What it’s really like to do gymnastics in a mask

Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images
Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images /

The UC Berkeley gymnastics team is making a statement by continuing to compete at the highest level, and doing it while fully masked.

For once, she wasn’t aiming for perfection.

When Emi Watterson finally scored a perfect 10 on the uneven bars, she’d set her usual, lofty standards aside. A senior on the UC Berkeley gymnastics team, Watterson had been a hair’s breadth away from perfection before. This, though, was her second time competing during a COVID-warped season, and she’d fallen on her last routine.

“With all these really high scores that I’ve had previously being so close to a 10, I usually go into the routine thinking, ‘Okay, let’s make it that little bit better, see if we can get that 10,’” Watterson said. “But I think for this one, because I was so nervous, I gave myself a little bit of a break.”

“My confidence was so low, I was just expecting the worst,” Watterson said. Instead, she soared through the exercise and finally earned her 10. Her perfect score, which came at the end of a crisp rotation, helped the California Golden Bears tie an NCAA record on the uneven bars — one that had stood untouched since 2004.

To a fan tuning in through Cal’s free, techno-scored livestream, Watterson’s pre-routine jitters were anything but obvious: she mounted the bars with her face hidden behind a surgical mask. Since that routine was streamed, Watterson’s face — masked-up and mid-salto, or uncovered, smiling, above a scoreboard flipper reading “1000” — has appeared in outlets from People to PopSugar. These writeups celebrate her for attaining “perfection in a mask,” as PopSugar Fitness’s Samantha Brodsky put it. Owen, a gymnastics fan who Tweets about the sport as @theegymmdiaryy, told me via Twitter direct message that the routine “has become more of a political statement at this point, saying that it is entirely possible to excel in high-level athletics while wearing a mask the whole time.”

Watterson has been happy enough to serve as a talking point for COVID watchers. A native of Brisbane, Australia, she’s been baffled by the persistence and virulence of anti-mask sentiment in the States. “I’m just sort of doing me, and if people want to use that to prove, ‘If she can do her routine with the mask on, you can go to the grocery store with the mask on,’ that’s fine, because I agree,” she said. “Wearing a mask is really not that deep. It’s a thin piece of cloth, and it’s keeping us safe.”

Even the look of Watterson’s new gear hints at the provisional nature of a mid-pandemic gymnastics season, when meets disappear from schedules following contact tracing issues, and athletes perform to crowds of cardboard cutouts, sometimes kitted out in T-shirts trumpeting the home team. Ordered by co-head coach Elisabeth Crandall-Howell to match Cal’s colors, the surgical masks still stand out for their primary blue, brighter and greener than the navy of the team’s leotards.

Watterson drew media’s fascination for soaring between the bars in that too-blue mask, but she isn’t the only Golden Bear to compete in PPE. Of the 13 Cal gymnasts who have made lineup appearances this season, six have logged some competition time in masks.

Competing in masks is something that sets the UC Berkley gymnastics team apart

Cal isn’t the only team to field competitors in surgical masks. Gymnasts from the University of New Hampshire Wildcats, for instance, have also performed masked routines throughout the season. The Bears have, however, garnered outsized attention for being the only top team to compete in masks — currently ranked sixth in the nation, they’ve already secured a berth at nationals. Their masked-up gymnastics have become a conversation piece during a season when COVID safety behaviors seem to vary wildly from team to team. Some gymnasts hand off their masks right before they go up to compete, to teammates or coaching staff standing by with dedicated bags; others huddle with their faces uncovered or pull down their masks to cheer — sometimes in arenas where unmasked coaches and commentators circulate.

In this context, the Bears’ — and the Wildcats’ — masked competitors tend to make gymnastics fans feel more at ease. But to the casual observer, the feats of flight these athletes achieve while masked may seem as alarming as they are impressive. But emergency physician and virologist Dr. Alaina Brinley Rajagopal indicated that “physiologically, there really aren’t any major concerns.” As Rajagopal — a former gymnast and college cheerleading champion — told me over email, “It is possible to run, jump, lift weights, and engage in other activities while wearing a mask.” In fact, compared to the sealed masks some athletes wear for altitude training, surgical masks “would have basically no impact on oxygenation.”

Nina Schank, a senior who snagged All-American honors on the uneven bars, explained that masking poses no difficulty for breathing on three of the four women’s gymnastics events — vault, uneven bars, and balance beam. “But definitely for floor, it can be hard to get enough oxygen in,” she said. Schank, a staple in the bars and vault lineups, has competed in a mask all season, mostly as a matter of psychological comfort. “The idea is to train how you compete,” she said. “Every single one of us wears a mask for training, and it’s just so normal to me now.”

