Black History

Talladega gymnast finds community at HBCU gymnastics program

Fisk University and Talladega College are the first two historically Black colleges and universities to launch gymnastics programs for their students.

Talladega gymnast finds community at HBCU gymnastics program
Kyrstin Johnson and Talladega head coach Aja Sims-Fletcher.
Scripps News

The Talladega College gymnastics team is changing the narrative.

The team made history last year after it became the second HBCU to launch a gymnastics program, joining Fisk University as the only two historically Black colleges and universities in the nation with women's gymnastics programs.

"Just because we are an HBCU, we do not have a low standard," Talladega head coach Aja Sims-Fletcher said. "We have a standard of excellence, and we strive for that every practice — so that when we compete, it's just like practice."

The team is hoping to spark change by increasing diversity in the world of gymnastics.

Talladega freshman Kyrstin Johnson was the first recruit to commit to the program. She said before she joined the team, she wasn't really looking at HBCUs because they didn't have gymnastics teams. That is, until she got the call.

"I think it's just nice that now I'm able to represent the Black girls who want to do gymnastics at HBCUs but couldn't," Johnson said. "And younger girls, I can tell them it's possible and it's okay to go to an HBCU because an HBCU is just as good as a D1 or if not better. Smaller classes, smaller community and everyone is a family."

She said that the opportunity has guided her toward an expedition of self-discovery.

"It's almost like I've found myself here," Johnson said. "I don't feel like I need to change myself."

Johnson noted she was the only Black girl on her team when she was practicing gymnastics in her hometown of Baltimore.

"It was just really hard to connect with other people or to relate to them," Johnson said. "And now that I actually have that, it's so nice."

Sims-Fletcher and her team are kicking off the season with the hashtag #BTU, which stands for "bigger than us."

"So I think it just reminds, not only the girls every day and the staff, but everyone around us that we are literally doing this for all those minority young ladies that didn't get the chance to have an opportunity," Sims-Fletcher said. "I feel like it's a special time in Black History Month to celebrate not only our sport, but this program, because we are truly bringing opportunity to so many future minority athletes that didn't get a chance to compete in gymnastics at college."

Fisk University made history after it became the nation's first HBCU to launch a gymnastics team in 2022 — 41 years after the first NCAA gymnastics championship in 1982.

"For a very long time, HBCUs considered gymnastics to be a White sport," Fisk head coach Corrinne Tarver said. "But now they're looking at it as a diverse sport and now they're considering adding it."

Tarver said the monumental change is empowering women of color, who would have otherwise quit the sport, to stick with it.

"They end up quitting the sport because they don't see where the next step can happen. That's where Fisk comes in," Tarver said. "So we hope we get more HBCUs to add so that these women of color will stay in the sport."

"We know that this is something bigger than us," Liberty Mora, a gymnast at Fisk, said. "That really keeps us pushing and motivated to do good not just for us, but for everyone else as well."

Gabby Douglas vies for 2024 Olympics after 8-year break from competing
Gabby Douglas vies for 2024 Olympics after 8-year break from competing

Gabby Douglas vies for 2024 Olympics after 8-year break from competing

The three-time Olympic gold medalist did not compete for a spot on the 2020 gymnastics team but hopes to return in 2024.

LEARN MORE