Gymnast Fred Richards Has His Sights Set on Olympic Gold

Credit - Jay Kolsch for TIME

At the gymnastics world championships in Antwerp, Belgium, in October, Fred Richard found himself in an unfamiliar position—face down on the mat.

Entering the last event in the all-around competition, in which gymnasts compete in six events—vault, floor, high bar, parallel bars, pommel horse, and rings—he did something he doesn’t normally do. He glanced at the scoreboard. His name was second.

“That was the biggest mistake,” he says. As Richard mounted the high bar, his best event, his mind raced with the possibilities. He had a chance to win! Or he could fall and finish without a medal at all. Approaching one of his more difficult release moves, he flung himself off the bar, flipped, twisted 180 degrees in the air, and turned back to catch the bar. Except, in the split second he was airborne, he worried about jeopardizing his standing and twirled closer to the bar than he normally would to ensure he wouldn’t miss grabbing it.

“I changed my technique under pressure, which is definitely not what you want to do, played it safe, cut it close, missed the skill, and fell,” he says.

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Lying on his stomach, Richard became philosophical. “This fall was supposed to happen,” he told himself. “You’re supposed to be in fourth place. You’re supposed to go home pretty angry but then grind for the upcoming Olympics and make a statement where you go from fourth to first place.”

He got up, finished the routine, and stuck the landing, fully expecting to finish off the podium.

Then came the second surprise of the evening. When the final scores were tallied, Richard had earned enough points overall to finish third, earning the first world-championship medal in the all-around competition for a U.S. male gymnast in 13 years and, at 19, becoming the youngest U.S. male gymnast to do so. And that was on top of the bronze that he and the U.S. men earned in the team event. The triumphant showing fueled speculation that not only would Richard represent the U.S. in the upcoming Paris Olympics, he might also bring the men their first Olympic medal in the sport since 2012.

“I have no problem saying that I want to win this Olympics and I want to be in the sport for 10-plus years and dominate, because that’s sports,” says Richard, now 20, on a snowy March day at the University of Michigan gym where he trains. “That’s what you’re supposed to do—you’re supposed to talk big, you’re supposed to challenge yourself.”

Richard has the resume to back up the talk. Aside from his world-championship medals, he’s a national all-around bronze medalist and a national champion on the high bar. In April, he earned silver in the all-around competition at the NCAA championships and helped Michigan win silver in the team event. He was one of six finalists this year for the James E. Sullivan Award for the top U.S. athlete at the collegiate or Olympic level. (Caitlin Clark won for the second year in a row.) He has deals with Crocs, Celsius energy drink, Marriott, and Peloton, as well as his own apparel brand, aptly named frederickflips, whose logo is a silhouette of him in a backflip. And to reach an audience that might otherwise pay attention to his sport only every four years, he’s also leveraged social media to attract a combined 900,000 followers to his TikTok and Instagram accounts.

Even in the seconds-long clips he posts, Richard’s delight in learning new skills is obvious. “You know when you see kids in the playground and they look innately happy? That’s Fred when he’s in the gym,” says Jordan Gaarenstroom, assistant coach for men’s gymnastics at University of Michigan, where Richard is a sophomore. “He has a charisma that a lot of people work toward but comes so natural to him.”

This summer fans will tune in to the Games to see the powerhouse U.S. women, likely headed by Simone Biles, but Richard’s athletic prowess and personality will certainly generate some real excitement for the men’s competition too. “He sets goals other people may laugh at,” says Paul Juda, a Michigan teammate who was also part of the world-championship team, “but once Fred gets that desire in his heart and in his mind, the only person to tell him no is himself. And he never does.”

If you’re looking for Richard on the Ann Arbor campus, chances are you’ll find him at the Newt Loken Training Center, the headquarters for the men’s gymnastics team. Richard, who is studying film and media, spends so much time in the facility that he has groceries for breakfast and lunch DoorDashed there. “Most of the time when I come to practice an hour before we start, Fred’s either taking a nap in the pit [of foam blocks] or working on schoolwork or on his social media content,” says Gaarenstroom.

