New Home, New Hopes 

McClain aims for World Championships 

By Ashlee Buhler 

“New hope? Olympic coronavirus postponement could benefit America’s next budding superstar gymnast.” 

“Meet Konnor McClain, the 15-year-old gymnast now eligible for the 2021 Olympics.” 

Those were some of the headlines following the announcement of the Olympic postponement and the moment the world learned that gymnasts born in 2005, who long had their sights set on Paris 2024, would now be eligible to tryout for Tokyo. 

For Konnor McClain it was only just the beginning of a roller coaster year.

McClain began turning heads at a young age. When her mother Lorinda posted videos on YouTube of her 4-year-old daughter flipping on the floor and doing back walk overs on the beam, fans couldn’t help but take notice. Seven years later she was featured on Steve Harvey’s “Little Big Shots,” where she confidently declared her goal to become the 2024 Olympic All-Around champion.  

But when the 2020 Olympics were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there McClain was—eligible for the Tokyo Olympics; her name suddenly thrust into the conversation.

“When I first found out it was definitely an ‘oh my gosh’ moment,” McClain said. “Like, ‘Wow, I have a chance at the Olympics. This is crazy.’ Nobody thought I would be eligible for it, so it was a big change, but a good feeling.”

However, along with the feelings of excitement came added pressure and expectations as she attempted to achieve her biggest goal three years ahead of schedule. 

“I let the pressure get to me,” McClain said. “Usually, I’m good at keeping the pressure off myself and not overthinking everything but I just really let it get to me this year.” 

McClain made her senior debut at the Winter Cup where she had a strong showing on vault and beam—everything was off to a great start. However, at the March national team camp just a month later, McClain was left off the senior U.S. national team—a move that shocked fans given her past achievements and future potential.

It was a challenging time, McClain said, which led her into a very dark place for a while. However, she picked herself back up and decided to use her disappointment as motivation to come back stronger. The U.S. Classic was up next on her radar—a very important competition if she wanted to get back on the national team and vie for a spot on the Tokyo Olympic team. 

But that’s when everything changed. 

“After camp I kind of got out of shape because I wasn’t being coached as much in the gym,” McClain said. “I didn’t know what to tell myself or how to coach myself in the gym. I felt like I was trying to get myself ready for Classics, but nobody else was.” 

McClain struggled to find motivation and a sense of purpose in the gym. “Nothing was ever about gymnastics anymore,” she said. “It was just me in the gym trying to make it through the day.”

As McClain walked onto the floor at the U.S. Classic, the first of three competitions that would be used to select the U.S. Olympic Team, it felt like everything was falling apart. 

“I knew I was going to do terrible,” McClain said. “I know it’s not good to have that bad mindset, but I knew it was going to look like that. My mindset wasn’t there … nothing was there—not even my routines.” 

2021 was supposed to be McClain’s breakout year on the senior stage, but it felt more like the end of her career. She considered two options: quit the sport or switch gyms. The thought of switching gyms had been looming in McClain’s mind for the past year and half, but it wasn’t an easy move to make. 

McClain had trained at the same gym, with the same coach, her whole career. The thought of uprooting her family also weighed on her mind. “I didn’t want to do that to my parents because I knew it would suck and I also didn’t want to be labeled as a gym switcher,” McClain said. “So, it was tough.” 

After the U.S. Classic, a practice was held at the USA Gymnastics training center in Indianapolis. McClain said it went worse than the competition… and that’s when she knew something had to change.  

After a long talk with her parents, McClain decided it was time to make the move she had been putting off. It was a decision she didn’t take lightly and she carefully thought through all her options. With the help of her friend, 2020 Olympic All-Around Champion Sunisa Lee, she narrowed down the list of gym candidates to World Champions Centre, Midwest, Hills, and WOGA. 

McClain knew Valeri Liukin, the owner of WOGA, from working with him in the Developmental program as a young girl. Since she was already familiar with his coaching style and was comfortable working with him, WOGA felt like the best fit. So, within 12 hours of returning home for Classics, McClain packed her bags and moved from West Virginia to Texas to train with Liukin. 

But the clock never stopped ticking. With the U.S. Championships just over a week away, a new gym to adapt to, a reoccurring ankle injury, and being out of routine shape; McClain, her parents, and Liukin collectively decided it would be in her best interest to withdraw from the meet—therefore ending her bid for the Tokyo Olympics. 

As hard as it was to sit in the crowd at Championships instead of being out on the competition floor, McClain made peace with the decision. Her focus shifted to the upcoming World Championships in Kitakyushu, Japan. 

McClain will first be attending the September training camp. Then about two weeks later will be a four-day selection camp where the U.S. women’s team is named. After a whirlwind year, McClain is feeling confident and eager to get back out there.

“I’ve never been this excited about going to a camp ever,” McClain said. “I feel really prepared in the gym… I feel ready. My mental state is really good.”

A healthy mental state is critical to being successful in the sport, yet its importance is often overlooked or downplayed. Simone Biles withdrawing from four finals in Tokyo sparked a discussion about just how dangerous the sport can be when an athlete’s head isn’t in the right place. Biles sent a message to athletes around the world that it’s essential—and more importantly—okay to prioritize mental health. 

Taking a step back from competition and allowing herself to heal mentally and physically has helped McClain regain her love for the sport. Now at WOGA, she has a much healthier approach to practice each day. 

“I feel like everything is different now,” McClain said. “I feel like myself. Everyone around me notices, too. Whenever I call my family they’re always like, ‘You seem so happy now.’ And I’m like, ‘I kind of am.’ I’m never in a bad mood, I always look at the bright side rather than the downside to everything. I just feel stronger mentally and physically.”

The atmosphere in the gym was a big change with positive impacts. Being able to train with a group of elites, including junior national team members Madray Johnson and Avery King, also has its benefits. “It’s so nice to have someone to complain to,” McClain said with a laugh. “They just understand you.” 

The group also shares a common goal: the 2024 Olympics. And what better way to get inspired than watching your friends live out their Olympic dreams! McClain woke up early each morning to watch all the action in Tokyo live. It was somewhat of an “assignment” given by Liukin, she joked, adding that the tradeoff was coming into practice later in the day. 

“I was so nervous,” McClain said of watching the Tokyo Olympics. “I’m a terrible gymnastics watcher so I’m like shaking and jumping. But just to see them go out there and do what they did, Suni winning, and even the team competition when Great Britain got third… I know the Gadirovas and just to see them so happy made me happy. I was just so proud of everyone.”

McClain hopes to someday have her own Olympic moment, but the next opportunity won’t come for another three years. It’s a day-by-day journey with the next big step being Worlds Selection Camp. Now that she’s healthy, McClain plans to compete All-Around. And with some upgrades up her sleeve, she hopes to make a strong case for why she is needed on Team USA. 

“If I can get my floor routine that I’m working right now, I feel like that’s going to be a huge surprise to people,” McClain said. “Beam there is a couple of upgrades in there. Bars is pretty much the same but in the later years I’ll definitely have a lot of upgrades to show.”

Although McClain’s year has been filled with unexpected obstacles and challenges, she is not ready to close out this chapter just yet—not without a spot on that World Championship team. That would be the best form of redemption and the perfect proof that the comeback is greater than the setback. 

Photos by Lloyd Smith and Grace Chiu for Inside Gymnastics

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