Where Are They Now? | Alaina Kwan: Taking Chances and Chasing Her Dreams 

By Ashlee Buhler 

Seven years ago, Alaina Kwan couldn’t escape the news headlines and the social media outrage. All it took was one decision for the 17-year-old from Southern California to go from a relatively unknown gymnast to the center of criticism and debate in the gymnastics community. It was one of the most talked about moves in the sport at the time: two American gymnasts were competing at the World Championships under the Belarusian flag, a country which they had no ties to. 

It all started after the 2015 U.S. Classic, where Kwan placed ninth All-Around (her teammate Kylie Dickson placed eleventh) but missed the mark to advance to the U.S. Championships. That’s when Nellie Kim, who serves as vice president of the Belarusian Gymnastics Federation, approached Kwan’s coaches at All Olympia, asking if both gymnasts wanted to obtain dual citizenship and compete for Belarus at the World Championships. After long discussions with her coaches and parents, Kwan accepted the offer. 

She knew her name wasn’t on anyone’s radar in the United States, so when the opportunity presented itself, Kwan said why not, viewing it as a way to gain more experience. But the decision struck a nerve in the gymnastics community, who felt it was wrong for two American gymnasts to take away the spots that could have gone to the country’s own gymnasts.

Although adults orchestrated the deal and nobody was breaking any rules (the system allowed for her to obtain dual citizenship, even without ties to the country) Kwan and her teammate took most of the heat. 

“I was not trying to do wrong by anybody,” Kwan said. “Me being a 17-year-old girl in my own world, I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cool that I get to do this.’ 

What she thought would be a cool opportunity quickly turned into a decision she would soon start questioning if it was even worth it. Never having been in the spotlight before, Kwan wasn’t sure how to handle the criticism coming her way. She couldn’t get on social media without seeing hateful comments from strangers on the internet. Whether she was at school or at the gym or chilling at home, she couldn’t escape it. 

“Already being so insecure and having hormones out the wazoo, it was overwhelming,” Kwan said. “It really hurt my feelings a lot of times… I remember calling my mom and crying about it, like, ‘Oh my god Mom, I never thought I would be enduring all this and that people would care or be paying this much attention to me.” 

Despite the negative feedback, Kwan tried to keep her head up and push forward. In only her second major elite competition, the 2015 World Championships, Kwan earned an individual spot for the nation of Belarus at the 2016 Olympic Test Event. That was the end of her elite career. 

As difficult as the experience was, Kwan found solace in knowing it could potentially help her down the line in her career as a broadcast journalist. This was her dream job since she was a young girl, but of course, being on TV opens the door for criticism and hateful remarks from strangers. 

“That was something that I really had to learn at that age, just to block out people’s perceptions and thoughts of me,” Kwan said. “It was one of those learning lessons we’re I’m just like, ‘Man, I’ve got to block out the noise or I’m never going to be brave enough to do things like that again.” 

Fast forward a year later and Kwan found herself at the University of Kentucky pursuing her dreams athletically, as well as setting herself up to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a broadcast journalist. However, her journey to becoming a division 1 college athlete was just as unconventional as her elite gymnastics journey. With both of her parents being divers, her father a 1984 Olympian, Kwan didn’t have much guidance or support navigating the college recruiting process, she didn’t even start looking into colleges until she was 15. 

“I kind of consider myself being recruited a little late just because we didn’t know how it worked,” Kwan said. “Both my parents were divers, so the way they recruited is different compared to gymnastics, but they thought it was the same for everybody. We realized, at the time at least, that people were getting recruited young and verbally committing young. We were like, ‘Okay, we’re going to need to reach out. We’re going to need to do some work on our end.’” 

Several factors went into Kwan’s college decision. First and foremost, she wanted a school with a top journalism program. She also wanted somewhere not too close to home, knowing that her career could potentially take her to the other side of the country: “I knew if I was going to be able to do this business, I needed to know: Can I move away? Can I make a new life? Can I figure this out on my own?”

Kwan visited the University of Michigan, Georgia, Cal and Alabama. But then she injured her MCL, which limited her training. Kwan thought she would slip off every school’s radar—but that’s when the University of Kentucky came knocking on her door.

“I remember hobbling out of the gym one day and my coach was like, ‘Hey, here’s Kentucky’s card.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, I wasn’t expecting this!’” Kwan said. “I called them, they invited me on a recruiting trip, and I sent them some videos of things that I’ve done. I guess even though I was injured, they saw something in me.” 

On her recruiting trip, Kwan said she felt at home. As an Asian American, finding a school where she felt comfortable and safe was another essential element to her recruiting journey.

“Living in California, we’re such a melting pot with all different races,” Kwan explained. “It was nothing that really came to my mind until my mom brought it to my attention on my recruiting trip. She was like, ‘hey, if you love the school, you love the school and that’s great for you, but you need to feel comfortable in the environment that you are in, because once you leave California, you are going to be a minority. And I just want you to feel comfortable and safe wherever you are.’ I was like, ‘Woah. I didn’t even really think about that.’”

When it came down to it, Kentucky checked all of Kwan’s boxes. They had a great journalism program, a gymnastics program on the rise, it was far enough from home to be a new experience—but yet still felt like home. “When they offered me on that trip, I couldn’t say no. It just felt right.” 

During her time at Kentucky, Kwan became a steady part of the vault and bar lineups, as well as becoming a WCGA Scholastic All-American. She also started interning at a local news station in Lexington to build her broadcasting portfolio. The plan was to finish up her gymnastics career, graduate, and then begin the job hunt, but again, Kwan’s path took an unexpected turn. 

Kwan and her teammates were en route to West Virginia for the final meet of the regular season when they got the call: the meet was canceled due to COVID-19 cases surging in the United States. Already an hour into the drive, they had to turn around and head back home. Not long after, the remainder of the season, and therefore Kwan’s gymnastics career was over.

“I just remember me and my roommate Hailey Poland, we looked at each other and were like, ‘Oh my God, we’re done. We’re retired.’ We were in shock. As a senior class, we knew we were reaching the end, but none of us were ready to retire within the span of a day! I think at least having senior night really helped us give us that closure.” 

Having a sense of direction with such a strong passion for journalism helped too. 

“I’ve known I’ve wanted to do it since I was like five,” Kwan said. “I remember being in undergrad and just being like, ‘I love juggling both, but it is exhausting.’ It really is hard work, but then when you whip out like a good story it’s just like, ‘man, I love this. I cannot wait for when I can actually invest all my time into this and just get better at it and see where it takes me.’”

Despite a hiring freeze at various media outlets due to the pandemic, Kwan was able to land a job at NBC affiliate station KWWL in Waterloo, Iowa in April of 2020. She started as a multimedia reporter, and by the start of 2022 was promoted to co-anchor of the weekday morning show. It’s the type of job where no two days are alike. From covering crimes to the state fair, Kwan gets to experience it all. 

“I think my motivation for going into journalism is that people have a right to information and people’s stories need to be told regardless of what it is, whether it’s community level, national level, whatever,” Kwan said. “And so any way that we can form a show to our audience that does that, it’s the best feeling ever.” 

Seven years ago she was headlining the news. Now she’s delivering it—and she’s learned a lot along the way. Kwan’s best piece of advice? Don’t be afraid to take chances. 

“Don’t be afraid and don’t be hesitant of an opportunity, because you will learn so much and it only makes you better at your craft. As a journalist, the goal is to understand the content and relay it to the audience for them to understand. You can only do that through experience—and you can only do that through chance.”

Photos courtesy of Alaina Kwan; Christy Ann Linder Gymnastics Photography (photos of Kwan at U.S. Classic) 

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