TAMPA, FL. – Connor McClane arrived in Texas last spring, and her confidence is shattered. Gymnastics, which for a long time was so easily given to a young teenager, was shaken. Indeterminate.
At one point last spring, she felt like “the stupidest gymnast.” She watched the 2021 USA Championships from the stands and watched the Olympics on TV, wondering if the dream that once seemed so tantalizingly close might be gone forever.
There McClain was on Sunday night during the final night of the 2022 championship, a talent that was always evident, filled with a self-belief that emerged from a mixture of loss, grief and determination.
A transformation that began when she hurriedly switched gyms last spring ended with the 17-year-old on the podium, a gold medal around her neck and her confidence restored.
McClain posted a two-day total of 112,750, just ahead of Shilize Jones (111,900). Not bad for an athlete recovering from stress fractures in both shins and less than a month removed from a concussion sustained during training.
Perhaps more tellingly, McClain believes she is about 75 percent healthy, optimistic that she will be in even better shape at the world championships in Liverpool, England, this fall.
“Anything can happen,” McClain said. “So I’m very excited about the future.”
One that has become wide open again.
McClain was expected to be a factor in training for the 2020 Olympics, but the start of the competition season last spring was so difficult that she had to make a change, moving abruptly from West Virginia to Texas. She rediscovered herself at the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Dallas, owned and operated by Valery and Anna Liukin, parents of 2008 Olympic champion Nastya Liukin.
The process was tough, both in and out of the gym. She lost her father and grandmother within a week of New Year’s. She won the Winter Cup in late February, but struggled to stay healthy in the spring and early summer.
She arrived in Florida last week hoping to simply build momentum heading into October’s World Cup qualifying camp. She did much more than that, taking the lead through one rotation Sunday night and never letting go.
McClain started Sunday just under a point behind Jones, but took the lead in the first spin when she drilled her double spin on Yurchenko and Jones jumped off the beam. McClain never regained the lead, although there were some sharp moments.
Wearing a sparkly red leotard with a bun held in place with a matching red hair tie, McClain was a half-point before the final turn, but lost her balance while attempting a wolf turn in the free exercise. Her score of 13.850 opened the door for Jones, who was waiting to take the bars when McClain’s score flashed.
On most of Jones’ polished bars, she seemed poised to slip past McClain. At least it wasn’t until she took a dismount, which Jones reversed, sending her to the mat, that her national championship hopes were gone.
It was a tough end to an otherwise encouraging meet for the resilient 20-year-old, who promised her father Sylvester before his death from kidney disease last December that she would push on in hopes of reaching the 2024 Olympics.
It’s a goal that seems achievable if she can build on two days that showcased her power, accuracy and maturity.
“I’m just really excited to be back here,” Jones said. “You know, to fall twice and still come in second, that’s just the beginning for me.”
With reigning Olympic champion Sunisa Lee awaiting a return to elite competition and Simone Biles on leave, the Americans appear to be in a good position to reclaim the top of the podium at the 2022 World Championships.
Jordan Chiles finished third in her first elite event since winning silver in the team event at the Tokyo Olympics. Kayla Dichello finished fourth, while reigning Olympic free exercise champion Jade Carey finished fifth. Leanne Wong, who won silver in the all-around at the world championships last fall, overcame a foot injury to complete two graceful approaches on bars and beam.
Those three, along with McClain, Jones, Dichello and Sky Blakely, appear to be the frontrunners to make the five-woman squad that will travel to Liverpool, England, for the World Cup at the end of October.
The team will be decided only in mid-October. Still, a year behind the Russian, who finished second in Japan, the Americans appear to be threatening to return to the top of the sport, even as reigning Olympic champion Sunisa Lee and superstar Simone Biles are on leave from elite competition.
“I still think we can break out and get an amazing result,” Chiles said.
With McClane, her confidence was restored, on the cusp of an opportunity she feared would never come.
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