Stella Umeh is known for standing out wherever she goes: as an Olympic gymnast, a collegiate athlete at UCLA, as a subject of an award-winning documentary series, as an artist in multiple Cirque du Soleil productions, and as a wife and mother.
On Wednesday, I checked in with Umeh after the broadcast of the women’s team gymnastics finals at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games to get her perspective of the sport she loves, the ways it has changed, the ways it is covered in the mainstream media and what it is like keeping up with the various issues plaguing the Olympic Games as an athlete who made it to the highest level.
This is our conversation from Wednesday, August 10, 2016.
DL: As a Canadian living in the United States who has competed at the Olympic Games (for Canada in 1992), what is it like watching the Olympics on NBC? Last night’s broadcast was very-well packaged, yet I couldn’t tell whether it was a marketing exercise or something that was ever intended to resemble journalism. What did you make of it?
SU: If you want the absolute truth, we have an Amazon Firestick, and I was vehemently looking for coverage anywhere but NBC. I was looking for a livestream because I wanted to see more. I wanted to see more athletes; I wanted to see more of the competition. I wanted to feel like I was there in the mix of it, as opposed to just watching one team over and over again.
DL: When you watch the Olympics, does it bring your own Olympic experience back to you in a visceral way?
SU: No. When I watch it on NBC, I only get to watch one team. It doesn’t bring it all back to me when it’s packaged like that. In fact, it makes it really sterile. I said it to my husband. I said, “Oh my God, you should see where Ryan Seacrest’s interview hub is set up right on Copacabana Beach.” We’ve been to Rio. We’ve been to that exact beach. Just the pulse of it [Copacabana Beach] is so awesome; it’s so clean. The Brazilian energy is not really there [on the television broadcast], so it’s very strange to watch all of this going on, on one of these major, iconic beaches in the world and not have it have the same vibe as it usually does. It’s very strange.
DL: Do you follow gymnastics at the elite level? Do you keep up with the World Championships and Olympic Trials?
SU: I hadn’t followed or come back onto the gymnastics scene until fairly recently. I didn’t know what was what. This is probably the most gymnastics I’ve watched in a good, long while, because I just kind of lost touch with it moving around so much, for one reason, and I just wasn’t immersed in gymnastics, was another reason, but the change of the code is what really threw me off.
DL: What do you make of the Code of Points and the actual gymnastics being performed?
SU: It has been twenty-four years from my Olympics to this Olympics and the code has drastically changed so many times. I think there is an interesting upswing in terms of the skills that these athletes are doing. There’s really big power gymnastics. I really, really, one-hundred percent miss the artistry. I miss compulsories, because when I was competing, compulsories really made me a better gymnast because I couldn’t just rely on my optional skills. I had to be a well-rounded gymnast. So, I’m still very old school in terms of thinking like that. When they decided to cut compulsories after the 1996 Olympic Games, I was actually quite devastated. I [thought], “Oh, man. This is going to change the face of gymnastics.”
DL: Do the gymnasts today still have the same level of technique as the gymnasts did in your era? The gymnasts obviously have technique in order to do these difficult skills, but they don’t appear to have to same refinement. What do you make of the way the athletes perform their skills?
SU: I think that is the element that I miss. Big tricks, big skills, I love it, but it makes me miss the artistry, and the nuances. The excitement, the pulse and the energy of it isn’t there for me. [When I was watching the other night], everybody’s bar routine looked exactly the same to me to be quite honest. Everybody looked like they were doing the exact same bar routine. Optionals have now kind of turned into compulsories because of the requirements that they [the gymnasts] are forced to do for their difficulty.
DL: What do you make of the way America celebrates the Karolyi system, knowing what these girls have likely gone through? Do you find it problematic at all?
SU: Okay, just make sure we’re on the same page in terms of my understanding of the Karolyi system and your knowledge of it. Can you just kind of give me a brief definition of it?
DL: I would say that it is survival of the fittest. The national staff trains the girls to be physically, emotionally and mentally tough. There are huge rewards for the athletes that do well. And, sometimes there are huge risks for those who don’t.
