Generation Z, Millennial Olympians use TikTok to inspire a new generation of athletes
“I’m going to teach you a little about rowing,” US Olympic four-rower Kendall Chase told her 50,000 TikTok followers in a video posted last weekend. “Because the odds are good, you probably don’t know anything.”
Chase, 26, regularly posts videos on the app, including those educating people about rowing – because “not a lot of people in the US are familiar with the sport” – on LGBTQ-focused content and even lighthearted TikTok trends.
She is one of many Generation Z athletes and young millennials who are just weeks away from attending the Olympics or Paralympics and have a large following on TikTok – many of whom use the platform to bring their sport to new audiences to introduce. Some of these athletes also use their platform to serve as role models for aspiring athletes, especially girls, LGBTQ youth, and athletes with disabilities.
Chase first found a home on TikTok in early 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic triggered quarantines and measures to stay at home. She connected to a growing gay community on the platform and slowly gained a following. Eventually she added rowing content to her repertoire and started showcasing her teammates in her videos.
In one of her most popular videos, Chase points to one of her teammates while the audio says “this girl right now” – and then to herself when it says “and this girl isn’t” – and cuts the camera to five more of her teammates than the audio keeps repeating “and this girl doesn’t”.
“If you weren’t interested in rowing before … let me introduce our OlympiGays,” she wrote in the video’s caption. The video has been viewed more than 1 million times and has more than 180,000 likes.
“I think this is my sign to start rowing,” wrote one user in one of the more than 700 comments on the video. “Target group reached,” wrote another.
Reaching out to TikTok’s LGBTQ community is important to Chase, who said the platform can help create an environment where athletes are comfortable coming out.
“What I really like, and what makes my heart melt, is when high school rowers text me and say things like, ‘I can see you’re out there making you comfortable. You are such an inspiration, a role model, thank you for feeling comfortable in the sport and making it right to just be authentic, ‘”she said.
US women’s rugby team member Ilona Maher also uses her TikTok account to draw attention to her sport and female athletes. She started posting rugby content on a regular basis in February and she said she tries to post at least twice a day to connect with her 86,000+ followers.
She said she wanted to use TikTok to get the word out and teach rugby to Americans.
“I looked through my TikToks, people were like, ‘Wait a minute, we have a rugby team from the USA? What is rugby? ‘ And then a conversation started which is exactly what we want because I want rugby to grow in this country, ”said Maher, 24.
She’s making videos of her workout and even did a bunch of TikToks during her layover en route to Tokyo.
Maher posted a video earlier this month explaining how she spends hours creating TikToks to promote her teammates – to a viral audio from reality TV star Kim Kardashian West who says, “It is a full time job and it’s extremely time consuming and it’s not as easy as it may seem to some people. “
“I want me to move up, but I also want my team to step up with me and show the world how great they are,” said Maher.
As an athlete, it is particularly important to Maher to make a name for herself and her teammates through TikTok. She has taken the advancement of the women’s rugby team into her own hands and tried to reach a large audience with her platform and connect with and inspire young athletes.
“It’s very difficult as athletes,” she said. “We don’t get a lot of resources or even a lot of attention.”
Paralympic athletes are also active on TikTok to raise awareness of the Paralympics and inspire young athletes with disabilities.
Paralympic javelin thrower Justin Phongsavanh, who posts under the account name @paralympicthrower, often shares videos from his training sessions, some of which have gone viral.
Phongsavanh, 24, received nearly 6 million views for a video posted in May of throwing his spear – and then immediately saying, “That was terrible”.
“If you know, you know,” he captioned the video.
“Practice makes perfect,” he captioned another video from November showing his followers an impressive throw of the javelin. The video achieved a staggering 15 million views.
Phongsavanh, who was paralyzed from a gunshot in 2015 and will play his first games this summer, said he had found support and motivation from TikTok but added that he had also dealt with some negative comments.
“Everyone is always asking me why I sit down and throw a spear. They ask me, ‘Why don’t you get up?’ ”He said. “That’s a decent question, don’t get me wrong if you haven’t seen the other videos or explanations or even know what they are. It’s more that people just have no idea what the Paralympics are. “
Phongsavanh’s roommate, Paralympic athlete Trenten Merrill, who will compete in the long jump and 200-meter run, is also using TikTok to draw attention to the Paralympics.
Earlier this year, Merrill, 31, wondered what he would do if he had only one year left to live. He decided to inspire and influence people and brought this mission to TikTok where he felt he could reach most of the people.
“For me, TikTok has become a place where I can show what I can do with a prosthesis,” he says. He often posts videos that he records during exercise, including one in March that has more than 4.7 million views.
“So many people have commented on how they were inspired,” he said. “I thought wow. That’s most of the people I’ve ever reached, these millions of people. “
Merrill, who is heading to his second Paralympic Games, suffered a below knee amputation after being hit by a car at the age of 14.
Using TikTok to raise awareness and advocate for paralympic athletes, he adds that one day he wants to see Olympians and Paralympists train and compete on the same stage.
Young athletes often comment on his videos, and Merrill said he looks forward to answering them and educating people about his experiences, including how his prosthesis works and his athletic history.
“I love all the people who get involved because it’s fun answering questions,” he said. “I’m happy to post there and it was really fun just being on TikTok and giving people a glimpse into my life as an athlete.”