Eight weeks after giving birth to twins, Julia Sharpe slipped into spandex. It was not, however, Spanx. It was a singlet — the attire worn by male gymnasts. And Sharpe, 27, was suiting up to compete as an alumni member of MIT’s club gymnastics team.
Sharpe has been doing gymnastic since she was 2, and as an undergraduate she was the Division III women’s national all-around champion twice before MIT ended its varsity program. After that, she joined the women’s club team. But when she realized that according to NAIGC (National Association of Intercollegiate Gymnastics Clubs) rules, she could compete for either gender — just not both — she switched to the men’s club to help bolster their numbers and pursue a new challenge. (Speaking of new challenges, Sharpe will be competing in the Pittsburgh qualifier of American Ninja Warrior on May 22.)
Sharpe, a mechanical engineer, spoke to the Cut via email about competing as a woman in men’s gymnastics and returning to training and competition after giving birth.
You started out in women’s gymnastics and then made the switch to men’s club at MIT. When and why did you make the switch from the balance beam to the rings?
I made the switch to men’s gymnastics after NAIGC Nationals in the spring of 2012. There were several reasons that I decided to switch. The MIT team only sent two male gymnasts to Nationals that year, and it seemed like the team was disappearing (like so many men’s programs these days), so I wanted to help keep it going.
I was also craving a new challenge. Women’s gymnastics at the NAIGC club level uses Level 9 rules [which are less demanding than varsity-level gymnastics rules], so my routines were very watered-down so that I could be super-clean and score well … In men’s gymnastics, I was able to go back to the basics and learn so many new things just from the other people on the team. In women’s gymnastics, I could maybe learn one new skill per year, but in men’s I was learning new skills all the time. Also, I have three older brothers, two of which did gymnastics, and I’ve always wanted to try out their events.
What was hardest part about starting out in men’s gymnastics?
Physically, the hardest part was dealing with all the new overuse injuries that come with men’s gymnastics. I went through a phase in high school where I was injured all the time but then my body seemed to accept it. When I started men’s gymnastics, I had to find a new balance. Mentally, I have to admit it was hard not being the best anymore. I was extremely successful in Division III gymnastics in college and at the club level afterward, and in men’s gymnastics I was mediocre on most events, and pretty bad at others.
Is a singlet more comfortable than a leotard? Are there fewer or more wedgies?
It is definitely more comfortable! Our uniforms are actually cut with shorts as part of them so wedgies are impossible.
Since you started competing for the men, what has been the reaction you’ve received? From your teammates and others?
With the exception of one occasion, I have felt very accepted by everyone I’ve encountered in my time doing men’s gymnastics — from judges to teammates to athletes on other teams to parents of athletes on other teams. The men’s gymnastics community is very welcoming, which is a nice change from women’s gymnastics where I felt like we were pressured into seeing athletes from other teams as our enemies.
The one occasion where I was not welcomed was when our team competed at Springfield College in a competition that invited NCAA varsity teams, college club teams, and local USAG clubs. The Springfield administration would not let me compete because of my gender.
I have definitely seen a difference in reactions from men and women. From other women, the reaction is usually that they are super-impressed and could never do what I’m doing. I wish there was some way I could prove to them that they could if they wanted to! From men, they are also impressed but also seem to take my success as inspiration to get better themselves.
You recently gave birth to twins. Did you train at all while you were pregnant?
I trained as much as I could while I was pregnant because I knew I wanted to get back into the gym soon after the babies were born. I pretty much did everything up to ten weeks. I felt pretty exhausted but I pushed through because I knew I didn’t have much time left. At 12 weeks, the doctor told me, “No shear on my uterus,” so I stopped tumbling and vaulting. At about 16 weeks, the contractions started so I was told to stop using my abs. At that point I could mostly just do small swings and handstands, but I tried to continue a strength regimen that didn’t use my abs, and I swam. At 28 weeks, I got put on bed rest for pre‐term contractions, which is pretty common with twins. At 34 weeks, when the babies were mature enough to be born if they decided it was time, I got to come off bed rest, so I did some more handstands, but mostly just walked and did yoga. At 37 weeks, I got put on bed rest again for high blood pressure, so that was the end of exercise pre‐birth.
You returned to competition just eight weeks after giving birth to twins via C‐section. Why did you decide to return to
competition so soon after giving birth and compete this season? And what was it like?
I wanted to be able to compete at NAIGC Nationals this year, so I figured the earlier I start competing, the better, even if I was only doing very basic skills.
When I first started, I couldn’t do backward rolls or forward rolls, which I’ve been doing since before I could remember. For the first week or so, I could barely make a front tuck on floor and I hit my butt on the vault trying to do a handspring. It was confusing because I felt like my body awareness was completely off. I was never where I thought I was; the feedback loop was broken. I definitely felt myself get stronger each week, and now that I have been back for eight weeks, I’m definitely starting to feel more like myself.
I’ve gotten to the point where I can see myself getting back to where I was in just a few months.
Do you think other women could have a future in men’s gymnastics?
Really, I feel like any woman who is willing to put in the time training can be successful at men’s gymnastics especially if they have good basics from years of women’s gymnastics. In my opinion, I think it’s surprising that in this modern age, no one has questioned the fact that there is no “men’s gymnastics” for women and “women’s gymnastics” for men. Why can’t there just be six-event gymnastics (hexagymnastics?) and four-event gymnastics (quadragymnastics?) where men and women don’t necessarily compete against each other, but are at least allowed to do the same sport.
You don’t really see this in other sports, where the men’s version is so completely different from the women’s. Women’s gymnastics evolved the way it did because people believed that women weren’t strong enough to support themselves on their hands for long periods of time like the men can. I think if you watch uneven bars these days, you can see that is definitely not true. And even women who have had children like Oksana Chusovitina [who is 39 and planning to compete at her seventh Olympic Games in Rio] or myself are still capable of being incredibly strong. If I can do men’s gymnastics just eight weeks after giving birth to twins, then there are many other women out there who could do really incredible things in the sport. I really want other women to be able to see that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.