Golden: The Journey of USA’s Elite Gymnasts episode five Now or Never focuses on the cost of being an elite gymnast, the question of what happens when gymnastics ends, and the US Championships. It features, as seen in Do It For Yourself, Morgan Hurd, Laurie Hernandez, Sunisa Lee, MyKayla Skinner, and Konnor McClain.
Peaking At The Right Time
Through all the practice we’ve seen in previous episodes, through all the pain the gymnasts have had to endure, it’s clear that gymnastics has an art to both performing and coaching. You have to push the athletes to be better, to work through fear, and to find new ways of growing. Push too far and you risk injury, self-doubt that ruins the champion mentality, and making the athlete peak too early or too late in the season.
The effort that goes into peaking just in time for Olympic selection is on display as each of the gymnasts battle different things in their training regimes. This is seen most clearly in Morgan’s performance issues, in Konnor deciding to sit out Championships, and in Suni and MyKayla’s stellar routines. It’s less seen in Laurie, who unfortunately has an injury that no one could have predicted.
There’s an art to preparation in elite sports. A way of finding the best path that speaks to the athlete. It’s a science that takes thought, effort, and can make all the difference in competition. It’s not something I’ve ever thought about, but it was certainly an interesting topic to see played out in Now or Never.
The Cost of Competing
Another focus of Now or Never is the cost of competing. Not just the broken bones, torn ligaments, hours away from family, constant pain, or emotional distress that a gymnast might endure, but also the money that is spent on training, competing, and being the best in the USA.
I think this is best told through Konnor McClain’s family and their choice to drop everything about their life in West Virginia in order to move to Texas and train with a new coach. The cost is reiterated by the other commentators talking about the coast of meets, leotards, physical therapy and medical expenses, coaches, and so on. It’s an expensive sport that demands a lot of the athletes and their families. Konnor’s family is willing to make the sacrifice, pay the expenses, and live out of hotel rooms just to get here that much closer to the Olympics.
MyKayla Skinner’s mom says it best when she points out that many families are willing to pay the cost because it typically starts out as the parents’ dream. No child dreams of the Olympics at five or six. That’s the parents doing. They’re the ones who are willing to spend thousands of dollars to get their kid where they can compete on an elite level. They’re willing to sacrifice and go into debt for that singular focus. They’re willing to uproot their entire family just for the shot at the Olympics. They’re even willing to work with a coach who has complicated reputation with abusive behavior and fat shaming, as is the case with Konnor.
I think the series has established how much effort the gymnasts put into being the best and how they don’t have a typical childhood. It shows their determination and the mental work that goes into competing. So, it was nice to pull back on the individual efforts and show that many of these gymnasts would not be where they are without the continued sacrifices of their family and the willingness they also have to support them no matter what.
Konnor’s father explained it best when he said, “Let them live. Let them dream. Let them go after their dreams.” These parents are willing to give their kids space to dream and make choices, but they are also extremely privileged to do so. They have the means and in those means, these athletes are allowed to show their highest potential on a global stage.
It’s a sacrifice that makes Olympians, and it was fascinating to see the perspective on how these families are willing to do whatever it takes to get their kid even one step closer to being the next Dominque Dawes or Simone Biles.
The US Championships are a big deal. It’s where the gymnasts go to qualify for Olympic trials. Mess up here and your chance at the Olympics disappear.
It was equal parts exciting to see how all that pain and sacrifice has culminated to perfect routines and perfect peaking, as executed by MyKayla and Suni, and heartbreaking to see their losses and their less-than-stellar performances, as seen in Laurie and Morgan.
All of the gymnasts in the series know that without nailing the US Championships their chance at the Olympic Trials disappears and the tension was palpable.
Even though I know who was selected for the Olympics, who made it through Championships, it was nerve wracking the watch this. I hoped for them to succeed. I wanted them all to find their way through. With Suni and MyKayla it worked out. The others weren’t so lucky, and I was moved by their pain and their disappointment.
I think in a lot of ways, the documentary culminated here. The narratives it wove throughout the other episodes were played out in the road to the Championships, reinforced in the performances, and made clear in the conversations with the athletes’ parents. There was a level of closure to this episode, either intentional or not, and a level of sadness for the gymnasts who were left behind.
I’m curious what the next and final episode will hold and hope that the closure we get there has a happier ending than we saw for Laurie and Morgan in this episode.
The episode opens with Konnor’s sudden move to Texas after she makes the difficult decision to cut ties with her former coach.
