Viral and vital, college gymnasts finding their voice

This image provided by Pitt Athletics show the university's new gymnastics uniform. The social justice movement in college athletics has popped up in most unusual place: gymnastics. From UCLA to Pittsburgh, Black gymnasts and the programs they represent are using their platform to empower and uplift. On Sunday, Pitt will wear "Black Lives Matter" leotards during their meet with Temple, a highly visible part of the program's "Until We Unite" campaign. (Justin M. Pondexter/Pitt Athletics via AP)

PITTSBURGH – Samantha Snider remembers the rules — be they real or implied — during her collegiate gymnastics career at Arkansas.

This is how you're going to do your hair. This is how you're going to do your makeup. This is how you're going to represent the program.

“There was very much this message, ‘You need to fit in this box,’” said Snider, now the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh.

Snider, who jokes she often felt like the only Puerto Rican in the state during her time competing for the Razorbacks in the mid-2000s, isn't being critical. Her experience at Arkansas was simply reflective of the culture at large in the sport at the time.

A time, it seems, that is finally over, particularly at the NCAA level. From Pittsburgh to California, female gymnasts are using their platform to empower, educate and bring light to causes they believe in.

When the Panthers host Temple on Sunday at the Petersen Events Center, they will compete in leotards with “BLM” emblazoned in all its sequined glory on their left arms, while coaches and staff members wear “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts. The idea for such a visible statement arose during a video call last summer after the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black Americans gave rise to intensified calls for social justice.

Pitt's women's program is largely comprised of white athletes, and simply telling their Black teammates they had their unconditional support wasn't enough. Putting on a shirt before a meet — only to pull it off while on the competition floor — wasn't enough. A sticker on their bag wasn't enough. Even putting together a public service announcement in which the Panthers vowed to “promote active change" wasn't enough.

So they brainstormed, eventually deciding to add “BLM” in big, bold, silvery sequins to the left sleeves of their leotards. The fact it's the same sleeve the Panthers use when they huddle and break as a team isn't a coincidence. They believe the image of more than a dozen arms of athletes of various races leaning in together is a powerful one, particularly for sophomore Ciara Ward, one of two active Black gymnasts on the team.