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Friday, April 12, 2024

Asian American gymnasts find sense of belonging through each other

Morgan Hurd, Leanne Wong and Victoria Nguyen all share similar cultures at UF

When Florida Gators gymnast Morgan Hurd steps onto the floor for a gymnastics meet, she can’t help but think one thing. 

“There’s no one that looks like me out there,” she said.

Hurd, a redshirt sophomore at the University of Florida, is a Chinese American and has competed in gymnastics since she was little. She shares similar identities with her teammates, senior Victoria Nguyen and junior Leanne Wong, who are also Asian Americans. Wong is also a Chinese American, and Nguyen is Vietnamese. 

While Hurd leans on the pair, she still feels how few Asian Americans exist in NCAA athletics.

In a sport that has recently seen a rise in prominence by Asian Americans like Suni Lee, who became the first Asian American woman to win gold in gymnastics all-around, student-athletes like Hurd still struggled for years to find their sense of belonging within sports because of her identity. 

In the NCAA and at the Division I level, where UF athletics compete, Asians make up just 2% of all student-athletes, according to a 2022-2023 report. The report stated there were just 11,326 Asian student-athletes out of 526,084 total across the NCAA. At the Division I level, there are 3,735 Asian student-athletes out of 188,485 total. 

Hurd, Nguyen and Wong are teammates, roommates and friends off the mat but still represent a small number of Asian student-athletes at UF. Of the more than 500 student-athletes at UF, only 16 are Asian. 

The trio have relied on each other to find their place in the world of college sports and discovered a new sense of identity as teammates when, at times, they felt far from it. 

One of Nguyen’s earliest memories was when she was close friends with a Chinese American gymnast. They were at different gyms at the time, but she would always talk to her when they saw each other. 

Her friend’s gym coach at the time was an older white man, Nguyen said, and she remembered when he saw the two of them together, he said, “Oh, look it's like the two little ugly Asians.”

The moment shocked Nguyen, and she couldn’t believe he would say that to a 7-year-old. Despite incidents like that, however, she has still been able to appreciate her identity as an Asian American in gymnastics. 

The trio’s ties are evident all over their shared dorm. There was one instance where Hurd needed to store lion heads used for a traditional dance in Chinese culture in their dorm. 

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Wong’s mom will often visit the dorm and sometimes helps with Wong’s bow business, “Leanne’s Bowtique.” Wong herself will work in the dorm, sometimes using a heat press for T-shirts she sells through her business. 

Nguyen’s and Wong’s families will often visit and bring traditional Asian food as Gainesville doesn’t offer as many Asian choices to eat, Nguyen said. Her mom’s most recent trip came with bao buns that could be stored in the freezer for snacking. 

While the dorm brims with the trio’s cultural connections, not all of them always felt this sense of community. 

For Hurd, the immediate feeling she felt when she thought about the lack of diversity was simply sadness, she said. 

She added it created a sense of higher pressure on Asian Americans in college sports to become good role models and encourage young athletes to be comfortable and show they can make it to this level.

The added pressure came even when Hurd didn’t grow up in a large Asian community. Hurd was adopted and grew up with a white family, but the idea of the “model minority” still loomed over her even before she got into gymnastics, she said. 

She was always a perfectionist from a young age, she said. Despite not even growing up in a large Asian community, she felt the pressure to be at her best constantly. The feeling started in academics, and as gymnastics became a bigger part of her life the same feeling moved there.

“I can’t fall short of what people know what I can do,” Hurd said. 

She struggled with that growing up because she didn’t realize it was rooted in her being adopted, she said. She always felt like she was supposed to be comfortable around her family, but there was the nagging feeling that something was off. 

She felt wrong for feeling uncomfortable around her family, but also knew it was okay to feel the way she felt. The tension between unfamiliarity with her own family and allowing herself to feel through things would not last forever, though. 

Eventually, her gym eased her conflicting feelings because of the spectrum of diversity she felt there. She was able to find the shared experiences that she lacked within her own family. 

The conflict between not understanding where she belonged persisted for most of her life up until the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The idea of not feeling Asian enough but also knowing she wasn’t white was something she failed to resolve. 

“It just didn’t feel like my culture was mine,” Hurd said.

She considered herself someone who has always had strong opinions about social issues, but because of her position, Hurd didn’t want to say something that would affect her standing with her club gymnastics team. 

Eventually, she broke herself out of that mindset. She spent time during the pandemic taking a step back from gymnastics. She worked hard to become a top gymnast, but during this downtime, she realized the sport she spent hours on end working to perfect wasn’t everything. 

“This is real life,” she said. 

She became very outspoken during the pandemic in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and stood up against the racism that had started against the Asian American Pacific Islander community due to the supposed origins of COVID-19 being linked to China. 

The FBI reported that hate crimes against Asians spiked by 77% from 2019 to 2020, according to a 2020 report.

She attended two protests near her home gym in New Castle County, Delaware.

Her realization that gymnastics isn’t everything and the ability to shift some of her focus on the bigger issues in her life helped her break out of her shell — which is something she said carried into college. 

“In the pandemic, I really found community in that,” Hurd said. “I realized there is no being ‘Asian enough,’ and I do belong in this [Asian American] community.”

Gymnastics is something Hurd’s known her whole life, but the process of branching out at UF helped her gain a greater sense of her identity. While many do not share her identity in college athletics, student organizations at UF have offered her the chance to embrace being an Asian American. 

She joined Sparks Magazine, a student-run publication that highlights Asian American voices, particularly those who are students in college. 

She also made friends who encouraged her to join the Chinese American Student Association at UF — an organization she previously felt scared to join because she felt she wasn’t really Chinese because she was adopted. 

