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Note: This interview was done after the 2022 Winter Cup and was originally published in the March/April issue of Inside Gymnastics Magazine. 

McClain’s Moment To Shine  

By Ashlee Buhler 

As she stood waiting to salute the judges at the 2022 Winter Cup, Konnor McClain looked calm and collected. She had a smile on her face, a special spark in her eyes, and a look of confidence that would set the tone for how her first major domestic All-Around competition in two years would go. But if you rewind the clock a year, the picture would have looked completely different. 

McClain was thrust into the spotlight when she suddenly became eligible for a spot on the Tokyo Olympic team after the pandemic delayed the start of the Games by a year. The possibility of achieving a lifelong dream three years ahead of schedule was both exciting and a little daunting for a teenager who long had her sights set on Paris 2024, but with a stellar resume from her junior career, including two national titles on beam, McClain was considered by many to be a surprise dark horse for Tokyo. But while the whole world saw her potential, few could see her pain. Physically and mentally, McClain was struggling in the gym. She was left off the U.S. national team after a rough training camp at the beginning of the year and was left to coach herself most days in the gym. “I didn’t know what to tell myself or how to coach myself in the gym.” McClain told us last year. “I felt like I was trying to get myself ready… but nobody else was.”  Instead of feeling the excitement of her first senior season, McClain was contemplating quitting the sport; her confidence was at an all time low. “Nothing was ever about gymnastics anymore,” she said. “It was just me in the gym trying to make it through the day.”

When McClain walked onto the competition floor at the 2021 U.S. Classic, she looked like a bundle of nerves; at some points appearing on the brink of tears. Uncertainty and doubt was written all over her face. The competition, McClain said, was disastrous: “My mindset wasn’t there… nothing was there — not even my routines.” Deep down, McClain knew she couldn’t carry on. So just 12 hours after the competition had ended, she decided it was time to make the move she had been putting off for over a year. She packed her bags and moved over 1,000 miles away from home to train in Plano, Texas at WOGA. McClain also withdrew from the U.S. Championships; erasing her name from the Tokyo conversation. 

The small break from competition and new training atmosphere allowed McClain to hit the reset button and regain her strength physically and mentally before shifting her focus to the World Championships at the end of the year. McClain went on to achieve her goal of making the team, but left Kitakyushu feeling hungry for more after failing to advance to any finals. 

Alas, it was time to put 2021 behind her, unwind for a bit, and then refocus on her goals with the new, abbreviated, three year Olympic cycle approaching. But McClain’s life turned upside down once more when her father and grandmother were hospitalized with COVID-19. After a month-long battle, they died a week apart. It was the final straw in her unpredictably heartbreaking year. 

Despite the pain and sadness, McClain is carrying on. She has the same goals, but now, a new purpose and motivation behind everything she does. With her fathers initials stitched on the back of her leotard, McClain proved in Frisco just how resilient she is; competing with a newfound confidence and composure in the darkest of times, and coming away with the first All-Around title of her young senior career. After nailing her beam routine in the final rotation, the joyous smile from McClain said it all. She’s back! The competition wasn’t even a full display of what McClain is capable of, but it’s a step in the right direction and confirmation that she’s right where she belongs. 

Inside Gymnastics caught up with Konnor McClain just a few days after her Winter Cup win to assess her performance, what it meant to honor her father, and discuss what lies ahead! 

Congratulations on your Winter Cup title! Did you do anything fun to celebrate? 

Thank you! My whole family was in town to watch, so I went to eat with them after. We had Mexican food, which is my favorite! 

If you had to give your performance a letter grade, what would you give yourself? 

Maybe like a B-. 

How could you improve that grade? 

Definitely by doing a better bar routine and probably putting my full difficulty back in my routines, like on floor. I didn’t do my last floor pass, but that was the plan coming in. 

When you look back on the meet as a whole, what are you most proud of? 

Definitely my beam! And then I would actually say bars, just because I saved it! 

Your beam routine was incredible! Did you surprise yourself at all with that routine or do you consistently hit like that in practice?

Normally I’m pretty solid at practice, so to go to the competition and not be shaky and do the exact same thing that I do in practice was pretty cool! 

