Riley McCusker holds a split position on beam.

CGN Roundtable: Elites in the NCAA

The US gymnastics national championships are happening this weekend (right now! Depending on when you’re reading this), and the start list features a large number of former, current, and future college gymnasts. In this week’s roundtable, we’re talking all about them—from which ones we’re most excited to see compete elite to creating a college-only Olympic team.

Which NCAA-affiliated gymnast are you most excited to watch compete elite this season?

Katherine: I would say Trinity Thomas. Her announcement was a little unexpected, but coming off the heels of one of the most successful college careers in the sport, why not give elite another try? I’m excited to see what she can do. 

Julianna: Personally, I am excited to see all the girls from NCAA come back to elite; I truly don’t know how their bodies are doing this after a full NCAA season! While I am also super excited to see Trinity Thomas come back, I am also very excited to see Leanne Wong. Wong came back out at the Core Hydration Classic like she never left elite, so I am very intrigued as to what else she has in store!

Emily L: I’ve always been a fan of Jade Carey, so she’s an obvious pick for me. Her incredible tumbling never ceases to amaze me, no matter how many times I watch it! But I do have to agree with Katherine and Julianna and say that Trinity Thomas’ announcement has me very curious and dying to see where it leads. 

Talitha: As ever, Leanne Wong! She’s been my favorite elite since she was a junior and I’d love to see her thrive this and next season. Ideally, I’d love to see her making the Olympic team next year after being an alternate in 2021.

Rhiannon: I’m going to go with a newer face and say Skye Blakely! She is looking so solid this season and I can’t wait to see how she stacks up against the rest of this field. 

Alyssa: After kidney issues impacted her ability to finish out her sophomore season at Auburn, I am excited to see how Sunisa Lee is able to come back to the elite world. She is currently on the roster to compete at championships, so it will be interesting to see how she looks.

Katie: Are we expanding beyond gymnasts that will be at the US championships? Yes? Good! Then I’m really excited to see how Lynnzee Brown manages to juggle competing internationally for Haiti alongside her new job as an assistant coach at Penn State. She’s already qualified to the world championships in October where she will be chasing a shot at qualifying to Paris in 2024.

Peri: Seeing that as I’m writing this the Canadian world trials are going on, I’m eager to see how Clara Raposo fares this year. She’s a huge wildcard for the Canadians during this quad of unprecedented NCAA affiliations up here.

Aaron: I am really excited to see how Skye Blakely does this season. She is such a dark horse for team USA right now and people are starting to notice that she can score 14+ on all four events. I think she has a great shot at Worlds again if she keeps up consistency.

Who is a current or former NCAA gymnast that you want to join the trend and make an elite comeback?

Katherine: I’ll go for another Gator and say Riley McCusker. She’s been hampered by injuries and really started hitting her stride in college this past season, but after being so close in 2021, I’d love to see her try as a specialist one more time.  

Julianna: This is such a tough question! So I picked one for each :). Current NCAA gymnast I would love to see come back, maybe as a beam specialist specifically, is Morgan Hurd. I feel like we haven’t seen much of her during her time at Florida due to injuries, but I miss her gymnastics! As for the former, I feel like Katelyn Ohashi would bring so much fun back into elite gymnastics. Especially now since she is a household name from her many viral UCLA floor routines, she would definitely attract more viewers with an elite comeback. 

Emily L: I was absolutely devastated watching Riley McCusker fall on the second day of Olympic trials, so I’d love to see her make an elite comeback, even if it is just on her signature event! 

Talitha: I agree with everyone else that it’d be awesome to see Riley McCusker, the people’s Olympian, getting a second chance and becoming a real Olympian next year. In terms of previous elites, I’m still not over Bailie Key’s shortened elite (and college!) career. What a dream it would be to see her competing again!

Rhiannon: I am also #teamRiley for an elite comeback, but I’ll say former Canadian elite  Brooklyn Moors. She has such beautiful artistry and I feel like she is better awarded for it as an elite than as an NCAA athlete. 

Alyssa: After becoming an NCAA all-around champion, the next logical step is going back to elite right? I can’t be the only one who would love to see Maile O’Keefe come back to elite. That beam routine would be stellar. 

Katie: Hmmm that’s so tough. I’d love to see someone like eMjae Frazier go back to elite with the experience and confidence of some NCAA experience behind her- I’ve always been a big fan of her gymnastics and I don’t think she ever officially retired elite so I’m hopeful for this one.

Peri: All (two of my) eyes are on Ana Padurariu right now, having snuck her way into a few GymCan reels in recent months. 

