Gymnastics is one of the hardest sports out there – if not the hardest – and Peacock’s original series Golden: The Journey of the USA’s Elite Gymnasts showcases the elite of the elite as they vie for a spot on the Olympic team. Episode one Red, White, and Gold introduces us to the athletes, their training, and the road they’ve taken to get to the Winter Cup.
Featured are Sunisa Lee, Morgan Hurd, MyKayla Skinner, Konnor McClain, and Laurie Hernandez, who have relentlessly trained through the pandemic with the hope of being one of the six to go to the Olympics.
The power of this first episode isn’t just the resiliency of the athletes, their stories of triumph and loss, and the ways in which they are all so determined to be the best no matter what, but it’s in the fact that it allows them to speak for themselves. They have a say – they’re allowed to say that they feel like giving up, that it’s hard, that they struggle with the road they’re on and whether or not they really want to do it.
The filmmakers also don’t shy away from the scandal that rocked USA Gymnastics when survivors stepped forward to name Larry Nassar as their abuser. They allowed the commentators to mention the resentment they feel, the way that many think that not enough was done to address the systemic issues, and the ongoing fight the athletes are involved in to change the sport. A solution isn’t presented, but at least there’s a conversation – an attempt at transparency that is desperately needed in the world of gymnastics, which has been historically closed off and secretive.
But maybe the transparency is necessary in order to survive.
We live in a new world that forgoes the blind patriotism of the sport, and, because of the sport being in the news so much lately, we now know the pressures and the ways childhood is lost to the endless 12-month-long training and adults who betrayed the athletes trust and innocence. It’s a sport that takes – in energy, in mental peace, and in the bones that are broken and remade.
The sport is changing and the documentary does a good job of showing how it must change in order not only to be relevant in an age of skepticism for institutions of power (as we should all have all the time) but also to protect the athletes who often spend forty hours a week in the gym training with adults who may or may not have their best interests in mind.
Gymnastic legend Dominique Dawes speaks candidly about her lost childhood and clearly states that winning is not worth the sacrifice. But to the contenders who are in the middle of it, it feels like it is. It feels like something that they are drawn to do. They’re hungry for a win, for the chance to prove themselves, and on this side of sacrifice it’s a worthy endeavor for them. I don’t know if it’s worthy, of if the sacrifice is worth the gold, but having the gymnasts speak for themselves is pretty damn compelling.
So, let’s talk about each of the athletes and what stuck out to me about their stories in Red, White, and Gold.
Konnor is a rising star in the sport and in the episode, she’s confident in what she wants and the efforts she’s willing to take to get there. It’s interesting to see her story in contrast to some of the things that were being said by the likes of Dominique Dawes and the reporters who know the sport best. Her innocence and desire for a win is met with a measured surety that the cost is too high.
It’s easy to see that she’s a premiere athlete, and if she continues to see the sacrifice as worthy, she’ll certainly be on the Olympic team one day. My only hope is that she’s protected along the way.
One of the first things Suni Lee says in the documentary is “It’s a scary feeling when you only have one chance to be perfect.” I think this speaks exactly to the pressure of the sport but also to the rigors of their training.
They work on perfection. They train for it. Some of them attain it to the highest degree any human can ever be perfect, but behind that seamless routine and smiling face is repetition, falls, broken feet, and personal tragedy.
As we know by now, Suni’s flawless bar routine and high-scoring routines elsewhere has earned her a spot on the Olympic team this year, but Red, White, and Gold shows that the road to being an elite gymnast hasn’t been easy. Nor is it without doubts and a whole lot of sacrifice and determination to win.
Laurie retired, took time off to dazzle in Dancing with the Stars, and then ultimately began to miss the sport before making the decision to return. It’s rare for an athlete of this caliber to come back after time away, and even rarer to excel as she has done.
Though Laurie had an injury that kept her from competing in the Olympic trials, the first episode does a great job of showing her side of things, her story and background, the people who love her and cheer her on, what she hoped to accomplish by returning, and the road that led her to the Winter Cup. Her mention of the persona she put on to appease people is fascinating, illuminating, and spoke to the larger message that being a gymnast is really, really hard – both on and off the mats.
I watched MyKayla make the Olympics by claiming the individual gymnast spot, but it’s through this episode that I really understood the grit and determination she possessed to get there. I would have never known that she had Covid and spent months working through breathing issues to get where she is now without this documentary.
It’s astonishing to think that not only did she have the challenge of a year under the pressures and limitations of a pandemic, but that she went back to training while being a survivor of the pandemic and all the health issues that brings along with it. It’s also interesting to see the training and competition from an adult’s perspective (and sometimes limitations), and it impressed upon me the power of determination and the competitor spirit to getting where you want to be.
I think watching Morgan coming back from an injury and falling so many times as she practiced made the costs of being a gymnast clear to me. It’s easy to forget how much work goes into it all when they’re performing perfected routines, but to see the behind the scenes, to root for her, and to know that her injury will ultimately keep her from the Olympic team is equal parts heartbreaking and impressive. Like all the competitors, her determination and heart are large and it’s fascinating to watch her train and pick herself back up so many times.
Overall, the way that Red, White, and Gold allowed them to show their lives, speak candidly about the struggles and allowed people with more experience and time away from the sport to say the truths they know is a good call that serves the story well. I don’t know if the transparency of USA Gymnastics is in sincerity or brand management, but gymnastics is a sport where the athletes have been silenced for to long. To have them speak for themselves, to say what the journey has felt like and cost of it all, is powerful, fascinating to watch, and ultimately pivotal in changing the sport for the better.
You can find Golden: The Journey of the USA’s Elite Gymnasts streaming on Peacock now.