puts it: it was all about the messiness of elite gymnastics. She asks: how did we get here? How did we get from mostly white girls and women being paraded around by people abusing them, to the show it is now that acknowledges pain and healing?

B.C. (Before Chiles..and Douglas and Biles)

This first episode speaks with the many Black women who were often the only Black girls on the mat and on their gymnastics teams, speaking with the gymnasts of the 1980s, namely the late great Diane Durham. She was the first Black woman to win the all-around title of USA Gymnastics National Championships in 1983, and “American Prodigies” interviews her contemporaries who competed with and alongside the late legend. In the first episode, Amira stitches together the stories of gymnasts Joyce Wilborn, Angie Denkins, and Wendy Hilliard to showcase the 1980s gymnastics scene and illustrate the scars from the sport they still live with today.

While only one episode is out at the moment, looking at Durham and the 40-year path she laid out for people like Chiles and Simone Biles, the first release of the season was actually a 25-minute preview with Amira’s “Burn It All Down” co-host Jessica Luther. They walk us through what each episode of the podcast will be about: digging through the historical roots of Black gymnastics.

They’ll move from Diane Durham through the early ’90s with Betty Okino and the evolution of her relationship gymnastics, especially as a half-Romanian Black woman during Nadia Comăneci’s reign. With Betty’s story, “American Prodigies” guides us through the rise of the USAG and the institutional structure that dominates the sport.

Of course, they address Dominique Dawes and her explosion onto the scene that most people think happened during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics despite her competing in both 1992 and 2000 as well. They look at her legacy as a figure-head of Black girls in gymnastics, why that legacy was not as lasting as anyone thought it should be, and why ’96 was deemed to be her momentous year. Not only that, but they ask: who is Dominique beyond this? And where has she gone?

The fifth episode will focus on Gabrielle Douglas, the inspiration for this podcast. Not only did she have to claw her way to the top, but once she became the all-around Olympic champion, she continued to face backlash for anything and everything. The last episode looks at two viral UCLA gymnasts who have completely reinvented the floor routine (in fact, you’ve most likely seen those floor routines circling social media): Sophina Dejesus and Nia Dennis.

Be sure to tune in for the rest of “American Prodigies.” It is poignant, relevant, and completely eye-opening. Filled with first-hand accounts of the Black gymnasts who have seen the sport progress, this season is no doubt going to be brilliant based on what we’ve heard from a single episode. Don’t miss out!

Listen to ‘American Prodigies’

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