Aaron: Kara Eaker! I am honestly so sad that we have not seen her compete much in the NCAA, which I’m sure is going to change during her junior and senior years. I don’t know how she would stack up against the current field in the US, but she has gorgeous gymnastics that I am dying to see more of.

In your opinion, what do you think is the “better” path: Staying in college and competing elite at the same time or deferring to train elite then coming back to college after?

Katherine: I think it depends on the gymnast’s set of circumstances, but if competing in college is her ultimate goal, I imagine it could become less and less likely as the years training elite go by, due in part to injuries and potentially interest; if someone becomes a mega-star through elite à la Suni Lee, her goals could change and college competition may not be as appealing of a prospect. That’s not to say it’s not possible or to overlook the challenges that come with doing both college and elite at once. I think the ideal path would be having an elite career before college and then continuing it; and, if the Olympics are the goal, taking a maximum of one year off from college like Kayla DiCello and Jordan Chiles are planning to do. 

Julianna: I agree with Katherine; I really feel like it is circumstantial which path you choose. However, in my opinion, I think it is better to stay in college at the same time if you make the decision to continue training elite. I feel like there are so many benefits to continuing to train among teammates and coaches who you have grown comfortable with, and in an environment that might be better for you as well. Also, just technically speaking, we all unfortunately know there are a limited number of spots on that Olympic team, so I feel like not stepping fully away from college and all that includes might be the most beneficial when returning back to the NCAA.

Emily L: I was never a gymnast, so I don’t feel like I’m really in the position to say which path is better. But I will say that the shift in culture in the elite world has probably made it easier for gymnasts to make the choice that is truly right for them, not the choice that they feel like they are “supposed” to make. 

Talitha: I’m going to take the opposite view from the editors above me: I think that if the Olympics are one year away, as they are now, it’s probably easier for gymnasts to take a step back from college, focus on elite, then return to college afterwards. It can’t be easier to do both well at the same time. For one thing, training elite while in college would likely entail training extra hours alone in the gym, as NCAA gymnasts can train as a team only a limited number of hours per week. Further, it may be hard for a college athlete with elite ambitions to focus on her studies fully while also training extra hours. Finally, some college coaches may not be fully prepared to coach an elite athlete. Overall, I agree with Katherine that the choice depends on the gymnasts’ own circumstances, and in fact I’m very curious to see Jade Carey competing both in college and elite this upcoming season. Yet I can see why many gymnasts prefer to defer and focus on one thing at a time.

Rhiannon: Honestly, I’m just so incredibly happy that gymnasts have the choice and support to do both. It’s been common on the men’s side to do elite and college at the same time, with the advantage that the college and elite codes are much more compatible than the women’s side. I think for the women it really comes down to where they think they have the most resources to succeed, and what types of training environments they prefer. 

Alyssa: Doing both seemed to work last year for many who tried, so that could be the “better” path as long as it is not the Olympic year. For the Olympic year, all of the competitions are earlier in the year leaving less time for the gymnasts to recover from the NCAA season and get elite difficulty back. In the Olympic year, deferring a year is the way to go from my viewpoint.

Aaron: I think it will definitely be tough for gymnasts like Jade Carey to do an NCAA season the same year as the Olympics, and I would personally be a little scared to take that risk. But, I think gymnasts should choose whatever environment they prefer and that they are comfortable with.

How do you think NIL has and will benefit this elite and NCAA gym trend we’ve seen recently, beyond the obvious “they can do both now”?

Katherine: I have to imagine NIL deals can help offset the training costs that come with elite gymnastics, but I think it also gives gymnasts the chance to build a financial safety net. Injuries can derail plans at any time, and it helps to have the chance to make money in the meantime to be financially independent at a time when gymnastics is no longer in the picture, whenever that may be. 

Julianna: I agree with Katherine that it gives these athletes a financial safety net in a way as we all know, gymnastics, especially at the elite level, is not cheap. This is definitely a benefit of the NIL, but besides the actual financial aspect, it gives these athletes a chance to do other things and be a part of something else besides gymnastics. Sadly, we all can’t do gymnastics forever, so these deals might open up doors that will help these athletes in the future that they might not have had the exposure to otherwise. 

Talitha: I think it gives college gymnastics—and college more generally—a higher status. Before the NIL, when the Olympics came around, we knew we’d lose at least one future college gymnast to pro deals. Implicitly, the pro versus college dilemma elevated the value of money over that of college sports—and of college education. By bringing monetary prizes into college gymnastics, the NIL seems to have raised the value of the NCAA. College is not elites’ plan B anymore: it’s become a part of their gymnastics journey.

