Utah Head Coach Tom Farden On The Pandemic And The College Gymnastics Season

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When the 2020 season abruptly ended due to the pandemic, the University of Utah’s women’s gymnastics team had been undefeated and looked like they were on track to their best finish since the team placed a close second behind Florida in 2015 during Greg Marsden’s final season as coach. (Here’s a Q&A I did with Marsden in 2019. Since his retirement, Marsden has become something of a poster.)

Of course, we’ll never know how the rest of the 2020 season might’ve played out but speculating is a good way to while the hours away during this pandemic.

Uncertainty, too, pervades the 2021 season, which started two weeks ago and is heading into its third weekend. Before it even got underway, fans wondered if it would or even should go off as planned. And then there was a lot of wondering about what it would look like, whether it would feel different than years past, and how well the gymnastics programs would adhere to masking guidelines and social distancing protocols. LSU Gymnastics came in for a lot of criticism online due to what appeared to be lax masking and social distancing practices during Gym 101, their pre-season exhibition, though they were not alone in their COVID-19 mitigation lapses.

In 2020-2021, mask wearing has become another criterion by which teams are evaluated, more important even than hitting vertical on handstands and sticking dismounts. To learn more about how NCAA gymnastics teams are working through this pandemic season, I reached out to Tom Farden, the head coach of Utah’s gymnastics team, and asked if he’d be willing to answer some questions about the team is managing workouts, athlete health, and the million other little issues that have arisen while trying to prepare and compete during this very fraught, dangerous time. He graciously agreed to do it and then I sent him far too many questions.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dvora Meyers: Can you talk about learning that season was ending up abruptly last year and breaking the news to the team, which had been doing so well. How did you react? How did the gymnasts take the news?

Tom Farden: We were devastated when we were told that our season would not continue. Personally, I was heartbroken for Missy Reinstadtler, Kim Tessen, and Hunter Dula, as I knew their careers did not have a chance at the ending that each of them worked so diligently for.

DM: Since March, many of us have been living under varying degrees of restrictions, depending on the state. When your gymnasts returned home after the season suddenly ended, did any of them face restrictions that would’ve kept them out of the gym and from staying conditioned? What did you and the coaching staff have to do to help mitigate that?

TF: All of them in some respect went through restrictions. One of the items that our compliance department would allow was for team Zoom meetings, and for us to send suggested workouts. With that said, we had a summer book club, frequent team and individual meetings, and I made it a point to call them to check in. Lastly, the coaches made conditioning videos with us doing the actual exercises. Inside info on Utah gymnastics—Carly Dockendorf and Courtney McCool are far superior than Garrett and myself in any physical endeavor!

[Ed. note: Both Dockendorf and McCool are former NCAA gymnasts. McCool was also a member of the silver medal winning 2004 U.S. Olympic team.]

DM: When did you guys find out from the NCAA and the athletic administration that you would be going ahead with the 2021 season?

TF: With the pandemic, we learned that everything can change within a matter of minutes. Our team mentality has been to take advantage of every moment we are given. We were not sure what a 2021 season would look like and there was just so much uncertainty around the season. There was no certain moment we knew there would be a season, and things began to take form when return-to-play plans began in the fall. We just always kept the path, stay[ed] focused on what we could control, and were hopeful to have any opportunity of having a 2021 season.

DM: There are people who feel that the 2021 college gymnastics season should’ve been canceled outright, that the risk posed by COVID-19 is just too great. What would you say to people who think this season shouldn't be going forward at all?

TF: The NCAA, our athletic conference office, and athletic department have given each athlete the opportunity to opt out of this season without loss of scholarship or a year of eligibility. With that in effect, we feel that our athletes and their families have made careful and calculated decisions to move forward with their participation. If an athlete or their family became uncomfortable and wanted to pause, we would support their decision 100%.

DM: What sort of groundwork and planning preceded the gymnasts’ return to campus and when did they start coming back to Salt Lake City?

TF: With the support of physicians and our athletic training staff, our administration came up with a complete return-to-play book for gymnastics, and, specifically, our building. We had cleaning logs, direction arrows, and of course, the special lighting in the training room, locker room, bathrooms, and other high traffic areas.

DM: When, in the late summer, several universities opened up again for in-person learning and let students move back onto campus, there were outbreaks at these schools. Was there an outbreak at the University of Utah like there was in many other places?  

TF: Knock on wood, to this date we have not had a single case of COVID in our program (gymnasts, coaches, and support staff).

DM: Are the gymnasts doing in-person learning, remote learning, or some combination thereof?

TF: Our fall semester had 22% of the classes in person and the remainder online.

DM: How often are the gymnasts being tested and via what means—PCR or rapid test or both?

TF:  PCR each week 48 hours prior to any competition.

DM: How has training in the gym looked different than it did before the emergence of COVID-19? Do they all still train together at the same time or do they work in smaller groups to minimize the fallout if one gymnast tests positive? 

TF: We have to be smart with workout times, grouping the athletes and only allowing masks to be removed when the athletes are flipping. That means that when we are conditioning or doing a cardio workout, our athletes are wearing masks. We have had to quarantine gymnasts with regards to contact tracing or prior to their PCR tests. The training has to look different as we are in uncharted times and we feel it’s best to err on the side of caution. This has been an adjustment to our training plans as well.

