Vocality should never be suppressed, especially in the eyes of Nebraska Cornhusker Gymnast, Sam Phillips.
Throughout his gymnastics career, there were always bubbles. These bubbles always seemed to revolve around one thing: the fact he was the only black gymnast in the room. And he was on the outside.
But Phillips isn’t content with that idea sticking around.
“Be willing to walk into that room,” he said. “Walk into that room and say ‘Hey, I’m walking into this room. But this room is not just your room, this room is also my room.’”
Phillips just finished his freshman year and first season on the Nebraska men’s gymnastics team. He has been involved in gymnastics since he was five years old.
He is one of two black members on the team, out of a total of 18. His role is a pivotal one for the team as he is listed as AA, meaning All-Around. He is involved in multiple events including floor exercise, pommel horse, vaulting, and high bar. He can and is willing to do just about everything.
“He’s a real key member for the team,” said Huskers coach Chuck Chmelka. “He is a really important addition. As a freshman last year, he really did a good job vocally and his work ethic backed it up.”
Chmelka has been the Huskers head coach since 2009; before that he was an assistant coach in the program.
“Sam was a real prize recruit for our team,” Chmelka claims.
Being vocal was never a problem for Phillips. He was always a leader at his club gym in West Hills, CA – located just outside of L.A., and he was always the team captain. So, his journey to Nebraska created a new opportunity for him.
“It was difficult for me,” Phillips said. “When I came to Nebraska I had to step back into being the role of a follower, being able to watch and listen more. I had to sit down and tell myself that this was a new environment and a new atmosphere. They’ve been here and I’m a freshman. I learned from that, learning how to follow improves your leadership skills.”
His head coach was quick to agree about the prominent leadership abilities in his freshman member.
“He wants the right things for our team. So, as a freshman, it was pretty neat to see how mature he is with normally a lot of issues that freshmen aren’t always up to speed with. Good person as a whole,” Chmelka said.
Phillips is well aware of a lot of issues that are at hand, especially racism in the world of gymnastics, which is a predominantly white populated sport.
“Absolutely,” Phillips said when asked if he had ever experienced racial issues growing up in the sport.
He was quick to say he is no stranger to hearing the N-word growing up in gymnastics, whether other gymnasts were joking about the word or him being black. He was often the only black person present and said due to the fact he was considered “light skin” that they felt it was fine to say it around him.
“I always felt very awkward. When you’re younger, you’re taught to not talk back or start something because, in their eyes, you’re starting a fight. But in reality, it’s just you standing up to your uncomfortableness,” he said.
In the past couple of weeks, through the tragic death of George Floyd and the ongoing protests against racial inequality and police brutality, Phillips says he has learned that speaking up is something that needs to be done.
“Who cares if they think you’re being too much by speaking up,” he said. “Because you’re not being too much.”
Phillips and his teammate, Khalil Jackson, have partnered up with the College Gymnastics Association (CGA), and have helped start up the Inclusive Alliance Program. This program was initiated by Jordan Valdez at the University of Minnesota. Phillips and Jackson lead the program along with Illinois gymnast Satchel Hudson and another Minnesota gymnast Russell Johnson.
The alliance is led by black gymnasts in the college men’s gym organization (@collegemgym). They address issues via zoom calls, helping share their own experiences and realities of being black gymnasts in the college world.
“I think it is hugely important,” Phillips said on the importance of student-athletes using their platforms to create change.
“Usually student-athletes have a huge following. I think it is absolutely necessary to use whatever platform you have to make a statement. This then influences whoever follows you, then if they share whoever follows them. It’s just like a chain reaction,” he said.
Phillips understands social media is one of the most powerful entities in today’s society. Having lots of followers gives these athletes the chance to reach whole new audiences who might be open to being educated.
Change is inevitable. The sport of gymnastics is always changing, some famous black gymnasts have become household names over the years. For example, Gabby Douglas, who at 16-years-old won two gold medals in the 2012 London Olympics.
When asked about the Olympics, Phillips had to think for a second.
“For most gymnasts, the Olympics are always a goal,” he said. “Coming to college and seeing the different avenues available was a little bit of a reality check. I am working towards the 2024 Paris Olympics which are a goal of mine.”
Chmelka was not hesitant when asked about Phillips’ future in gymnastics.
“I think he can go on for many years. He’s young and only getting stronger. The future is bright for him down the road,” Chmelka said.
Phillips hopes he can inspire the next generation of young black gymnasts. He hopes that the future of gymnastics can remain flexible and open to change.
“Be loud. Be loud in your actions, be loud in your truth, and just be loud vocally about being black,” Phillips said. “I’m not walking into your sport. This is all of our sport.”