This feeling led her to join the adopted student organization at UF, but within this initial community, she still searched for a sense of belonging. 

Her friends in Sparks introduced her to Lion dancing, which is a kind of traditional dance in Chinese culture where performers recreate a lion’s movement. The dance and costume are meant to bring good luck and are often performed during the Chinese New Year.

Getting involved with Lion dancing acted as her gateway into CASA as she continued to want to dance with them after her initial experience.

Hurd emphasized how important it’s been to be a part of a community where she feels wanted and belongs, especially not having grown up in a traditional Asian household. 

In gymnastics and within her team, she has been able to find resolve in her identity through her teammates, Nguyen and Wong. The trio are not only friends away from the gym.

Hurd and Nguyen met back at their first U.S. Championship back in 2014, Hurd said. They’ve grown up together through gymnastics camps and became even closer in 2021 when Nguyen was still at the University of Georgia on the Bulldogs gymnastics team.

Wong and Hurd didn’t become friends until 2019, but the pair quickly grew close to the point Hurd considers Wong a little sister, she said. 

Nguyen transferred to UF prior to her junior season. Hurd often visited her at Georgia, and she even sat in the dorm room bed of Nguyen’s when the Georgia gymnast announced she was transferring to Florida. 

“I was so excited,” Hurd said. “We would FaceTime all hours of the day, and we were like ‘wow, now we’re going to just go knock on your door, and you're right there.’”

Nguyen remembered being on the phone with UF gymnastics head coach Jenny Rowland, and as the call went on, the pair couldn’t contain their excitement, and both started screaming. 

The experience of having her best friend right next to her has been amazing. Whether it's sharing hobbies like pottery painting or going to Five Below to get “blind boxes,” which are mystery boxes containing a toy. 

Nguyen has also exposed Hurd to Vietnamese culture, Hurd said. She emphasized how it was having Nguyen’s family visit often and cook for Hurd, Nguyen and Wong. It's been an overall experience to have someone whom Hurd cannot just relate to in the sport but in a shared identity learning about her friend’s culture.

Hurd’s remarks were echoed by Nguyen, who felt it was comforting to have someone like her around not only as a teammate but as a friend she can celebrate her culture with. 

Nguyen’s shared passion for embracing her identity stems from not just her UF teammates but also her family. Her brother, Matthew Nguyen, committed to the University of Illinois to compete in men’s gymnastics Oct. 16. 

As a big sister, Nguyen’s been able to guide him in embracing being an Asian American. Her parents being from Vietnam, became a huge point of emphasis in their lives.

“We’ve really embraced it from the beginning,” Nguyen said. 

While she doesn’t feel like she’s needed to explore her identity, she said, being a student-athlete has opened her eyes to other things surrounding her. It’s helped her put into perspective how unique her identity is, she added.

“Just truly being unique and able to celebrate my differences in college athletics is something I’m not ashamed of,” Nguyen said. 

Although the trio does feel a sense of pride in representing Asian Americans at the collegiate sports level, there is also comfort in sharing similar experiences in what they do in their free time. 

With Nguyen’s parents cooking for them when they come to Gainesville, it’s nice to get to eat Asian and Vietnamese cuisine to switch it up from the usual routine of the dining hall, Wong said. 

Her favorite meal is a Vietnamese pho that they make, she added. The one Nguyen’s mom recently made was a chicken pho that served as a flavorful buffer between the usual dining hall meals.

Wong emphasized the importance of how being an Asian American making it to the Division I level shows that Asian Americans cannot just make it to this level but also find success, she said. 

Even though they are just three individuals, they’ve all been able to become role models in the college gymnastics space. 

Nguyen described being a role model for younger kids who share the same identity as her as one of her favorite feelings. She often gets direct messages on Instagram, and seeing that she’s making a difference has been one of her favorite experiences. 

She remembered receiving one direct message from a dad who owned a gym in Ohio. He mentioned how he’d love if Nguyen visited if she was ever in the area because his daughters are Vietnamese, and would love to meet her, she said. 

“Just hearing that and knowing that because of my culture, they can also feel like, ‘oh my gosh, like, someone like me,” Nguyen said. “That’s just really my driving point, too.” 

Even outside of athletics, it rings true, she added. Being an Asian American woman, Hurd wants to show kids who are struggling to find themselves that they can discover pathways to find their own belonging and don’t have to be stuck to what the stereotypes say about them, she said.

“When people think of Asian Americans, they don’t think about athletics,” Hurd said. “It’s just very important for me to show other little Asian Americas, especially those growing up in athletics, that they can really do anything.” 

Hurd, Wong and Nguyen represent a small number of Asian student-athletes, but their impact has gone a long way. The trio were key members of a Florida team that won the 2023 Southeastern Conference Championship and finished second in the 2023 National Championship. 

Wong became the 2023 SEC balance beam champion. Nguyen was named a 2023 NCAA All-American, and the pair both claimed 2023 All-SEC honors. 

Their strength in their identity has helped them grow as people and helped show others they can do it too. 

While it may be past their graduation from UF, their impact and sense of connection could spark more Asian Americans not just to get involved in gymnastics, but other collegiate sports. 

While the figure of Asian American student-athletes in the NCAA has grown from 6,859 in 2012 to 11,326 in 2023, the proportion has stayed constant. The percentage of Asian-American student-athletes has remained at just 2% since 2012 despite the overall growth in numbers. 

While the sport of gymnastics has seen several talented Asian-American gymnasts come through the ranks like Wong, Nguyen and Hurd, there are still moments when they step on the mat and fail to see anyone who looks like them across the gym. 

Contact Jackson Reyes at Follow him on Twitter @JacksnReyes.

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Jackson Reyes

Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.

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