The last 10 U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics teams included an athlete who turned 16 or younger in the Olympic year. Kayla DiCello looks like the best hope to extend that streak this summer.
On Saturday, DiCello will become the first U.S. woman to make her senior-level debut at the prestigious American Cup in an Olympic year since 2004 (Courtney McCool). Coverage airs at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.
“My next thing is to try and make a run for Tokyo 2020,” DiCello said after winning the U.S. junior all-around title last summer. “There will be some pressure.”
USA Gymnastics can enter two gymnasts per gender at the American Cup, its biggest annual international meet.
That DiCello will even suit up in Milwaukee is already a victory given the depth of the U.S. program. The other American in the field is 2017 World all-around champion Morgan Hurd, plus Sam Mikulak and Shane Wiskus in the men’s competition (5 p.m., NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app).
“It should give you a sense of confidence just to be selected,” said NBC Sports analyst Nastia Liukin, who competed at the 2005 American Cup in her first year as a senior. “Let that give you the confidence to think, OK, I totally belong here. And she totally does.”
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DiCello (pronounced Duh-CHELL-o), a high school sophomore from Boyds, Md., won the 2019 U.S. junior title with a score that would have placed third in the senior division behind Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee.
In 2016, Laurie Hernandez entered the Olympic year as the reigning junior champ. In 2012, Kyla Ross was the top rising junior. Each made the Olympic team before earning her driver’s license.
DiCello’s skills — her favorite event is uneven bars — remind Liukin of Ross, who is retired from Olympic-level gymnastics and is in her last season competing for UCLA.
“[DiCello] is powerful. She’s got great form, graceful,” Liukin said. “She does definitely have a little bit of everything.”
DiCello began tumbling at Hill’s Gymnastics Training Center in Gaithersburg, Md., around her second birthday, when her parents enrolled her in a mommy- and daddy-and-me class.
“At one point, one of the coaches tapped us on the shoulder and basically said, hey, you should put her in baby angels,” said her father, Matt.
“Angels” is described as an invitation-only class for ages 4-5 that leads into competitive programs at Hill’s.
“From that point, she just continued to love the sport and really get a good knack for it,” Matt said.
DiCello, who has three siblings (including two younger sisters in gymnastics), tried other sports such as swimming and ballet.
“If you ask her, she would say she enjoyed flying through the air,” Matt said. “Soccer — she was afraid of the soccer ball, so that sport didn’t last very long.”
Neither Matt nor wife Kecia had any gymnastics experience. But they found themselves fortunate to raise four kids seven miles from one of the most prestigious gymnastics centers in the country.
They began realizing this when toting their daughters to the gym and seeing photos of Dominique Dawes on the walls or the Magnificent Seven in the lobby.
“We never applied that to our kids,” Matt said. “We never knew what the potential could be.”
Now, DiCello is the backdrop of the Hill’s homepage with the slogan, “Teaching toddlers to Olympians for over 30 years.”
Kelli Hill coached the three-time Olympian Dawes, 2000 Olympian Elise Ray and 2004 Olympian Courtney Kupets.
“A first-year senior in an Olympic year is a very difficult position to be in,” Hill said after DiCello won the junior title. “We have talked about it. We know what’s ahead. We’re looking at what start values [routine difficulty] we’ll need. She knows we’re working on skills for senior.”
The Olympic team event size was cut from five to four for the Tokyo Games, but the U.S. should qualify two extra spots for gymnasts in individual events only. Jade Carey has all but locked up one of those two.
While team selectors will certainly be watching DiCello and Hurd on Saturday, the most important meets are the nationals and trials in June.
“Olympic trials is going to be more difficult than Olympics,” said DiCello, whose first Olympic memory was watching the 2012 Fierce Five take gold in London. “Ever since I started gymnastics, it’s always been a dream of mine to make it to the Olympics.”
The career span of an elite U.S. female gymnast rarely includes multiple Olympic runs. While Ross and Hernandez each made the quick jump to the Olympics, the other top juniors from those years (Katelyn Ohashi, Jazmyn Foberg) suffered injuries, stepped away from elite competition and went the NCAA route.
DiCello, who has battled back and ankle injuries, is already committed to the University of Florida after she graduates high school in two years. What happens in the next few months could change all that. Success in an Olympic year leads to gymnasts turning pro (like Hernandez) or extending elite careers and deferring college (like Ross).
“Following the U.S. [Junior] Championships and the success she had there, then it started to become, not a realization, but an opportunity that sort of presented itself, saying, hey, you might have a shot,” at the Tokyo Olympics, Matt said. “It might be small, or it could be big, but you at least have a shot at it.
“It’s one of those things you can’t control. You have to look at it from a standpoint of this is your opportunity, take your best shot at this thing.”
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