Filmed in the months leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Peacock’s docuseries Golden: The Journey of USA’s Elite Gymnasts provides key insight into the stress that comes with being a gymnast at the elite level. The Olympics may be over, but Golden remains highly relevant, especially following Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the majority of her Olympic events in order to focus on her mental health and recover from “the twisties.”
Biles’ decision sparked a wider conversation about athletes’ mental health and the high levels of pressure they face in their respective sports. These themes run through Golden, making it a necessary watch that is rendered even more powerful when seen now, in hindsight.
The series documents five gymnasts in their quests to reach the 2020 Olympic team: Laurie Hernandez, Morgan Hurd, Sunisa Lee, Konnor McClain, and MyKayla Skinner. Each of these Olympic hopefuls faces the gauntlet of camps and competitions leading up to the Olympic trials, as well as their own unique challenges.
Hurd and Lee are both struggling with injuries, with Hurd in particular facing a tight recovery schedule after multiple elbow surgeries. Skinner is returning to elite gymnastics after her career at the NCAA level. Hernandez, who was a member of the 2016 Olympic team, is making a comeback of her own after years away from the sport.
Oh, and they’re doing all of this during a pandemic.
Golden does not shy away from the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the Tokyo Olympics and the gymnasts trying to make the team. The pandemic is a source of great outside stress, and it puts their dreams in flux. Having a whole extra year to train is presented as both a blessing and a curse: It could allow these gymnasts to master new, harder routines, or it could result in further bodily strain and injury. For McClain, though, the postponement presents an opportunity.
Golden walks a fine line throughout: exhilaration vs. heartbreak, the euphoria of a stuck landing vs. the years of sacrifice and pain it took to get there.
16-year-old McClain would not have been eligible for the Olympics had they been held as regularly scheduled. With the extra year, she gets an earlier shot at achieving her lifetime goal. In one of Golden‘s most compelling — and harrowing — storylines, McClain tries to fit three years of training (her original plan had been to focus on the 2024 Paris Olympics) into one in order to stand a chance against the other gymnasts.
All the women Golden follows are world-class athletes. Each episode features them in practice or in competition, pulling off death-defying moves that boggle the mind. These are skills they’ve built up over a lifetime and sacrificed so much for, all in the hopes of reaching the Olympics. Their drive is crystal clear in their interviews and in how hard they push themselves physically. You will root for every single one of them to make Team USA.
However, if you have any familiarity with the Tokyo Olympics, you’ll know that only Lee and Skinner become Olympians. Lee goes on to win the title of all-around champion, the first Hmong American gymnast to do so, and Skinner wins the silver medal on vault. While it is exhilarating to see them succeed after all their hard work, it’s just as heartbreaking to watch Hernandez, Hurd, and McClain lose out on the opportunity of a lifetime.
Golden walks this fine line throughout: exhilaration vs. heartbreak, the euphoria of a stuck landing vs. the years of sacrifice and pain it took to get there. Gymnasts’ parents discuss how much money they’ve poured into gymnastics in the hopes of their child making it to the Olympics. Physical injuries abound, evident in everything from the surgery scars on Hurd’s elbow to a montage of gymnasts falling in competition.
Then there’s the mental and emotional pressure. Hurd and McClain laugh over FaceTime as they recall how McClain used to throw up into her coach’s hands before meets, or how Hurd would get bloody noses. Particularly heart-wrenching is Hernandez’s description of the emotional abuse she faced at the hands of her former coach, and how she used to think it was normal. And of course, there’s the ever-present reminder of the abuse hundreds of gymnasts faced at the hands of Larry Nassar during his time as a doctor for USA Gymnastics.
Watching Hernandez, Hurd, Lee, McClain, and Skinner navigate these physical and mental challenges and still manage to perform at their level is nothing short of inspirational. Golden does focus on their struggles and sacrifices, but it also focuses on their successes. When these gymnasts smile triumphantly after nailing a routine, or their family members cheer from the sidelines, Golden finds the joy in gymnastics. Still, with that joy comes questions of how to better protect these remarkable athletes as they fight tooth and nail to reach their goals.
Golden: The Journey of USA’s Elite Gymnasts Golden: The Journey of USA’s Elite Gymnasts is streaming on Peacock.