Stella Umeh Would've Gone Viral
A Q&A with the Canadian Olympian and Bruin gymnastics star.
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Back in 2019, when I was working on “A Brief History of Viral Floor Routines” in response to Katelyn Ohashi’s floor routine exploding online, I joked to a friend that the only reason I was writing the piece was so that I could embed video of Stella Umeh’s routine somewhere in it. Which I did. First, I ran through the history of NCAA gymnastics floor routines that had gone viral, starting with Lloimincia Hall’s 2014 routine and ending with Ohashi’s. Then I included some of my favorite routines from the past that had been done before the internet had arrived in a significant way and before social media had existed at all.
And one of the routines I highlighted was Umeh’s routine from the 1998 NCAA championships, which was the last competition of her career.
Her movements were fluid. She created unique shapes with her body. Her transitions were seamless. And she was so fucking soulful. If all of that wasn’t enough, she performed some of the most difficult tumbling being performed in NCAA gymnastics, both then and now. She really was the total package on floor.
Every time another gymnast goes viral, I find myself thinking, If only Twitter had been around when Stella Umeh was competing.
I supposed we’ll never know if Umeh’s routines would’ve taken off online, and that’s probably beside the point. Umeh’s career and contributions are noteworthy even without mass social media acclaim.
Umeh is a former elite gymnast who represented Canada in international competition from the late 80s until the mid-90s. The 1990 Commonwealth Games was her breakout competition. Originally not even slated to compete, she was added to the Canadian team at the last minute after other gymnasts were injured and helped the team win the gold. At the 1992 world championships, she made both the beam and vault finals, and at the Olympics later that year, she placed 16th in the all-around as the only Canadian gymnast to qualify to the 36-person field. She finaled in floor at the 1993 world championships, and finished her elite career with the all-around title at the 1994 Commonwealth Games.
With a resume like that, it should come as no surprise that Umeh continued to excel gymnastically in college. She won two floor titles and helped the Bruins to their first-ever NCAA team title in 1997. After finishing her competitive career, Umeh joined Cirque du Soleil where she performed in the shows Varekai and Mystere.
I must admit that I wasn’t much of a consumer of college gymnastics at that point in time, so I didn’t become aware of Umeh’s Bruin career until several years later with the advent of YouTube. That’s when gymnastics fans started digitizing their VHS tape collections, and that’s when I came across Umeh’s elite and college routines. I was truly blown away when I watched her perform. And since then, I have never missed an opportunity to bring her and her incredible floor routines up in conversation or in writing. (See: the lede to this piece.)
Currently, Umeh lives in Newcastle, Australia, with her husband and her 5-year-old daughter. She teaches yoga and acro, mentors/coaches in gymnastics, and, along with her sister Anastasia, choreographs floor routines.
I reached out to Umeh and asked her if she’d be open to speaking with me for the newsletter and she graciously agreed. Given the time difference between New York and Australia, I emailed her questions and she sent me her answers via voice memos.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Dvora Meyers: Can you talk a bit about your background in the sport? How did you get started? How old were you? What motivated you to do gymnastics when you were young?
Stella Umeh: I actually started dance at the age of four. At the age of six, I had quite a bit of energy. And my mum had a pretty loud prayer in the hopes that I would find somewhere to place all my passion. We were driving along one day. Mum got lost. We went into a gym to ask for directions. And as soon as the doors opened, I saw what was in there, I went tearing across the floor, jumping into the pit, climbing on the beam, running down the vault runway, pushing off the springboard or the beat board. I was literally in heaven. Mum took one look and said, ‘We were never really lost. We've always been found.’ And I started gymnastics a week later at the same gym, Gymnastics Mississauga in Canada, for all 17 years of my career under the tutelage of the then-head coach, Alex Bard, and all of his coaches that learned from him.