DM: One of the concerns that many have in regards to the coronavirus and athletes is the risk of developing myocarditis after a bout of the coronavirus. We saw Florida basketball player Keyontae Johnson collapse on the court late last year. There is already one Oklahoma gymnast who has been diagnosed with myocarditis and is sitting the season out. What actions are you taking to screen for possible cases of myocarditis on the team? And if a case is diagnosed, what are the next steps? 

TF: From Melissa Lindstrom, our athletic trainer: 

“In order to maintain the health and safety of our student athletes, we rely on information from leading medical experts at the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and the American College of Cardiology. After receiving a positive test, the steps taken to screen for myocarditis are dependent on the presence and severity of symptoms related to COVID-19. If a case is diagnosed through screening, the athlete would be referred to a specialist in the field and all recommendations presented would be followed by the university medical staff.”

DM: It’s not just the athletes who are at risk of contracting and spreading the virus. The coaching staff is also at risk. What sort of precautions are you and the rest of staff taking in your personal lives to reduce your risks of contracting COVID-19?

TF: Our staff members are extremely dedicated professionals. The sacrifices that they have made have been inspired by our athletes’ focus and discipline. Our general philosophy is to limit the exposure as much as we can in our everyday lives. This has meant no meals inside restaurants for us, and for me personally, not allowing my teenage son to hang out with his friends. It is challenging, but I also feel it’s in the best interest for the time being. 

DM: You have the first meet in a truly unique season under your belt. How do you think it went, from both the gymnastics perspective and the COVID prevention perspective?

TF: Yes, we were pleased with the preventative measures we took. We had traffic patterns, testing by all people on the floor 48 hours prior to competition, cleaning, and of course, we felt that this meet was a good jumping-off point with taking in all considerations of our pre-season.

DM: What do you think of Maile O’Keefe becoming a mask hero for pulling her mask out of her leotard right after finishing her competition vault?

TF: Maile is someone who I admire for her ability to be a positive example. I have really enjoyed coaching her and her mask out of her leotard is something clever she would come up with.

[Ed. note: Maile’s technique is similar to what I used in my 20s when I went out dancing and I didn’t want to bring a bag for my keys, credit card, and ID.]

DM: Your first competition entailed travel. Can you talk about the coronavirus prevention protocols that are in place for athletes when they travel vs. when they’re going to compete at home?

TF: We only had to drive seven miles for our opener, but we did use a seating chart on the bus and mandated no eating or drinking on the bus.

[Ed. note: I sent these questions to Farden after the first week of the season so his answer doesn’t take into account their travel to Norman, Oklahoma the following week.]

DM: One of the things that Utah Gymnastics is known for, and something that I’ve written about quite a lot, is the spectacle and that huge home crowd. I remember you telling me that competing in front of a crowd like the Utes do regularly at Huntsman is one of the big lures for gymnasts to commit to Utah. There will be no crowd this season due to safety concerns. While this is entirely necessary, it’s also quite sad. How do you and the gymnasts feel about the loss of the legendary Huntsman crowd? And how are you guys working to bring energy to a room that usually fizzes with it?

TF: While we haven’t experienced this yet, we are going to embrace this new challenge and find our inner energy with our program and make a perfect 10.0 of our situation.

DM: When I did a Q&A with Kathy Johnson Clarke, she said, “I hope they have an unmitigated conviction to safety, first and foremost, and the courage to call off season if that becomes necessary.” What, in your opinion, would it take or should it take for this season to be called off?

TF: One unique thing about gymnastics is that is a non-contact sport and considered by the NCAA a low-risk activity. With that being said, the virus is lurking around each corner and while no program is perfect, we are attempting to be mindful of each decision regarding our team participating in this year’s season. I am not a health expert, but will continue to rely on the guidance from our administration and local health experts. If they deem it necessary to pause or withdraw from this year’s season, we will fully support their decision and trust those who are navigating the pandemic daily for our safety.

DM: Have you prepared the gymnasts for the possibility that, despite everyone’s best efforts, the season might end abruptly like it did last year?

TF: It has been mentioned and our athletes as a team choose to be all in and see where their efforts can take them. We know every meet is not guaranteed this year, so it is important to our team to leave it all out on the floor every opportunity we have to compete because you don’t know what the next week may have in store.

DM: What do you hope the gymnasts get out of this pandemic season? 

TF: To understand how much each of us really love the sport and figure out how each athlete/coach can give back to keep it what it is, an American treasure.

If you watched the inauguration on Wednesday or were anywhere near a computer that was hooked up to the internet, you saw THE photo of Bernie Sanders in his mittens and surgical mask sitting in a folding chair, arms crossed, in all of his Jewish old man glory.

This photo quickly launched a thousand themes but the best of the bunch came from Jewish Twitter; who better to capture the essence of what it means to be an old Jewish man sitting outside in the cold than people who will either one day grow up to be old Jewish men or those of us who have spent a lifetime around them?

Here are a few of my favorites.

But since this is also a gymnastics newsletter, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this brilliant gymnastics themed Bernie meme from Slothanova.

This image is from the 2012 Olympic vault podium. In that event, Romanian Sandra Izbasa took gold after the heavy favorite to win, McKayla Maroney, fell on one of her vaults and won silver. The bronze medalist was Maria Paseka from Russia.

