Nia Dennis’ gymnastics dreams didn’t give her much room to enjoy the perks of being a kid. Her nomadic lifestyle and disciplined training schedule made it challenging to stay in touch with friends. And on top of that, she was homeschooled. But she knew that she’d have to commit herself completely to the world of gymnastics if she wanted to see the world outside of Ohio.
From four years old, Nia went from swinging around the playgrounds of Columbus, Ohio, to the structured, lonely world of competitive gymnastics. At 14, she would move to Chicago to train with the U.S. women’s gymnastics team – the “elite” team, as she calls it – to get closer to her dreams of Olympic glory.
There’s much more to Nia than meets the eye
It’s hard to imagine that there once was a Nia who had trouble speaking up and being herself, on and off the gymnastics floor mat. Sitting in front of me with her elbows perched on her knees, the 24-year-old has a slight slouch and poise that conveys that she’s not holding anything back. And despite a packed schedule and long walks around our campus to maximize on her visit, Nia is all smiles and done up in a way, that has me thinking she’s on call for another Met Gala appearance.
But when I ask her about the support system she had while pursuing competitive gymnastics at such a tender age, her posture shifts and her smile dissipates. She shakes her head, dispelling the notion that – outside of her immediate family – she had mentors and guidance counselors helping her along. Instead, Nia dishes out one of life’s hard, but earnest lessons she’s learned along the way:
I’m now recognizing that the Nia sitting in front of me is the polished version of her younger self.
We chat further so I can start piecing together her coming into her own timeline – the evolution of Nia. Growing up, she loved visiting her NOLA-based relatives to check out the scene’s local battle of the bands and majorette dance routines. But those first loves had to go on mute while she navigated the strict and conformist world of elite gymnastics. There wasn’t room for her unique voice in a world where you had to play to the crowd, the judges, and the coaches – at least not yet.
A bad romance between humor and gymnastics
Her first attempts at injecting bits of her unique self came in the form of humor, and it had to be done in stealth-mode. Nia would throttle some inside jokes, sparingly, with one or two of the other gymnasts on the elite squad, but it came at the risk of unsettling the elite gymnastics coaches and trainers who had a low tolerance for playfulness. Nia remembers the stressful tightrope she had to cross, “You couldn’t talk during practice, and everyone was pretty nervous and didn’t want to mess up.” She even tells me that coaches would ask her, “Why are you laughing so much? You need to focus, get serious.”
Then ahead of the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio di Janeiro, her gold medal dreams were dashed when she ruptured her Achilles tendon. “[I] was really depressed over the sport. I literally started at four years old. My family and I sacrificed so much and I felt like it was a waste. I was over [gymnastics].”
She played back the endless loop of her misfortunate. “I was spending so much time, equating my identity with it [gymnastics] – what am I without sport?” she would ask herself, before continuing to describe what it felt like to hit rock bottom of the proverbial foam pit. “I felt like I brought nothing to the table, and it was too late to start something at sixteen, seventeen.”
To break up with gymnastics or not
Love then won out in Nia’s love-hate relationship with gymnastics, as she toyed around with the idea of becoming a student athlete in the sport that kept her voice and true self at bay. She matriculated as a gymnastics student athlete, majoring in sociology at UCLA – the first tangible signs that there is life after gymnastics – and here, she met her supportive gymnastics squad of sisters.
In Nia’s mind, college gymnastics looked far different than what she was accustomed to in elite gymnastics. “When I got to college, [we were] all working together for the same goal. [It was a] completely different atmosphere,” she says. This supportive squad was a sight for her sore, ‘every woman for herself’ gymnastics limbs.
She was also beginning to feel more comfortable carrying out the team’s choreographed routines. But all throughout lengthy team meetings she kept quiet. “I would never say anything,” she says about her freshman and sophomore years at university. And according to Nia, the coaches would even make remarks of her quietude. “’You never say anything; we want to hear what you have to say.’”
“It started as I didn’t have anything to say, but I did…” Nia says, before trailing off.
Finding her voice was a game changer
In addition to the usual stamina, balance and coordination, and strength exercises that are required of gymnasts, the team pushed the squad to exercise their social muscles too; and that would prove beneficial for Nia outside the gymnastics arena. Nia and her sisters found themselves taking part in public speaking seminars, participating in the student debate club, and even helping each other rehearse lines for theater productions—for those aspiring actresses that were in the squad. And that’s when Nia started to recognize that everyone around her cherished her skills on the mat and her unique sense of self.
Nia says, upon self-reflection of her development with the UCLA squad during her junior and senior years. While before she could express herself through her fluid gymnastics movements, she’d grown into a person who could now speak up at will and be herself.
And in a predominately white sport where she had coaches critiquing her hair and asking her to style it differently, she was now in a place where she wanted to represent her culture and upbringing her way, through gymnastics.
