Grace Personified – McCallum Ready to Shine for the Red Rocks
By Christy Sandmaier
Grace McCallum laughs a lot more now.
Donned in a cozy red team fleece as a freshman for the 10-time National Champion Utah Red Rocks, I immediately noticed a new ease and confidence in her approach to gymnastics and life following Tokyo and in just the very short time she’s had to adjust to college life. And it’s only the beginning of limitless possibilities and opportunities she’ll have on and off the floor as a student athlete for a program dynasty defined by a tradition of excellence .
After an Olympic experience of a lifetime and three months as one of the headliners with the Athleta Presents Gold Over America Tour, McCallum describes the road she’s traveled to get to Salt Lake quite simply as, “crazy to wrap my mind around.” Looking back, her journey to the Games that seemed so long is now suddenly over and the promise of a college career shines brightly ahead.
Just how many NCAA titles McCallum may capture with her team or for herself will write itself. On Friday night, she’ll take the floor for the first time as part of a super-stacked roster for the Utes at the Red Rocks Preview at the Huntsman Center. The season kicks off officially January 7 with the Rio Tinto Best of Utah and the home opener versus Oklahoma on January 14. First and foremost though, is how happy she is just to be with her team and ready to get this new chapter started. In her own words, “it’s been a whirlwind.” And as the song goes, the rest is still unwritten.
Last June in St.Louis, McCallum flew into her final floor pose on day two of the Olympic Trials to finish fourth in the competition. But nothing was certain. With Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee and Jordan Chiles’ spots seemingly locked up early on, McCallum was in fifth after day one and part of an epic battle with MyKayla Skinner, Kayla DiCello, Leanne Wong, Kara Eaker, Emma Malabuyo and Riley McCusker at different points throughout the competition for the fourth and final spot on Team USA.
Traditionally, fourth place is not something athletes relish. It’s one step away from the podium and a medal. But this time, in this competition, it was everything. For McCallum, hearing her name called as the fourth member of the 2020 Olympic Team was a moment she’ll never forget. And a moment she didn’t quite believe at first.
“I actually had to turn to my friend Jade [Carey] and was like, ‘Did they say my name?'” she told the media the next day. “They announced Suni, Simone and Jordan first, so there was one more spot and my heart was racing.”
It wasn’t an easy road getting there.
In early 2018, McCallum told us she “would love to make a Worlds team and my ultimate goal would, obviously, be the Olympic team.” She made two World teams – Doha in 2018 and Stuttgart in 2019 – and took home gold alongside her teammates, stamping herself more than qualified as a solid, steady competitor for the United States. She was also the 2019 American Cup runner-up to Wong and 2019 U.S. All-Around bronze medalist, overcoming a growth spurt early on that year to become a favorite in every competition she entered.
She was working hard in late 2019, and winter and spring of 2020 with her trademark tenacity, upping her difficulty and enjoying the process of preparing for potentially the most challenging and most exciting summer of her life. When the postponement of the Games to 2021 hit, McCallum’s normal daily training situation at Twin City Twisters where she trained under Sarah Jantzi stalled, and with the FIG’s announcement that 2005-born gymnasts would be age-eligible to compete for Olympic spots, her focus (like that of so many athletes) ran a gamut of emotions. Ever the seasoned and driven competitor, McCallum steeled her resolve and determination for one more year. Afterall, Tokyo was always the goal, the road was just a little bit longer now.
2020 Becomes 2021
After showing off new combinations on bars, beam, upgraded tumbling and a Cheng on vault, McCallum looked stronger than ever during the summer and fall of 2020. But she was notably absent from Winter Cup in February 2021 and not shown during the online coverage of the American Classic in late April. Suddenly, McCallum’s status as a favorite to make the Olympic team slid a little towards questionable.
We soon learned a boxer’s fracture in her hand at the start of 2021 required surgery, and what was expected to be an eight-week recovery time was set back further due to an infection in her pinky. “I think the hardest part was getting my range of motion back, my hand strength back,” she said.
At the U.S. Classic in May, McCalllum showed everyone she was not only back in the picture to make the team, but on a mission to leave nothing to chance. She debuted a new floor routine with a new flair and passion we loved, and her smile was back. Something told us McCallum would be there down the road in Tokyo but the grind was far from over. After a challenging U.S. Championships in Fort Worth, where she finished in a tie for seventh, McCallum was a new athlete at Trials. With only her routines under her control, McCallum did what she does best – stayed focused and within her own gymnastics.
“I just told myself to take deep breaths and do what I normally do. This was the time when I had to just let my gymnastics do its thing. I just had to let everything go.”
Relying on Grace Under Pressure
As she took the floor in the Ariake arena in Tokyo for Qualifications during an unprecedented Olympic Games forever marked by a global pandemic, McCallum looked every bit the experienced athlete she was. Her growth from junior athlete to poised veteran was phenomenal.
In Team Finals, her role was tested beyond belief when Simone Biles withdrew from the competition after vault, the first rotation. McCallum was the first athlete to compete for Team USA following Biles’ shocking announcement and hit her bar routine complete with a stuck dismount. Period. Exclamation point. McCallum had this. She was born for it. After all of the training, dreaming, setbacks and triumphs over adversity, her moment arrived and she made the most of it. She is an Olympic silver medalist and was an integral part of the hardest team in the world to make. It was grace under pressure personified.