I just loved it. I loved the ability, or the opportunity it gave me to put everything I had into something. It was filled with bumps and bruises and twists and turns and power and flexibility. And it was like everything mixed together to create such a wonderful experience. I was so happy that there were four events, warm-up, conditioning, [and] cool down; there was so much to do in the gym. It never got old. It never got boring. So going to the gym was literally my favorite place on earth...I was extremely flexible as a little girl. So I excelled in acrobatics, and I had power and then when I was able to put the two of them together, I literally found like the greatest combination in marriage.
DM: You came onto the elite scene just as the Canadian women were just starting to make their mark in the world of gymnastics. You had Larissa Lowing becoming the first Canadian woman to make a world apparatus final in 1989. She also got her beam mount into the Code of Points. And then you made a couple of apparatus finals yourself at the world championships.
What was it like coming up as a young elite gymnast at that time, both in Canada and abroad? Can you talk about your own contributions to the progress of gymnastics in Canada?
[Ed. note: I’m not certain but I *think* Lowing is also the first Black female gymnast to make a world apparatus final. If I’m mistaken, please let me know in the comments. Lowing, now Lowing-Libby, is the current head coach of the University of Iowa women’s gymnastics team.]
SU: Canadian gymnastics at the time was very club-oriented. Back then, we didn't come together on a regular basis in training as a national team. It was really rare when we did that. It was usually before a competition, or it was just for testing. And it wasn't until I was well into things that that started happening.
I didn't actually start competing with or against Lori [Strong] and Larissa until they were kind of moving on their way out. So yes, 1990 was the first meet I had gone to on a team with them. I believe that I competed at 1989 Stuttgart in Germany, the DTB Cup with Larissa, but I've never actually traveled with Lori anywhere. So my only interaction with them was from meet to meet.
I actually never really felt like I was coming up at the same time as them. I didn't actually connect any of the dots. I just did what I knew I could do. And it just happened that I was an up and comer [as a] junior behind this powerhouse era of Canada really starting to make waves internationally.
I myself had such momentum in my own competition, in my own standing, that I often traveled alone to international meets. And I think in terms of my contribution in the progress of gymnastics internationally, I think I left a decent mark. I did very well internationally; I often did better leaving the country than I did within Canada. I was more fairly judged, to be honest. So with regards to the progression of gymnastics in Canada, Canada [does] not have the greatest track record for standing in support of their entire group of gymnasts. I think Larissa was a highly underrated gymnast. I seem to have fallen into that as well. There was a huge push for Lori Strong and the publicity of her... I'd like to think that I brought a little grace and power in the marriage of the two into the sport, especially in Canada cause I was a trained dancer, and I danced from the age of 4-12. And I incorporated that and never left it behind.
I think I lent a different kind of feel to the way that people saw or thought of gymnastics in Canada. I definitely left a great name for Canada internationally. Within Canada, I have no idea. I went back to my old [gym], Gymnastics Mississauga, and they didn't even know who I was. I was annoyed by that, to say the least.
DM: In addition to showcasing difficult tumbling, you also demonstrated highly complex choreography in your elite floor routine, dare I say some of the most difficult and interesting dance being done at the time. How did those performances come together? What did you hope to convey to the audience in your performance?
SU: My sister choreographed a couple of my routines; she actually didn't do all of my elite routines. She didn't do as many as I had hoped she would have done. She didn't do my Olympic floor routine, which I was really bummed [about]. She did the 93 and the 94. But Alex [Umeh’s coach] wouldn't let her choreograph my Olympic routine.
I had a particular style and I worked with dancers, who were choreographers, in all of the routines that I did...I was blessed to work with choreographers that just let me be me, let me do me. So music would come on—and this is really indicative of floor routines that I did with my sister—we would literally just put some music on, we might be facing away from each other, back to back, and start dancing and moving, [and] turn around and realize that we're doing the same thing. The choreography was then born.
The main thing I was hoping to convey in a floor routine was fucking land on your feet. [laughter] The second most important thing was just ease...I enjoyed floor, I actually enjoyed every event, but bars. Bars was my least favorite. But it's the one that I made the most improvement on and I learned the most from. They always say that your toughest experience will be your biggest learning experience.
