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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Florida gymnasts embrace Black identity through aspects of the sport

Black gymnasts use floor routine, hair as an opportunity to infuse their identity into the sport

<p>Freshman Anya Pilgrim performs her floor routine in the Gators&#x27; annual Link to Pink meet on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. </p>

Freshman Anya Pilgrim performs her floor routine in the Gators' annual Link to Pink meet on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024.

When Anya Pilgrim grazed the walls of her house, her eyes spotted a framed photo of her grandfather playing basketball. He stood in celebration after breaking a scoring record in a single game representing Barbados. 

In that moment, a spark ignited within Pilgrim. Inspired by her grandfather's legacy, she wanted to follow in his footsteps and be her own remarkable athlete for their country.

However, the journey wasn't easy. Gymnastics wasn’t a widely practiced sport in Barbados. 

“Gymnastics is a sport where there is not a lot of diversity,” she said. “Sometimes it felt like maybe this wasn’t an inclusive sport; maybe I didn’t belong in it.”

But Pilgrim remained resolute to honoring her family's legacy and proudly representing her country on the international stage.

Today, Pilgrim has proudly represented Barbados at the 2023 FIG World Championship and at the 2023 Pan American Championships. As a Florida freshman, Pilgrim continues to embrace her identity through the sport, using it as a canvas to express her Black identity and country.

Pilgrim's journey in gymnastics began when she was 18 months old. Despite her early start and years of dedication to the sport, she struggled to find a role model who resonated with her own identity.

But that didn’t hinder Pilgrim’s motivation in the sport. In fact, it drove it further.

“It made me want to do even better so that I could prove to people that anyone can do the sport,” she said. 

Barbados holds a special place in Pilgrim's heart: it’s her family’s home and a place where her roots run deep. When it came time to decide for college, Pilgrim considered how close each school was to her family back in Barbados. In the end, the accessibility to her homeland tipped the scales in favor of UF.

Now, she takes every opportunity to express her love for the country through the sport. 

For Pilgrim, the floor routine is more than a performance. It’s an opportunity to represent Barbados. Pilgrim deliberately selected musical artist Rihanna as the backdrop to her routine, not only because she’s a fan but also to showcase her identity. 

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"She's from Barbados, so I have to represent," Pilgrim said. “Why not Rihanna?”

Pilgrim’s last season floor routine was from “Black Panther.” She and her mother worked together to select tracks. 

“I knew some songs that I liked from Rihanna, but I also know that when I'm out on the floor, I like to be a little mysterious,” Pilgrim said. “I had to find songs from a certain album, so I could decide how to embody that.”

Other gymnasts on the team followed Pilgrim’s approach to their floor routine choices. They chose artists who represented them and infused their own identity and heritage in the performance. 

Junior Bri Edwards chose to go with a hip-hop routine in her freshman year to embrace her Black identity. This year, she opted for Spanish hit “Ella Me Levantó" by Daddy Yankee to tap into her Hispanic side.  

“I think floor music is a super big way for you to express yourself,” Edwards said. “And show that it’s okay to be you, and be confident and ‘I’m gonna rock it.’”

The quest for expression and representation in the sport extends beyond performances. For Black gymnasts, hair poses another insecurity. 

As the only Black gymnast in her gym, Edwards never quite figured out how to wear her hair. Her mom hesitated to do braids for Edwards because she said she never saw any other girls wearing their hair like that. 

Part of the reason Edwards chose Florida was to feel a stronger sense of belonging within a more diverse roster.

“I didn’t want to be the only Black gymnast on the team,” she said. “There's a certain level of comfortability you get when there's other people around you that look like you.”

Part of that diversity traced back to something as simple as her hair. Before UF, if Edwards forgot her hairbrush, she couldn’t just borrow one from a friend because she needed one suited to her. At Florida, she could do that. 

“All I had to do was say, ‘Hey Trinity, did you bring a brush?’” Edwards said. “And she said yes ... stuff as simple as that, it really makes you feel supported as a team.” 

Former Gator gymnast and current student assistant coach Trinity Thomas faced similar struggles with her natural curls. In her younger years, she straightened her hair because she wanted to fit in. The lack of diversity was glaring, but as a 7-year-old, she didn’t understand that.

“When I was little, I honestly didn’t notice as much,” Thomas said. “But now that I’m older, I look back, and I’m like ‘Wow, I just didn’t even know.’”

At UF, Thomas discovered a community of other Black gymnasts who embraced and celebrated their natural hair. 

“Being around other Black women, Black female athletes, Black gymnasts helped a lot,” Thomas said. “I was like, ‘They do that, why do I feel like I can’t do that?’”

Encouraged by the diversity around her, Thomas felt empowered to fully embrace her natural hair, recognizing it as a beautiful and integral part of her identity.

“I've gotten so comfortable with tight curls that I started doing them blue for my meets at Florida,” she said.  

In hindsight, Thomas recognizes the importance of affirmation in shaping one's self-confidence, particularly for young Black gymnasts grappling with similar insecurities.

Reflecting on her own journey, Thomas now dedicates herself to uplifting and empowering the next generation of Black gymnasts. She goes out of her way to assure them of the value of their natural hair, knowing firsthand the impact such encouragement can have on a young, impressionable mind.

“I make it a point to tell little girls that look like me how beautiful their hair is because I know I was so insecure and unsure about it when I was young,” Thomas said. “To do things like that, to make sure they feel seen… is super important to me.” 

Thomas' aspiration to be a Black role model stems from the influence of her own Black role model, former Gator gymnast Kytra Hunter, who graced the team from 2012 to 2015.

People recognized how similar Thomas and Hunter’s tumbling was, and she took it to heart. When watching Florida gymnastics, she focused her attention on Hunter, inspired by her accomplishments. Meeting Hunter in person further solidified Thomas' sense of belonging in the gymnastics community.

“[I’m] just super thankful for relationships like that,” Thomas said. “People like that have helped pave the way and helped me grow in my confidence in myself.” 

Hunter, in turn, has served as a beacon of inspiration as a Black role model for both Pilgrim and Thomas in gymnastics.

Before her tenure at UF, Hunter briefly coached Pilgrim at Hill's Gymnastics Training Center when Pilgrim was at level five. Witnessing Pilgrim's talent and growth firsthand, Hunter was impressed by her potential and drive, both at the club level and now as a Gator.

“I just saw a lot of talent out of her,” Hunter said. “Just being able to see a lot of growth, especially for her to compete very high at the club level, and now being able to compete for the University of Florida has been awesome to see.” 

Trinity Thomas' evolution from Gator gymnast to student assistant coach has left a profound impact on Hunter. As the only Black member of Florida's current gymnastics coaching staff, Thomas embodies the spirit of mentorship and leadership, inspiring Hunter to embrace her own passion for coaching one day. 

“She’s definitely inspired me to know that not only am I an inspiration and an idol,” Hunter said. “I feel I have the passion to be able to mentor and lead other gymnasts and other athletes… I definitely look up to her in a lot of ways as well.” 

Hunter is proud of the work she’s done at UF as a Black gymnast, inspiring other Black gymnasts to be confident in their skin while teaching them to be Black role models for other young girls behind them. 

“[I’m] definitely proud of myself in being able to lay a foundation for not only other Black gymnasts coming after me but the girls,” Hunter said.

Contact Krisha Sanghavi at Follow her on X @krishasang. 

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Krisha Sanghavi

Krisha Sanghavi is a third-year public relations and economics major. In her free time, she loves cheering on Miami sports teams and spending time with her friends.

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