The Olympics are full of moments and memories that can shape an athlete’s life forever. Now, as a new chapter begins, it’s time for McCallum to enjoy gymnastics and all of the personal and athletic rewards training and competing for a college team week after week will offer, and to remember what brought her to this place. She’ll be part of a season that promises to be one of the most competitive of all-time; with one of the most talented freshmen classes we’ve seen to date combined with a slate of veterans who have created a popularity within NCAA women’s gymnastics unlike anything we’ve seen in the sport.
It’s also four more years for McCallum to love gymnastics and perform together with her new team as a Red Rock. As a student athlete majoring in kinesiology, she says she’s ready to give back and help athletes in any way she can. She’s also embracing being on campus, a set schedule and new goals. She loves Lululemon, and Chai tea at Starbucks, says she became especially close to Jade and MyKayla on tour, and that competing at Worlds in Doha on her 16th Birthday stands out as one of her favorite gymnastics memories.
As she gets ready to take the floor Friday night, it’s apparent there’s so much more to come for Grace McCallum. And we’re right here for all of it.
In Her Own Words
You’ve had a lot of gymnastics and a lot of life happen since we last spoke! How is the transition from Tokyo to tour, to finally being on campus going for you?
It’s so nice being back at school! I definitely missed it. Just being back with the team, seeing everybody and having a schedule, and knowing what I’m doing every day has been great!
Tell me about training as a Red Rock now!
Training has been going really well. I really love it here. All of the girls really push me to be better. I tried staying in shape as much as I could on tour but it was hard because we only had a certain amount of time and not a lot of equipment to work with, so we did our best! It was really fun coming back and being with all of the girls here and just working really hard. I can’t wait to show everybody what we’ve been working on!
Jumping back to Tokyo, after Simone made her decision to withdraw from Team Finals, you were first up when the team headed to bars. What was going on with the team on the floor and in your mind… there wasn’t a lot of time to process…
I was really, really stressed. We definitely felt like the weight of the world was on our shoulders after that. We knew we had to hit. Before I went up to do my bar routine, I felt so many emotions – I wanted to cry. I had to hit this routine for these girls.
Do you feel like you were preparing for that moment your whole life?
Yeah… it wasn’t just for myself but for everybody. I wanted to do well for them. Going into my routine, I wasn’t sure. But, I had to tell myself how many times I’ve done it – a million times in the gym. I told myself not to change anything and just to do what I knew how to do. I think that’s what really helped me.
Was there anything at all about your Olympic experience that was what you expected?
When you’re little and dreaming of going to the Olympics, you’re thinking about the big crowds and a big stage. It just wasn’t like that though. The stands were empty which was just completely different from what I ever pictured. It was still super cool, and being with the team and still having such an amazing experience with them, it was definitely a once in a lifetime experience. I don’t think there will ever be an Olympics like this! I hope that things will go back to normal in the future. But it was definitely history, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Being with these girls all the time because we didn’t get to go out and do a lot, we got really close because we were always hanging out with each other.
Seeing all of you get a bit of the rockstar experience and enjoy yourselves after Tokyo on tour was amazing. What did you enjoy most about it?
It was definitely so much fun being on tour and being with all of the girls again. Each city was different and they all brought their own energy. But, I think my favorite part was the message the whole show sent. I think it really raised awareness of mental health. It showed that it’s okay to make mistakes. You don’t have to be perfect all the time. I mean, we made mistakes on tour and it’s okay! Sometimes you just have to laugh. We know how to do the skills, but sometimes it’s just going to happen. Everybody’s human. I just loved the message it sent.
Your teammate MyKayla Skinner recently described you as “super humble and down to earth but such a go-getter.” Where does your drive and motivation to be such a fierce competitor come from?
I don’t really know. It’s definitely something I’ve had to work on over the years. I didn’t always have a lot of confidence when I was competing. I’ve had to work on that and to learn to trust myself. I had to remind myself to compete for myself and I’m here to perform for an audience of one. That’s what my parents always told me – nobody else is in the stands, it’s just me and the arena.
Was there a turning point when you did recognize a higher level of confidence and knew you could make the Olympic team?
Not really. I mean, I knew I always had a goal of making the Olympics in the back of my head but I also just wanted to do the best I could and have fun doing it. Enjoying what you do is the biggest part. When I made my first international meet I thought that maybe I did have a chance and could be up there with the best gymnasts.
Looking ahead, what are you most excited about this season competing for Utah?
It’s a completely different side of gymnastics. I feel like college gymnastics is so fun and so team-oriented. I’m excited to be a part of that.
Can you give us any hints about your floor routine!?
You’ll have to wait and see! But it’s really fun and upbeat and you’ll see a couple of moves from my elite routine.
What advice have the upperclassmen given you about the transition to college gymnastics?
They’re really great leaders and are just super encouraging. They’ve just been really helpful with anything I need and in guiding us through. I know if I ever need any advice I can go to them. College gymnastics is supposed to be fun and I’m so excited to compete with them.
This freshman class in particular had a very long five years getting to this place to become student athletes. What do you think it’s going to be like going from USA teammates to competing against each other for different programs across the country?
I think it will be super fun seeing them and being able to compete against each other. But also, just seeing what they do in college because it’s so different. I think it will be a really exciting environment to see us all enjoying it and having fun.
What was it about Utah that felt like home to you?
The environment here, the coaching staff is amazing and the team works so hard. One of the things that I look for in a team is their work ethic. I saw how hard these girls worked and I knew this was the perfect place for me. The school itself is amazing. I just thought it was the perfect fit.
Do you feel pressure competing as part of such a legendary program?
You want to live up to that and be part of that. I know our team would really, really love to win a national championship this year. We all just want to be our best and we push ourselves to make that lineup!
Photos by University of Utah; Ricardo Bufolin and Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics