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Have Chalk, Will Travel: Why Gymnasts Brought Their Own Chalk to Rio

Having the right type of chalk on a gymnast’s hands or grip can mean the difference between staying and slipping off

Not too powdery. Not too gritty. Not  too light or fluffy either. And definitely not too chalky.

So what’s the perfect chalk?

“I have no idea!” Danell Leyva said with a laugh. “I couldn’t tell you. I honestly couldn’t tell you. That’s just a really hard question. It’s like a feel thing.”

In their Olympic training, the U.S. men’s gymnastics team have left nothing up to chance. And that includes bringing their own powdered chalk to Rio.

On events like parallel bars and horizontal bar, having the right type of chalk on a gymnast’s hands or grip can mean the difference between staying and slipping off.

Chalk is so crucial that most gymnasts won't risk having to rely on the chalk provided by the venue.

When Sam Mikulak and the team traveled to Rio in early 2016 for a training trip, they took careful note of everything from the equipment to the weather.

“It was just nice to get acclimated and understand the small things that come with competing in South America,” he said shortly after the trip. “It’s a little warmer, little more humid, how to handle these things, chalking things up differently.

“We have to bring our own chalk because their chalk’s a little different… for some reason, it’s magnesium carbonate. When you go to South America it just feels more like baking powder than it does chalk. It’s just lighter, fluffier than I normally would want it to be.”

It’s common among gymnasts from other countries, too.

“I know the Japan team definitely brings their own chalk,” Leyva said. “It’s just a personal preference thing. The thing is, you might go to a competition and the chalk might be completely different from what you’re used to. And you’ll feel uncomfortable and you might be slipping.”

Jake Dalton never leaves home without it. “I make sure I bring chalk everywhere I go now.” He gets his particular chalk from the University of Oklahoma, where he’s trained since his college days.

“I don’t want hard chalk, I know that because that feels gritty,” he said. “But I also don’t want it where it’s so powdery that it feels like it doesn’t stick on your hands. I’m right in the middle of those two.”

It may seem like a minor detail, but gymnasts thrive on consistency—and chalk plays a big role in providing that.

“If you’re used to a certain chalk and get something completely different, “ Dalton said, “it might feel different when you’re doing a grip on parallel bars or swinging on the high bar,  so I just like to have something consistent.”

“It’s kind of mental thing too,” Chris Brooks said. “People are more confident when they have their own chalk.”

On parallel bars, where the gymnasts perform barehanded instead of with a grip, like on horizontal bar, they have another trick of the trade.

“Chalk and honey is the best thing you have for holding on,” Brooks said. “Just regular honey.”

But even the honey has to be just right, he explained.

“Everyone kind of has their own types, people like a thin honey or a thicker honey.”

A little bit of stickiness is a good thing.

“It has to be like perfect,” Leyva said. “It can’t be too wet and it can’t be too chalky, it has to be sticky.”

“Me, personally, I do always bring my own chalk and it’s helped.”

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