Amari Celestine Missouri

From Poofs to Ponytails: Meet Day Hair Is About More Than Just Functionality

There’s an old saying about how important it is to make a first impression. That statement rings true in gymnastics as well. A part of the sport that sets it apart from the others is the visual appearance. The appearance has three parts: the skills gymnasts compete, the leotard they wear, and the hair. 

The hairstyles used to be simple: a ponytail put back just enough to keep your hair out of your face when you did a routine. As time passed, the ponytails turned into a ponytail with a braid, a super straight ponytail, or the slicked back ponytail. The Beijing Olympics welcomed in the poof era thanks to gymnasts like Nastia Liukin. Poofs were then transformed into buns and now those buns have evolved into many different forms: space buns, messy buns, ballerina buns, or even the famous bun-mohawk. 

But for gymnasts, the hairstyles have a whole lot more than just bobby pins and rubber bands behind them. 

Victoria Fitts Denver

Many gymnasts spend their club days having someone do their hair. Once a gymnast transitions to college, the hairstyle becomes an opportunity for many gymnasts to express themselves. There’s more freedom—as long as the styles stay within team guidelines—to do or add whatever they want. Hair paint, glitter, and bows are some of the biggest trends, and as gymnasts discover the different things they are able to do, the ideas start flowing. It’s one of many things that makes gymnastics unique.

“Not many sports do hair the way gymnastics does,” Denver senior Victoria Fitts said. “Part of the sport is your appearance and being all dressed up. Other sports don’t necessarily get involved in that as much.”

Michigan fifth-year Natalie Wojcik is known for her elaborate braids that she and her teammates wear at meets. And it’s not just about functionality, either.

“If [the hair] is done well,” Wojcik explained, “it can really grab someone’s attention and stand out. It helps the athlete to show up as their most confident self when they have a hairstyle that they truly love.”

A lot of inspiration for hairstyles come from different social media platforms. “Get Ready with Me” content on TikTok averages anywhere from 26,800 views to over 9.9 billion, depending on the content. Fitts took the social media trend to another level with the creation of the Denver hair instagram account, which she refers to as the team’s “picture book” for hairstyles. She and teammates Rylie Mundell and Bella Mabanta inspire each other with their hairstyles and in turn transfer their skills to their fellow teammates. “There are a few of us who are the team braiders, so we just wanted to show our own collections [to] remember things we’ve done [because] I feel like we’ve done a lot of cool things over the past seasons,” Fitts said. 

The process for some gymnasts when it comes to meet day hair preparation starts as early as the day before. Missouri sophomore Amari Celestine wakes up two hours before she has to and starts getting her hair ready. Once she gets going, the process is relatively simple, though. “If I have two parts, I’ll just start braiding my hair into my head or I’ll do rubber bands that are connected to each other that lead to the puff.”

Celestine is a rarity in the hair department as she does her hair in a different style for each meet in a 13 week season. Maintaining her natural hair during so many weeks is taxing, but Celestine works hard to make sure her hair is protected, switching up styles on off days and adding products to keep her hair moisturized and bring up her curl patterns. But her reasoning behind doing different hairstyles isn’t just because she has the ability to do so. Her goal with her hair is to inspire the next generation of gymnasts like her.

“Growing up, there weren’t a lot of people that [had] hair like mine. There wasn’t that much representation for my hair in gymnastics,” she said. “Doing different styles every meet, [shows] the younger girls in gymnastics that you can pretty much do whatever you want with your hair. It’s not really about what anybody else thinks, it’s just how you want to feel.”

Natalie Wojcik Michigan

Wojcik’s process also begins the night before, but her initial focus is on her teammates—or “clients,” if she’s braiding the hair of a freshman. She sets their hair with gel and hairspray to hold it overnight, then saves about a half hour the next day for herself. The first four years, Wojcik competed with the same hairstyle: a dutch braid down one side and two cornrows on the other side. To mark this unprecedented fifth year, she’s decided to change it up. She’s switched to two braids on the top of her head at an angle, a symbol of thanks for the fifth year she never expected.

While meet hairstyles have an importance in a gymnast’s appearance, there’s also a side of meet day hair that not many fans get to see: the team bonding aspect. For Wojcik, the time braiding her teammates’ hair gives her a chance to get to know them on a personal level and help them in a way that’s not related to gymnastics. “Playing a part in that process is something that’s really special to me as a teammate.”

“It just gives us a sense of community,” Fitts added. “It’s a time to spend not [being] distracted or caught up in the nervousness of the meet. You can talk and spend time getting ready and just doing all the fun stuff involved with gymnastics and not stressing as much about the performance aspect of it.”

Celestine echoed those comments, adding “The chemistry is effortless. You can tell that we’re one mind, one sound. We’re together, and I feel like that just comes from team bonding.”

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Article by Savanna Whitten, additional reporting by Emily Lockard

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