By Gina Pongetti Angeletti, MPT

It’s hard to believe Riley McCusker became an international elite just two years ago. After battling an injury a year ago, the MG Elite gymnast is ready to make a statement at the 2018 U.S. Championships.

Feature Photo by Lloyd Smith

In a small town in New Jersey sits one of the tiniest gyms in the U.S. to produce multiple national team members and elite qualifiers.

MG Elite, led by Maggie Haney, is best known as the gym of 2016 Olympian Laurie Hernandez. Today, it’s home to current senior national team member Riley McCusker. McCusker, the 2018 GK U.S. Classic Uneven Bars Champion and all-around silver medalist, follows in the footsteps of gymnasts, friends and mentors like Hernandez, among others, who have paved the way for her rise.

McCusker flashed onto the international elite scene just two years ago. While all eyes were on Rio, she began making her presence known through meets like the 2016 Parkettes Invitational, where she competed as a junior elite, winning the all-around and all four event titles. She received full Junior International Elite status that March.

The graceful, balletic McCusker was immediately a favorite, evoking the elegance and well-rounded performance that gymnastics lovers and coaches always welcome with open arms. From her meticulously placed hands in her dance to her posture and choreography that to this day reminds us of Nastia Liukin, McCusker is one of the most artistic U.S. gymnasts of this quad… In a sport that was built on artistry but has evolved into a heavy focus on tumbling, it’s refreshing.

When 2017 rolled around–McCusker’s first year as a senior elite and the start of a new quad–the door was open for her to rise to prominence on the national scene. With a few D-score improvements, she would be primed for greatness, but a sore hamstring proved troublesome, making McCusker decide between pushing through or taking time to heal.

“It just got bad enough that it was effecting practice and skills,” McCusker said. “It was hard watching [2017 Worlds], knowing that I can hold my own at that level and that there were amazing opportunities there to shine, but I committed to the process of being healthier and stronger and training smarter with bigger goals in mind.”

“I would be lying if I said I stayed positive the whole time. It was very hard to see my name on the nominative roster for Worlds and then have to pull out. It really felt like a missed opportunity… My coach just kept reminding me that it was really early in the cycle and 2017 was not the most important year.”

Those bigger goals certainly include Tokyo 2020.

The GK U.S. Classic was McCusker’s ‘I’m back’ meet, where she showed that she is arguably better than ever and her mental game is on point, too.

“I was nervous, I think, mostly because I knew what I was capable of,” McCusker said.

As the meet progressed, McCusker continued to hit routine after routine. She finished the day four for four, building her confidence and tapping into the execution aspect of her performances.

A two week break between Classics and U.S. Championships was much needed. McCusker stays grounded through the support of her family, parents and siblings. Her coach, Haney, celebrates her successes but just long enough before moving on and focusing on the work at hand, the goals still to be accomplished.

“My family is literally amazing,” McCusker said. “They support me, but they never push me. My mom drives me all over the world, to the gym, to therapy, to acupuncture… I think she works as hard as I do! And I know I can always count on my dad for a great pep talk! He is such a hard worker. I probably got my work ethic from him. My sister and brothers are a good distraction. I love to go to their [practices] and just hang out at the beach with them.”

That support system is pivotal for elite gymnasts like McCusker. She, and many others like her, are homeschooled, which means she has to manage and balance independent studying with two practices a day, rehab, rest and family time.

“My schedule [during] the school year and the summer really does not change very much,” McCusker said. “I start practice around 8:30 or 9 o’clock, and I finish my morning practice at 1:00. Then I do schoolwork or just hang out at the gym and use NormaTec. I do a second practice from 3 to 5. After that, I usually go to my brother’s lacrosse games. Two days a week, I end practice  at 1 o’clock, and I usually leave and go to therapy or the beach!”

McCusker is trying to not think about the pressure on her to live up to her success at Classics and any new expectations people may have. She is excited about the possibilities that lie ahead, including having motivators and mentors like Simone Biles around.

“I love Simone!” McCusker exclaimed. “She is obviously goals! We have known each other for a few years now, and we get along really great. We are definitely not the same gymnast (maybe the total opposite!), but we really respect each other and have fun together. She’s really funny!”

When she’s on the floor, in the zone, it’s just a girl and her coach. Her family in the stands, teammates watching from home and fans cheering her on around the world.  The coach-athlete relationship can make or break a gymnast’s success. McCusker is appreciative of the relationship she has with Haney.

“Maggie and I spend a lot of time together,” McCusker stated. “She’s easy to talk to, and she listens to what I say and need. I know I can totally trust her with my gymnastics. She has obviously been through all of this before and been very successful! I just really trust her. She’s also a really great coach, technically… and she’s just cool!”

These athletes are trying to stay focused on their sport, the work that they have put in and the dreams that they have. Talking to McCusker is like physically seeing the process of dreams coming to fruition. The excitement that she has for competing, and her pride in the process, is contagious. Her maturity through it all is the most telling factor–she is confident that what she is doing now will make a difference in her forever.

“Gymnastics is obviously teaching me how to work hard,” McCusker said. “But, I also think gymnastics finds your weaknesses. Not only physically, but mentally. So, then when you learn how to overcome those [weaknesses], it’s really a good feeling.”

Clearly, she has overcome her fears, the trials of her first two years as an elite and is certainly ready for the big stage this week.

We can’t wait to see you shine, Riley.