Rhiannon: NIL is a great opportunity for gymnasts to financially benefit from being world-class athletes in a way that professional athletes have benefited from for decades. I think it also changes the recruiting conversations, as a team with support and opportunities for NIL can recruit more gymnasts that might not be on a scholarship, but still have the opportunity for financial support.  

Alyssa: With NIL, doing both allows gymnasts to more continuously have their names out there which helps what deals gymnasts have access to. 

Katie: I think there’s the potential to grow the fan base of college gymnastics even more. Oklahoma, with its six national championships in the past ten years, has an average season attendance record of 7,057 (Lloyd Noble Center has a max seating capacity of 11,528) compared to the 12,709 (Pauley Pavillion, 13,800) of UCLA who only have one NCAA title in the past decade. Oklahoma counts three Olympians among its alumni compared to UCLA’s 24. I’m hoping that NIL will mean we see more “household names” at a wider range of colleges and with that a boost in attendance numbers at colleges that don’t routinely sell out their home meets.

Aaron: I think NCAA gymnastics is definitely becoming more popular with huge names like Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, Grace McCallum, and Jade Carey choosing to pursue NCAA, a path that was not taken by many high-profile gymnasts before the NIL rules changed. Watching current elite meets, nearly every single one of those girls are committed to schools which I don’t think would have been the case without NIL.

Which college gymnasts that do not compete for the US are you most excited to see try their hand at elite this season?

Katherine: It’s Luisa Blanco for me. My partner is from Colombia, and after the recent success and heartbreak the country’s team had at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, I’d love to see her help bring the WAG team some hardware.

Emily L: I have to agree with Katherine and go with Luisa Blanco. Blanco’s gymnastics is absolutely captivating, and I can’t wait to see what she does at the elite level. 

Julianna: The two major current / former NCAA gymnasts I am excited to see come back as elites would have to be Aleah Finnegan for the Philippines and Lynnzee Brown for Haiti. I have always been a fan of these two, and watching them compete at the elite level with the potential of representing these nations in the 2024 Olympics is so exciting!

Talitha: I’m also really excited for Luisa Blanco. Her gymnastics is gorgeous and I’m so happy we’ll get to see more of it!

Rhiannon: Aleah Finnegan. She’s grown into such a huge part of the LSU lineup, and I love that she’s brought her elite difficulty as well, especially on Floor. 

Alyssa: As someone who is going to Antwerp to watch worlds in person, I would have to say Aleah Finnegan because her floor is so engaging and I am excited to see that in person. If I was not going to worlds I would have agreed with Luisa Blanco though.

Katie: I mentioned Lynnzee in my first answer so I’ll go with Aleah Finnegan for all the reasons my colleagues with excellent taste have listed above!

Aaron: I am really excited to watch Emma Malabuyo compete this season. After not qualifying for Worlds, her path to the Olympics will look a lot different if she chooses to go for it. She really looks like she loves this sport and it makes me so happy seeing her back competing elite!

Time for a tough one. Create the most realistic US Olympic team comprised only of current college gymnasts.

Katherine: In a three-up-three-count final where a team of five gymnasts is competing, here is my US Olympic x NCAA team: Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles, and Leanne Wong on vault; Chiles, Sunisa Lee, and Wong on bars, Chiles, Lee, and Konnor McClain on beam, and Carey, Chiles, and Wong on floor. 

Emily L: Wong, Carey, Chiles, and McClain for sure. I’d put Suni Lee in there too, but I don’t know if she counts since she technically said she isn’t going back to NCAA. If Lee doesn’t count I’d go with Kayla DiCello

Julianna: I would definitely have to also say Suni Lee, Leanne Wong, and Jordan Chiles as my top three. I would also throw in Jade Carey and honestly Maile O’Keefe. I’m just obsessed with her gymnastics, I feel like she would still thrive as an elite if she came back. 

Talitha: I agree with my fellow editors: Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles, Leanne Wong, and Suni Lee would be obvious choices, with Aleah Finnegan filling the fifth spot. I’d have Carey, Chiles, and Wong on vault; Chiles, Lee, and Wong on bars; Lee, Wong, and Finnegan on beam; and Carey, Chiles, and either Finnegan or Wong on floor. If Finnegan doesn’t count because she’s now competing for the Philippines, I’d have Konnor McClain go on beam.

