Her Personal Spark of Joy

Updated: Jan 26, 2020


The new graduate is congratulated by parents Diana and Richard.


By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Shimpo

It has become a tradition at the UCLA gradu­ation ceremony held for student athletes –to end the proceedings with the school’s signature 8-clap and the chant, “U-C-L-A fight, fight, fight!”


So when the time came to ask one of the newly-minted alumni to lead the cheer one last time, the choice came as a surprise to absolutely no one inside Pauley Pavilion.


Perhaps more any athlete UCLA has seen for at least a decade, Katelyn Ohashi has charged the Westwood campus – and fans around the globe – with an effervescent energy, not to mention superhuman feats on the gymnastics mat.


On June 13, wearing her cap and gown, and clutching a box fashioned after the Pyramid of Success championed by legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, Ohashi began to look beyond the life she has lived the last four years.


This season has been a whirlwind for the 4-foot-10 Ohashi, as well as her Bruins team. Along with teammate and Olympic gold medalist Kyla Ross – and a mind-boggling viral video – she made gymnastics the hottest ticket on campus.


“I attribute it to luck in a sense,” Ohashi said. “Everyone around me has worked so hard and gone through hardship, and has had to struggle just as much, and came out on the other side.

“In my case, my work happened to go viral.”


An online video of Ohashi’s floor routine to a medley of pop and R&B hits was viewed more than 35 million times this spring. As much for the astounding physicality of her athletics – her leap into a splits and bouncing back up must be seen to be believed – the video displayed an unbridled joy, a sense of elation in doing what she truly loves.


It wasn’t always such a cheerful story, how­ever.


Katelyn Ohashi was the easy choice to lead the final cheer for her graduating class of student athletes at Pauley Pavilion on June 13.


A native of the Seattle area, the 22-year-old is the youngest of Diana and Richard Ohashi’s four children. From an early age, her energy, flexibility and relatively small size made her a natural for gymnastics.


Like countless other little girls, she dreamed of one day having an Olympic gold medal hung around her neck.


But she soon learned that success has a price, and the cost, at times, proved over­whelming.


“Most kids at the age of 12 were probably playing video games and doing some chores. Me? I was training at least 36 hours a week, plastered on posters and magazines, representing the U.S. National Team,” she wrote in her personal blog in 2017.


Beyond the physical rigors of training, the ugly side of elite gymnastics began to rear its ruthless head. There were comments about body shape and size, and the com­ments that would crumble the self-esteem of even the hardiest souls.


“It started when I was 13, barely weigh­ing 70 pounds. I’ve been told I looked like I swallowed an elephant or a pig, whichever was more fitting that day.”


There were even times when she would skip dinner, if she felt her legs were getting too big on a given day.