His love of the sport began early, in Stoughton, Mass., where he “literally flipped out of his crib,” says his mother, Ann-Marie, a researcher and patient-engagement specialist at Pfizer. “He was always upside down.” When 2-year-old Fred first watched kids tumbling at the gym where his older sister Alexandra took classes, he wasted no time imitating what he saw when he got home. “I tried it on my parents’ bed and landed on my head a couple of times, so my parents figured they had better put me in some classes,” he says.

<span class="copyright">Jay Kolsch for TIME</span>
Jay Kolsch for TIME

It was hard for young Fred to contain his excitement, however, and he ran unchecked around the gym, darting under and between the gymnasts working on their routines. Tom Fontecchio, who would become his first coach, politely asked Richard’s parents to bring him back in a couple of years when he could better follow directions.

When they did, Richard was still enamored. He became so dedicated that he gave up several family vacations, staying with his grandparents or Fontecchio, because he didn’t want to lose time in the gym. “I felt bad leaving him behind, but it’s what he wanted,” says Ann-Marie.

A natural athlete, Richard takes an analytical approach to his training. He envisions what it takes to execute new skills before stepping on the mat and carefully reviews his routines after each meet, breaking down what worked and what didn’t. “It’s kind of like a puzzle but physical,” he says. “There are an infinite number of new things to figure out and learn. If you get bored with one skill, you move on to the next, and if you master that, there is another challenge waiting.”

Richard’s climb up the ranks has been more stepwise than meteoric. It took him two years to master one of the more basic skills on the bars, the kip—swinging under the bar and then hoisting yourself up on top of the bar with straight arms. As with grades in school, gymnastics is structured around levels, and Richard repeated levels four, five, and six. “I felt annoyed because I would get close to the kids training with me in the gym every day. And those kids would move up and I didn’t train with them anymore,” he says.

Fontecchio urged him to be patient. At the junior national training camp for the top young gymnasts when he was about 10, Richard would take three turns on each piece of equipment to other gymnasts’ one. Around that time, he asked Fontecchio if he could train with older athletes because he felt the boys in his age group weren’t serious enough about the sport. Fontecchio started driving him to other gyms in the area so Richard could learn from other coaches and take advantage of more advanced equipment. “I knew if he were to compete at the world level, he needed a world-level facility,” says Fontecchio, who still watches all of Richard’s college meets and texts with him weekly. “Plus, he needed to be around other good gymnasts so they could push each other.”

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But just as he was establishing a reputation in the junior ranks, Richard was forced to pause his intensive training. At 14, he fractured one side of the L4 vertebra and took six months off, including three in a brace. “He never said he was in pain until he was at a meet and came off the high bar and couldn’t continue,” says Ann-Marie. “I took him to get an MRI and that’s when we learned he had an injury.” During his recovery, “the toughest thing was making sure Fred was not continuing to exercise and reinjure himself,” says his father Carl, who owns a construction business. But a month after Richard was cleared by his doctors to return to training, that’s exactly what happened; he fractured the other side of the same vertebra and was out for another six months.

That period was the longest Richard took away from full-time gymnastics training. “I was still going to the gym every day,” he says, working on skills that would not put additional strain on his back. “Not because I needed to, but because it was the place I loved to be. I never thought it would end my career—that was never even a thought.”

Soon after he had recovered, Fontecchio referred him to Levon Karakhanyan, who now runs MEGA (Massachusetts Elite Gymnastics Academy) and has coached some of the country’s top young gymnasts. Fontecchio continued to drop by and advise his student, however, so when Richard was ready to consider college, he turned to both coaches to help him choose the right program. “Fred doesn’t need a coach to teach him hard skills. Fred Richard does that on his own,” says Fontecchio. “He needs a coach who can add technique, fine lines, and good body position.”

