Skip to main content

Degree Of Difficulty

Mar 16, 2021

Degree of difficulty. It's a common term in gymnastics, used to determine the maximum points that someone can get for a routine based on the rating of the skills performed.
Basically, it's a term to convey that not all landings are created equal. It's worth more to perform a Yurchenko 1.5 vault with a roundoff, back handspring entry followed by a one-and-a-half twisting layout than it would be to do a cartwheel.  
That seems like an easy concept in gymnastics, but it also applies to life. In every interaction, each person brings a different degree of difficulty - a different set of circumstances that has led them to a particular moment.
In February, the Cal women's gymnastics team participated in a Zoom call with 500 students from Everett Middle School in San Francisco. The gymnasts shared their individual backgrounds and what Black History Month meant to them.
The gymnastics team is a diverse group with student-athletes from Australia, England and all across the United States. Olympian and Cal alum Toni-Ann Williams joined the call, as well, and spoke to the class about her decision to represent Jamaica - why it was important to bring attention to the sport of gymnastics in Jamaica to help provide resources and give people a role model.
"In a COVID-19 context, the middle schoolers got to virtually touch and access an Olympian," Cal Associate Athletics Director, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Dr. Ty-Ron Douglas said. "A Black woman from Jamaica, the first Olympic gymnast to represent Jamaica. It matters for a young person to see someone that looks like them. It's important for them to access culturally relevant examples of things they can be."
It was especially relevant because Everett Middle School has students from 11 countries who speak six different languages. The gymnasts shared their descriptors, including their heritage, gender, race, culture, upbringing and thoughts about why celebrating Black History Month is important.
"Having the student-athletes share their background and then share what Black History Month means to them resonated a lot with what we try to do at our school," Everett teacher Kelsey Jackson said. "I think it's important for our students to hear so many people say what Black History Month means to them, and it's going to be different across the board. But having student-athletes model that and to show that it's important to them regardless of their background is important to our students."
It wasn't just the middle school students that were learning during the two sessions that Cal conducted with Everett.
"I didn't know a lot of my own teammates' backgrounds," Cal junior Maya Bordas said. "I learned a lot about my own team. I think learning that helps us get closer as a team and to be more understanding and open-minded is important; sharing each other's cultures and backgrounds facilitates a culture that is accepting of diversity."
The idea for the call originated with Douglas. He has been instrumental in fostering an inclusive department while showcasing and supporting the student-athletes. In addition to the women's gymnastics team, the women's basketball team has had Zooms with several local schools and the field hockey team even had a call with a school in Douglas' native Bermuda.
"This is a training ground for our student-athletes; we want them to know that they have a powerful and an important voice and platform here at Cal and after they leave Cal," Douglas said. "For me, inviting them into those spaces, through this work I am seeking to help a new generation of people to connect with young people."
This is all part of the office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging's mantra of "Accelerate."
"It's an allusion to Dr. King's statement that this is not the time for gradualism; he talks about the fierce urgency of now," Dr. Douglas stated. "Now is the time to accelerate our efforts. When we have a year like we had last year, when we had the murder of George Floyd and the intensity of the moment, there is a tendency for the influence of those moments to dissipate. The core of our office is to not address back, but to accelerate our efforts in the DEIB space, accelerate the education of young people, accelerate all things positive. We want to nurture and inspire the growth and development of all with whom we have influence."
That is the growth and development of Cal student-athletes and also people throughout the community and the world. As students at the top public school in the world, they have an opportunity to create change by affecting individuals.
"Having middle school students see people that look like them and who don't look like them succeeding shows them what I dream for myself can be possible," Jackson said. "We all have different perspectives and experiences. We are constantly trying to teach our students to value everyone's lived experiences because they're so different. We hope that bringing in representation teaches them to have empathy, understanding, compassion and to think beyond. I can see this is happening for someone else; this can happen to me too."
Bordas comes from a biracial family in Texas. She is Cal's representative on G-Pac, which is a student-led organization among the Pac-12 gymnastics programs that formed this year with the goal of facilitating an environment where diversity and inclusion is both welcomed and encouraged while inspiring others to thrive at the edge of their comfort zone, furthering the journey to true equality.
"I think it has a lot to do with being comfortable in your own skin," Bordas said. "I grew up in an area that was predominantly white, and I didn't have a lot of exposure to my black culture. My mom is Black and she also grew up in an area that was predominantly white. So, I felt like I was out of touch with that side of myself. Coming to Berkeley, which is a place where there is a lot of diversity, and having exposure to that culture in Oakland, has been really eye-opening for me. It's an opportunity to explore myself and I feel like that's important for everyone."
The gymnastics team sought to further that exploration by providing Everett Middle School with the One Day Better Challenge.
"We challenge our student-athletes to get one day better in every aspect of their lives each day, and if they're doing that they're going to find success," Cal co-head coach Elisabeth Crandall-Howell said. "We challenged the Everett students to commit to something that they can get one day better in regards to learning about Black History Month and to support the mission of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging."
Jackson's homeroom class is taking the pledge. They are creating a safe space so that the students have an opportunity to share what they've learned and how they've gotten one day better with their classmates and teachers - because someone can't understand another's degree of difficulty without getting to know him or her first.
"We continue to push forward and have hard conversations, do our homework and seek to learn more about the struggles of each individual," Crandall-Howell said. "We want to be able to learn as much as we can and celebrate everything that each individual brings to the table. The space with middle schoolers can be an impactful space; it is a pivotal age group where they decide and start thinking about their goals. If they can identify with one student-athlete and think that that person is like me and look at what they're doing and start setting bigger goals, I can't see a bigger win than that would be."