Meet Sophina DeJesus, the UCLA gymnast who went viral by being herself

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Joy Resmovits

Sophina DeJesus added a little hip-hop between tumbling runs, with moves such as the ‘whip’, ‘nae nae’ and ‘hit the quan’.

Tens of millions of people have seen UCLA senior Sophina DeJesus whip, nae nae and handspring her way to being a gymnastics tour de force. The video of her exacting, exuberant routine during a dual meet Feb. 6 has gone viral.

In real life, her enthusiasm spreads just as easily. On campus recently, DeJesus stopped everything to take a picture with two strangers who had seen her performance. “Thank you soooooo much and have a great day,” she told them.

The knockout routine that captivated the Internet is the culmination of a long string of losses and setbacks – and springing back from them. There was a fractured back, a broken finger, intense pressure and deferred Olympic dreams. There was also dance class and a TV show along the way.

Sophina DeJesus concentrates before a series of tumbles in her routine that later went viral.

“I’ve gone through my struggles,” DeJesus said. “What I’ve gone through has made me a better person and my hard work showed.”

Those teammates who clobbered her with hugs after she landed her splits? They were primed to do that not because they thought the performance would go viral but because they had seen her work for more than four hours each day to become stronger.

But the real story of how Sophina DeJesus and her smiling, tumbling form ended up on a screen near you – the same weekend as Beyonce and the black beret-wearing dancers at the Super Bowl – started long before she first flipped. Her grandfather led UCLA’s Afrikan Student Union; her mother was a juror in the Rodney King trial.

DeJesus can afford to be buoyant and focused on her sport because of the fights her forebears faced, they say. “It’s embedded in her,” said her grandfather, Webster Moore, a retired Cal State Northridge academic counsellor who now teaches meditation. “All these different things that we go through as being the first one… when you come up being last, the struggle to be first is biblical.”

She embodies their hopes. He talks about her as if she’s the next Beyonce. “Beyonce, it’s like Sophina as an adult,” he said as soon as he saw the singer join Coldplay during the Feb. 7 halftime show.

DeJesus is a woman of colour in a sport that is still predominantly white. According to a 2007 study by USA Gymnastics, of almost 19,000 gymnasts, nearly three-quarters were white, and only 6.61 percent were black.

Although she is proud of her identity, she mostly talks about the work of pushing her body against the pull of gravity. “Her father was born in Puerto Rico, her mother is African American,” Moore said. “That’s all she can say. What’s her race? All she knows is that she’s a top gymnast.”

Moore grew up in Alabama. He was around the same age as Emmett Till, the black 14-year-old who was brutally murdered in 1955, after he was seen talking to a white woman. Moore’s mother was scared, and moved the family to Los Angeles.

Moore went on to teach in Watts, a neighbourhood engulfed in riots for six days in 1965 after a controversial traffic stop. He went to UCLA, where he became chairman of the Afrikan Student Union. He helped get Angela Davis hired as the first black professor at UCLA. In a campus demonstration that turned violent, he got beaten up.

Maria Moore saw her father hurt as a result of his activism. Still, she focused on school, graduating from Los Angeles High School, then Cal State Fullerton.

The racial tension the family had tried to flee followed them. In 1991, Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers on the side of the road. When the officers were acquitted on charges of using excessive force, L.A. rioted once again. Maria Moore was tapped as a juror for a second trial.

She is now a trustee and steward of the American Postal Workers Union in San Diego. She met her husband, a New Yorker born to Puerto Rican parents named Jerry DeJesus, on a blind date. Then came Sophina.

From shortly after Sophina DeJesus was born, she drew attention. “Everyone in California knew about this little fireplug named Sophina,” UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field said.

But it was hard for DeJesus to make friends as a gymnast, so she left. From then on, DeJesus was in and out of elite gymnastics.

When she was about 13 she wanted to try gymnastics again, and joined the USA team. In a junior competition in Japan in 2009, she won gold for her floor routine. Then, she fractured her spine. “This sport is unforgiving and nobody really wants to know how sad it is for us parents to be this way,” Maria Moore said.

When DeJesus started at UCLA, her mother noticed she became happy-go-lucky. Throughout, Puerto Rico wanted her on its Olympic team. She did the paperwork but ultimately decided not to pursue the opportunity.

She participated in college gymnastics, which is more about entertainment than elite competitions. For DeJesus, it was the right balance – almost. “I went through a struggle where I … lost who I really was,” she recalled. Sophina wanted to compete in the floor routine, but the lineup had only six spots.

Suddenly, it was the summer before her senior year, and she wanted to graduate with no regrets. She felt ready, but broke her finger in preseason. After that healed, she tried again – only to sprain a muscle.

She took more hip-hop classes and spent winter break working with her sister on her new routine. After break, Kondos Field cleaned it up.

In the moments leading up to the Feb. 6 competition, a dual meet against Utah, DeJesus’ family was nervous. Then the music started, and the crowd danced. “Her real self came to life,” Maria Moore said. Though DeJesus didn’t win the floor exercise, she scored a 9.925 to help UCLA come from behind to defeat Utah in the meeting of top 10 teams. Shortly thereafter, she became an international viral hit.

Gymnastics is dominated by white people. Her mother knows that, though she tries to stay positive. “She’s been in a white sport for years, going back and forth,” she said. “You’ve got to ask yourself why. The answer is almost obvious. It’s not really our sport.”

DeJesus says she hasn’t seen the pieces about her ethnicity. When people ask, she tells them she’s half Puerto Rican, half black, and that she loves it. “It’s not mainly about one ethnicity doing this sport,” she says. “I do embrace my ethnicities for sure, and I hope to inspire others that are my ethnicity and aren’t and everyone in general, because we are all equal.”

Last weekend, she earned the team’s third-highest score on the floor – a 9.900 – and the top score on the balance beam to help the Bruins defeat Oregon State.

Los Angeles Times

 

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