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Gen Z, millennial Olympians take to TikTok to inspire a new generation of athletes

Athletes set to compete in the Olympics and the Paralympics use the platform to make a name for their sport and inspire LGBTQ, women and athletes with disabilities.
China Women's Volleyball Team Depart For Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Lang Ping of China women's national volleyball team holds a smartphone on her departure for the Olympic Games on July 19, 2021, in Beijing.VCG / via Getty Images

“I’m going to teach you a little bit about rowing,” U.S. Olympic women’s four rower Kendall Chase declared to her 50,000 TikTok followers in a video posted this past weekend. “Because chances are, you probably know nothing.”

Chase, 26, regularly posts videos to the app including ones educating people about rowing — because “not a lot of people in the U.S. are familiar with the sport” — to LGBTQ-focused content and even lighthearted TikTok trends.

She’s one of many Generation Z and young millennial athletes just weeks away from competing in either the Olympics or the Paralympics who have amassed a large following on TikTok — many of whom are using the platform to introduce their sport to new audiences. Some of these athletes are also using their platform to serve as role models for up-and-coming athletes, specifically girls, LGBTQ youth and athletes with disabilities.

Chase first found a home on TikTok in early 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic prompted quarantines and stay-at-home measures. She connected with a growing gay community on the platform and slowly gained a following. She eventually added rowing content to her repertoire and started featuring her teammates in her videos.

In one of her most popular videos, Chase points to one of her teammates as the audio says “this girl straight” — then to herself when it says “and this girl not” — and cuts the camera to five more of her teammates as the audio continues to repeat “and this girl not.”

“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.


If you weren’t interested in rowing before…let me introduce our OlympiGays™️ ##olympics ##gayathlete ##rowing ##lgbtq ##lgbt🌈 ##tokyo2020 ##fyp

♬ the token straight - chloe

“I think this is my sign to take up rowing,” a user wrote in one of the video’s more than 700 comments. “Target audience reached,” wrote another.

Reaching out to TikTok’s LGBTQ community is important to Chase, who said that the platform can help create an environment that makes athletes feel comfortable coming out.

“What I really like and what makes my heart melt is when high school rowers message me and they say things like, ‘I see you being out and comfortable, it makes me feel like I can be comfortable in my boathouse. You’re such an inspiration, role model, thank you for being comfortable with yourself in the sport and making it okay to just be authentic,’” she said.

U.S. women’s rugby team member Ilona Maher similarly uses her TikTok account to bring attention to her sport and female athletes. She began regularly posting rugby content in February, and she said she tries to post at least twice a day to connect with her more than 86,000 followers.

She said she wants to use TikTok to get the word out and teach Americans about rugby.

“I was seeing through my TikToks, people were like, ‘Wait a minute, we have a USA rugby team? What’s rugby?’ And then it started a conversation, which is exactly what we want, because I want rugby to grow in this country,” Maher, 24, said.

She makes videos of her training and even did a series of TikToks during her layover on her way to Tokyo.

Maher posted a video earlier this month explaining how she spends hours making TikToks to promote her teammates — set to a viral audio of the reality television star Kim Kardashian West saying, “It’s a full time job, and it’s extremely time consuming, and it’s not as easy as it may appear to some people.”

“I want myself to rise, but I also want my team to rise as well with me and to show the world how amazing they are,” Maher said.

Making a name for herself and her teammates through TikTok is particularly important to Maher as a female athlete. She’s taken promotion of the women’s rugby team into her own hands, using her platform to try and reach a large audience and connect with and inspire young athletes.

“It’s very hard as female athletes,” she said. “We don’t get a lot of resources or even a lot of attention.”

Paralympic athletes are also active on TikTok, committed to raising awareness for the Paralympics and inspiring young athletes with disabilities.

Paralympic javelin thrower Justin Phongsavanh, who posts under the account name @paralympicthrower, often shares videos from his training sessions, several of which have gone viral.

Phongsavanh, 24, got nearly 6 million views for a video posted in May of him throwing his javelin — then immediately saying “that was horrible.”

“When you know, you know,” he captioned the video.

“Practice makes perfect,” he captioned another video from November, showing his followers an impressive javelin throw. The video totaled a staggering 15 million views.

Phongsavanh, who was paralyzed in 2015 after being shot and will be competing in his first games this summer, said he has found support and motivation through TikTok, but added that he has also dealt with some negative comments.

“Everyone always asks me why I’m sitting down throwing javelin. They ask me, ‘Why don’t you stand up?’” he said. “It’s a decent question, don’t get me wrong, if you haven’t seen the other videos or explanation or even know what this is. It’s more so people are just very clueless about what the Paralympics are.”

Phongsavanh’s roommate, Paralympic track and field athlete Trenten Merrill who will compete in the long jump and 200 meters events, also uses TikTok to bring attention to the Paralympics.

Earlier this year, Merrill, 31, asked himself what he would do if he had just one year left to live. He decided he wanted to inspire and influence people, and brought this mission to TikTok where he felt he could reach the most people.

“For me, TikTok became a place where I can show what I can do with a prosthetic,” he said. He often posts videos he takes while training, including one posted in March that has amassed more than 4.7 million views.

“So many people have commented how they were inspired,” he said. “I was like, wow. This is the most people I’ve ever reached, these millions of people.”

Merrill, who is headed to his second Paralympics, had an amputation below his knee after he was hit by a car when he was 14.

He uses TikTok to raise awareness and push for equality for Paralympic athletes, adding that one day he wants to see Olympians and the Paralympians training and competing on the same stage.

Young athletes often comment on his videos, and Merrill said he enjoys being able to answer them and educate people on his experience, including how his prosthetic works and what his athletic journey has been like.

“I love all the people that engage because it’s fun to answer questions,” he said. “I’m happy to post on there, and it’s been really fun just to be on TikTok and give people a glimpse of what my life is like as an athlete.”