You looked like a completely different athlete out there than we saw a year ago. Did you feel as confident as you looked? Coming into the competition did you feel like winning was a possibility for you? 

Not at all! I was definitely more confident but I honestly didn’t even know if I could get into the top five just because I only started doing routines a couple of weeks ago. It’s just been kind of crazy, especially with my floor routine. My first actual floor routine with all of my passes was actually that week. I surprised myself when I won because I wasn’t even expecting to get top five. Coming in, top five was the goal! 

I know you went to Las Vegas for a period of time so you could be with your dad. How did that affect your training? 

I was out for like 29 days. I went to practice on December 3rd and then I left to go to Vegas. I came back to Texas for a couple of days, but only did one practice, and then I was out until January 8th. Right before I took time off I had a whole new bar routine that was so good and I was in really good shape. Then when I came back I was like, ‘Oh no. What happened?’ [Laughs] Bars took me forever to get back. The rest of the events were kind of iffy but it wasn’t too bad. Once I got to camp, I got more in shape and started hitting routines. It took me a bit to get back, more than it would normally take me, but I was going through a lot at the moment, so I was ok with it and didn’t put too much pressure on myself. 

We’ve heard you talk a lot about how the new training environment has helped you physically and mentally. Can you pinpoint exactly what is it that you feel is working better for you?

I’d say the atmosphere and having elite teammates now. It definitely helps a lot to have people going through the same thing. The coaching is also such a different change for me because they’re always so positive. Even though practice is so hard sometimes, they’re always positive and hype us up! I had never been to a meet with Anna [Liukin] before but she’s the nicest person ever and she just calms you down so much. Same with Valeri. There’s just so much positivity all the time! 

What is the dynamic like with Anna and Valeri in the gym? 

They definitely have different personalities! Anna is more goofy and Valeri is more on the serious side but he cracks jokes sometimes. They balance each other out pretty well! 

You designed a beautiful leotard for you and your teammates to wear for this competition! What was the design process like? Did you consult with your teammates at all? 

Anna told us to write down any ideas we had on a piece of paper. So our team was talking about it and what colors we’d want and everything. They knew I had designed my other leos so they were like, ‘You know what? You should just do it.’ So I asked them for color ideas and drew three different leos on a piece of paper and gave it to Anna. I thought she wasn’t going to do anything with them but a couple months later she came back and was like, ‘This is the leo. Do you like it?’ And I was like, ‘Oh my god. That’s really pretty!’ And she was like, ‘I gave them your design.’ None of us thought she was actually going to listen to us! [Laughs]  

Tell us about the patch on the back with your dad’s initials… 

Anna gave me the patch after practice that week to put on the back of my leo. It’s really special to me because it feels like there is a piece of my dad with me! I plan to put it on all my leos for the next couple of years. 

Is there a piece of advice or any words from your dad that you’re going to carry with you for the rest of your career? 

Oh gosh, he told me so much stuff…The last thing he ever texted me was “You’re full of greatness, I love you.” He also said, “You’re one of the best in the world, so start acting like it”

Aside from the Amanar on vault, are there any upgrades we can expect to see from you as the season progresses? 

I’m really trying hard for my floor upgrades; my first pass and maybe my third pass. Someone tweeted it actually. Like, ‘When is Konnor going to do the WOGA signature pass?’ So that is coming soon. 

What about your dismount on bars? We don’t see many elite gymnasts doing double pikes dismounts! 

I was doing the double front before I went to WOGA and Valeri hates double fronts — he’s like, ‘No we have to change it.’ So I’m working on a different dismount… Right now the double pike is easier for me but for the second half of the season I’m going to try to change it. 

What are your hopes for the rest of the season? What would feel like success for you when you look back on this year? 

I don’t really have high goals for myself this year yet. My brain is so scattered right now! [Laughs] But I want to win medals at the World Championships. That is the final goal for this year. 

Photo Credit: Lloyd Smith 

For more:

Yul Moldauer’s New Motivation 

Wong Wins 2022 U.S. Classic 

Jayla Hang Tops Junior Field At U.S. Classic 

Photo Galleries from the U.S. Classic 

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