Nia’s Beyonce breakthrough
Coinciding with Nia’s outward awakening of her true inner self, Beyonce had just released her album Homecoming – perfect timing some might say. An album packaged with tracks that celebrate black culture and the sounds and moves of majorette dancing. This album encapsulated all the themes Nia wanted to incorporate in her next gymnastics routine; and it signaled that Nia’s cultural identity tea bag had steeped long enough and was ready to be served. Nia says with a smile, “I already had the idea and she [Beyonce] had executed it.” After choreographing the movements and performing it at a UCLA competition, Nia went viral.
Nia’s next gymnastics routine would act as a megaphone for what was on her mind – especially as the Black Lives Matters movement was building momentum with protests fueled from the killing of George Floyd. She was recovering from shoulder surgery at a time when the violent, mass protests took to the streets. “The worldwide movement was going on. And because I couldn’t participate on the front lines, I wanted to be out there with my people, for the community. I just didn’t want to injure myself,” she recalls.
She then bounced a bold dance routine idea to UCLA’s team choreographer. Her idea wasn’t just about bringing attention to the protests but creating some lightness to the social milieu by celebrating black culture. “Black Lives Matters – protests are going on,” Nia would say to the choreographer. “Her eyes lit up, because nobody did a social injustice movement or story in a floor routine. She was really supportive. She really wanted to execute the dream, the image I had in my mind. It was really easy to create because we were so passionate and invested.”
Taking to the floor mat with BLM in mind
Nia proceeded to outline her ideas for the minute and a half long floor routine: “I wanted to highlight the most popular, the most well-known thing in each era. From the ‘90s until now. I had a key song from each era, each generation, that everybody knows, everyone can get down too [and] also represented me and something that I like to do and dance to.”
To the beats of Kendrick Lamar, Missy Elliot, Soulja Boy, 2pac, along with a slew of her other favs, Nia leapt, flipped, double-tucked, and got some major hangtime, from one corner of the floor mat to the other. In between passes, she’d reset herself by stomping her feet on the ground, imbibing hip-hop, and celebrating black culture with her body.
And social media was put on notice
Whether it was Missy Elliot, or even Michelle Obama, Nia’s routine was getting the virtual standing ovation of endless praise. There was a resounding encouragement for her to continue speaking and dancing like everyone’s watching.
Nowadays, Nia freely shares what’s on her mind. She’ll talk about the importance of mental health, which she role models with her journaling. And she also participates in global panel discussions, like the one at our adidas Base in Berlin, where she talked about diversity, equity and inclusion, and certain adversities she had to overcome through her artforms.
“I feel like I finally gained the courage to talk about things, mental health and social injustices and things like that because I’ve always been passionate about my community and as somebody who’s dealt with mental health, it’s something that I value and I understand what someone else is going through, so severe or serious.” Says Nia.
The life coach that let Nia know she’s more than just a gymnast
Nia gives Miss Val, the head coach of UCLA during her time on the squad, the street cred for reinforcing the idea that she shouldn’t shy away from digging deep, and talking about those things that mean so much to her and affect thousands – if not millions of people.
Valerie Kondos-Field, as she’s more formally known, played a huge role in Nia’s self-development and helped her compartmentalize gymnastics as only one piece of Nia’s identity. “She was a life coach, she helped me realize a lot about myself and self-reflect. [She was] the first person to really tell me about myself. I retained that information and listened [to it] and slowly changed my mind set about life and the sport, itself – to slowly start to re-love it [gymnastics],” says Nia, lighting up at the mere thought of Miss Val.
While gymnastics ebbs into the background of Nia’s life, she is left with the ability to express what’s on her mind, poignantly, through dance. And she also has found her voice to celebrate her culture, her identity, and bring compassion to the everyday struggles which she still maneuvers through to this day.
Taking her talents to the fashion world
While on our Herzo HQ campus, Nia’s been put to work. She mentions that she’s the first brand partner to participate in our Ambassador Insights Program.
She quips, “cute, right?”
For this program, she’s been giving insights to our dancewear and sportswear teams and getting her hands dirty when it comes to the whole process of design and product and pushing it out, including marketing. And the day after my chat with Nia, she’ll be giving a presentation on what she’s learned from the whole experience. She’s terrified about this.
She says, “Public speaking, just makes me nervous. Performing in front of people, that’s another thing. I can dance. I don’t have to say anything. But then when I speak, I’m like, oh my gosh, I hope I don’t stutter.”
This isn’t entirely true. When she visited our Amsterdam office the week prior to coming to Herzo, she shared stories during a Speaker Series that showed her vulnerable and authentic self. And from what I saw, she didn’t stutter once. Instead, you could tell her fan base was growing by the minute.
The world of acting, modeling, designing, and much more awaits Nia. She’s up for trying new things. She’s keen to celebrate life. She’s not afraid to talk about touchy subjects. And when she meets a starry-eyed fan, she tries to make her interactions personal. She says, “I try to say something that they’ll remember and use on a bad day. Because I can’t change the world, and I can only do so much, but I try to do as much I can within each individual person so that they can take with them and try to be a little bit better.”
Nia Dennis might still think of herself as just “little ole me from Ohio,” but she’s spreading positivity and light, in arguably the kindest, gentlest, and most celebratory kind of way.