It was while standing on the vault podium that Maroney made her now famous “not impressed” face that quickly became a meme. Bernie, too, seems unimpressed.

Here’s another great gymnastics/Bernie mashup, also involving Maroney. This image is from 2012 Olympic team finals when Maroney stuck what was perhaps the best Amanar vault ever performed. As you can see in the still, there’s judge Cheryl Hamilton, staring open mouthed in shock as Maroney lands. And right next to her on the judging panel is Bernie, who must’ve been on the execution panel that inexplicably found deductions in what appeared to be a perfect vault. I can practically hear him grumbling something about redistributing the tenths from top 1 percent of vaulters to the 99 percent of vaulters or something like that.

College Gymnastics In The Time Of COVID-19

A Q&A with Kathy Johnson Clarke about the upcoming season.

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So I guess we’re really doing this.

By “this,” I mean the college gymnastics season in the middle of a raging pandemic. There’s a not-so-small part of me that is excited to get to watch actual gymnastics meets on TV again. And unlike in years past, I don’t have to eschew social engagements in order to watch Friday Night Heights on the SEC Network because there are no social engagements to eschew in a time of COVID! But there’s another part of me that feels very ashamed of that not-so-small part that simply wants to watch gymnastics, you know, because of this pandemic and all the health risks involved in holding meets, traveling, and training.

There is a very strong case to be made that this year’s college gymnastics season shouldn’t be happening at all, and it’s a view I mainly share. Here’s a really good piece by Emily Mineheart that goes into the myriad of reasons why we should call it quits before we even get started. As she notes, the youth and physical fitness of the athletes does not make them invincible in the face of this virus:

This fall, the Big Ten announced that one-third of its football players who had tested positive for COVID-19 developed myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart. Myocarditis is linked to a number of sudden death cases in young athletes and is not something to take lightly.

On December 12, Florida basketball player Keyontae Johnson collapsed on the court during a game at Florida State and was put into a medically induced coma. He was diagnosed with an inflamed heart possibly related to a previous COVID-19 infection. He won’t play the rest of the season. 

In gymnastics, Oklahoma freshman Meilin Sullivan is out for the season with myocarditis. The Oklahoma medical staff caught the inflammation after noting high troponin levels and confirmed via a cardiac MRI, per Sullivan’s mother on social media. Johnson was also diagnosed via MRI.

And just yesterday, MyKayla Skinner, 2014 world team champion and 2021 Olympic hopeful, announced on Instagram that she had developed COVID-related pneumonia and, from the looks of things, appears to be in the hospital.

There are probably more athletes with undiagnosed myocarditis preparing and training for competition. The implications of this are terrifying. (And we haven’t even discussed all of the other people involved in making a college season happen—coaches, support staff, facility managers. There’s a long list of people who could potentially be exposed to COVID-19 in the course of a college gymnastics season.)

Yes, this is a dark time, least of all because of a potentially disrupted college gymnastics season. But here is one little bright spot—Kathy Johnson Clarke, our favorite college gymnastics commentator, will be back on air. And she has returned to this newsletter to do another Q&A! She was featured in the very first newsletter of 2020, and I was so pleased when she agreed to answer some questions for 2021. (I had initially planned this to be the first newsletter of 2021, but then Hilariagate happened and I snuck in the Q&A with Leni Briscoe on New Year’s Day. If you missed it, here it is!)

The Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Dvora Meyers: The 2020 season ended abruptly, which was heartbreaking for everyone but especially for the gymnasts. How do you think the 2020 season would've ended in terms of results and milestones? Do you think Oklahoma would have defended their title or would Florida have given them a run for their money? Would Kyla Ross and/or Maggie Nichols have broken the NCAA Perfect 10 record? And what are some other things that you believe might've played out?

Kathy Johnson Clarke: Obviously, as a broadcaster covering NCAA gymnastics I, along with our entire crew, have a responsibility to tell as much of the full story as possible, and that comes with a list of priorities. We must present the competition as it unfolds and keep the audience informed of individual and team scores, season/career highs, lead changes, building or losing team momentum either by hitting/sticking routines or counting costly errors/falls, etc. That's the sports and television part of it. Scores matter. Rank matters. Winning matters. Especially for those in contention for those big scores and top spots, and keeping our audience informed and engaged.

Yes, we were primed for a very exciting head-to-head match up with the always well-prepared, difficult-to-beat Oklahoma and Florida, the talented, fueled by the awful taste in their mouth from the previous year's "did that really happen?" shocker at Regionals! Add a very hungry, ready-to-pounce, Utah, and star-studded UCLA, who pushed each other all season as great rivals do, a really good Michigan team and surging-at-the-end LSU and Alabama and I think it was going to be a fantastic NCAA post-season and final! In some ways, I was relieved for Denver not having to continue pushing a skeleton team after two devastating losses (Lynzee Brown and Mia Sundstrom). It was certainly wonderful to see people step up and into line-ups, but that gets hard! It would have been interesting to see what Minnesota could do with the opportunity that a diluted Denver team provided. Regionals is going to become a really exciting part of postseason moving forward and I hope we can somehow get the television coverage it merits! The time of year makes that tricky with March Madness in full swing!

All-around and event results at the NCAA finals are always challenging to predict and often end up as head scratchers because of the imperfect meet format, but who didn't want to see Maggie and Kyla work their magic the rest of the season, especially when 10s were flying and there were other fantastic gymnasts in the mix?!?! How things ended up in terms of scores, records and wins is something we will never know and I don't want to speculate and put my thumb on the scale. I have way too many favorite routines, parts of routines, performances, and pieces of gymnastics to go down that rabbit hole!

What I missed personally is the opportunity to highlight individual strengths, what makes each gymnast unique, what they do best. I miss telling the personal stories of resilience in the face of challenging circumstances. I especially missed seeing the gymnastics careers of so many superlative seniors end without the opportunity to honor them in a special and meaningful way. Each and every one deserved that moment in the spotlight. I missed the feeling I get each year knowing that the little girl in each of them got that one final shot at being the best they could be before moving on.

DM: There has been a lot of debate about whether the college sports season in any sport should go forward while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. What is your view on the situation? Is there a way to move forward with athletic competition while keeping everyone—athletes, coaches, officials, etc.—safe? In your opinion, what would it take—or should it take—to cancel the 2021 NCAA gymnastics season?

KJC: This is a difficult question and the most important to scrutinize. Bart [Conner] and I have just begun our conversations with the coaches in the SEC and it sounds like most programs are complying, testing and contact tracing, staying as isolated as possible, learning from mistakes, and figuring out a way to keep their athletes and coaches safe and committed to doing everything possible to have a season. I took a look at the SEC Covid-19 medical protocol for winter sports, which just came out several days ago, and it looks great on paper. I know it's very possible to keep the teams in their own "bubbles" during dual meets and clean the equipment and mats when they switch, but how long and how well can they ALL keep that up when season begins and they are traveling and staying in hotels every weekend, I honestly don't know.

My hope is that at every turn the right decisions are made to eliminate the risk and to always err on the side of caution if there is any doubt or a choice to make. I hope they have an unmitigated conviction to safety, first and foremost, and the courage to call off the season if that becomes necessary. Trust me, I'm not sporting long, silver-gray hair and doing my own nails right now because I want to be a walking, talking science experiment. I have been exceedingly careful, but I was also privileged enough to be ABLE to stay at home all these months and endure the loss of income caused by the pandemic. I don't throw caution to the wind with respect to my own health and safety and those closest to me and I certainly don't want to see medical science, common sense and responsibility tossed out the window just to get a meet.  So far I am seeing appropriate steps being taken to safely START the season and we will have to see each week how it continues. The first test will be seeing where things stand after the athletes get back from their short winter break and have just a matter of days to test negative, hopefully, and prepare for the first meet on January 8th. 

As for television, we want to assure gymnastics fans we are doing everything possible to keep ourselves and everyone else safe, so we will work remotely and broadcast from a newly set up home studio, which should be a thrill a minute for everyone! Though I will certainly miss being there in person, I am actually looking forward to the challenge! Kind of like what a gymnast must feel if they need to alter a routine to work around an injury or issue. According to our coordinating producer, ‘The headline is that we have had to adjust some of our production plans to work around important Covid protocols and guidelines.’

DM: Women's college gymnastics has been building a lot of momentum online and on television over the last few years, culminating with Katelyn Ohashi's viral floor routine back in 2019. Do you worry that last season's abrupt end and this coming season—should it even go forward—being more limited in scope will slow the momentum that the sport has been building for years?

KJC: It could, but I hope not. ESPN/SEC Network is covering a remarkable number of meets this season so this is where I am hopeful our production crew can make a difference. We have a very special team committed to not just putting product on the air, but actually elevating gymnastics and presenting it in the way it so richly deserves. We may not be able to introduce new and nifty elements to our broadcast this year, but we can tell stories. During this immensely challenging time we can't let perfection be the enemy of the good, nor can we get in the way of telling the stories of these remarkably resilient young people who have sacrificed so much for the greater good to keep the most vulnerable safe—parents, grandparents, coaches, trainers, staff, teachers, fans, etc. We are at great risk of irreparably harming this generation. Their mental, physical, emotional, educational, and financial health is on the line. This season, should it happen, is a gift to them. That is the way I am approaching it and I hope I do them justice.

DM: What are you most looking forward to in the 2021 NCAA season? (This might be hard to answer with Missouri’s Helen Hu being out with an ACL injury.)

KJC: First, I am always deeply saddened by any injury, especially one that results in a missed season. It's no secret I love Helen Hu's work. She's a gorgeous addition to NCAA gymnastics so it's an enormous loss for all of us, but especially for her personally and for her team. LSU's Kai Rivers is out for the year as well, so I'll miss seeing that big vault. So, what am I most looking forward to? Seeing these athletes work together as a team and make something special out of a really crappy situation. One of the things that makes collegiate gymnastics so unique and special is the trust they have to have in each other and that notion of having each other's backs in each line-up. That is going to be amplified this year because they're not just responsible for their training in the gym and performance in competition, but what they do and don't do every day to keep each other safe and healthy. Inevitably, someone is going to test positive, someone is going to get contact traced, perhaps multiple people. We may see gymnasts performing on events they never believed they would compete in college. Expect the unexpected.