SU: Okay. When we’re looking at it like that, I am not an advocate for putting all of the stipulations on an athlete or on anyone really. These things that we do, like you want to reach the absolute best in what you set out to do, that’s a dream. [The system] is like a sterilized version of your dream when you’ve got all of these boundaries, and it’s really rigid, and it has to be met within those confines. It makes your dream different. And that’s just me personally, but it might work for some and it might not work for others. I think that if I was in the situation and I knew no differently, I would probably thrive perfectly fine.
I don’t believe in the survival of the fittest, but of course, I get that you can’t fault it because it is creating champions. So, you can look at it both ways. My personality and the way that I loved gymnastics and still do, I don’t know how well I would have survived in a system like that. It’s really funny, because way back in the day, Bela [Karolyi] actually came up to me and said, ‘Stella, you should train with me. Come to my gym.’ I thought, “There’s no way.” And I knew this from a very young age. There is no way I would leave wherever I’m training, first of all I’m Canadian, and move to this kind of system because I don’t think we’d get along. My personality is too big or my personality is too my own to fit in nicely in [Karolyi’s] package. I wouldn’t work well.
DL: The Karolyis do like big personalities, but they like someone that is going to fit into their artistic and personality mold at the same time.
SU: It’s a personality mold more than the artistic mold. Because, you are what you are when you express yourself as an athlete. The way that I loved gymnastics and the reason why I went to the gym every single day; it was the one place I felt so safe and I loved being there. To have it be regimented like that, I think would’ve killed it for me. I probably wouldn’t have lasted very long because it would’ve taken all of the love and the discovery out of it for me.
DL: I don’t think you would’ve had your signature floor routines if you trained with the Karolyis. They would’ve looked very different if they were choreographed by Geza Poszar.
SU: Yes and my sister also probably wouldn’t have been able to choreograph [for me]. I had a lot of freedom. My coach really let me always be myself. In Canada, I was like the black sheep. Don’t get me wrong. I was not touted as a favorable gymnast by Canadian standards by any means, but once I left [domestic competition], my skills were appreciated. I always said that I never knew how good I was until I left Canada because I guess I was interesting or unique, or whatever, on the international scene.
DL: I keep getting asked by different publications, “How good is the Final Five? How good is the U.S. team that won last night?” I feel that the team is obviously very good, but I also point to the fact that because of socioeconomic factors and cultural changes that have happened, the opposing countries have become weaker. What do you think?
SU: Definitely, cultural and ethnocentric changes have changed the terrain of who is on top of the podium and who is not. I think it has definitely cycled. Gymnastics in the United States has blown up. I have to commend American gymnastics because it has always been a superpower. Now they’re unstoppable. The women are ridiculous in this code and the way that [the team] has been set up with the training regime. The federation or the folks working within the system really understand how to package to make it work for this country. Whereas, I don’t really think other countries have the same gumption. I don’t know whether it’s money, coaching or what it is. I have no idea what it is. I don’t think it’s just one thing. The girls [are incredible]. It’s just a different drive, a different yearning. I’ve never seen anything like this to be honest.
DL: As a gymnast, you were known for your distinct personality. What do you make of the different personalities on Team USA?
SU: Simone [Biles] is really wonderful. It’s funny because their personalities are very different on and off the floor. I did notice that. The Final Five are super focused on the gym floor, as all gymnasts should be and have traditionally almost been, but I don’t know how it crosses over for all of them off of the floor.
Simone Biles definitely has a really sweet, wonderful heart and smiles a lot off the floor. On the floor, she’s a focused monster. And I don’t mean monster in a bad way. She’s like a [competitive] beast. She’s magnificent on the gym floor. Her focus is unprecedented. I’ve never seen anyone like her. The same with Aly; I think they all have the exact same focus.
Laurie Hernandez has that youthfulness. It is her first go. She still looks sweet and bouncy. I think give her a couple years, she is still going to stay sweet and bouncy, but her focus is going to be a lot like her predecessors.
DL: One of the things I have been covering a great deal is the situation with WADA, the Russian-doping scandal, and the names of the athletes who were doping that are supposed to be released in the upcoming weeks. What do you make of it?