What I was trying to put out there was just like, you can you can move, you can flow, you can dance and you can be powerful all at the same time. It was artistic gymnastics, and I was happy that I did that.
One thing I do appreciate in my experiences is compulsories. I love my cycle's compulsories, the 88 to 92 compulsories. Compulsories really separated the good athletes from the best athletes.
[Ed. note: I couldn’t find a video of Umeh doing compulsories during that period so here’s a link to Romania’s Vanda Hadarean doing the 1992 compulsory floor routine, in case you wanted to see what that cycle’s compulsory floor exercise looked like.]
I believe that going out there and performing and using everything that you have is a huge thing. So compulsories for me made me a better gymnast, because it really helped me focus in, zero in on the competitiveness of basic skills, which are so highly required in gymnastics. [Now] compulsories don't exist; they cut them. I don't like the fact that they cut them because now everybody's optionals look exactly the same. So it also removes a bit of the creativity and the artistry by removing compulsories. I don't know why I went off on that segue, but I know that compulsories played a huge role, and it should be shared and talked about.
[Ed. note: Compulsories were eliminated after the 1996 Olympics. And yes, I agree with Umeh that we should talk more about them and revel in basic skills performed incredibly well.]
DM: Now let's talk about your UCLA floor routines. I think your freshman year routine was your 1994 elite right—correct if I'm wrong there—but how did you go about putting together the other three?
SU: Yes, you are correct. My freshman floor routine was a carryover from my elite [career], my last 94 floor routine. That's the one I finished up at the Commonwealth Games with; my sister did that. And then my second year was actually a floor routine that I love. It was [to music] by Roy Buchanan, this like real sultry, electric guitar piece, like straight from the 70s. And the title of the song was “The Messiah Will Come Again.” It was actually an elite routine. My sister and I had created it while I was competing internationally, and my coach didn't like it so he wouldn't let me compete it. So I never competed it internationally. It was always my dream to compete that floor routine so I just resurrected it.
This is just sort of a side note, when I was being recruited, I kind of made it very clear to Valorie Kondos Field, the head coach of UCLA Gymnastics, that I had two stipulations: A. I don't lift weights. Or swim.
[Ed. note: Later when I asked her to clarify, Umeh said, “I couldn’t get out of swimming. I tried, oh god, I tried. But I did have a floatie.”]
And B. My sister will always do my floor routines. I was like, if you want to keep recruiting me knowing how big of a hotshot you are on floor, but just to let you know, floors are not on you for me. And I stuck to it. So my sister, [I used] her routine my freshman year, which pulled over from my elite career, my sophomore year, which again was an elite routine that was never used. My third year, my sister and I just couldn't get our shit together and so Valorie did choreograph that one. And to be honest, she had me run around the floor like a chicken with my head cut off. That was like some high movement, high energy [routine]. I needed to really work on my endurance for that. Thankfully, I had an endurance program that usually got me quickly in the shape for floor routines. But working with Valorie was a lot like working with my sister; Valorie, again, was a dancer. So it was sort of like, put on the music and like, lets organically see how these moves evolved from the person.
And then my last routine, it was kind of done in a pinch. My sister was living in Australia, and I was in California. I was really like, kind of coming down to the crunch. Stace [Umeh’s sister] sent me some stuff. We kind of did it over the phone. This is a time when we didn't have FaceTime and we didn't have mobile phones. She gave me the music. I loved it. And then I was like, ‘Oh, I could do this, this and we kind of talked it out.’ Then I put it together on my end. So it has always been an interesting journey, but one that has always been really well presented in the marriage of dance in gymnastics, and I've always worked with a choreographer who was a dancer.
DM: Most of the routines that have gone viral have come from your alma mater, UCLA. What do you think people are being drawn to the performances of gymnasts like Sophina DeJesus, Katelyn Ohashi, and Nia Dennis? And what does this mainstream popularity and attention mean for women's college gymnastics?
