LSU assistant gymnastics coach Ashleigh Clare-Kearney counts them out on her fingers — Kennedi Edney, Kiya Johnson, Kai Rivers, Lexie Nibbs. The four black gymnasts on LSU’s 2020 team. That representation matters.
For people of color, seeing people that look like you in prominent positions makes a difference, and Clare-Kearney knows that all too well. She said it has taken time within the black community to recognize that you can be a positive light or role model.
“I think when people of color see people that look like them succeeding, it gives them motivation,” Clare-Kearney said. “It lets them know that they can do whatever they put their mind to, and I think that’s a challenge that we deal with in the black community.”
Clare-Kearney points out that four is the most black gymnasts LSU has had on a single team since 2014 with Lloimincia Hall, Britney Ranzey, Maliah Mathis and Randii Wyrick.
Clare-Kearney — a two-time national champion and five-time All-American at LSU from 2005-09 — is an avid proponent of that diversity, especially in gymnastics, which is normally lacking in people of color.
“Race has been a conversation in my household for a very long time,” Clare-Kearney said. “With me being in a sport that was predominantly white, I think my mom wanted to make sure that I was extremely comfortable in my skin and with who I am despite the fact that there weren’t a lot of people that looked like me around me.”
A Connecticut native, Clare-Kearney admits her mother was initially concerned about coming to college in the South, but they were both shocked at how inclusive the LSU program was and how the South did not live up to many stereotypes.
Within LSU gymnastics, head coach D-D Breaux has cultivated a culture of inclusion within the program since 1978, and that culture calmed Clare-Kearney’s mother’s concerns.
Clare-Kearney’s mother asked many questions of the coaching staff during her recruitment concerning the overall state of racism in the South.
“D-D made her feel very comfortable and let her know that ‘yes, there may be people like that, but we are going to make sure that your daughter is very well taken care of,’” Clare-Kearney said. “And I always felt that. I was the only black person on the team when I was here. I never felt isolated, I never felt like I was the only one.”
Clare-Kearney said that her experience at LSU was nothing like she expected and was far more positive than negative.
Clare-Kearney said she never felt like race or color was something that mattered within the program; then Clare-Kearney corrected herself. Race does matter and the idea of being “colorblind” shows you’re not in tune with issues of racism on a broader scale.
But at LSU, because of that culture developed by Breaux and fellow coaches Jay Clark and Bob Moore, nobody ever feels “less than” because of their race.
“It was nice to not feel like I was the ‘black girl,’” Clare-Kearney said. “I know I’m black, I love being black, but I don’t need to be reminded of that every day. I didn’t feel like I was ever reminded in a negative way that I was black.”
Clare-Kearney has seen that develop more since she transitioned to a volunteer coach role in 2010.
LSU has become a “melting pot” of races and ethnicities, something that 40 years ago would’ve been unheard of in the South.
“I think that’s beautiful,” Clare-Kearney said. “It’s nice to see. We’ve got a Russian (Alyona Shchennikova). And two years ago, we had Myia (Hambrick) and Erin (Macadaeg) and they’re Asian. It’s nice to see that diversity because it’s so important.”
While LSU recruits the best talent available regardless of race, Clare-Kearney believes that it’s important for her to be involved in the process, especially when it comes to bringing in young, black recruits.
Representation matters, and having someone look like you in close proximity matters even more. There’s a sense of relief for both parents and recruits to have Clare-Kearney be such a prominent part of the program.
While Clare-Kearney didn’t have that when she was coming through youth and college gymnastics, it is undoubtedly comforting for parents and gymnasts alike.
“(Parents) feel like their child may be comfortable coming to me and expressing whatever issue she has and I may be able to rectify it,” Clare-Kearney said. “I think that’s one of the many reasons why I’m still so involved because I feel like I’m a mentor, not even just for the black girls, but for all of the girls.”
As comfortable as Clare-Kearney was competing for Breaux, and as far along as the LSU program is when it comes to diversity, Clare-Kearney has seen that diversity grow in gymnastics on a national scale.
“It’s beautiful for me to watch, especially because I was in the sport and I love to see the sport evolving and more people of color participating,” Clare-Kearney said. “It’s allowing us to realize that we are not only more than athletes, but more than football and basketball and track.
“We can be successful in whatever sport we want to participate in as long as we have the access and the resources to do that.”
Access and resources, Clare-Kearney emphasized, have often been the issue for people of color in gymnastics.
Socioeconomic status often dictates what sport a child participates in during formative years. The expenses involved gymnastics make it difficult for those who are not white, upper-middle class boys and girls to dominate the sport.
“I don’t think that people realize just how beneficial it is for each sport to be diverse,” Clare-Kearney said. “I think black people just by their body types and their very nature have very athletic builds, so you see a lot of success in gymnastics among black girls.”
Clare-Kearney said when she was growing up, Dominique Dawes — a 10-year member of the U.S. national gymnastics team and three-time Olympian — was was idol for her because that was someone who looked like her.
Now, those young girls in gymnastics are looking to people like Gabrielle Douglas and Simone Biles, who have ascended to the very top of the sport. The two Olympic all-around gold medalists have overcome challenges in their own lives to get to where they are now.
And Biles has so much farther to go as she trains for Tokyo 2020.
Biles has risen even past the sport of gymnastics. She’s in the conversation for one of the greatest athletes of all time, not just gymnasts.
“I think that sends a clear message that — pick a sport, you can do whatever sport you come across that interests you,” Clare-Kearney said. “It tells you to take a chance and see what happens. There’s still not that many black gymnasts at the Olympic level, and that’s fine, but I think that she is in a league of her own.”
LSU freshman Kiya Johnson said she thinks having someone like Biles being the face of the sport has been a “positive, motivational” thing for young, black girls to look up to.
Johnson thinks, just by looking around during her little sister’s meets, that the number of young black girls has increased since Douglas and Biles’ rise.
“I hope that, and I believe that, gymnasts of color pay close attention to that because (Biles) is their idol,” Clare-Kearney said. “She is the new face of athletics. I think it’s great for the black community, but great for the sport of gymnastics as well.”
Gymnastics has historically had a diversity problem, and has been rightfully criticized for it, but it continues to develop and improve.
It is a work in progress, but the diversity in the sport is growing more and more, and it’s better than anybody within the community could have expected even 10 years ago.
“Look at how how far we’ve come,” Clare-Kearney said. “We had to go through hell to get here, but here we are. And we have so much work to do, but there’s a sense of pride that’s associated with seeing something like that.
“It’s like the Black Girl Magic thing. I love it. I love to see black people winning, achieving the goals that they want, no matter how small or big they are. It’s awesome to see. I love that I’m still a part of that and I love this sport. I love how much it’s evolved from when I was younger to today.”