It’s the GK U.S. Classic in Indianapolis. The pressure is palpable in the arena as the meet is the first of three competitions that will end up selecting the U.S. Olympic team for Tokyo 2020. It’s time for gymnasts to show what they’re capable of. It’s starting to feel real.
One gymnast, however, is not performing the way she’s capable. She falls on bars, then on beam. She starts crying, hates everything, and at the end of the meet, even thinks of quitting gymnastics for good.
Konnor McClain’s Olympic year was not supposed to go this way. In fact, it was not supposed to happen this year at all. A very talented, successful and much talked-about gymnast from a very young age, she caught the nation’s attention in 2016, at only 11 years old, when she featured on Steve Harvey’s “Little Big Shots,” proclaiming she had her eyes set on the 2024 Olympic all around title.
Born in 2005, McClain was originally too young to compete at the 2020 Games, but the postponement of the Olympics suddenly made her age eligible for Tokyo, drastically changing her plans. In a split second, her Olympic dream was just 12 months down the road.
The news left McClain overwhelmed. “I wasn’t expecting this year to happen, so going into this year, it was hard on my mind,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what do I do now?’ And then each day, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is actually real.’”
Entering the Olympic year, she tried to enjoy it without putting too much pressure on herself, but nothing seemed to fall into place. An ankle injury delayed her preparation and left her unable to compete consistently in the all around. Ongoing problems at her gym exacerbated, making her struggle with motivation. Finally, McClain began to feel the weight of expectations, leaving her with a sense that she wasn’t doing it for the right reasons anymore.
“I was having a rough year inside the gym. I didn’t really have the love for gymnastics,” McClain said. “I felt forced going into the gym. I wasn’t really having a good time anymore, so by the time I got to Classics, I was so over it and I felt so done. I didn’t want to compete.”
After the meet, what was supposed to be the beginning of a stellar Olympic journey felt like the end of her entire career. “I was ready to quit gymnastics,” McClain said. “I didn’t want to, but I was so done. … I [felt] like I needed a change because [my gym] wasn’t good for my head. I started hating everything at that point.”
During that time, she was also filming Peacock’s documentary “Golden: The Journey of USA’s Elite Gymnasts,” and she was in such low spirits she was worried about the way she would come across. “When I started filming it, I felt I wasn’t even myself … In the gym, I was so down, and I looked so dead,” McClain said. “At the end of it, I was like, ‘How are people going to see me? People are going to hate me’ Because I wasn’t even acting like myself.”
After an honest conversation with her parents, McClain decided to relocate from Revolution in West Virginia to WOGA in Texas to train with Valeri Liukin, who coached 2008 Olympic champion Nastia Liukin. In agreement with her new coach, she decided to withdraw from the Olympic process and resume her original plan, preparing step by step for 2024.
The choice of taking a step back and prioritizing her physical and mental health was important for McClain. Once at WOGA, she regained a healthier approach to gymnastics. “A couple of weeks after I switched [gyms] I really started doing it for me and not doing it for other people, because I just enjoyed it again,” she said. “And I haven’t felt the joy for the sport in a long time. Ever since I felt it, I started loving it even more.”
McClain felt even more legitimized in her choice a couple of months later, when Simone Biles withdrew from four finals at the Olympic Games to prioritize her mental health. “Everybody needed to see that—every gymnast and every girl, every human being in the world needed to see that,” McClain said. “Even the best in the world can’t do it sometimes and has to take a break. It’s easier to take it in—if I’m not OK, it’s OK now. Maybe I can’t do it all the time, maybe I’m not perfect all the time. That was really good to see.”
In the few months she spent at WOGA, McClain has already made two important decisions. She committed to an elite schedule that she hopes will take her to the world championships this fall and eventually to Paris 2024, and she chose LSU as her future NCAA team.
When McClain started her recruiting process, she began to tease fans about her collegiate choice, dropping real and fake clues on social media about the schools she was considering. “I just loved going along with it because they started it,” she said. “They were like, ‘What school is Konnor going to?’ And I was like, ‘Let me join in.’ So I started it and then it became a thing, so I had to continue it all the way until I actually committed.”
Although LSU always felt special to McClain, she wasn’t misleading fans when she appeared to be considering multiple options. She was interested in four other schools, she revealed, including Georgia, Utah and Oklahoma, and “it was a very hard decision in the end.”
Eventually, the special relationship she already felt with the LSU coaching staff, as well as her close friendship with incoming freshman Aleah Finnegan—“she talked me into committing and liking LSU,” McClain said—made her choose the Tigers.
Once in Baton Rouge, she wants to help the team achieve that elusive first NCAA national title and wishes to have fun with the sport, enjoying the team environment that is missing from elite.
College, however, will have to wait until the fall of 2024, as before then McClain will seek to finally achieve that Olympic dream she’s had since she was a child. The first step is the September training camp later this month, which will select the U.S. team for the world championships in October. There, McClain is planning to compete in the all around for the first time since March and hopes to end her year at worlds in Kitakyushu, Japan.
While McClain made her peace with how this year started, coming to the conclusion that 2021 wasn’t her time, she’s more committed than ever to turn 2024 into her Olympic year. “I really want to do it for myself,” she said, “and for that little 11-year-old girl who wanted it, too.”
Article by Talitha Ilacqua
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