Whatever we end up getting in terms of a season, I want to make it my mission to really focus on the positives and to emphasize and highlight each athlete's strength, unique qualities or skill set, whatever makes them special. Yes, there will be superior routines in terms of difficulty, technical mastery, artistry, presentation, etc. and hopefully the judging will reflect that and make my job easier, but the theme and through-line of this season should be one of hope and resilience. Like all of us, they have been pushed to put things in perspective and decide what really is essential during the past 10 months. I have watched my son go through it, and seen how it is changing the way he is planning for his future. These athletes are changing in front of our very eyes and are being forced to contend with the very real possibility that this season could end as abruptly as last year. We simply don't know. It's a big leap of faith and I sure as heck hope we use science to guide us. For everyone's sake.

DM: Now to some non-NCAA questions. This past year, after all of the meets had been canceled or postponed, including the Olympics, we saw the emergence of the Gymnast Alliance with hundreds (if not more) gymnasts sharing their stories of abuse in the sport. Why do you think this athlete-led movement has taken off during this time? 

KJC: Why now? What immediately comes to mind is dominoes and floodgates. For decades we had a few people speaking out or trying to draw attention to issues within the culture of elite gymnastics. But the more success we achieved and the more we dominated the gymnastics world the less people were inclined to listen, much less believe anything we were doing could possibly be wrong. Everything became so normalized. When Jen Sey's book came out, they attacked the messenger. Again. Just like with Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. Then Dominique Moceanu's book came out and they bad-mouthed and blackballed her. Then Don Peters was exposed as the predator he was and that got a little traction. Then Marvin Sharp happened and people wondered how a pedophile could be a national team coach while photographing and collecting alarming photos of young gymnasts. By the time Larry Nassar became public knowledge and Indy Star masterfully connected the dots that finally pointed directly at USAG the dominoes started to fall. Athlete A opened the floodgates.

When gymnasts from all over started sharing their stories about normalized abuse and how it negatively affects them, even years later, others began to recognize it as way too similar to their own experiences. They could finally see how wrong, twisted and damaging the tactics were that some coaches used to mold them into champions. It gave voice to gymnasts, current and past, who finally decided it was worth sorting through all the emotional baggage they had accumulated through the years of just accepting it as normal and necessary to make them great gymnasts, regardless of how broken they may have felt and still feel. I have to say I was surprised by my own visceral reaction and how thoughts, feelings, traumatic events from years and years ago came flooding back to me with such clarity and depth. And not just things said and done to me, but to others around me. They were things I had already made peace with, and yet I found myself reliving them and sobbing. My guess is that I was not the only one who compartmentalized things through the years—things that happened or were said and done, or NOT said or done, and we all just pushed the subsequent damage to our being deep down and did our best to keep it there. 

DM: You've been quite outspoken for years about abusive practices in the sport of gymnastics. Do you feel that you were taken seriously when you spoke out in the past?

KJC: It's really not important now whether I was listened to or taken seriously at the time or not. What's most important is there is a groundswell of support now for much-needed change and for empowering athletes to demand it. There is no sport without athletes.  And there is nothing more powerful than a group of committed athletes intent on driving the narrative.  

DM: It's perhaps too soon to tell, but do you think the sport is finally being dragged—kicking and screaming—onto the right path? 

KJC: I think this is the closest we have ever been and I'm gratified to see some of our current athletes vying for spots on the upcoming Olympic team are being trained in a much more positive way. No less intense, no less demanding, but the gymnasts have a voice and their coaches are listening. When they have what I believe will be phenomenal success, then we may be able to blow this myth to pieces. Overbearing physical, mental, and emotional abuse is not what made great champions. It's talent, hard work, resilience, an extraordinary commitment to daily excellence by both athlete and coach, good timing, and a little good luck.

Hilaria Baldwin Vs. The Gymternet

A Q&A with "Leni Briscoe"

Happy New Year!

The hellish year that was 2020 is finally over. While it was mostly a nightmare—I won’t rehash all the reasons why—it did give us a small parting gift near the very end, a tiny little morsel of schadenfreude.

Of course I’m talking about Hilaria-Gate! In case you don’t live your life on Twitter—good for you, teach me how to do that— and you missed the big celebrity scandal of the past week, here it is in brief: Hilaria Baldwin, yoga instructor, podcast host, and wife of Alec Baldwin, was called out on Twitter for allegedly fabricating her Spanish upbringing and accent.

And the person who called Baldwin out about this was none other than the gymternet’s own @lenibriscoe.

I don’t know how long I’ve been following @lenibriscoe on Twitter, but in 2019, I finally met the now-famous Internet sleuth at a hangout for gymnastics fans. Since then, we’ve met up in person a few more times. I even went to Leni Briscoe’s Chanukah party last year in [REDACTED] and had a good time despite the fact that there were no latkes left by the time I arrived and her cat Theo refused to play with me. 

Anyway, here is the tweet that got the whole thing started.

In the thread that follows, LB documents the evolution of Baldwin’s Spanish-accented English: Baldwin pours it on thick in her earlier media appearances, but it comes and goes as time goes on...and sometimes completely disappears! She also shared a video in which Baldwin, a woman born and raised in Massachusetts to very white Anglo parents—here are some links that demonstrate that Baldwin has no Spanish lineage on either side of her family—is doing a cooking segment and claims to have forgotten how to say the word cucumber in English.

