The news broke while Konnor McClain watched “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”
When the movie started, the U.S.’ top 15-year-old gymnast was on a four-year Olympic plan, preparing for when she would be old enough for the Games in 2024.
By the end — or the point she stopped to check social media — McClain came to believe she became age-eligible for the Tokyo Games in 2021. She would have one year to prepare to compete against the nation’s best (and world’s best) gymnasts for, potentially, a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Three years earlier than expected.
“Just to make it to the Olympic Trials would be such an accomplishment, especially for her being young,” her mom, Lorinda, said by phone on Thursday. “Making it to the trials would be great and keeping that 2024 path on track. This all made it a little hard because we were on a slow pace. We were working for 2024, so this kind of threw a wrench in our spokes. I think that’s her goal right now, see if she can hit the trials.”
The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) has had a rule since 2000 that female artistic gymnasts must turn 16 or older in that year to compete in the Games (and now for world championships in all the non-Olympic years). When the Tokyo Olympics were postponed until 2021, the FIG faced a decision: Keep the Olympic field under 2020 terms, or let those turning 16 in 2021 into the fold.
“I’m glad I’m not making the rules because I don’t know the right decision,” NBC Olympics analyst Nastia Liukin said before the decision was announced. “I don’t know if there is a right decision.”
The FIG made an announcement Thursday afternoon. While the release didn’t explicitly say it, the gymnastics community interpreted it to mean that the younger gymnasts are eligible for the Tokyo Games.
“I just got on Twitter for some reason, and I saw,” McClain said by phone Thursday. “I was like, oh my gosh, is this true? I told my parents, and I told my sister, get on Twitter right now.”
“I was very surprised,” McClain’s mom said. “I thought they were going to leave it for her to be ineligible and keep the rules as they were.”
If recent history holds, the move should impact the makeup of the U.S. Olympic team. A USA Gymnastics spokesperson said Friday that the organization is reviewing the FIG announcement and can follow up this week regarding how it affects Olympic team selection.
At least one woman who turned 16 or younger in the Olympic year made the last 10 U.S. Olympic teams. That includes Kyla Ross, the 2011 U.S. junior all-around silver medalist who made the 2012 Olympic team. And Laurie Hernandez, the 2015 U.S. junior all-around champion who made the 2016 Olympic team.
The 2019 U.S. junior all-around champion, Kayla DiCello, turned 16 on Jan. 25 and would have been eligible for an Olympics in 2020.
McClain, who turns 16 on Feb. 1, 2021, was runner-up to DiCello at junior nationals, and is among a few rising juniors now on the radar (including Skye Blakely, who was fourth at junior nationals).
The deeper field should make it more difficult for older gymnasts to make the most competitive Olympic gymnastics team in the world.
“I have NOTHING against the 2005 generation but I don’t agree with this decision,” was tweeted from the account of Cecile Landi, who with husband Laurent coaches Simone Biles. “It will be the 2020 Olympics so the rules should remain the same as THIS YEAR.”
McClain was born in Nevada. She began walking the balance beam and doing backbend kickovers before age 2, mimicking her 4-year-old sister.
The family moved to West Virginia when McClain was 3. She was featured on Steve Harvey‘s “Little Big Shots” at age 11 in 2016, proclaiming she was set on the 2024 Olympic all-around title. She then performed a balance beam routine in front of a studio audience.
McClain won the beam title at the last two junior nationals, but vault is her favorite event. She has been attending U.S. national team camps with other junior and senior stars for the last two years. At first, she was intimidated by the sight of Biles, but calmed after Biles initiated conversations with her.
Come next year, McClain may be competing against Biles domestically and, possibly, with her on the same team in Tokyo.
“Konnor has a lot of upgrades and skills she trains at the gym, but her and her coach have put them on the back burner because we thought we still had four years,” her mom said.
McClain’s coach and McClain’s mom, friends since childhood, briefly texted about the new situation while still in shock.
“Wow, it’s going to be a rough year,” Lorinda McClain said. “She’s got a lot of work to do.”
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