SU: The Russian-doping scandal is way devastating (in my opinion). I see it from both sides. But, as an athlete who obviously always competed clean, the sort of black-and-white mentality of me says that anyone who cheats should be out. That’s it. There is no gray area for me in terms of that.
But then, I can also see the other side that it’s not everybody that was involved in that. This isn’t only in athletics or in sports, this mentality. It’s kind of like the athletes are always the little guy who lose out because they’re not always the one making the decision. So when it becomes this corporate giant and is all about bureaucracy, you run the risk of innocent people getting really screwed over because other people are in charge. Knowing that, my heart really aches for the honest athletes who weren’t involved in it.
Then, to look at it from another angle as well, I don’t know how much of a voice those athletes who were involved in it had anyway when it is a government-sanctioned mandate. In a country like Russia, you don’t have much say. When it comes down to the bottom line, which is the dollar amount of how much can be made off of [winning], you don’t have much say. It is an ugly, dirty, murky situation.
I say that anyone who cheats should be out, but I also ache and cry for those who were totally honest.
DL: Speaking of aching and crying, the public now has a hashtag, #FireAlTrautwig, to fire the NBC commentator who initially refused to refer to Nellie and Ron Biles as Simone Biles’ parents. You started this by saying that you were looking to watch anything but NBC. What do you make of that?
SU: It’s funny that you asked me this, because I had a bit of my own ranting or meltdown yesterday with this specific thing. This goes to a larger issue. With all of the ability to share information now, people are no longer being respectful for facts. I find that things get really murky, things are thrown out and it’s all about hearsay. Society is okay with hearsay or with a fact not being backed up with what one person says; it’s set in stone now. Before, there was a level of education involved in that where you couldn’t make such gaffes. When I read the scandal between Simone Biles’ parents and the NBC commentator, my husband and I talked about it. My husband, who is the Head Electrician for Cirque’s current North American big top tour and has never been in this world, did say, “Technically, he’s right.”
And I said, “Sam, we have a daughter now. If you and I did whatever we did in our lives that put us in a situation where we were unable to take care of Billie [Wilhemina Abigail Umeh-Nicholas], and one of our set of parents stepped up and said, ‘I will take on this role’ and it’s not like we passed away or we just moved or couldn’t contribute to her life because of circumstances, we kind of made a choice not to be there for her. So when people do and someone steps up and takes on that responsibility, their respect and their just deserves to be given to them.”
When I said it to [my husband], he said, “Oh no, you’re totally right.” So in terms of that, whenever you have the responsibility to share information with people, you become the expert on what is coming out of your mouth. You need to make sure that you are saying the right thing because you have to be respectful of the facts. Don’t just say stuff flippantly and not expect it to come back and have backlash in the news cycles.
DL: When I hear you talk about respect, I’m wondering whether this is a larger problem that American culture and NBC has in the way that they don’t respect, or have a different view of respect of these Olympians. It isn’t clear whether their coverage is intended to be marketing, entertainment or journalism. NBC didn’t show the men’s gymnastics team final until after 11:30 because Team USA didn’t win a medal. What do you think of that?
SU: As an athlete who spends their entire lives striving for this big moment in their lives, we are in the top one-percent who even reach the Olympic Games. When you are given that opportunity to share that person’s dream as a broadcasting station, it behooves the owners and the planners who put the programming together to share that dream in a respectful, loving, all-encompassing way.
That is what the Olympics stands for. It’s the Games of inclusion. And to only pick and choose what the world sees becomes an issue. It is kind of a comment for the way we live our lives. [The broadcasters] see, ‘okay, I’m picking and choosing what people will say in terms of the Olympics,’ because they weren’t big enough or they weren’t sensational enough, they weren’t special enough. Except, they’re [very] special because they made it to the Olympics. Because they’re in that one percent, everybody, whether they’re last or they’re first, needs to be given their just desserts.
That’s why I’m having trouble watching only NBC coverage of the Olympics, because it’s not the Olympics. It feels like just an American competition of different sports without any opponent.