Yuan Xiao, head coach at Michigan, has molded Richard’s raw talent into the kind of precision that consistently earns him scores of 8 or higher on the 10-point scale for execution. “When you compete against the next-level gymnasts—the Chinese, Japanese, and Russian gymnasts—you need to point the toes, keep the arms straight, and the handstands straighter,” says Xiao, who coached former Olympian Sam Mikulak.

<span class="copyright">Jay Kolsch for TIME</span>
Jay Kolsch for TIME

Some of his methods may be unorthodox, but they worked. To stretch his feet into a more pleasing toe point, Richard gripped socks under his curled toes while training and concentrated on fundamental skills to hit cleaner, more defined positions—prompting judges and commentators alike to marvel at the “beauty” of Richard’s gymnastics. Like Richard, Xiao has his sights set on gold. “For me we don’t just want to participate in the Olympic Games,” says Xiao. “We want to go in there and show that he is a medal contender.”

Richard is keenly aware that the burden of expectation has toppled many a rising star, but the pressure doesn’t seem to faze him. “I have higher expectations than everyone else does,” he says. “As a kid, I had bigger goals than the Olympics. I would envision what routines could Frederick Richard do when he’s 20 years old? I was imagining doing routines where all the skills I did were invented by me. I was doing three flips and three twists instead of two flips and two twists. I was breaking the rules of physics. So the way I see it, I reached for the stars and then I landed on the moon, which is like the Olympic level.”

Regardless of what happens in Paris, Richard says he’s committed to not only pushing himself to master that next skill but also helping to promote a sport that struggles to remain relevant when the Olympic spotlight recedes. His @frederickflips feed is key to that mission. In addition to posting clips of his own performances, he has an ongoing series of challenges in which he’s invited athletes from more than 10 sports so far, including softball players, swimmers, and dancers, to determine who can jump higher, jump farther, and grab a piece of paper taped to another person’s back faster. (Those posts even inspired him to reach out to Olympic medalist sprinter Noah Lyles for advice on how to refine his run-up to the vault to maximize speed and power.) “Social media really provides a big opportunity for a sport like mine, to let more people know me, my story, and my sport,” he says. “I really wanted to show the athleticism gymnasts have.”

While the challenges are all in good fun, they’re not something most Olympic athletes-in-training might feel comfortable doing, especially with the Games looming. Case in point: In a recent appearance on Good Morning America, he flipped off a trampoline into a pair of gym shorts and managed to land his entire body in one leg. “If a different guy were doing that, I would feel nervous,” says Xiao. “He wants more people to know what we are doing—it’s like a second job for him. He’s like a cat—if you throw a cat in the air, it always finds a way to land. So I 100% support him. He knows his limits.”

In expanding gymnastics’ reach, Richard feels it’s important to make the sport more inclusive of people of color. “Growing up as a Black athlete in gymnastics, you are for sure the minority,” he says. “You are definitely questioning, when you’re young, if you really feel in the right place.” He recalls experiencing microaggressions as his peers asked about slavery and asked whether it was OK to make certain jokes or use certain words. “It’s just kids learning,” he says. “You have to teach them. My parents were there from the start educating me and telling me how to answer the question about being different and explaining it to me before I even asked.”

Now he embraces being a role model. “I want to make that statement of saying you can get to the very top, be the best in the world, win gold medals,” he says. “That’s why I do social media, because I can reach these kids more easily.” He also knows how expensive gymnastics training can be and is thinking about ways to create more opportunities for children of color to discover gymnastics in addition to the better-funded sports like basketball or football.

Certainly some Olympic hardware would give him the visibility that could help him to accomplish those goals, but he is clear that his career is about much more than one competition. In fact, he already has plans for fall – joining Biles and other top gymnasts on her “Gold Over America” tour. “At the end of the day, as much as everybody cares, they also don’t care,” he says. “It’s not like they are going to think about me every day if I win or if I’m a failure.” Just as he did in Antwerp, he’ll pick himself up and keep going.

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