14 Nov Inspired by her UF Teammates, Kayla DiCello Is Giving the Games One Last Shot
By Christy Sandmaier
What a year it’s been for Kayla DiCello.
The 2021 World All-Around bronze medalist took her talents to Gainesville last season and emerged as one of the headliners on an all-star roster for the Gators in her freshman year. She was the All-Around champion at the NCAA Pittsburgh Regional with the nation’s top total in regional competition (39.800), dominated the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week award winning eight times, and was also named the SEC’s “top newcomer” for the final six weeks of the regular season. Also capturing the 2023 SEC Freshman of the Year honor, we watched as DiCello grew in confidence (her bars in particular looked better than ever) while renewing her love of the sport, and wondered if maybe, just maybe, she’d return to the Elite stage and go for the Games.
Following the 2023 NCAA Championships, where the Gators took second place behind the now six-time champion Oklahoma Sooners, 2020 Olympic alternate DiCello officially announced she just wasn’t ready to give up her dream to compete for Team USA at the Olympics. With Paris 2024 on the horizon, she shared her decision on social media to return to Hill’s Gymnastics and give it one last shot.
— kayla dicello (@kayladicello) April 27, 2023
First back on the scene at the 2023 U.S. Classic alongside the most competitive and decorated field the U.S. women have ever assembled on the floor at one time, followed by the U.S. Championships, DiCello had a bit of a rough go at first but her decision to return and her determination to make the 2024 team never wavered. After finishing in a tie for 19th on Day 1 at Championships, she roared back to finish the competition in a tie for eighth with first-year senior Tiana Sumanasekera. It’s all been part of the plan – pacing – and at World Trials in September DiCello was named both as the alternate to the World Championships team competing in Antwerp, Belgium and to the team competing at the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile. In Antwerp, her outing in podium training looked strong and though she was on the sidelines, she was cheering on her teammates at every turn.
That experience and the position has fueled DiCello’s dream to compete on the floor at next year’s Olympics.
“It made me feel like I [can] work even a little bit harder so that I could do just a little bit better, so I could be on the team instead of the alternate,” she told us about Antwerp. “The experience was amazing and I’m really grateful for that, but I would rather be competing than standing on the side.”
Ready to prove something to herself and to Team USA, once in Santiago, DiCello not only helped her team win gold but brought home the All-Around crown (54.699) – her first senior International All-Around title – and silver on floor. She’s also the first United States’ woman to win an All-Around gold at the Pan Am Games since 2011 (when Bridgette Caquatto won), taking the title over silver medalist Flavia Saraiva (54.565) of Brazil and teammate Jordan Chiles (53.999) who took bronze.
So now it’s one more shot to make the Olympics and fulfill her ultimate dream as part of the five-person team and to experience the Games in their entirety. It’s also one more opportunity for her to grow in the sport that’s already given her a lifetime of memories.
As she strives for Paris and looks forward to returning to Florida once her Elite journey is complete, DiCello will be looking to everything gymnastics has taught her and continuing to draw inspiration from own UF teammates including Gator great Trinity Thomas, who earlier this year announced her Elite comeback while simultaneously serving as a student coach for Florida and pursuing a second master’s degree, as well as 2022 and 2023 World team gold medalists Leanne Wong and (future Gator) Skye Blakely.
And as far as imagining the moment walking into the Olympics as an actual member of Team USA in Paris, DiCello says, “I think I would be so happy. Just everything that I’ve worked for and I’ve ever dreamed of would be coming true in that moment.”
During our conversation just following her return from Santiago, a very relaxed and reflective DiCello was eager to talk about her year, smiling more than I’ve ever seen, and more than ready to take on 2024.
First, congratulations on an incredible year! Let’s start with Pan Ams – tell me about your favorite moments and just the journey you experienced there!
Pan Ams was so much fun! Pretty much just from the moment we got there. I didn’t actually know what to expect for this meet, living in the village and stuff, so it was all very new to me. But I thought the experience was really good. I liked being around all the other athletes for Team USA plus all the other countries. You just got to see everyone, like, walking around, going to the dining hall, going to their practices and stuff. And then I did a lot of pin trading while I was there, so I got a lot of different ones and they were so cool! The meet was fun. I think I was just really happy with how I did. Overall, it’s been a long year for me, going from college and then coming back to Elite and now just finishing. But I’d say the whole experience was amazing!
Let’s talk about the pacing of that because you come off this phenomenal NCAA season with your team and being named SEC Freshman of the Year, SEC Freshman of the Week eight different times … Put into perspective the first half of the year and competing as successfully as you did…
This past year at Florida was amazing. Just being with the whole team, a whole new, different environment that I hadn’t been around yet. It just makes me more excited to go back and finish out the rest of my college career once this is all over. Just being there and doing the gymnastics, I think it helped me mentally with my gymnastics to get more comfortable with my skills and feel more confident in doing it, which I think this past week, it helped a lot just being able to trust myself [and] figure out what works best for me before I compete. So I think that was what really helped me.
