TAMPA — For years, Connor McClain seemed destined to become the best gymnast in the country: national-level junior titles starting in elementary school, and that television interview with Steve Harvey at the age of 11 where she set her sights on the 2024 Olympic all-around title.
McClain fulfilled a promise Sunday, winning the U.S. overall title at age 17 after a first-day lead. Shilese Jones fell on her last skill, her uneven poles dismounted. McClain became the sixth woman since 2000 to triumph in her senior nationals debut. The other five all became the best gymnast in the world, most recently Simone Biles.
McClain’s first senior nationals were supposed to be last year, but after a cross-country move and coaching change she wasn’t ready to compete. She watched last year’s competition inside the arena, feeling uneasy. She had no faith that a year later, she would be on the top of the podium.
“It’s so unreal,” McClain, who returned this summer from a stress fracture in each tibia, a concussion and the flu two weeks ago, said Sunday night. “I’m still a little shocked.”
USA Gymnastics Championships: result
In two days of competition, McClain trailed Jones by eight tenths heading into Sunday’s final day.
Jones fell on her open balance beam and trailed McClain by five tenths going into the last rotation. But if Jones were to repeat her pole scores from Friday’s opening night (which bested the field by six tenths), she would comfortably join Biles as the only non-teenagers to win a U.S. all-around title in the last 50 years. She appeared on her way to landing off balance, falling back and sitting down, a one-point deduction.
Soon after, Anna Liukinthe mother of 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin who trains McClain with husband Valerywhispered in McClain’s ear.
Guess you won, Liukin told her.
“She was a little surprised, but she smiled,” Liukin said.
McClain, the youngest U.S. silver medalist in 2019, was originally too young for the Tokyo Olympics but became age-eligible when the Games were pushed back a year to 2021. Before last year’s meets to determine the Olympic team, the Liukins got a call. of team McClain, which ultimately led to McClain moving from West Virginia to their Texas gym. She skipped nationals (and a shot at Olympic Trials) to focus on 2024.
“She was in no shape to compete,” Liukin said, adding that a mutual decision was made in McClain’s best interest to sit.
Then last winter, McClain’s father, Marc, died of COVID-19. Her grandmother died in the same week. She competed on Friday and Sunday wearing a leotard patch with her initials.
Asked about the thoughts going through her head after she won, McClain replied, “I wish I could talk to my dad right now.”
Jones was 10th at the Olympic Trials, the top finisher who did not go to Tokyo (either on the team or as an alternate) and initially planned to leave elite gymnastics. She was encouraged to continue after talks with loved ones, including her father. Sylvester Jones Jr. died in December after a long kidney disease battle.
Jones called Friday’s all-around the best performance of her career. On Sunday, she fell on her first and last routines. On the latter, she rushed her bars dismount, jabbed too early and opened up a little too soon.
“Two falls and second place is just really just the beginning for me,” she said.
Jordan Chiles and Jade Carey finished third and fifth, respectively. The Tokyo medalists became the first U.S. Olympic female gymnasts to return to elite competition after an NCAA season.
“It really wasn’t a stress level,” said Chiles, who during a break between routines on Sunday tried to get into the jumbotron by having Jones lift her up during the Lion King Cam. “But the build up for this was definitely, I think, the hardest thing I could ever do because I had an injury. [micro tears in a shoulder labrum and bicep]and that injury held me back a little.”
Like McClain and Jones, Chiles and Carey are eyeing the 2024 Paris Games. Just like Tokyo’s all-around gold medalist Sunny Lee, who plans to return to elite competition next year. And maybe Biles, who hasn’t competed since Tokyo but hasn’t ruled out a return for another Olympic run either.
First up is the world championships this fall. That team will be named after an October selection camp and will be favored for gold due to the absence of Olympic champion Russia, whose athletes are banned indefinitely due to the war in Ukraine.
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