Rhythmic gymnast Andria Gao reflects on the different seasons of her life

August 2, 2021
Belicia Tang

Andria Gao began rhythmic gymnastics at age 5. She was encouraged by her mother, who herself was an athlete. “My mom did sports all throughout high school and college. In high school she played volleyball and in college she moved into high jump, where she set the university record. As an athlete, my mom saw the value of being in a sport and what it could teach you. When she had me and my brother, she knew she wanted both of us to have that experience as well.” 

Growing up, Andria tried out many different sports. “At one point, my mom put me in ballet at the local YMCA. One of the classes had a substitute teacher, and this teacher happened to be a rhythmic coach. She was in the process of starting her own gym, and when she saw that I was naturally very flexible, she encouraged me to try rhythmic. My mom thought, ‘Okay, I think this is a safer sport than artistic gymnastics. You’re not going to fall off a beam.’ And that’s how I got started.” 

Andria began the sport recreationally, without any strong competitive ambitions. “The funny thing is, when I was just starting, I was not very good at all. They would call me for last place, and I would have this big, cheesy grin on my face because I had no idea what was going on. But it was fun. I fit the sport pretty well because I had natural flexibility and the right body type.” 

When she was 10, Andria and her family moved from New Jersey to San Diego. Amidst the transition, Andria’s parents considered taking her out of the sport due to its heavy time commitment and financial burden. “After a lot of back and forth, my dad told my mom one night ‘Let’s keep her in for another year and see how it goes.’ It just so happened that, with a new team and coach, I was able to place 1st at regionals, and then 5th at nationals. This was enough to give my parents incentive to keep me going in the sport.” Andria competed in the sport for a total of 13 years and became a three-time Level 10 Elite gymnast. 

Growing up as a competitive gymnast, Andria made necessary sacrifices for her sport but credits gymnastics for teaching her how to prioritize what’s important. “I consider my childhood a similar normal for anyone else in the sport. Definitely, to train at a certain level, you have to give up something. That is one of the things I appreciated most about my time in rhythmic. It taught me how to prioritize my goals and know when and what to sacrifice in order to reach them.” 

In terms of her own priorities during her time as a gymnast, Andria says, “In my family, faith always came first, then school, and then gymnastics, which is a little bit different from other people I was competing with. My parents definitely valued my education over the sport. Which meant I wasn’t going to give up everything school-wise for gymnastics, or move somewhere else just because of the sport. It definitely influenced how I trained and what my experience in gymnastics was.” 

When asked what she loved most about rhythmic gymnastics, Andria says, “When you grow up in a sport, you feel attached to it because it just becomes a part of who you are. I think there’s a part of me that loves rhythmic just because it was all I knew for a large portion of my life. I also liked how rhythmic was different from other sports, how it combined both athleticism with grace. I was always a lot more drawn to creative things growing up and that added to my love for rhythmic.”

Mental Health and Rhythmic Gymnastics  

The aesthetic and performative nature of rhythmic gymnastics is one reason why body dysmorphia and disordered eating are such prominent issues in the sport. Many gymnasts feel pressured to conform to the ‘ideal’ body standard to be competitive. “Body image is a huge issue in rhythmic,” Andria says. “I think it’s one of the more unfortunate aspects of being in an aesthetic sport. You can tell a gymnast that it shouldn’t matter how they look or what their body type is. But, actions speak louder than words. If you look at the top gymnasts in whatever country you’re in, it speaks a different narrative. And so, you tell a young gymnast one thing, but she sees another thing.”

Andria struggled with body image throughout her gymnastics career. “I was no exception to the trend of gymnasts who struggle with how their body develops over their career. I was incredibly lucky that my second coach never pressured me about my weight, but I was mostly influenced by my first coach who taught me and my teammates, from an early age, to fear food and changes in weight. It’s incredibly unfortunate that we have a system where uneducated coaches carry with them bad influences from their own careers and teach these unhealthy practices to young athletes who are too young to know any better. 

At age 12, Andria sustained a serious back injury. “I had two stress fractures in my spine. When I [fractured my spine], I was out of the sport for six months and had to wear a back brace. At that point, stopping gymnastics wasn’t a consideration. It was just a matter of when I could get back into the sport. However, the injury definitely changed how I was able to stay in the sport, mainly because my back was no longer able to do the same things it used to be able to do.”

The injury happened at the same time Andria started puberty. “Because I suddenly stopped intensive training for six months, I hit puberty, and my body began to develop. I didn’t have anyone around me to teach me that as a girl, it’s completely normal for your body to go through these changes. My advice to other gymnasts struggling with body dysmorphia is, talk about it with someone you trust. Bodies change over the different seasons of life, and this is one hundred percent normal. It’s important to think about your body in relation to your sport. A healthy body that is well taken care of means a longer and more sustainable career with less negative impact on the rest of your life. It’s easy to compare yourself with others and think that someone else is doing better because they have a certain physique. A much healthier perspective is to look at how you can adapt the sport to your body, not how to force your body to ‘fit’ the sport.” 