SU: Yes, most of the routines that have gone viral have, in fact, come from UCLA. In my opinion, I think what it means is that more people are getting plugged into college gymnastics. And the unfortunate thing about international gymnastics, it's something slightly boring because the code doesn't lend to a whole lot of creativity. A lot of the artistry in the new code points as of late and really goes towards the more power gymnastics. Which, I mean, I would have thrived. I would have done really well. But I think with that a lot of the artistry, the real delicacies of the sport have been lost. Because there's not a huge push for beautiful lines. And there's not a huge push for the artistic elements, which is really sad because it is artistic gymnastics. So I think why people are really enjoying college cause it's like girls having a lot of fun, showing their stars and really catering to an audience to fire them up. This whole viral floor routine is a very strange concept to me to be quite honest.
DM: You competed before social media was a thing and before gymnasts started to go viral for their floor routines. I know virality is basically impossible to predict but do you think any of your or your teammate's floor routines would've exploded online the way that Dennis's and Ohashi's have over the last few years?
SU: I mean, I think probably yes. Because UCLA has a track record of just having really creative and interesting and off-the-beaten-path choreography and interpretation of dance and movement. I do think someone would have gone viral had it happened earlier. I have no idea who would've. But yes, someone would have.
DM: If you were doing a college floor routine today, what music would you choose for yourself? Would it be the same/similar compositions as what you used in college or would you choose from the pop music repertoire, which seems to have become something of a norm in NCAA gym?
SU: I would stick to what I've always done. I like interesting and unique music. I'm not huge into mainstream pop, unless it was an icon, like I just choreographed, and this goes to your next question, but I just choreographed the floor for one of the girls from the University of Georgia, and it was a Prince routine. I wouldn't have gotten away with it [a Prince routine as a Bruin], because one of my very good friends on my team was in love with Prince, and she begged to do a Prince floor routine, and Valorie wouldn't let her. It would have been very mean and cruel had I asked for one and then gotten one, being on the team with her, but I would love to have done a really cool Prince mash up with “When Doves Cry,” and throw in “Kiss,” like I did for Soraya Hawthorne. There was also another piece that I choreographed this season for Alyssa Perez-Lugones, it was just so much fun to create the routine. I would have loved to do a routine using her music. And there is HBO series called The Flight Attendant. And it [has] this chase music, sort of like secret agent espionage chase. Oh, I would have loved it. I would have died. I would love to do that. So yeah, there are a few out there that I would love to do, but they would not be the same. They would all be different and unique and all different styles.
DM: After you graduated, you spent time performing with Cirque du Soleil, which is not an uncommon move amongst former gymnasts. I wrote a story a few years ago about Cirque and gymnasts and the transformation that many gymnasts go through, from being an athlete to a performer. Now, you were already a skilled performer when you arrived at Cirque headquarters in Montreal. Can you talk a bit about your experience at Cirque and what that transition from competitor to full-time performer was like for you? What did you learn from your time with Cirque?
SU: So yes, I ran away and joined the circus once I graduated from university because like everybody else, I needed a job. So that was in 2000. I graduated in 1999. I had done my own one-on-one audition, which was the creation of this video that Cirque needs for every artist, where we come in, and we do a series of things: strength, flexibility. they tested you in your dramatic interpretation of various things. And climbing the rope, which was 65 feet in the air, which was not fun.
