Friends Cherrish Remy and Nahla Cautilli have been doing gymnastics together at the same club for most of their lives. The 10 year olds share a love of uneven bars, NCAA gymnastics and “the best athlete in the whole world” Simone Biles. They both have “big goals” to compete in college and, hopefully, even the Olympics.
Both girls have also experienced the racism and discrimination faced by so many gymnasts of color. They’ve both been the only Black gymnast on their respective teams and are often the only Black gymnast competing at a given meet.
The girls briefly had a Black coach years ago, one of the few non-white adults they’ve encountered in their gymnastics careers. Cautilli recently left the gym she’s trained at alongside Remy for nearly 8 years because of bullying. “It definitely makes me disappointed because I’d like to have someone coach me and be fair to me,” she said. “Most things in my gymnastics life aren’t very fair because of my skin color.”
Despite countless experiences with racism, both Remy and Cautilli’s love of the sport and optimism for its future remain intact. “There is going to be a big change, maybe in a couple years,” Cautilli said. “It hasn’t been easy, but I think that it definitely will change.”
Atlanta-based coach Derrin Moore is determined to make that change happen now.
Moore, a 20-year gymnastics coaching veteran with a passion for bringing the sport to an underserved community in the Atlanta suburbs, had always thought about starting a foundation related to gymnastics. Lack of funding and inexperience with either creating or running one made the idea daunting, so she put it on the backburner.
In 2015, however, Moore crossed paths with TaKiyah Wallace, the founder of Brown Girls Do Ballet. BGDB started as a way for Wallace, a photographer, to highlight Black and brown dancers and maintain her own daughter’s interest.
Wallace posted on the BGDB Instagram account asking for suggestions of things she should photograph throughout the upcoming year. Moore responded, unsurprisingly suggesting gymnastics. When Moore went back to see if Wallace had responded to her suggestion, she found—much to her confusion—that her comment had been deleted. Soon after, however, she received a direct message from Wallace suggesting that Moore herself start Brown Girls Do Gymnastics with the only reason for deleting the comment being to stop anyone else from taking the idea before Moore could.
Five years later, BGDG is a thriving organization advocating for gymnasts of color throughout their athletic careers by promoting diversity in the sport. It is an event- and program-focused organization, hosting conferences and clinics while providing the gymnasts and their families with mentors and resources to help guide their journeys through the sport.
The athletes participate in workout-centered clinics with an emphasis on building camaraderie among participants rather than acquiring new skills. Things like aerial equipment are also set up to introduce the athletes to related activities not typically explored on the artistic gymnastics side.
A unique aspect of these clinics is that the parents are also involved. They are able to attend sessions throughout the day where they have opportunities to hear from and talk with professionals, including college coaches, judges, physical therapists and doctors who are familiar with the sport.
In addition to its clinics, BGDG has a mentor program that provides athletes and their families with access to former collegiate and elite gymnasts, judges, and circus performers who answer any questions and concerns the young gymnasts or their parents may have about their gymnastics experiences. This program is currently transitioning to a new format that will include monthly virtual meet-ups hosted by the mentors that focuses on specific topics.
While outreach and guidance for gymnasts of color is the organization’s main focus, BGDG is also known for its 2020 petition—the most recent initiative of its 4-year campaign—to bring gymnastics programs to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. There are over 100 HBCUs in the U.S. but none that offer a gymnastics program at the collegiate level. As a result, many Black and brown gymnasts have to choose between attending an HBCU that has been a part of their family legacy or continuing their competitive athletic career.
“When I was first starting at Xavier—of course, not knowing that things take more than just coming and asking—I went to the [administrators] and was like, ‘Hey, can we start a gymnastics program?’,” Moore said. “They basically just laughed at me and said, ‘Uh no, but there’s cheerleading.’”
One of Moore’s acquaintances, who is a current NCAA gymnastics head coach, had a similar experience. At a college fair, she spoke to the representative of a prominent HBCU and asked if it had a gymnastics team. Their response? “This is a Black school.”
These experiences are from over 20 years ago, yet nothing has changed. In 2016, Moore started her campaign by posting HBCU logos superimposed with “gymnastics.”
This initiative created awareness and sparked broader interest in bringing gymnastics programs to HBCUs. It also led Florida A&M alumna Robyn Magee, an assistant coach for the UW-La Crosse gymnastics team, to reach out to Moore and express her desire to get involved in the movement. Magee, like Moore, had been a gymnast who struggled with wanting to continue her gymnastics career and attend an HBCU.
Magee is now the HBCU representative for the Collegiate Gymnastics Growth Initiative (CGGI), a program that promotes collegiate gymnastics and advocates for the addition of new women’s collegiate gymnastics teams across the country.
Though the CGGI and BGDG are separate organizations, they are both working toward a common goal to bring gymnastics to HBCUs. “We have the emotional side, the passionate side with BGDG, and we have the CGGI that’s [collecting] the data and [doing] the analysis. Then I’m connecting those dots,” Magee said.
Every few weeks, Magee is having conversations with athletic directors at various HBCUs. Uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and its impact on already-established sports, what teams they would compete against and general funding concerns make these conversations challenging, but Magee said there are “a lot of people who are really in support of the idea.”
For young gymnasts of color like Cautilli and Remy, that support—and knowing that “a really good group” like BGDG is fighting for them—is invaluable. “It makes me feel happy and joyful that they’re actually able to do [gymnastics] and nobody’s stopping them,” Remy said.
To stay up to date on the HBCU campaign and Brown Girls Do Gymnastics, become a subscriber at BrownGirlsDoGymnastics.com.
You can also get involved by:
- Signing the HBCU campaign petition
- Donating to the HBCU campaign
- Purchasing a Brown Girls Do Gymnastics leotard from Garland Activewear (50% of the proceeds go directly to the BGDG HBCU campaign)
- Following BGDG on Facebook and Instagram
Article by Claire Billman and Rachel Riesterer
Like what you see? Consider donating to support our efforts throughout the year!