How 4 Black Gymnasts Style Their Hair for Competition

Simone Biles, the world's most decorated gymnast, was filmed carefully, dutifully tying a ribbon into her teammate Zoe Miller's hair. She placed it, rather unfussily, at the base of Miller's high bun. You can tell it's something she's done a million times before, a manifestation of the camaraderie between her and her teammates. It was almost like a natural reflex as Miller plopped down in front of Biles, who wordlessly went to work adding the flourish to her look.

It's easy to understand why this simple action went viral. These gymnasts routinely perform feats that many of us couldn't even begin to imagine executing. But tying a bow into someone else's hair? It's something many of us have done — in high school before a basketball game, for our younger siblings as we got ready for church, for the itty-bitty flower girl at a friend's wedding.

This moment also gave us a brief glimpse into what hair maintenance is like for competitive gymnasts, who are obligated to follow a simple standard put forth by the National Women's Program Committee. According to the 2020/2021 USA women's Gymnastics rules and policy handbook, an athlete's hair must be secured and pulled back enough to not obstruct their vision. These (rather practical) regulations are meant to optimize the performance of any professional gymnast on the mat. But for Black gymnasts, who are often subject to extra scrutiny from the public for their appearance, the rules provide an opportunity to put the versatility of Black hairstyling on display.

While the criticisms were unfortunate (to put it lightly), for many Black gymnasts, styling their hair for competition is a far more joyful affair, one that allows them to assert a bit of creativity, expression, and personal style. Just ask team USA Gymnast Jordan Chiles, who made her international debut this summer at the Tokyo Olympics, wearing her trademark Afro-puff. "Some people use their leotards as a statement, but I use my hair as a statement," she tells ishonest.

Louisiana State University gymnast Kai Rivers likes to wear her natural hair in long, brightly-colored Senegalese twists when she isn't on the mat. But when it's time to compete, Rivers has to reconsider her favorite style. "It's hard [to] have a hairstyle that's too heavy," she explains. "So, [long] braids are off the table for me and so are [long] twists."

Working to find a style that complements her athleticism has actually created a beautiful opportunity for Rivers to bond with her other Black teammates. She says she and her fellow Black LSU athletes consult each other before every competition on their hair looks, and have encouraged her to wear her natural hair more often. "Now, I love working with my natural hair," she says. "As I've gotten into college gymnastics, I've been working with it way more because I have more Black teammates than I've ever had before. We all do each other's hair and we kind of bounce ideas off of each other, which is really awesome."

Not all Black gymnasts rely on a robust community of peers to help them with their hair choices. University of Michigan's gymnastics team won the NCAA women's championships bracket and their top competitor, Gabby Wilson, shares a different experience. She is one of three Black gymnasts on a 15-member team that went to the 2021 championship and usually recruits her mother to help her with her hairstyles.

Normally, Wilson wears box braids, which she tugs back into a tight bun for competition. These days, she's been partial to styling her blown-out hair in shorter twists. She typically secures them with a ribbon that complements her team's leotard. "I make sure that I have [my hair] blow-dried or combed out [so my mom] can do it as fast as she can," she explains. "My mom is 20 minutes away from me, so whenever I need my twists redone or I want to do something different, she can just come over to my house and do it."

Practicality and maintenance are two major factors Wilson considers when she's choosing a hairstyle. "I also try to do sustainable [looks] that I don't have to change week to week," she adds. "Other gymnasts can just wash their hair and put it up in a ponytail. We have to wake up in the morning and have time planned out so we don't go to the meet looking crazy." Wilson's mother sometimes offers to help style the hair of other teammates who wear theirs natural, too.

Cammy Hall, who tumbles for the University of Utah gymnastics team, takes a similarly practical approach to hairstyling. "I usually have to do my hair either the day [or two] before we leave for the airport so that it lasts long enough for competition," she says. "So, if you see me in the airport rocking a twist-out, that is for the next day." Hall, who is a fan of accessories as well, also mentions that she wears ribbons in her hair for almost every meet. "I always change up the combination of ribbons, depending on what [I am] wearing," she says. "So if it's a white and black leotard, I'll probably wear [a] white and black ribbon or white and red. If it's red and black, then red or glitter." She's also experimented with hair-color for competitions. "My sophomore year, I did my hair in two puffs. I sprayed my hair pink, which I thought was pretty cute." As Hall continues her stint on the college gymnastics circuit, she stresses the importance of Black gymnasts having those strong connections with each other. "It is so important for other Black women to lift up each other in the sport of gymnastics," she says. "There's not a lot of us and we stand out a lot more."

Black people have always been uniquely experimental and adventurous with our hairstyles, and for centuries, it's offered our communities opportunities to connect in meaningful ways. And it seems this tradition has carried on for Black gymnasts, too. Whether it's brought them close with other Black athletes, or given them a new appreciation for their natural hair, Black gymnasts are creating a space for them (and those who will come after them) to thrive athletically, socially, and spiritually — and look good while doing so.

More world-class athletes with that top-tier beauty game:

  • Sha'Carri Richardson Debuted Sangria-Red Hair at the ESPY Awards
  • How Synchronized Swimmers Keep Their Performance-Perfect Makeup Intact
  • USA Gymnast Suni Lee Won the All-Around Gold Medal With Acrylic Nails

Now, watch Sassie Baby's entire routine:

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