TAMPA — For years, Konnor McClain seemed destined to become the best gymnast in the country: medals and acclaim starting in elementary school, and that TV segment with Steve Harvey at age 11 where she set her sights on the 2024 Olympic all-around title.
McClain fulfilled promise on Sunday, winning the U.S. all-around title at age 17 after first-day leader Shilese Jones fell on her very last skill, her uneven bars dismount. McClain became the sixth woman since 2000 to prevail 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 was supposed to be last year, but after a cross-country move and coaching change she was not ready to compete. She watched last year’s competition inside the arena, feeling down. She had no belief that a year later, she would be on top of the podium.
“It’s so unreal,” McClain, who came back this summer from a stress fracture in each shin, a concussion and the flu two weeks ago, said Sunday night. “I’m still in shock a little bit.”
U.S. GYMNASTICS CHAMPIONSHIPS: Results
In a two-day competition, McClain trailed Jones by eight tenths going into Sunday’s final day.
Jones fell on her opening balance beam and trailed a consistent McClain by five tenths going into the last rotation. But if Jones repeated her bars score from Friday’s opening night (which was best in the field by six tenths), she would comfortably join Biles as the only non-teens to win the U.S. all-around title in the last 50 years. She appeared on her way until landing off balance, falling back and sitting down, a one-point deduction.
Soon after, Anna Liukin, the mother of 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin who coaches McClain with husband Valeri, whispered in McClain’s ear.
Guess what, you won, Liukin told her.
“She was a little surprised, but she smiled,” Liukin said.
McClain, the 2019 U.S. junior all-around silver medalist, was originally too young for the Tokyo Olympics but became age-eligible when the Games were postponed one year to 2021. Before last year’s meets to determine the Olympic team, the Liukins got a call from 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 wasn’t in a shape to compete,” said Liukin, adding that a mutual decision was made in McClain’s best interest to sit out.
Then last winter, McClain’s father, Marc, died from COVID-19. Her grandmother died in the same week. She competed on Friday and Sunday wearing a leotard patch with his initials.
Asked 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 didn’t go to Tokyo (either on the team or as an alternate) and initially planned to quit elite gymnastics. She was motivated 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, piked too soon and opened up a little too early.
“Two falls and second place is just really only 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 following an NCAA season.
“There wasn’t really any stress level,” said Chiles, who during a break between routines Sunday tried to get on the jumbotron by having Jones lift her up during the Lion King Cam bit. “But the ramp up for this was definitely I think the hardest thing I could have ever done because I did have an injury [micro tears in a shoulder labrum and bicep], and that injury kind of held me back.”
Like McClain and Jones, Chiles and Carey eye the 2024 Paris Games. As does Tokyo all-around gold medalist Suni Lee, who plans to return to elite competition next year. And perhaps Biles, who hasn’t competed since Tokyo but also hasn’t ruled out a return for another Olympic run.
First up is the world championships this fall. That five-woman team will be named after an October selection camp and will be favored for gold given the absence of Olympic champion Russia, whose athletes are banned indefinitely due to the war in Ukraine.
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