“I never thought that could happen — ever,” McClain said. “Just looking back at last year and being where I was last year, this is so crazy to me.”
McClain, in second place after the first day of competition, jumped into the lead when Jones fell on beam during the first rotation. Jones responded with outstanding performances on floor and vault, trimming her deficit to five-tenths of a point. In the final rotation, with Jones on bars and McClain on floor, Jones would have won if both gymnasts had repeated their routines from Friday. After McClain had an imperfect but solid floor routine, her gold medal hopes hinged on how well Jones executed her usually excellent bars routine.
Jones floated through the air on her release elements with exquisite technique throughout, hitting vertical handstands and keeping her legs glued together. But on her final element, a double front tuck dismount, the 20-year-old sat to the ground, a major mistake that cost her the top spot on the podium. To hold the landing, Jones said, she opened from her hidden position “a little early.” Jones won the silver with 112,000, landing just ahead of Tokyo Olympian Jordan Chiles, who had 111,900 in her impressive return to elite competition.
For McClain, a sudden decision to move from West Virginia to Texas propelled her to this moment. As she wrestled last spring, she realized she needed a change and abruptly left her longtime club for World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Texas — with about 12 hours between the decision and her departure. She trains under Valeri and Anna Liukin, the parents of 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin, with a handful of other elite gymnasts. Since then, her mindset has changed and her confidence has grown.
“It’s a really, really big year,” Anna Liukin said. “This kid has matured so much. You don’t wish that on anyone, but she really won.”
McClain recently dealt with stress fractures in both tibias, then a concussion and illness. McClain said she feels “70, 75 percent” ready for this meet, with her main focus on selecting world championships this fall.
But at the U.S. championships, she looked poised and confident. She flipped high above the beam on her difficult tumbling series, securing the top score on that apparatus in addition to her all-around crown. Her improved showing on bars, scoring 14.050 compared to 13.300 on Friday, gave her a boost. And finally, her floor routine, with precise jumps and tumbling passes and only small hops on the landings, helped secure the title. She stumbled out of her wolf turn – a dance element performed in a crouched position with one leg extended – but after Jones’ mistake, that lapse no longer mattered.
After Anna Liukin realized the final result, she whispered to McClain: “Guess what? You won.” It’s not a grand celebration, not when others are still competing, but McClain smiled amid her surprise.
McClain had a hard time explaining what that means to her, adding that it may take time to sink in. But when asked about the thoughts in her head, she had a quick answer: “Oh honestly, I wish I could talk to my dad right now.”
No Simone Biles here, that competition featured a cluster of gymnasts in a tight race for that top spot on the all-around podium. Entering Sunday, just 1.55 separated the top five gymnasts — Jones, McClain, Chiles, Kayla DiCello and Jade Carey — who all made it through the first day without major mistakes. DiCello placed fourth with 110,950, just ahead of Carey in fifth with 110,900. The 1.85 margin between first and fifth place is the smallest it has been at US Nationals since the open-ended points system was introduced in 2006.
“They will continue to improve and be where they want to be for worlds,” said Chellsie Memmel, the technical leader of the women’s high performance team. “This is not necessarily the meeting, especially for the elderly, the meeting with you wants to peak. I think there’s room for improvement for everybody, and they’re in a good place.”
Another top American gymnast, Leanne Wong, scratched the competition after two events on Friday and performed only on bars and beam again on Sunday. Wong, the world all-around silver medalist last yearwon the US Classic a month ago and would be right in the mix for a medal here.
Despite the disappointing finish for Jones, she had a weekend with many highlights. Jones tied with Wong for the bars title, and her floor routines were filled with powerful flips, excellent technique and safe landings. Jones’ two-day total on the apparatus beat Carey, the Olympic gold medalist on floor, to win the title.
“Two falls and second place is really just the beginning for me,” Jones said.
Jones didn’t think she’d be here. She planned to fight for the US Olympic team just once, although her father, Sylvester, would try to convince her that she was nowhere near the end of her elite career and that her dream could live on.
But everything changed. Her whole life is different now. Jones’ dad died in December after a battle with kidney disease. The date of his death, written in Roman numerals, glittered in rhinestones down her left sleeve as she produced outstanding performances on both days of competition, despite a toe injury. Her dad’s words inspired her to keep going, to hold on to that Olympic dream he always believed she could achieve.
After missing out on even an alternate spot for the Tokyo Games, she’s back in the mix, close to what could be her first world championship spot this fall. In Tampa, she proved that she is one of the best gymnasts in the nation, standing on the podium next to the other athlete who could understand the grief that pervaded her path to this achievement.