Her breakup with her coach is sudden, but one of those sudden things that’s a long time coming, like a divorce or the decision to get bangs. The racial abuse and bigotry that surrounds the gym she trained at ends up taking a toll on her to the point that Konnor is suffering emotionally. She doesn’t want to be there anymore, so her parents, honoring her choice and her emotional well-being, decide to pack up the entire family and take her to train with controversial gymnastic superstar Valeri Liukin.
He has a history of creating eating disorders in the young women he teaches and well documented difficulties with past athletes, but the McClains don’t care. Konnor’s mom thinks that elite gymnasts need to be yelled at from time to time – that it’s part of growing. I don’t agree, and I don’t believe in dismissing the pain the previous gymnasts have dealt with under his coaching, but the family is clearly willing to do whatever they can to get her to the gymnastics. They’re willing to let Konnor make her own choices and let the chips fall where they may.
It’s interesting to see them willing to do whatever it takes to get her to the Olympics, though Laurie made it clear what that level of coaching did to her well-being in previous episodes. It makes me wonder what will happen when gymnastics is over for Konnor, but for now, I can see the point the documentary makes when they say that Konnor and her parents are willing to do whatever it takes in pursuit of the dream. Those choices might not be what’s best for Konnor, but they’re also her choices to make. Those of us on the outside can’t make them for her, and only wish for her to find her path without enduring anymore abuse because of it.
I do know that my heart broke for her when I heard her detailing the racism she endured and the pain that breaking free of her former coach caused her. It’s not fair, and I hate that she felt like she needed to first find the courage to break away, meaning she had to wait probably a year too long, but I’m glad she feels like she’s in a better space now. That’s the most important thing. And I look forward to her being one of our Olympians in 2024.
Suni’s biggest concern this episode is that she’s worried how the Olympic committee always sees her hurt. Her foot is a constant source of pain and a thing she has to manage in every competition, but of course she nails everything she does at Championships. Her bar routine is flawless and she comes in second to the G.O.A.T. Not a bad feat (feet?) at all.
Laurie broke my heart this episode. She’s worked so hard, endured so much, wanted to be visible in a time of change and perhaps even a time of the powers that be sweeping some things from the past under the rug. She wanted to show the world what happened to her, but that she was also not defined by it. She wanted to show up and prove that she was still a champion, but a single fall shattered her chances, and I hated it for her.
She gets injured in warm-ups, in clear pain as she goes to perform, and it’s ridiculously brave of her to continue as she does. I’m honestly impressed that she did as well as she did when her pain was so obvious. That was the champion mindset at work – that moment was her saying that she refused to be forgotten. I have so much respect for her.
I just hope she finds a way to leave the sport in a way that brings her joy. No matter what, she’s not been forgotten, and she’s definitely a source of inspiration for new athletes coming into the world of gymnastics.
MyKayla’s mom was the star of MyKayla’s story in Now or Never. She helped explain the cost of being a parent of an elite gymnast and explained how through it all, she believed in MyKayla and her abilities. Her frankness about the Olympics being her dream and not MyKayla’s was refreshing, as was her openness about their money difficulties during the 2000’s recession. I appreciated the story of sacrifice and the realities that she brought to the conversation.
The moment Morgan admitted to feeling like she wasn’t at her best and that her elbow wasn’t healing was painful. It was palpable how she felt that her injury was going to keep her from the Olympics, but I loved how she wanted to compete anyways. She refused to listen to what her body was telling her because she’s a born competitor. She’s someone who doesn’t give up until there’s nothing left to give, and I respect the hell out of that mentality. Even if I don’t necessarily agree in treating my body with that same level of pain, I understand what drives her, and have enjoyed watching her put her all into her training and competition.
Morgan has quickly risen to the top for me in this documentary because of her fighting spirit, her relatable anxieties, and her inspirational desire to stand up for what matters. I hated to see her shift from hopeful and determined to slowly accepting that the Olympics wouldn’t be happening for her perhaps ever but definitely this year. But I also know that with a spirit like hers, she’ll go on to do amazing things. Her champion mindset will make sure of it.
This episode was my favorite so far because of the way it wove together the narrative of cost, choice, competition, and the ultimate payoff of what it takes to make Olympians.
The cost of being a champion is high. Of course it is. It has to be. And the documentary doesn’t try to sugarcoat it any other way. They ask: What happens when it ends? I’m not sure what does, or if it’s a healthy result, but I do know that it’s a question every single one of these gymnasts have asked themselves at least once. Every single one of them has decided that the choices they’ve made, the pain they’ve endured, and the costs along the way have been worth it. And that’s what matters most.
Golden: The Journey of USA’s Elite Gymnasts is streaming on the Peacock app now.