I had been out of gymnastics. I hadn't done anything for a year, because I finished competition in 98, and didn't audition until September of 99. That was horrendous. I couldn't walk for three days after that. My dad actually had to physically pick me up and put me in the car because I thought I got hit by a car. And then it came back and ran me over. [laughter]
Cirque was an interesting ride because I had never worked professionally, so to speak, in the entertainment industry, though I wasn't a complete stranger to it. Making that switch from competitive gymnastics to circus was not hard. It wasn't a difficult thing for me to do. What was difficult was moving to Vegas. Vegas was an interesting spot and coming into a show that had been there and established for seven years prior to me getting there. So just finding my footing in a strange place and not knowing a lot of people, though I had a couple friends, I had one very good friend; she probably played a huge part in me getting hired. Natasha Hallett, who was on the Olympic team with me as the alternate. We were friends all the way through international competition. She put my name forward and suggested that they look at me for that show specifically. It was lovely to just have her there as a buffer and [she was] someone that just helped guide me. But still, it was a tough contract for me. Mystere was very hard on my body. Starting to teeterboard at the age of 25 after an elite career. It was not necessarily on my bucket list of things to do and it scared me. So I have to get on board with, ‘Okay, now, I'm a professional now.’ Me showing up for work had a different meaning entirely than what it used to... So yeah, I struggled.
I finished up my contract and then in the July of the following year, I was cast in Varekai, triple trapeze. And actually at the time, it was just an aerial act with six girls. That was exactly where I needed to be and was probably the best thing for me. So I wrote a letter to the then director of creation, Lyn Heward, who I actually never knew in international gymnastics though she was a judge...I just put together an email, wrote her, and I was like, ‘I think you should hire me.’ And she did. And then came my journey with Varekai.
Varekai was a lovely, lovely show. I mean, my life came from Varekai. I met some of my dearest friends on Varekai . And I ended up eventually, many years later, meeting my husband on Varekai. Billie [Umeh’s daughter] was born just after we moved over to his next show, which was Kurious. Cirque plays a huge part of my life.
What did I learn from my time with Cirque? Never take life on stage for granted. It is a gift. It's an opportunity. It's a privilege and it's a humbling honor. I'm so happy that that played such a huge part of my journey.
DM: For the past couple of seasons, you've done the floor choreography for the University of Georgia. What was that experience like working with the athletes there? And how did you approach music and movement selection with the gymnasts?
SU: We've done it for the last three years. The first year, my sister and I split the difference. She did six routines, and I did six. And then the following year, my sister did all of the music, and I created all 12 routines. And then this year, during COVID, it was a whole other experience. My sister still did all of the music, and then I created the routines with zero interaction with the girl. I had to do all 12, full out, videotape it, cut it up in pieces, send it in.
It was insane. It was just me, and all this crazy music out there on the floor, creating things and thinking everything looks exactly the same. And then it turns out that none of them were even remotely like each other.
The first year that we started working with them [at Georgia], there were seven or nine freshmen. There were only two seniors and like one junior; there were barely any upperclassmen. So it's been a fairly consistent group for the last three years. And so this year, if we should get lucky enough to be hired again, it would be our final year with a lot of the girls that we've worked with for the last three, which will be sad. What an amazing opportunity it's been to have gone through this journey with them from their days as freshmen to their final days as seniors.
How did we approach the music and the movement selections? Everything's a collaborative effort. So the girls would tend to send us choices; only [for] some of them did we pick flat out for them. Then we’d send it and see whether they liked it. My sister would arrange it in particular ways.
Then I just take over with anything physical. I just created the routines the way that I've always created routines: I put on the music and just start moving and make sure there's a video camera very close to catch what I do, because I really can never remember how it is that I moved to a particular piece. And then once I see it, I just try and stylize it, make it pop in particular places. Music is what drives me. I'll hear things in music that'll inspire me to move in a particular way. By me just throwing on the music and moving, and just letting it organically evolve, then the movement is much more organic and real.
Every year previous [except this one], we've done the same with the girls: throw the music on and we'll just start moving with them. And then we'll just let the serpent roll through their body and then all of a sudden they created something and then we'll videotape it and stylize it. That's how the choreography is generally created.
A small note: I’ve publicly proclaimed my love for Umeh often enough that Papa Liukin on Twitter included a link to her floor routines in a tweet to me in January for my birthday.
Lizzie, of course, did steal my thunder, but she’s cute so I’m okay with it.