It's been just about a month since Sophina DeJesus whipped, nae nae'd and tumbled her way across the Internet in a viral video that was viewed more than 28 million times on Facebook alone. The 21-year-old UCLA gymnast's incorporation of hip-hop dance moves into a near-perfect floor routine — and how refreshing it was in a largely whitewashed sport — is still a hot pop-culture topic.
“I went on the ‘Ellen show, I met tWitch, Chris Brown tweeted my video — so many cool things have happened!” DeJesus says. Asked if the excitement has shown any sign of abating, she's barely able to suppress her enthusiasm: “Things are definitely continuing.”
Despite the media maelstrom, DeJesus is still a guileless 21-year-old at heart. At the moment, she's grappling with whether “sparkles” can count as a favorite color. “It’s a color. I’m convinced,” she says emphatically. “I love sparkles so much and I tweeted it, ‘Can sparkles be a favorite color?’ and so many people responded and said yes, so I was like, you know what, it’s my favorite color.”
Teammate Danusia Francis — who can be seen in the video dancing along with DeJesus from the sidelines — says she sees her friend's going viral not so much as a reaction to the uncommon presence of hip-hop in gymnastics but as a nod to DeJesus' talent as a dancer. “I think Soph is such a good dancer that that’s why [her routine] got the attention it got,” Francis says. “Soph just took it that step further and made it worldwide.”
UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, affectionately known as Miss Val or just Miss V, agrees. Of DeJesus’ ability to effectively meld modern dance with solid tumbling skills, Field says, “A lot of people have been doing this for years, and they just don’t do it as well as she does.” In her 33 years at UCLA, Field certainly hasn't seen the program get this much media attention.
A former child star hip-hop dancer, DeJesus had given up gymnastics indefinitely to appear alongside an anthropomorphized yellow bear on the kids show Hip-Hop Harry and to perform in krump battles at her mother’s Southern California dance studio. In 2009, she returned to gymnastics and won gold for her floor routine as part of the U.S. national team at Junior Japan International. Shortly after that 2009 win, tragedy struck. DeJesus fractured her back, effectively shutting her out of all Olympic contention during what should have been her competitive prime.
The routine that went viral was a big one for DeJesus. “She hadn’t done floor in four years. That was her first floor routine she did for us. I remember Sophina when she was, I don’t know, 10 years old … and just thinking 'God, someday I’d love to have that kid on my team. She would be so much fun,'” says Miss V, flashing a smile in DeJesus’ direction before snapping back into battle mode for the next meet against rival Arizona State.
Technical merits aside, timing seems to have been an important factor in DeJesus' routine going viral. The video was posted to Facebook by gymnastics fan Marcus Cheatham on Feb. 6, a day before Beyoncé would face political backlash for her hip-hop–styled, Black Panthers–influenced Super Bowl halftime show. While DeJesus' moves were being praised, people like Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani were questioning the propriety of Beyoncé's style of choreography. Amid the uproar, Sophina’s video became something positive to point to.
If there's been a downside to her sudden fame, DeJesus says it is increased scrutiny of her ability.
“After the whole routine went viral, I went on bars and that’s one of my best events. I face-planted my mount, and I never do that in practice or anywhere else, unless it was like when I first learned it,” DeJesus says. Embarrassed and angry about the public gaffe, DeJesus was tempted to give in to all of the negative thoughts and feelings of inadequacy, but she recalled the way she pulled herself out of the hurt and disappointment of fracturing her back in 2009: She turned to laughter.
“On beam I was laughing about it and it turned it around,” says DeJesus, who went on to score a 9.975, the highest score she's ever gotten on the balance beam. “I kind of turned that pressure into good pressure instead of making it more nerve-racking.”
She says that if the video turns out to be the height of the fame she achieves in gymnastics, she's fine with that, but hopes there's more to come. She's exploring the possibility of competing in the Olympics on behalf of Puerto Rico rather than the United States.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason. When I performed this routine and it went viral, I thought about it and I was like, 'Wow, that was my Olympic moment.' It was really cool and it’s such an honor that it happened,” says DeJesus. “You never know what can happen. I’m kind of just keeping my doors open.”
It's a good attitude, viral sensation or no.