As far as your decision to come back to Elite, tell me first about how you weighed the possibility of staying to train at Florida or going back to Hill’s…
So, going back home or staying at Florida and training, those were my two options. And I would talk about it with my parents a lot. They helped me figure it out. I think ultimately it was pretty much that I have one more shot for making the Olympics. This is the year that I want to make it. And if I wanted to do that, I thought personally, I would have to do everything possible for it. So coming home and training was the better option for me. Plus, I’ve been with Kelli (Hill) for my entire Elite career, so she knows my gymnastics and she knows how I function with Elite gymnastics a lot. So I thought that going back would be the most beneficial thing for me to do.
I know in 2022 it was very emotional for the two of you at Championships, with you heading to Florida, and Kelli possibly even retiring. Was she surprised when you said, ‘Hey, I want to do this again?’
I do think I did catch her by surprise a little bit, just because my decision was pretty late, which I probably could have planned a little bit better, but it was a late decision!
Take us through the journey back so far – Classics, Championships and maybe not placing where you would have liked – to World Team Trials and even podium training in Antwerp. It looked like you gained more confidence and looked very ready to go at Worlds if needed…
Pretty much for Classics, it was just get back out there, compete all four events, get my score so I can qualify to Championships. And then Championships it was put back in most of my skills, upgrade a little bit and really just tried to (hit four for four) again. That was pretty much the main goal. For World Trials, I really didn’t know what to expect – if I would make the World team or if I would make the Pan Ams team. But I really didn’t try to focus on that too much. I wanted to just go in there and do the skills that I know how to do. I think doing Classics and Championships was very good for me because it helped me feel more comfortable and get back into doing my Elite skills. So that way when it came to World Trials, I felt more prepared than I did for Classics and Championships.
So you go from an alternate at Worlds to winning Pan Ams with the team and winning the All-Around! Did that just cap off the year better than you could have imagined?
That was pretty exciting! I was just happy with everything. I mean, it was kind of going the way I wanted. I was hitting my routines, doing what I know how to do, and so just being able to win All-Around was just the best feeling.
Last year in Liverpool at Worlds, Yul Moldauer told us he never wanted to be in a position as an alternate again – that he always wanted to be on the floor competing and he ended up having an incredible 2023 season. Did being an alternate for Worlds this year maybe even give you just an extra little incentive to push forward to try and make one of those five spots for Paris?
I would say I definitely agree with what Yul says because it is harder to be on the floor and not competing than actually competing. It made me feel like I (can) work even a little bit harder so that I could do just a little bit better, so I could be on the team instead of the alternate. The experience was amazing and I’m really grateful for that, but I would rather be competing than standing on the side.
When you got to Pan Ams, obviously, winning team gold is always in the forefront of everybody’s mind for Team USA. But for you personally, what were you hoping to achieve?
Team gold was one. I mean, I was going in thinking about winning All-Around for finals and then pretty much just making as many finals as I could, and doing well in all of them.
What kind of things was the team able to do off the competition floor in Chile?
Well, there were a lot of different areas we could hang out while we were in the village, so we would do that and we would hang out with some of the other Team USA athletes, which was fun because then we got to know people from different sports. And then the last day we went on a gondola trip, and so we got to see a little bit of Chile.
I’m glad you were able to experience the village because obviously in Tokyo, no one had that experience. So was it just amazing to be able to just walk around and meet all the other athletes from the different sports?
That was really nice, and it made the whole experience a lot better and more fun!
So now are you in a little bit of a rest and recovery mode? What’s the plan for the rest of 2023 before we talk about 2024?
I’m pretty much just working on upgrades, planning routines for next season. We haven’t quite really talked about the schedule yet, but Winter Cup is most likely the first thing.
What do you think it says about the Florida program that you all are so successful in Elite as well?
I think it’s just amazing. Whenever we go to meets, we’re always with each other hanging out. And with Leanne doing college and Elite, I think it’s really good and really inspiring for the next generation for when they decide if they want to do Elite and college. I think it’s good because it’s showing it’s possible to do.
We spent a little bit of time with Trinity as well over the summer, which, again, is another amazing story. Are there athletes – and maybe she is one of them – that you are looking up to, maybe as role models or just drawing inspiration from right now?
Trin is definitely one of my biggest role models! She was one of my biggest ones even when I was there my freshman year. Just someone who I looked up to, watching her practice in the gym every day, just being around her, that was probably one of my favorite parts.
It sounds like you’ve just taken in so much from that college experience! Is it going to be hard to sit out this year and just watch?
I do think it will be, but I’m going to try and go to as many meets as I can to cheer them on!
So have you allowed yourself to picture being named to that five-person team for Paris and walking into an Olympic Games again?
I think I would be so happy. Just everything that I’ve worked for and I’ve ever dreamed of would be coming true in that moment.
It’s obviously one of the most competitive fields ever for the U.S. women, and, I feel like we say that every quad and then every quad, it’s even more competitive! What do you think about Gabby Douglas making her comeback? And for everyone doing college and Elite at the same time again, is that extra inspiration to see how everybody is changing the rulebook a little bit?
I do think it’s very inspiring. And it’s really good to see people do something that they want to do and not give up on it until going after it. No matter even if they’ve been out of the sport for a while and they’re coming back, or if they’re just finishing college and deciding to do Elite again and doing both. I think it’s really inspiring.
Finally, can you describe your journey this year in one sentence?
I would say that this year means so much to me just because I’ve had so many different and amazing opportunities and each one I’ve been able to learn from and grow from.
Photos by Ricardo Bufolin and Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics magazine