Women's gymnastics is frequently overlooked in the larger world of athletics despite the fact it's one of the hardest and most physically demanding sports in the world. Unless it's an Olympic year, the sport is largely ignored, and not just by the masses, but by sports journalists as well. It's regularly left off lists claiming to feature the best or greatest moments in sports history. In fact, just this year, The Ringer published a list of classic sports moments from the last 50 years and managed to forget every single triumph in the sport, from Mary Lou Retton becoming the first American to win the all-around competition and the Magnificent Seven winning the U.S. its first team gold in 1996 after Kerri Strug put her body on the line, to Simone Biles winning her fifth world all-around title by record margin and Katelyn Ohashi's viral floor routine in collegiate competition that earned her a perfect 10. It's as if the sport doesn't exist.
This type of erasure isn't exactly breaking news for women in sports or for their fans; sports like women's gymnastics are always overshadowed by the likes of male-dominated sports, most obviously professional football, basketball, and baseball. But even if you understand why they take priority (viewership and money), it's still frustrating. That's why it's refreshing to see that YouTube Originals and Glamour are finally putting gymnastics in the spotlight, for better or for worse, in Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women's Gymnastics.
The new six-part documentary series, which debuted Monday on Glamour's YouTube channel, explores the sport from all angles, looking at its history and how the competition has changed over time, as well as the technical aspects of the four events -- floor, uneven bars, balance beam, and vault -- and how young women push themselves both mentally and physically to the limit, upping the degree of difficulty in their routines at the risk of injury in order to set themselves apart from the rest of the competition. It digs into what makes a champion and celebrates the personal stories of the sport and moments of triumph, like Ohashi finding a renewed love of gymnastics through collegiate competition, Aly Raisman winning silver in the all-around in Rio after losing a heartbreaking tiebreaker for third in 2012, and MyKayla Skinner's return to Elite competition.
But this isn't just a shining documentary of athletic prowess. The docuseries uses first-hand accounts to dig into the widespread culture of fear and abuse that has permeated the sport for decades as it was considered successful because it produced champions. One episode reveals a shameful focus on body image to the point that it led to eating disorders and distorted perceptions of what is normal or healthy, while the fifth episode is devoted to discussing the toxic environment that enabled and then covered up a long history of sexual abuse, most recently and most notably involving former U.S. national team and Olympic team doctor Larry Nassar.
However, despite the darkness that hangs over the series, there is still a sense of hope for the future as well. Defying Gravity, which will be released weekly unless you sign up for YouTube Premium,was filmed before the coronavirus pandemic postponed the 2020 Summer Olympics, so many of the interviews with current U.S. National team members like Skinner, Riley McCusker, Morgan Hurd, Suni Lee, and Grace McCallum were filmed from the earnest perspective of athletes hoping to make the Olympic team and represent the U.S. in Tokyo. They're most prominent in the episodes framed around the sport's different events and the final episode, as they discuss what it takes to be an Elite gymnast and the unique challenges they face and the sacrifices they make to be the best in a sport that requires immense strength and power, but depending on the event, also demands a certain fluidity and elegance.
For those who participate in or follow the sport of women's gymnastics, Defying Gravity isn't likely to reveal much in the way of new information, especially on the heels of Netflix's Athlete A, which told the story of the Indianapolis Star's investigation into Nassar. But it spotlights a beautiful, if challenging, sport that has a lot to offer and teach girls and young women if practiced in a healthy way. And for those who only tune in once every four years and find themselves drawn to the impressive acrobatic tumbling passes that seem to defy not just gravity but all of physics, the docuseries also offers a detailed and unvarnished history of the sport that reveals the inner resilience and training it takes to not only compete, but also excel in a sport that for so long has demanded perfection but has rarely received attention for doing the impossible.
Episodes 1 and 2 of Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women's Gymnastics are now streaming on Glamour's YouTube channel. Subsequent episodes will premiere Mondays at 12 p.m. ET / 9 a.m. PT. YouTube Premium subscribers can view the entire series now.