Katelyn Ohashi was ice skating when her life changed.
As the UCLA gymnast tried to relax at a rink last January, her phone would not stop buzzing. One notification from Twitter turned into hundreds within minutes.
A video of her floor routine the previous night in Anaheim — a perfect 10 — had gone viral; she was trending on Twitter.
“I didn’t have my notifications on but I was getting all these notifications from verified accounts,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what was happening. When I got home, I refreshed my Twitter page and I had 50,000 new followers. It was crazy. I got screenshots from friends of celebrities tweeting about me and retweeting the video. That’s when it kicked in.”
It was a surreal moment for Ohashi, who performed to Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation.” She cried when Jackson tweeted the video of her routine. That video now has more than 44 million views.
Ohashi was on top of the world, but couldn’t capitalize financially from her newfound fame.
“As soon as that happened my career was coming to an end,” Ohashi said. “I was about to graduate and retire.”
Ohashi was at the “espn W: Women + Sports Summit” in Newport Beach last week when the NCAA announced it would allow college athletes to “benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness.” (Though the details about how it would actually work still are being worked on.) She had already been championing the bill signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, which will permit college athletes in the state to get paid through endorsement and sponsorship deals, autograph signings and other similar opportunities.
Most of the focus on the new law and the NCAA’s response has been on football and men’s basketball, but Ohashi said it’s just as important for athletes in sports that do not have a professional league to go to after college.
“Many gymnasts peak when they’re 16 and they have to make a decision between going to the Olympics and taking money or going to the Olympics and refusing to take money or just going to college,” she said. “You’re literally 15 years old and making this life-changing decision.
“To close someone off from the opportunity to compete in college or to get compensated for being an Olympian is wrong. Look at [swimmer] Missy Franklin, who went to the Olympics and said she wasn’t going to take money because she wanted to compete in college. Her plan was to capitalize off her second Olympics, but what if she suffered a career-ending injury in college and was never able to compete again? This bill would allow her capitalize off the Olympics and compete in college. It doesn’t close off opportunities.”
Ohashi realized the predicament she was in shortly after her floor routine went viral and she was alone trying to sort through all the opportunities coming her way that likely would not be there for her in the future.
“If this bill was in place, I could have had representation, which would have been big,” Ohashi said. “I’m in college and I’m going to school, gym, practice, competitions and I was trying to navigate around a new world blindly, which was difficult. I didn’t have someone helping me out and taking care of stuff I should have taken care of and prioritizing things I should have done. I was doing it all myself and I was super exhausted.
“A lot of people were reaching out to me at the time and I didn’t know what to do or even what I could do. Companies were reaching out to me and saying they want to jump on this opportunity now while I’m enjoying my 15 minutes of fame, and I had to ask them to reach back out in five months when I graduated. Those opportunities are gone by then.”
While high-profile college football and basketball players go on to the NFL, NBA and WNBA, Ohashi’s gymnastics career is over. She’s booking speaking engagements and writing poetry, but she can’t help but wonder what might have been if she was able to capitalize on her viral video in the immediate aftermath. She hopes the next athlete in her position won’t have to wonder.
“Those 15 minutes of fame are for real and you want to take advantage of that because it may never come again,” she said. “I wanted to put out my book of poetry when people were talking about me, but I couldn’t. I had to go through this whole labor process and I wouldn’t have been able to promote it or profit from it and I was able to graduate anyway so I waited, but it’s frustrating.
“No one should have to turn down opportunities they’ve earned.”