By Christy Sandmaier

“I think when you have coaches who are really interested in the well-being of their student-athletes, you can accomplish a lot.” – Umme Salim-Beasley

In August, on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement, ESPN reporters David Hale, D’Arcy Maine and Alex Scarborough reported detailed accounts of racism found in women’s NCAA gymnastics. Their article “Black collegiate gymnasts describe culture of racism, isolation” took a deep-dive into Black gymnasts’ experience of alienation and the extraordinary personal stories and experiences of student-athletes including Tia Kiaku. Kiaku, who took to Twitter on June 2 to share her story regarding her time at the University of Alabama, says she experienced and witnessed racial slurs, racist jokes and overall cultural stereotyping. 

She wasn’t alone. 

Gymnasts from the University of Nebraska, University of Florida, Penn State, UCLA and Auburn among many others began to let their voices be heard across social media. According to the article, ESPN interviewed more than 30 people within college gymnastics, including current and former athletes, coaches and administrators and found that: “Many were hesitant to talk on the record, out of pressure not to “rock the boat.” But a commonality surfaced among them, at Alabama and beyond: a clear disconnect between Black gymnasts and their predominantly white coaches, who have trended toward recruiting what one source called a “specific type of gymnast.”

Each gymnast’s story is painful and presents its own clear catalyst for a cultural change that must happen within our sport. The paradigm must shift so student-athletes can thrive on all levels during their competitive years and throughout their lives. For that to happen, uncomfortable conversations must be had now and gymnasts must be heard. Education and action need to follow for gymnasts, coaches and within the leadership of athletic departments. It isn’t enough to just talk about it.

Among those championing this change and creating a platform for student-athletes and coaches to have a forum to learn and grow is Rutgers head coach Umme Salim-Beasley. Salim-Beasley and several other NCAA coaches put together an NCAA diversity and inclusion committee within the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association specifically for gymnastics.

Inside Gymnastics spoke with Salim-Beasley about the committee’s composition and purpose as well as the tools she uses within her own program to invite conversation among her student-athletes.

This is a segment of that interview. The full interview will appear in the upcoming October/November issue of Inside Gymnastics magazine.

What was the catalyst for the committee?

What I can tell you is that it is a new diversity and inclusion committee that we have within our Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association. It wasn’t a committee that existed prior to the summer. We decided it was something we felt like we needed, partially because of the gymnasts coming out and really talking about things they’ve experienced. We wanted to make sure we had a place for them to come to for support if they felt they didn’t have it within their team, their coaching staff or their university. It’s really another outlet for our student-athletes to be able to find support and for us to be able to come up with programming for our coaches, and for our gymnasts, to be able to hopefully understand, listen and learn to the concerns their student-athletes are facing.

Tell us about the leadership and team of support surrounding this effort.

I am the co-chair of the committee with Tanya Ho (former head coach at the University of Alaska and now assistant coach at alma mater UC Davis). There is representation from every NCAA conference on the committee – a coach from each conference. It is a solid group of coaches that really want to see change and education happen. That we do have on our side! I think when you have coaches who are really interested in the well-being of their student-athletes, you can accomplish a lot.

Are you including current student-athletes or alumni?

This is our first committee that does have student-athlete representation. We have gymnasts from teams within NCAA gymnastics that are lending their voices to our committee. None of the other committees have student-athletes on them because those committees are for support for our coaches association. For this committee, we felt it was extremely important because it is the student-athletes who are speaking out on the issues they are facing. To be able to have their input is helpful for us to be able to come up with programming and strategies to help both athletes and coaches.

You mentioned in the ESPN article that some of the initial responses to the survey you sent to coaches were pretty shocking. Have further conversations with them taken place and is there starting to be more understanding?

That is our hope. We are always hopeful that people are able to listen and learn. And hopefully, change their positions on things or at least change the way they communicate or relate to their athletes that have concerns. That’s always what we’re hoping for.

Why do you believe now is the time student-athletes, and athletes globally, are speaking out and using their voices for empowerment?

I do think our current national climate is really inspiring a lot of people to speak about things that are happening to them. They feel their stories need to be heard so that they can, and we can, help other people so these situations won’t occur in the future. This group of young people are not afraid to speak out. I think that’s a wonderful thing. I know that the culture of our sport for years was a culture of gymnasts having to do what their coaches say whether they felt it was right or wrong. I think gymnasts now know that they do have a voice and mind. They can think about what’s happening, and if it’s not right, they’re going to say something. That shows that we’re moving in a direction where at least the athlete knows their feelings matter and the way that they’re thinking matters, and they have the ability to share that.

What are some ways you communicate with your own athletes to encourage them to share what they’re feeling? Or, tools within your own program that you have found helpful so your student-athletes feel comfortable communicating and you can resolve any conflicts?

The biggest thing as a coach is to make sure your athletes feel safe in their environment. That they have coaches who support them and encourage conversation. I’ve always been of the mindset that collegiate gymnastics shouldn’t just be a coach telling an athlete that this is how it has to be done. They should be in control of the direction their gymnastics goes in with open conversation and common ground. So, I think when you have an openness about the way that you function and you’re constantly communicating with your athletes, asking about their day and how they’re classes are going – just being a listening ear – a lot of times they just want you to listen. Offer advice when asked. It’s creating that level of trust. When they have that, they’re going to open up more. Sometimes you do have athletes that never feel comfortable opening up and talking about their feelings, but in those situations you offer up other opportunities –  ask them, ‘have you had the opportunity to reach out to the mental health specialist or the sports psychologist?’ We have other people within our network if there is an athlete that doesn’t feel comfortable talking about their concerns with a teammate or with a coach. We offer the resources. We want to make sure there is someone they can talk to if there’s something that is concerning them.

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About Umme Salim Beasley

Umme Salim-Beasley was hired as the eighth head coach in Rutgers gymnastics history in May 2018. Salim-Beasley was previously on the RU staff as an assistant from 2012-15 before spending three seasons rewriting the record books as the Temple head coach. In her first year, Salim-Beasley and her staff earned the distinction as the most improved team in the nation with a first-year head coach. 

A native of Pasadena, Maryland, she was a two-time national qualifier at Hill’s Gymnastic Training Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland, before earning a full scholarship to West Virginia where she competed from 1995 to 1998. Salim-Beasley was named Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year as a freshman for the Mountaineers, and earned spots on the All-EAGL First Team in all-around, bars and beam her sophomore and junior seasons. She finished off her career by being named the EAGL Gymnast of the Year and Most Outstanding Senior Gymnast in her final season in Morgantown in addition to winning the EAGL all-around, bar and beam titles that year. 

After graduating from West Virginia with a degree in early childhood education, Salim-Beasley went into coaching, starting as an assistant coach at Penn in 1999. During her one season with the Quakers, the team won the Ivy League Championships in addition to an undefeated regular season, breaking team records in every event.

For the 2020-21 season, Salim-Beasley welcomes 12 newcomers to the Rutgers roster. Hailing from all over the country, the group consists of numerous JO National Qualifiers and State Champions. As well as, high achieving scholars with career aspirations from pre-med to artificial intelligence.

Photo courtesy of Umme Salim-Beasley/Rutgers