For Grace McCallum, she truly became an Olympic hopeful at an unlikely competition: the April 2018 USA Gymnastics verification camp to determine the team for the Pacific Rim Championships.
Some top gymnasts decided not to participate. But, for others, it was an early season test to prove themselves on the road to August’s national championships and, ultimately, selection for October’s world championships.
Sarah Jantzi, coach of the Twin City Twisters outside Minneapolis, was bewildered watching the first of two days of routines. Her pupil, 15-year-old McCallum, performed not at her absolute best, but well enough after competing at the junior level in 2017.
“I thought,” Jantzi remembered, “they’re not going to let her make it.”
Jantzi was thinking about the three gymnasts that would be chosen for the senior Pac Rims competition.
As a junior, McCallum was 11th at the 2017 U.S. Championships. She had only qualified to compete on the sport’s top level, elite, in early 2017, after sitting out seven months with a catastrophic injury.
“They don’t have enough information about her,” Jantzi worried as she watched the competition at World Champions Centre in Spring, Texas, best known as Simone Biles‘ gym. (Biles wasn’t competing. She was in the middle of her year off from the sport.)
Then Jantzi saw the standings. McCallum was in the lead after the first of two days. There’s no way they can’t take her to Pac Rims, she thought.
McCallum went on to win the competition (and Pac Rims). She outscored a field that included the reigning world all-around champion (Morgan Hurd) and the reigning U.S. junior all-around champion (Maile O’Keefe).
“I was shocked,” Jantzi said.
“I was kind of surprised,” said McCallum’s mom, Sandy, who was also in attendance.
She said that another coach, Steve Hafeman, started crying.
“We all knew what a huge thing this was,” Sandy said.
Two years earlier, on a Wednesday morning in April 2016, McCallum performed a floor exercise tumbling pass at Twin City Twisters. She bounced high in the air for a back flip with one and a half twists. She landed on her left elbow. Shattered it, Jantzi said. But the 13-year-old didn’t shed a tear.
“The first thought that came into my head,” said McCallum, the second of six children, “Will I still be able to compete next weekend?”
They waited more than an hour for an ambulance, risking significant nerve damage. Jantzi later learned a car accident took precedent for responders.
McCallum needed surgery after tearing two ligaments and damaging a forearm muscle. A complete dislocation. When the doctor finished operating, Sandy feared asking him the question that she knew her daughter wanted answered: Will she return to gymnastics?
“He gave her about a 50 percent chance of coming back at the level she’s been at,” Sandy said. “Mostly because they didn’t know whether she’d ever gain full range of motion in her elbow again.”
Sandy didn’t tell her daughter that her competitive future in the sport that she loved came down to a coin flip.
“I just thought, right now she’s going through enough in her mind,” Sandy said. “Gymnastics, to me at that point, was secondary. I wanted her to have a functioning elbow for the rest of her life. She was only 13 years old at the time.”
Jantzi thought there was no way McCallum would come back from it. She had been coaching her for two months. In that time, McCallum was so shy that her mom walked her into the gym on a near daily basis. One time, Jantzi lifted McCallum up and carried her into the gym.
“She was obviously intimidated,” Jantzi said. “She wasn’t the best one [at Twin City Twisters]. In her old gym, she was the superstar.”
In Jantzi’s gym, the leading athlete was Maggie Nichols, a 2015 World champion and 2016 Olympic hopeful.
“I moved to TCT because I did want to pursue the elite track,” McCallum said, “and I knew that in order to do that I’d have to move to TCT because Maggie was there and she was on that track already.”
McCallum showed courage, returning to the gym the week after her elbow surgery. She couldn’t do gymnastics, but she could work on other things, such as flexibility and leg strength. She also watched and learned from Nichols, who was coming back herself from a meniscus tear in her right knee.
In retrospect, Jantzi believed McCallum became more comfortable in the gym by not training on equipment.
“She sat on the side watching Maggie Nichols coming off an injury trying to make it to Olympic Trials, being this close to making it onto an Olympic team,” Jantzi said. “I think it drove her more.”
McCallum was cleared to return after seven months, her elbow still easing back to full movement (it took two years to get all the motion back). She passed the next test, qualifying to compete at the elite level.
At her first senior nationals in 2018, McCallum placed fourth behind Biles, Hurd and Riley McCusker. She placed third at the world championships team selection camp, but it still wasn’t assured she would be chosen for the six-woman team to go to worlds.
“We [the gymnasts at the camp] were all lined up in front of the national team coordinator [Tom Forster], and he just kind of announced the people for the team,” McCallum said. “I think I was the second person that was announced. … I didn’t know whether to smile or clap. I was like, ‘Oh wow!'”
McCallum made the team as its second-youngest member. She also earned something else: Hazel, a German Shepherd-husky mix. She made a deal with her mom that January that if she made the world team, she would get a dog.
“I never expected her to make,” the team, Sandy said. “She likes to prove that she can do things. She doesn’t need people feeling bad for her. She’s just going to prove that she did it. Then if they find out later [about adversity], then they’ll know her story about what she kind of went through. She’s a fighter.”
McCallum made a second straight world team in 2019, rallying from eighth place after the first day of the U.S. Championships. Jantzi said she continued to excel while growing five inches from 2017 to 2019.
At worlds, she was one of three Americans put on every apparatus in qualifying, along with Biles and Suni Lee. McCallum placed fifth overall in all-around qualifying, counting a balance beam fall, and would have been a medal contender. But she was the top-ranked gymnast not in the all-around final, kept out because a nation can’t have three gymnasts in any individual final.
That kind of intense competition within the U.S. program is what lies ahead.
The Olympic team event size is down to four gymnasts in 2021 — from seven in 1996 and five in 2016. Biles is considered a lock. Lee is arguably the world’s second-best gymnast. Hurd is a world all-around champion. MyKayla Skinner is a returning Olympic alternate. Kara Eaker made the balance beam final at the last two world championships. Then there are top U.S. juniors from last year who will be age eligible, with an extra year to catch up on the veterans.
McCallum is most definitely in the conversation. Not only for her gymnastics, but also for the resolve shown to get this far. Twin City Twisters reopened for training on Monday after being shut for weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Sometimes people forget about her, and that makes me sad a little bit,” Jantzi said. “She’s very quiet and shy and doesn’t need a lot of attention. For me, I’m like, you deserve it. She doesn’t care. She goes and does her gymnastics.”
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