By Torrey Hart
SAN FRANCISCO — For once, it’s not about stuck landings, pointed toes, or tenths of points.
At the “Gold Over America Tour starring Simone Biles” — the GOAT acronym is no coincidence — elite gymnastics gets a refreshing and empowering makeover.
The tour doesn’t shy away from the sometimes-dark realities of the sport like injuries or burnout, but encourages fans to rise above those challenges — together.
“There’s gold in us all,” Simone Biles says in her opening monologue.
The post-Olympics American gymnastics tour isn’t a new phenomenon, but this time around, by Biles’ design, USA Gymnastics is nowhere to be found. Previous editions generated multiple millions of dollars for the embattled governing body.
Instead of USAG, Biles — along with production and touring companies — owns the GOAT circuit. Women-focused apparel brand Athleta, which endorsed Biles after she left Nike earlier this year, is the tour’s lead sponsor.
That’s just one of the many ways the show subverts the sport’s norms.
Its messaging is the brainchild of Valorie Kondos Field, the former UCLA gymnastics coach known for helping her athletes rediscover their joy in gymnastics — and sometimes, go totally viral along the way. Two of her most famous disciples, Katelyn Ohashi and Nia Dennis, are cast members.
Joining Biles and the UCLA alums are Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles, Grace McCallum, MyKayla Skinner, Laurie Hernandez, Morgan Hurd, Chellsie Memmel, Shilese Jones, Mélanie de Jesus dos Santos and Ellie Black.
Only female athletes and dancers are involved, whereas in past versions, some of the male Olympians joined.
Each of the 30-plus performances are just that — performances, not competitions. There’s no denying that the gymnastics is watered down, but that’s not the point. While the months leading up the Tokyo Games were dominated by discourse surrounding minutiae like the valuation of one of Biles’ new skills, GOAT shows are almost more dance party than gymnastics meet.
The athletes and supporting dance crew started rehearsals a week before the tour began, practicing 12 hours per day. But the full team didn’t even do a complete run-through until the first public performance, Tokyo Olympians Carey and McCallum — both of whom are currently taking their freshman year of college on the road — told On Her Turf.
It’s organized chaos; clearly rehearsed, but not at all rigid.
“It’s really special to show all the little kids out there that you don’t have to be perfect all the time and it’s okay to have fun,” said Carey, who won Olympic gold on floor in Tokyo. Biles herself has often lamented the weight of perfection she’s had to embody for so many years.
Fans quickly got in on the fun: during the 20-minute intermission at the San Francisco performance, young gymnasts showed off skills like backbends and cartwheels in the aisles between the seats nearest to the stage.
Throughout most numbers, there are athletes on the uneven bars, beam, or floor. “It’s just a lot going on at any one time,” McCallum said. “It’s really different, but it’s really fun.”
McCallum, 18, is the youngest athlete on tour. Memmell, the 2008 Olympian whose comeback made headlines last spring, is the oldest at 32.
The program includes quotes from the poet Maya Angelou, emoji-laden graphics on the big screen, numerous costume changes, and a wide range of female-forward music — think Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself” and a Miley Cyrus cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”
Hernandez, the Rio Olympic medalist who served as a gymnastics correspondent for NBC Olympics in Tokyo, is the de facto emcee.
Uplifting, pre-recorded soundbites from Biles air between songs, but otherwise, it’s hardly the Simone Show. The crowd at the Chase Center — of course — erupted after her first tumbling pass on floor, but the first big “Simone moment” came nearly 30 minutes into the program during a number alluding to mental health.
The second act opens with the athletes in Wonder Woman leotards, eventually leading to a raucous rendition of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” But soon after, it rolls into Ohashi’s spoken word performance of a letter to her younger self in which she recounts the physical and mental toll of her gymnastics career.
From there, some of the gymnasts watch montages of their careers on the big screen as a cover of Coldplay’s “Fix You” plays.
In a later segment, Tokyo team members (all but Suni Lee, who’s currently competing on “Dancing With The Stars”) recall their Olympic experiences. Biles describes her bout with “the twisties,” urging the crowd — which was full of young athletes on Tuesday night at the Chase Center — to trust and protect their bodies.
Her message was clear, and one that’s just starting to permeate the highest levels of sport and challenge longtime notions of what it takes to make it to the top.
“Take a break, say no, listen to yourself.”