I Wanted Freedom: Betty Okino

Blue Wire Podcast

May 2, 2022

Episode 3: Betty Okino speaks out against the culture ofabuse in gymnastics

Episode 3 of the American Prodigies podcast follows the story of Betty Okino — a member of the famous "Károlyi Six-Pack" in the 1992 Olympics — and unpacks the legacy of injury and replaceability in gymnastics.

The culture has been improving in recent years, but the sport of professional gymnastics has historically been fraught with an intense culture of overtraining, malnutrition, eating disorders, frequent injury, physical and emotional abuse — and even death.

Betty’s story helps us understand why it’s been so hard for Black gymnasts to find their voice, stand up for themselves and advocate for their needs — even when it goes against their coaches, their parents, or the whims of USA Gymnastics.

Listen to this week’s episode to hear more from Betty and other gymnasts like Rebecca Shuman, Sophina DeJesus, Nia Dennis, Elizabeth Price, and others about their experiences with injury and how they struggled to speak up for themselves.

Betty Okino:

Betty started the sport when she was nine — which is actually pretty late for professional gymnastics. When Betty saw Mary Lou Retton win gold in LA in 1984, her dream was born. She became an elite gymnast at age thirteen and in 1990, it was time to follow in Mary Lou’s footsteps. She left home to train with gymnastics coach, Bela Karolyi.

In the early 90s, Károlyi was referred to by some as a dictator ruling over the sport, or “Lord Gym” as some called him. He had extreme control over his gymnasts and demanded a lot.

For example, the night before the U.S./Romanian dual meet in Houston, Betty was hitting everything. She finished her assignments early before the rest of her teammates but Károlyi was in a terrible mood and lashed out at her. He told her to go train a new beam dismount — something she wouldn’t even need to do in the upcoming competition. But Betty had no choice but to obey.

Betty was tired. It was the end of practice. And she kept landing short. Then, on maybe her eighth dismount, Betty felt a pop. The next day, she couldn’t walk. She had partially torn her hamstring and had to sit out of the U.S./Romanian meet. And take the next four weeks to recover.

“And if I could’ve just had that conversation...” Betty said. “But I didn't feel like I could have that conversation. If I were to, it would turn back around on me into them kicking me out, not coaching me, or somehow alienating me in the gym. I felt like I needed him. And I didn't want to lose that.”

Betty felt the pressure of not just being perceived as having an attitude, but also as being a Black girl and all the stereotypes that came along with that.

While Betty trained, she endured not only physical injury but also negative messages about her hair, her body, her skin tone, and her language. She had to cover up any unhappiness or fear to avoid the risk of being replaced by another gymnast.

“You do simply as you're told. You trust that they know exactly what's best,” said Betty.

Learn more about Betty’s story and how she eventually learned to speak up for herself and young gymnasts everywhere in this week’s podcast episode.

Stay Tuned for Weekly Episodes of American Prodigies

Each week, American Prodigies tells gymnasts’ stories, unraveling what it means to be a Black girl navigating overwhelmingly white spaces. Their stories consider the burden of visibility, the weight of expectation, the anguish of injury, and the joy of winning.

In a sport that divided and conquered and isolated athletes from each other for so long, there’s power in bringing these voices together. With interviews from gymnasts, coaches, judges, and experts—and sonically rich journeys into the past—American Prodigies will give long-time gymnastics fans new insights and grab the attention of those who normally only tune in every four years.

Further Listening

If you want to hear more interviews with gymnasts and more sports podcasts, subscribe to Blue Wire's Apple Podcast Subscription Channel here. The first 7 days are free.

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