Words sometimes slip my mind, too, and that is worrisome. But the issue isn’t that she simply forgot how to say “cucumber,” but that she asks for the word in English, which seemed intended to augment the “Hilaria is from Spain and English is her second language” narrative.

The thread was something of a slow burn; it didn’t take off immediately. But by the time Christmas Eve rolled around, it had gained a lot of traction, with many blue check mark accounts on Twitter sharing it. People started to send even more proof of the grift and share even more video evidence. High school classmates tweeted, saying that the woman known as Hilaria had been known to them as Hillary Hayward-Thomas and that she didn’t speak accented English when they knew her many years ago. Yearbook photos of her that had her name as the uber-WASPy “Hillary Hayward-Thomas” surfaced. People had a bit of fun online. It was a great way to spend Christmas for this Jew. 

By Sunday, both Baldwins weighed in on the controversy. Hilaria, admitting that she is a white woman who was born in Boston, tried to blame journalists for getting her background information wrong. Pretty rich when you consider that her bio at CAA, her own agency, had her listed as born in Spain at the time she made the claim that it was all the reporters’ faults. (They have since deleted this.) Sorry Hillary, you can’t pin this one on us.

And Alec, proving that he hasn’t lost his oratorical gifts since leaving this voicemail message for his daughter several years back, posted a video where he talks about used coasters, looks directly into the camera and whispers menacingly like he’s Batman.

(I reached out to Hilaria Baldwin via email and direct message on her Instagram account for comment and haven’t yet received a response. If I hear back, I will update this post. In the meantime, here’s an interview she did with the New York Times where she tries to rationalize away all of the inconsistencies in her story. It doesn’t go very well.)

I asked LB if she would do a Q&A, not just about the role she played in a very bizarre Internet drama, but also gymnastics. It is only right that she should use her newfound popularity to spread the gymnastics gospel to the heathens. 

While I normally don’t let interview subjects review their quotes, I feel like “don’t get sued by Alec Baldwin” was a reasonable exception to the rule so I sent “Leni” a readback of her quotes with the cuts and changes I made so she could approve them and suggest others if she felt it was necessary. Just wanted to tell you guys in the interest of transparency.

Here’s the Q&A with gymternet and now Internet hero, “Leni Briscoe.”

Dvora Meyers: Like most people who fell down the rabbit hole you so expertly dug, I knew very little about Hilaria Baldwin until last week. When/how did you become aware that maybe, just maybe, Hilaria wasn't a Spanish woman? And what inspired you to compile all of this evidence in a thread?

Leni Briscoe: Something felt off to me in her accent and her story. There are plenty of hot normies married to celebrities who don't get followed around by paparazzi because they haven't gone to great lengths to cultivate a public image. It was very hard for me to believe that someone who allegedly didn't own a TV wanted to immediately become an Extra correspondent as soon as she got married (to a very rich person — it's not like she needed the money). 

I guess at the end of such a bad year, I was upset at the audacity of this gringa from Boston appropriating the experience of immigration and learning English as a second language when there are mothers who aren't with their caged children at the border because they aren't rich white people. 

DM: Your thread sort of had a slow burn. I recall seeing it earlier in the week and chuckling to myself but it took a few days for it really to take off. Why do you think it went viral when/how it did?

LB: It was a slow burn! Maybe because I heard there was some holiday that Christians celebrate at the same time? Something about someone's birthday and maybe they were born in a tree or something? I think a few verified accounts saw it and retweeted or added things and it eventually took off. I think we all need this gossip right now. It's punching up and they deserve it. They are wealthy white people benefiting from a manufactured spicy white/Latina image and it is gross. 

DM: It's weird that we're making jokes about cucumbers that aren't dick jokes. Not counting English, how many languages can you say "cucumber" in? 

LB: Uno (espanol, la palabra es pepino)

DM: What are some of the best reactions — videos, tweets, etc — that you've seen to Hilariagate?

LB: My favorite video is definitely by @sunireyes 

I would like to see more attention paid to the Black and Brown Latinas who were most hurt by Hilaria's grift.

[Edit note: LB reached out to Suni Reyes and she responded that she identifies as an Afro-Latina of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent.]

DM: The Baldwins, Alec and Hillary, blessed us with response videos, and they were everything we hoped they would be. What did you make of Hilaria's "explanation" of how she presented herself and her history?

LB: She clearly thinks she has executed this grift in a way that she can talk her way out of it, and she's not that fast or smooth a talker in any language. I also felt a little bad for her because she's clearly bothered by it and it wouldn't have been such a big story if she hadn't made her ridiculous videos. Also, why did she say that she was taking a social media break and then immediately post pictures? 

DM: How do you feel about Alec Baldwin sort of calling you a bar coaster with stains that one could purchase at a swap meet? 

LB: I spent the entire time laughing at how hard that old man tried to roast me while not managing to be at all funny or vicious. Guess what rich people, there is nothing wrong with buying things at a swap meet (it's good for the environment). 

DM: If you were going to burn yourself, what would you say?

LB: As I said on Twitter, the best insults come from teenagers, so I will quote two of my favorites. One of my former clients told me I am white like a diamond, and another said that I must go out of my way to look so stupid when I pick my outfit in the morning. 