Fellow senior Kyana George agreed, noting that UC Berkeley requires student-athletes in every sport to train in masks. A finalist for the AAI Award for the nation’s most outstanding senior female gymnast, George said, “For me, it’s a comfort level, knowing that I’m protecting my friends around me. There’s also the fact that it stays on, [so] I don’t have to worry about taking it off, trying to find it, if it’s going to be in the hands of someone else.” Keeping the mask on throughout a meet removes one extraneous distraction, so she can keep the focus on her routines.

For Watterson, the mask feels like “just a part of me now.” Early in the season, she even went up to compete on the balance beam without realizing she was still wearing it. Still, it took her around a month to adjust. Dr. Elspeth Hart, a physician assistant and former gymnast who leads a gymnastics medicine clinic, explained over email that “wearing a mask could pose a risk of having decreased depth perception, as the mask slightly does obscure the ability to look down.” For Watterson, this phenomenon made beam disorienting at first: with the mask on, she’s unable to see exactly where her feet are on the beam. “It’s just a tiny thing,” she said. “But on beam” — a surface only four inches across — “it feels like a huge thing.”

After some practice, Watterson learned to do her beam skills by feel, without relying on the ability to see the placement of her feet. Her signature apparatus, the uneven bars, was easier from the get-go since she was accustomed to approaching her routine by feel. “It was [weird] having something on my face while I’m doing gym,” she said. “It felt like going from swinging on the bars, and you just feel the ‘wind’ on your face, to swinging on bars and there’s no wind.” On both apparatuses, Watterson has noticed one unexpected change brought on by masking: she now tends to do gymnastics with her mouth open. “Because it’ll move a little bit,” she said. “So I was opening my mouth to move it down.”

Masking may have changed how they approach gymnastics, but it has also allowed Watterson, Schank, and George to feel safe during meets and replicate the conditions of their training when it counts. Still, there’s another argument for being especially careful with pandemic protocols on the competition floor. In my conversations with them, the Cal gymnasts expressed a heightened sensitivity to the optics of competing during COVID. As George put it, “We’re practicing how we want people [who watch] on the television to perceive us, to see that we are taking this seriously and we really do care about having a season.” Schank agreed. “I think we’re always very hyper-aware of what we put out there and how we show ourselves,” she said. “Especially with the pandemic, we saw a lot of other schools be a little more lax with their rules, and we saw how the public reacted to that.”

With COVID cases still on the rise, even college gym die-hards have found their usual delight in the sport undercut by epidemiological disquiet. One such fan, Jackie Green, had to “actively had to stop watching certain teams, because they give me COVID anxiety.” Another fan, Dr. Samantha Marshall, said that she’s “evolved” in her thinking since the beginning of the season. “There’s a lot of armchair contact tracers and armchair COVID experts out there,” Marshall, a postdoctoral research scientist working in orthopedics, said. “I was definitely very armchair-y at the beginning, but I’m trying to be less.”

For Marshall, the most important thing now is the “risk balance” associated with the teams’ approach to COVID prevention. “If somebody is on the bars by themselves, it’s not necessarily that much more protective for them to have their mask on,” Marshall said. “They may feel personally more protected by wearing masks. That’s fine, that’s their choice. But… my hope is that the most important protocols are the ones that we don’t see: the testing, the tracing, even behaviors outside of the gym.”

These pre- and post-meet protocols may be less striking than a bars dismount stuck by a masked competitor. But for Schank, they’ve been a constant reminder of the season’s risks and the sacrifices that made it possible. “There’s a lot of money, a lot of resources that are going towards us competing,” including weekly tests through UC Berkeley. “I think we all have the same mentality,” she said. “If you’re going to break any of these rules, that’s just disrespectful to everyone that’s putting their time and their effort into making sure we can have this experience.”

Schank explained that she and her teammates are making their own sacrifices. “We could not be competing and, hypothetically, could be seeing our family and being with them. I know a lot of other people are separated from their families. But we’re also making sacrifices because we want this to work, as much as we want to be safe as well.”

Watterson, too, noted that being vigilant about COVID safety has come with its share of emotional challenges. For one, she’s living by herself and doesn’t see her teammates outside of training, travel, and competition. “I have to come to my room, eat by myself, sleep by myself,” she said. “Sometimes, since I’m not rooming with anyone, I wake up too early, like I’m late for something — I don’t know what, but I’m late.”

Once a week this season, though, Watterson got to strap on her surgical mask and hurtle between the bars, her jaw hinging open to keep the cloth in place. When she competed at home, the paper crowd was cheerless and invulnerable, wrapped in their matching golden T-shirts. But after her twenty-odd seconds of flight, her teammates were always waiting with an elbow bump, their smiles hidden beneath masks of brilliant blue.

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