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She’s gone viral and opened the Met Gala. What’s next for UCLA’s Nia Dennis?

July 4, 2022 Updated Mon., July 4, 2022 at 9:25 p.m.

U.S. gymnast Nia Dennis arrives for the 2021 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last September in New York.  (Tribune News Service)
U.S. gymnast Nia Dennis arrives for the 2021 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last September in New York. (Tribune News Service)
By Thuc Nhi Nguyen Tribune News Service

Months after she finished her UCLA gymnastics career, Nia Dennis flipped, leaped and danced her way across the iconic Met Gala steps. A marching band played behind her. Cameras flashed.

This viral gymnast still knows how to steal a show.

Dennis’ internet-breaking Met Gala entrance in 2021 marked the former UCLA star’s transition into her post-gymnastics life, a phase that could attract just as much attention as her two viral floor routines. Walking away from the sport has only broadened Dennis’ influence as she veers into different, unpredictable avenues. The 23-year-old is pursuing dancing, modeling and acting, preparing to launch her own business and continuing to advocate for issues like mental health awareness.

With such a busy schedule, it’s no wonder Dennis jokes that it feels as if more than a year has passed since she graduated from UCLA with a degree in sociology.

“All of my work was paying off,” Dennis said.

Just nine months before sporting a custom blue Stella McCartney body suit and diamond net layer on the red carpet at the Met Gala, Dennis was dominating the internet with clips of her Black excellence floor routine. The attention – appearances on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “Inside the NBA,” tweets from Michelle Obama and Missy Elliott, nearly 12 million views on Twitter – felt surreal, even though she went through a similar firestorm 11 months prior with her Beyonce marching band routine in 2020.

But none of it compared to receiving a call from McCartney. The famous designer said she wanted Dennis to represent her at one of the most exclusive events in the world. Dennis thought she was being Punk’d.

The memorable entrance was planned by McCartney to fit the 2021 theme of “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” Executing McCartney’s vision was just like learning and performing a floor routine, Dennis said.

She worked with UCLA assistant coach BJ Das to choreograph a simple routine they knew would match any music the red, white and blue-clad Brooklyn United Marching Band played. Like podium training at the U.S. championships, Dennis got to practice on the stairs with the band days before the event. Her parents gave her a pep talk before the performance.

“Once my cue came up, I turned it on and it was like nothing else even mattered,” Dennis said. “I was just having the time of my life.”

It didn’t stop at opening the most prestigious fashion event of the year while representing McCartney. The designer later invited Dennis to sit in the front row during her show at Paris Fashion Week and tapped the former U.S. national team member to be the spokesperson for her “Agent of Kindness” campaign in February.

“She’s part of a generation of athletes who don’t shy away from using their platforms to push for equality and inclusivity in and outside of their sports,” McCartney said in a statement announcing her latest collection. “Our intention was not only to celebrate athletes’ movement in sport, but the movements they stand for, and Nia truly represents what it means to see beyond yourself and give back to your community.”

Dennis, who grew up painfully shy outside of the gym, now wants to make a career in front of the camera. She takes acting lessons once a week, learning how to express emotion through her face and body movements in new ways. She goes to dance studios regularly, sometimes dancing for hours straight. Then she dances some more alone for her own joy.

Dancing, whether for an artist on tour or in a TV show, is one of Dennis’ top dreams. She already got a taste of it while performing in Simone Biles’ post-Olympic Gold Over America Tour last year. The event, which also featured former UCLA star Katelyn Ohashi and current UCLA gymnast Jordan Chiles, championed female empowerment and mental health in light of Biles’ experience at the Tokyo Olympics.

Biles shocked the sports world by withdrawing from the team event, citing mental health issues that made it too dangerous for her to compete. The United States, including Chiles, won silver without its top star, whose bold stance became a rallying cry during her post-Olympic tour.

The 35-city tour was part concert, part gymnastics exhibition and a total celebration of women doing something their way.

“It felt really great to be a part of that story, a part of such a drastic change in our sport, prioritizing mental health and talking about mental health and creating literally a whole show about mental health,” Dennis said. “I really just felt honored to be there.”

Following Biles’ lead, Dennis has also made it a point to speak about her own mental health journey after gymnastics. She posts updates from her therapy sessions on Twitter. Her new business will focus on self-care.

After relying on her body for amazing feats, Dennis is proud to say she’s now using her mind more to shape her future. Her Instagram was once dominated by photos of her dressed in a leotard competing or on the floor during a meet. Now she mixed sponsored posts for Adidas and Pressed Juicery with personal photos from a family vacation in the Dominican Republic and behind the scenes video from Paris Fashion Week.

“We’re so used to seeing me as a gymnast,” Dennis said. “I’m excited to bring other things.”

But Dennis hasn’t forgotten where it all started. In a recent post, she returned to the UCLA practice gym, where she threw the same double-backs and double-layouts on a trampoline she once executed during competitions. She sticks a challenging side aerial on the beam and hits a dab, dropping her head into the crook of her left arm with a bright smile.

She’s still got it.

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