DM: I feel like most of us have enjoyed this whole saga immensely because it's fun when rich, famous people get knocked down a peg or five, but, in your opinion, how was Hilaria's alleged deception problematic or even potentially harmful? 

LB: Hilaria leaned into a sexy Hispanic/Latina stereotype that harms actual Hispanics and Latinas. She also leaned into the angry Latina stereotype and pretended her accent got stronger when she is angry. She appropriated the experience of immigration and learning English in America to make herself seem interesting. There are actual people who have had this experience and they deserve to have their voices heard and stories told authentically. Hilaria also harmed Latina and Hispanic women by being a white woman pretending to be Latina which further contributes to the popular image of Latinas as having light skin and straight hair which particularly harms Afro-Latinas. This is a huge problem in Latin America, especially, where most actresses are white. 

DM: Which is the best Twitter — the gymternet, or cat twitter?

LB: Cat twitter; there is too much drama on the gymternet. 

DM: Which gymnast would you like your new followers to be aware of and why? It can be a current gymnast or a past one, but not Simone because everyone, living and dead, already knows who she is. 

LB: Annia Hatch!

I have been disappointed in the lack of recognition Annia gets. Annia is a Cuban immigrant to the United States who won a bronze medal on vault at the 1996 World Championships representing Cuba and a silver medal on vault as well as a silver medal in team competition representing the United States at the 2004 Olympics. Sounds great, right? It was. It is. However, she is constantly overlooked in media coverage. 

When Laurie Hernandez (who has light skin) was named to the 2016 United States Olympic Team, multiple articles stated she was the first Latina to compete for the United States at the Olympics since Tracee Talavera, who I believe is of Mexican descent and competed in 1984. That's ridiculous. Annia competed in 2004. Why is she not recognized? Is it because she is an immigrant? Is it because her skin is darker and she doesn't look like the popular image of a Latina? The media also excluded Kyla Ross who is multiracial (I think she has one Puerto Rican grandparent, one Filipino grandparent, one Japanese grandparent and one Black grandparent, but I might be wrong). I feel she should also be included, but Annia's omission bothers me most because I think it is emblematic of the racism experienced by Latinas with darker skin. 

DM: Now that you're famous, are you planning on becoming an influencer? What products are you planning to hawk?

LB: No, that sounds like a lot of work. Before I made the Hilaria thread I was going to make a review of all the sweatpants I bought in 2020. So maybe sweatpants. 

DM: Truth time — did you just do all of this so that more people would know about your cat Theo?

LB: The fame is already getting to his head. He won't stop meowing at me for attention. 

DM: Like me, you've got curly/wavy hair. Tell me about your styling routine. 

LB: I’m still figuring out the perfect routine. Currently I put conditioner (NYM Blue Sea Kale & Coconut water) in my hair while I shampoo my roots. After I rinse I put in more conditioner and squish to condition. Then I usually micro plop but if I’m not going anywhere I’ll do a regular plop in a turbie twist. If I micro plop I put gel in right after. If I regular plop I take my hair down in about 5 minutes. I recently got a gel from Giovanni but usually I use the La Looks Extreme sport gel. I apply the gel using praying hands and then scrunch. My hair takes a long time to dry and once it’s finally dry I scrunch it to make it less crunchy. 

DM: Who is your favorite short Jewish writer, say 5'4"and under?

LB: I suppose it is you. 

[Edit note: I sort of twisted her arm into saying that, I guess.]

If you want to show your appreciating to LB for the detective work she has done, please consider donating to this GoFundMe which has been set up for the family of Kimarlee Nguyen, a woman who died of COVID-19 earlier this year. Nguyen was a teacher, a writer, and daughter of Cambodian refugees. Nguyen helped provide material support to her family when she was alive.

And if you enjoyed this newsletter, please consider subscribing!

What Athletes Need Are Universal Programs

Happy Chanukah everyone! I’m back from my hiatus, during which I wrote 30k words of fiction of which 2k words might be passable. So that was one of the things I was getting up to while taking a wee break from this newsletter. 

We’re now in December, which means it’s time for the end-of-year-best lists. I’m pleased that the two stories I wrote this year for Longreads made it onto their “top 25 most read” list. At number 17 was my essay about discovering that a friend of mine had lied to me and many others about having had cancer. (I wrote a bit of backstory on writing the cancer-faking essay in this newsletter.)  And at number 22 was my story about the activists who are working to end the Olympic Games.

I know that I should come up with some “best of 2020” list of my own, but honestly, it’s hard to think of anything positive in this shitshow of a year even though I know that some great work was produced and that some people accomplished awesome things. But perhaps at a later date I’ll feel inspired to tease out the few good things that have been made and done this year from the mountain of terrible that we’ve all lived through. 

In other news, breaking has officially been included on the roster of sports for the 2024 Olympic Games. Back in late 2018, I published a 7,000-word feature on the dance’s journey to the Olympics, with a special focus on how battles, which historically historically been judged in an almost seat-of-your pants fashion, will be evaluated. 

During my hiatus, I watched a lot of TV, which is not something unique to my time off or to the pandemic in general. I prefer watching TV to doing most things.

