Grace McCallum

Grace McCallum
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Grace McCallum won a coin flip after catastrophe. Then she became one of the world’s best gymnasts.

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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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Simone Biles breaks record; U.S. women win gymnastics world team title

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STUTTGART, Germany — It’s that feeling that keeps Simone Biles coming back to gymnastics.

It’s not from standing on a world championships medal podium, which she did for a female record-breaking 21st time after the U.S. won a fifth straight world team title on Tuesday. Instead, it’s that unenviable sensation that surges before she competes.

“Sometimes I wish I would quit,” Biles said after leading the U.S. to victory by a sizable 5.801 points over Russia, extending the Americans’ dynasty to nine years when including the Olympics. “The other day, we walked out there, and I was like, I literally hate this feeling, and I don’t know why I keep forcing myself to do it.

“I hate that feeling like I’m going to puke before. But, you know, we love the thrill of it. Reminds me to never give up because one day I won’t have the opportunity to get that feeling.”

GYM WORLDS: TV Schedule | Finals Results

That day is likely coming in 10 months. Biles is 99 percent sure these are her last world championships. Every time she competes, she breaks a record or does something unprecedented.

In Tuesday’s team final, the first of six medal events for Biles this week, she broke her tie with retired Russian Svetlana Khorkina for the most world championships medals for a woman. She is now two shy of the overall record held by 1990s Belarusian Vitaly Scherbo.

She will move within one of Scherbo in Thursday’s all-around final. Biles is massively favored to win a fifth title in that event. She’s undefeated in all-arounds for six years. She will pass Scherbo with two medals from her four apparatus finals on Saturday and Sunday. Biles earned medals on all four apparatuses last year, with a kidney stone.

Biles said she doesn’t think of the records.

“Whatever the medal haul at the end is, it’s whatever it is,” she said.

BILES ROUTINES: Balance Beam | Floor Exercise | Uneven Bars | Vault

But Tuesday was about the team. Biles is just part of this U.S. dynasty, extended here in a final where all eight teams had a fall.

Nineteen different gymnasts contributed to at least one of the seven Olympic or world titles during the U.S.’ nine-year reign. It’s the longest global title streak for one women’s program since the Soviets of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Four women who hope to make Olympic debuts in Tokyo joined Biles in Stuttgart.

They included Sunisa Lee, who at the world team selection camp last month came within .35 of a point of beating Biles. Here, Lee, who qualified second behind Biles into the all-around, had the highest uneven bars score for the Americans. Her fall off the balance beam was the first for an American on any apparatus in an Olympic or world team final since 2010.

She rebounded to hit her floor exercise. Lee is competing while constantly thinking of her father, John, who watched from Minnesota. In August, John fell off of a ladder while helping a friend cut down a tree limb and was paralyzed from the chest down.

A year ago, Lee was third in the junior division at the U.S. Championships. Now, she’s arguably the world’s second-best gymnast, with a chance to prove it Thursday.

“I can’t even believe that I’m here and I’m a world champion,” she said.

Jade Carey, the 2017 World silver medalist on floor exercise and vault, had the second-highest scores of the day on each apparatus, behind Biles. This may be Carey’s only opportunity to compete in a team event on the global stage, given she is likely to qualify for Tokyo in the spring via a new individual route.

The 2018 World team members Kara Eaker (who competed on the balance beam on Tuesday) and Grace McCallum (uneven bars, vault) round out the quintet.

For those two (plus Lee), the tougher competition is arguably making the U.S. Olympic team. And it’s going to get more difficult next year, when the Olympic team event rosters shrink to four.

But first, Biles called for a nap for herself (she’s the team grandma at age 22, the only non-teen) and a celebration for the U.S.

“For all of it,” she said. “For the team. For the medal count. Fifth year in a row.”

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GYM WORLDS: Women’s Finals Qualifiers | Men’s Finals Qualifiers

Simone Biles gets two skills named after her; U.S. dominates gymnastics worlds qualifying

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Simone Biles and the U.S. women’s gymnastics team finished qualifying at the world championships in the same familiar position — in first place by a comfortable margin.

Biles had the highest all-around scored by 2.266 points over countrywoman Sunisa Lee. Biles and Lee led the U.S. to a team score of 174.205, which was 5.044 points ahead of second-place China.

“I’m pretty pleased,” Biles said. “I feel like I have a lot of pressure being put on me.

“My main goal going into tonight was to not be great, but just to do well. … It’s always nerve-racking because qualifications qualifies you into everything. Waking up, it’s just like, oh gosh, what’s going to happen tonight.”

GYM WORLDS: Women’s qualifiers into team, individual finals

Biles also got two more skills named after her into the Code of Points, giving her four total. The latest were her triple-double on floor exercise and her double-double dismount off the balance beam.

Biles, competing at likely her last world championships, had the highest qualifying scores on floor and beam but was outscored on vault by countrywoman Jade Carey. Biles also slid into the final on her weakest apparatus, uneven bars, in seventh place out of eight qualifiers.

Scores are wiped clean for finals — team (Tuesday), all-around (Thursday) and individual apparatuses (Saturday, Sunday).

The U.S. eyes its seventh straight Olympic or world team title, the longest dynasty since the Soviet teams of the 1970s. Biles goes for her sixth straight Olympic or world all-around title, not counting the year break she took in 2017.

Other notable happenings in qualifying: Romania, which earned a team medal at every Olympics from 1976 through 2012, failed to qualify a full team for a second straight Olympics. The Romanians, beset by injuries to some of their top gymnasts, were outside the top 10 in qualifying.

Oksana Chusovitina, the 44-year-old Uzbek gymnast, appears to have qualified for her eighth Olympics. She failed to do so outright after missing the all-around and vault finals, but due to a lack of athletes from non-qualified Olympic nations in event finals, she should get in via her all-around qualifying standing.

Chusovitina, who has been competing at the senior elite level for 30 years, already holds the record for Olympic gymnastics appearances.

Sanne Wevers, the Dutchwoman who beat Laurie Hernandez and Biles for Rio Olympic balance beam gold, failed to qualify for next weekend’s beam final. Wevers also missed the 2017 World beam final and was seventh last year.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that Chusovitina failed to qualify for Tokyo in worlds qualification.

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GYM WORLDS: TV Schedule | U.S. Roster