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"I'm muscular, I'm powerful, and I'm explosive."

By Peyton Dix
Mar 16, 2021 @ 9:00 am
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Nia Dennis
Credit: Getty Images

No one is doing it quite like Nia Dennis. In January the UCLA gymnast began her floor routine kneeling with a raised fist. While a carefully curated playlist of Black artists that included songs by Kendrick Lamar, Soulja Boy, 2Pac, and Missy Elliott blasted on the speakers, Dennis, 22, impressively danced and flipped — yes, the Crip Walk into a front handspring Rudi — her way to a near perfect score … again. Last year she became a viral sensation after a similar show-stopping routine set to a medley of Beyoncé hits.

While recovering from shoulder surgery over the summer, Dennis meditated on the Black Lives Matter movement, and it has become increasingly important to her to put her Blackness front and center in an arena that has historically only celebrated Eurocentric standards. "I'm muscular, I'm powerful, and I'm explosive," she says. "Those are my traits. And it's not typical. I was always told, 'You need to lose weight because you don't have the look.'"

But now the world is watching. By throwing respectability politics out the window, highlighting Black excellence, and giving performances that are far from routine, Dennis has become more popular than ever. Here, she shares what makes her so super.

InStyle: Some of the people who have responded to your routines on social media include Simone Biles, Oprah, Janet Jackson, Michelle Obama …

Nia Dennis: Oh my goodness, it's so crazy. There have been so many celebrities in my DMs — Dwyane Wade, Missy Elliott, Whoopi Goldberg. Of course, Michelle Obama, that's definitely the top.

Who has inspired you most in the gymnastics world?

Definitely Dominique Dawes. I'm a '90s baby, so I grew up watching her. And Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles. But I also trained with Gabby and Simone. They are my girls. I love them both very much. I'm trying to be like them and exuberate the same Black magic that they did.

Growing up, did you feel like you saw yourself reflected in the gymnastics space?

I'm muscular, I'm powerful, and I'm explosive. Those are my traits. And it's not typical. I was always told, "You need to lose weight because you don't have the look." And then, of course, growing up with white teammates, the hair. That's always a thing. Also in terms of scoring too. It's never been said, but there's a feeling, especially in certain locations [when I was on the USA National Team from 2012 to 2016], that I've been scored lower because of the color of my skin or because I didn't have the "looks." I don't want to sound negative, but those factors have definitely influenced me. Now that I'm here at UCLA, I'm celebrated for me. It's a complete 180. Everybody here is so supportive and loving toward me. Everybody can be themselves.

I never thought that I would say the words "gymnastics" and "Soulja Boy" in the same sentence. How do you choose which songs to play?

I think having the foundation of strong music made the routine [in January] exactly what I wanted it to be and helped to showcase the many different sides of my personality. A lot of those artists have had a huge impact on the Black community and have also shaped who I am as a woman today.

Your dance moves are obviously just as important. In your most recent viral routine, you "hit the woah" and even did the Crip Walk.

It was a low-key Crip Walk. [laughs]

Why is it so important to you to keep these moves in your routine?

The UCLA gymnastics team is known for its floor routines, and this year celebrating authenticity was really important to me because of the social justice issues going on. Also, Black culture is not really known in the gymnastics world. The Black Lives Matter movement really inspired me to bring [Black culture] to the sport. I kind of did a little bit last year with my Beyoncé routine. That was some Black culture, but it wasn't enough where people could grasp it. And [this year] I wanted the message to be very clear.

What is your beauty routine before a meet?

I try not to do too much, but I do like to beat my face. Everybody likes to look cute. I get eyelash extensions. I don't know how to put fake lashes on. But, luckily, my best friend on the team knows how to do it. I also try to match whatever leotard we're wearing. I like a dark lip because it's bold and stands out against my skin.

What do you do to take care of yourself mentally, emotionally, even physically? Your schedule is full. You're a student. These routines are hard on your body.

We focus a lot on mental health at UCLA. Because, honestly, gymnastics is a mind game. If your mind is not strong, chances are you're not going to be strong on the competition floor. We really take the time to tend to each other's needs. I love to dance in my free time. I think it's a form of freedom and just a way to communicate your thoughts and emotions through movement. I also journal a lot. It's really good for me to get all my thoughts out on paper even if I can't talk to somebody about them.

How has it been practicing and competing during quarantine?

It's been crazy. L.A. County is so bad in terms of COVID numbers, so the rules here at UCLA's campus are very strict and protocols are intense. I can't fill up my own water bottle; there's one designated person to fill up the water. But it's all for our safety, so I'm down to do it. We've had the least amount of training to prepare for this season. Last year got cut short, and then we had eight months off. That is the most time I've ever had off in my entire life doing gymnastics.

What did you do?

I got shoulder surgery in June, so I was doing physical therapy every single day. Then I was trying to find time and places to work out — parks, stairs, anywhere, really.

What's your favorite part about competing?

Performing for an audience! We work so hard, and it's a showcase. You want to show off everything that you've been working so hard to do. This year has been different. I'm celebrating myself, my girls are celebrating me, and we're all celebrating each other.

You're a senior this year. What comes next for you? Are you looking toward the Olympics?

I tried out for the Olympics in 2016, and then I tore my Achilles [tendon] three months before the Games. After that I definitely wanted to quit gymnastics. I never wanted to do it again. I'm glad I didn't quit and kept pushing. My Olympic dreams didn't die, but at the same time there are a lot of opportunities right now. I'm trying to figure it all out, but that would be so crazy and fun. We're pushing boundaries here at UCLA, and I would love to do that at the Olympics, the world's biggest stage.

For more stories like this, pick up the April 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Mar. 19th.