One of the things I watched was “The Weight of Gold,” the HBO Sports documentary about athletes and mental health that came out five years ago in July 2020. It featured Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, who was also one of the producers of the project. Since retiring from swimming after the 2016 Games, he has become outspoken about the lack of mental health services available to athletes, especially after they retire from their respective sports. It can be exceedingly difficult for elite athletes to transition into the next phase of their lives especially after they have spent years exclusively focused on one particular goal. This can mean that they never developed hobbies or interests outside of their sport or that their social contacts outside of athletics might be meager. In some cases, it can mean that their education has suffered or been delayed. And in many instances, it means the end of certain material supports such as a living stipend and health insurance. 

The documentary, via interviews with Phelps, figure skaters Sasha Cohen and Gracie Gold, hurdler- turned- bobsledder Lolo Jones, and several others, is well-done, but doesn’t really break any new ground; most of what was said by the athletes has been said by many of them before—Gold, of late, has been very vocal about her mental health struggles while at her figure skating peak. And the relatively short running time—one hour—doesn’t allow the documentary to really get into the issue of athlete suicide, which dominates the second half of the film. They probably needed at least a full hour, if not more, to address that topic.

But wishing that there was more doesn’t mean that what was included wasn’t worthwhile. The athletes and advocates are right that the institutions of sport should do more to support them, physically and psychologically, both during their career and after. Without them, there is no sport to administer. They are the ingredient that makes the whole recipe come together. They are the apple in apple pie. Without the athletes, you just have an administrative framework that crumbles like a buttery, flaky crust. (Why yes, I’ve also been watching a lot of the Great British Baking Show during this pandemic, why do you ask? Also, Paul Hollywood can get it.)

But one of the frustrating things about the documentary and the conversation around this topic in general is the inability to take a step back and look at the bigger picture and see how athletes’ struggles are linked to other, broader struggles.

Katie Uhlaender, an athlete in skeleton, spoke about how she was on tour while her father was undergoing treatment for cancer and how she repeatedly asked if she could go home to be with him after receiving emails from her mother telling her that her father’s health was rapidly declining and that he didn’t have much time left. Her coach told her that she couldn’t go home to be with her father. Tragically, her father passed away while she was abroad competing.

While her job was different from most—diving headfirst down an iced track on what is basically a sled—the fact that she wasn’t given time off to be with a sick loved one is not unique among American workers. Many are not allowed leave to help care for an ailing family member. In that way, Uhlaender, despite her extraordinary athletic gifts, is like millions of other Americans who don’t possess adequate workplace rights and protections.

Jones spoke about how meager her training stipend for the national team was that she had to work at a gym making smoothies. There is nothing wrong with making smoothies as your job, but what Jones was forced to do was to cobble together a living from two low- wage jobs—the smoothie one and the elite athlete one. And probably, even then, she was only just getting by. She also talked about receiving a letter informing her that at the end the month, her health insurance would be terminated because she was no longer on the national team. At this moment of transition out of sports when she needed access to both medical and mental health care, she found herself without those resources, and trying to figure out what comes next. 

(Not all athletes face this predicament, at least as far as material resources are concerned. Someone like Phelps seems to be, if not set for life, then very, very comfortable for the foreseeable future. But this financial security isn’t the result of wages he was paid for his years of training and competing; they come from lucrative endorsement contracts he signed as the Olympian with the most medals in history. Few Olympic athletes can hope to match Phelp’s earning potential. For most, even if they do manage to snag one or two good endorsements, the money won’t end up lasting for very long as short track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno made abundantly clear in the documentary.)

As I watched Jones describe this material reality, my first thought is This is why we need universal healthcare. To be fair, I have this thought a lot such as when I trip over a curb while walking; or when I bump into a door frame; or anytime I drive a car.

We’ve talked a lot about how access to healthcare should have nothing to do with employment status over the last few years (or decades) but I haven’t seen it explicitly discussed much in relation to Olympic athletes or those in the non-revenue generating sports. Their positions are quite precarious similar to many low paid workers in the U.S. and, as Jones’ story illustrates, that precarity can lead to, not only loss of income (or training stipend) but also the loss of their healthcare. And similar to many low wage workers, injury is something that will knock someone off the national team and then off their insurance.   

While we can’t guarantee athletes a permanent position on the national team—there aren’t an infinite number of roster positions and maintaining a spot will have to be performance-based at the end of the day—we should be able to guarantee that if their athletic performance suffers, they don’t end up losing their access to healthcare along with their spot on the squad. 

My argument that universal programs will benefit athletes and address some of the issues they face is not an argument in favor of sports federations and governing bodies abdicating all of their responsibility for athlete well-being. There are sports specific problems that will still need to be addressed by those entities; moreover, as the institutions that directly benefit from the athletes’ labor, they should be obligated to meet the needs of their workforce. 

But universal programs like Medicare for All will address some of the more pressing material concerns of athletes and remove some of the precarity from their lives. It will mean that a bad competitive season won’t be the end of their ability to go to a doctor. 

This is all pretty obvious stuff as far as I’m concerned but it’s important to state it plainly, to recognize that despite the fact that athletes have almost otherworldly physical abilities and talents, their needs and our needs are mostly the same and our struggles are linked. We must be in solidarity with them and they with us. 

A little bit of housekeeping: I’m going to wait until the beginning of January to resume collecting payments from those of you who have subscribed. I want to be certain that I’m back to publishing regularly again before I un-suspend payments. Thank you for all of your patience and understanding.

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