In addition to body image challenges, another prevalent issue in rhythmic– and sport at large– is abusive coaching methodology. On the topic of abuse in sport, Andria comments, “Abuse is never okay. That should, in no way, be the way to train young girls at an early age. However, there is definitely a trend of such coaching in this sport. A lot of it is a combination of old sports culture and young gymnasts who are too young to speak up or know differently than they are taught. It also stems from lack of education on healthy ways to coach. There is no set standard for coaches to learn the right way to train an athlete. The ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality – there is a truth to it, because sport requires you to push your body to the limits of what you think it can do. But on the other hand, there is a smart way to do it, and a wrong way to do it. Sports should be about health and longevity, even for more artistic sports like rhythmic. I also have hope for the future because I have seen a lot of gymnasts thrive under mentally and physically healthy coaching.”

Self-advocacy, while extremely important to ensure an athlete’s health, safety and well-being, is often difficult for athletes to practice, many of whom from a young age are taught to submit to authority and never talk back to coaches. “I remember the conversations I would have with other gymnasts at competitions that touched on underlying body image issues in a casual and almost joking manner, but were never outright said. I think that if we had known how to talk about these issues that are very real in the sport, maybe we could have helped each other or at least known that we were all going through similar things at the same time.”


Andria retired from the sport during her last year of high school. “I finished nationals that year, and then I had some time off. During that break, there was a moment where I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going back.’ And it just felt right. I think between the fading confidence, issues with eating and body image, and also trying to fight for training [time and space], I was just burnt out.” 

When asked if she had regrets about retiring, Andria says, “There will always be what-ifs, whenever you end your career. Transitioning out of a sport is also brutal. You never realize how big of a transition it is until you go through it. And I think a lot of athletes go through it by themselves. It’s a big thing, to have lived your life doing one thing, and then suddenly the next day, you have all this time. It suddenly becomes up to you how you are going to spend your days. Before, you knew what you were going to do every single day, day in and day out, no matter how busy or how jam packed your schedule. You didn’t really have to think about what your [long-term] future was going to be.” 

Identity crisis is something many athletes, including Andria, struggle with during the transition out of sport. “It’s like a whole part of yourself is now in the past. You have to decide who you are going to be. I was lucky to have a year to grapple with that before starting college, to pick up things that I wanted to do. I dove deeper into baking and started selling what I was making, which I continued doing throughout college. I also picked up modern dance. However, even to this day, I still find myself processing how it feels like I’ve lived two different lifetimes.”

On advice for athletes retiring from sport, Andria says, “Form a good community around you. It’s definitely a period of time where it’s important to have good support, just so you know you’re not going through the transition by yourself and figuring everything out alone. Transitioning [out of sport] is a vulnerable experience, but it is a very valuable lesson, because there will be many more transitions you’ll face in life.”

A New Season of Life 

In 2015, Andria began college at UC Berkeley, where she majored in economics. At Berkeley, she continued developing her identity outside of gymnastics and delved deeper into newfound interests. “After gymnastics, I picked up modern dance. I was lucky because my high school had a really good dance program with some incredible instructors. I fell in love with dance because it felt familiar to rhythmic, in terms of movement. It was also very enjoyable. Not that rhythmic wasn’t [enjoyable], but dance felt a lot more free. In college, I was very blessed because the Bay Area has a huge community for contemporary and modern dance. I did work-study at a local dance center in exchange for free classes. Berkeley itself also has a really great modern dance program, which I discovered during my junior year.” 

Baking was another hobby Andria pursued seriously. “Baking was a side hobby back when I was doing gymnastics. It was always my space amidst all the craziness of rhythmic and school. I had many creative phases, but baking was the one hobby that stuck with me, and eventually I made a side business out of it. I created ‘The Puffaron’, played around with web design and uploaded photos and videos of my baking on Instagram, youtube, etc. Freshman year, I got to work as a pastry cook in a restaurant in San Francisco, which was a fun experience.” 

Since graduating from Berkeley in 2019, Andria has immersed herself in her creative passions. When asked about her career aspirations, Andria says, “That’s actually a timely question because I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. Well right now, I’m considering culinary school or working in the industry in some capacity. I think my career aspiration is to either become a pastry chef or open my own bakery. But figuring that out was a whole journey, especially being raised in an Asian-American family where I was expected to go to Berkeley, graduate with a degree in economics, and get a stable, well-paying job. I tried working a nine-to-five job, and very quickly discovered how stifled I felt in that environment. Baking was always something that was in the back of my mind. I always wanted to do something different. Throughout college and over summer break, people were getting internships with this tech company or that, and I’d be working in a bakery.”

Though not completely certain of her future, Andria credits gymnastics for instilling in her the confidence to accomplish anything she wishes to pursue. “In rhythmic, you have to be headstrong and stubborn to last that long in the sport. That stubbornness has translated to my life after the sport. Once I figure out what it is I want to do, I know I will go for it, and that somehow, I will get there.”

Advice for Athletes 

On advice for athletes still competing, Andria says, “Confidence is so important in sport, and in life. You can’t always wait for someone else to instill it in you, so you have to choose to be confident in yourself. It’s also important to take inspiration from the people around you. But at the same time, it’s really important to know when to stop comparing yourself to others and start focusing on you. What are you good at? What’s unique about what you do? How do you focus on what your strength is? It’s important to work hard at something that you’re good at, because you don’t want to be chasing what someone else is best at. So find your strengths, have confidence in them, and just do your best. Most importantly, make sure you, personally, enjoy what you’re investing your time into. And know that life is a marathon, even if it feels like you’re sprinting right now. There are many more chapters in life, and you want to keep your physical body and mental health intact for the long run.” 

Social Media

Instagram: @thepuffaron

TikTok: @thepuffaron   


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.