Rhiannon: Carey (VT FX), DiCello (UB BB), Chiles (AA), Wong (AA), and Grace McCallum (AA). I think McCallum is a wildcard since she was out for a lot of the last NCAA season with an injury, but she could potentially be in shape for an Olympic team in a year. I excluded Lee since she’s not currently competing, but she’d be in the same boat as Grace McCallum. 

Alyssa: I am thinking Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, Jade Carey, Leanne Wong, and Kayla DiCello because they all seem to be going for it. I would love to add another beamer by adding Konnor McClain, but I am not sure if that is the most realistic. 

Peri: Chiles, Carey, DiCello, Wong, and Lee. More or less the same reasoning as the above answers, but I think with this roster there are four solid scores on each event and no glaring lineup holes. I’d sub in McClain if Lee doesn’t count… exactly the same team as Alyssa picked.

Katie: As above mine are similar I’m bringing Chiles, Carey, DiCello, and Wong but I’m going to bring Eaker too because I’m not counting Lee as a current NCAA competitor. Let’s be honest here, who doesn’t want to see that beautiful beam rhythm on the international stage again?

Aaron: My mind immediately thinks of Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, and Jade Carey. To fill out those other two spots, I would take Leanne Wong and Grace McCallum.

How about the US Olympic x NCAA team your heart wants, whether it’s realistic or not?

Katherine: Since it’s what my heart wants, I’ll include some college gymnasts who don’t even have elite on their radar, as well as some of the gymnasts I mentioned in the first few questions here. My vault lineup would be Sierra Brooks, Haleigh Bryant, and Jocelyn Moore. My bars lineup would be Brooks, Bryant, and Riley McCusker. My beam lineup would be Brooks, McCusker, and Faith Torrez. Lastly, my floor lineup would be Bryant, Brooks, and Faith Torrez. 

Emily L: Haleigh Bryant, Riley McCusker, Jessica Hutchinson, Selena Harris and Audrey Davis.  Bryant, Hutchinson, and Harris would do vault. I’d have McCusker, Hutchinson, and Davis on bars. Davis, McCusker, and Hutchinson would be on beam. Finally, I’d have Bryant, Hutchinson, and Harris on floor. 

Julianna: Minus the athletes I have already said in the previous answer, I would definitely have Audrey Davis on this list, both Haleigh Bryant and Aleah Finnegan, and also Raena Worley. I would also love to see Emma Malabuyo get another shot in the elite world. I feel like this list is kind of all over the place, but I really feel like if any of these athletes were put in or put back in an elite situation they would exceed expectations.

Talitha: I’d go with Haleigh Bryant, Selena Harris, Aleah Finnegan, Riley McCusker, and Natalia Pawlak. Bryant, Harris, and Finnegan would do vault; Harris, McCusker, and Pawlak bars; Harris, Finnegan, and McCusker beam; and Harris, Finnegan, and Bryant floor.

Rhiannon: Morgan Hurd, Riley McCusker, Trinity Thomas, Ragan Smith, and Faith Torrez. My heart wants a team of athletes that could have been competitive for an Olympic spot but ultimately weren’t chosen for the team, or were chosen as an alternate. 

Alyssa: My heart wants Sunisa Lee, Konnor McClain, Kayla DiCello, Maile O’Keefe, and Riley McCusker. If you can’t tell from my team, I really like my bars and beam queens.

Peri: Not that I’m the biggest SEC fan, but I am curious how an all-Florida team would fare. It’s mathematically possible every year (à la Stanford men’s), but the odds are slim. In a perfect injury-free world, that hypothetical team would have Leanne Wong and Kayla DiCello in the all-around, with some combination of Riley McCusker, Morgan Hurd, Ellie Lazzari, and Victoria Nguyen in the final three spots. Since I also can’t resist, my Canadian NCAA five-up team would be Emma Spence, Hannah Scharf, Jada Mazury, Brooklyn Moors, and Ana Padurariu with Ilka Juk as the alternate. 

Katie: OK. Totally unrealistic NCAAxOlympic team has to include Morgan Hurd and Riley McCusker because they’re Olympians in my heart! Then Trinity Thomas because queen things… and I’m going to round off with Maile O’Keefe and Konnor McClain because, with McClain’s pure raw talent, her international senior career deserves to be ongoing.

Aaron: I genuinely love how Florida has so many returning elites that they could have their own training squad at Florida. My all-Florida Olympic team would be Trinity Thomas, Leanne Wong, Kayla DiCello, Riley McCusker, and Morgan Hurd. 

READ THIS NEXT: CGN Roundtable: Lineup Strategy

Article by the editors of College Gym News

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