Sports

Meet the Future of USA Gymnastics

Two elegant, self-possessed newcomers join ranks with veterans in a post-Biles, Russia-free landscape.

Jones and McClain lift bouquets and smile on the podium with medals around their neck
Shilese Jones (L) and Konnor McClain (R) after placing 1 and 2 in the 2022 U.S. Gymnastics Championships at Amalie Arena on Aug. 21, in Tampa, Florida. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Unless you are a women’s gymnastics superfan, you probably do not know the name Rebecca Bross, despite the gymnastics legend’s six world medals and national title. But that’s just the thing: Bross was in championship condition in 2010, the exact midpoint between Olympics—granting her far too many long months to sustain a career-ending injury.

So here we are, again, in (more or less) the midpoint between Games, the Tokyo spectacle in the rear-view and Paris still not yet breaching the horizon. What a weird sport gymnastics is, where top athletes punish their bodies upwards of 40 hours a week, just to be ignored by the general public but for two weeks quadrennially! Is the name of the 2022 U.S. champion even worth mentioning to the general public?

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Oh, yes it is. Her name is Konnor McClain, and she’s a revelation. And best not sleep on the regal runner-up either: Shilese Jones. (The bronze finisher? An obscure athlete named Jordan Chiles.)

We’re unlikely to see either McClain or Jones fade from the national scene anytime soon: First of all, as USA Gymnastics CEO Li Li Leung told reporters during the U.S. Championships broadcast in mid-August, gymnasts train differently than they used to, and they can stay in healthy condition for longer. (These changes represent a hard-fought victory; they have necessitated the shunning and suspension of once sought-after coaches.) Secondly, both gymnasts were barely not ready for primetime in Tokyo last year—but they have been household names in the sport since they were junior elites.

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In addition to granting the world the first (but certainly not last) all-Black U.S. Championships podium in the sport’s history, the 2022 national meet also gave us an important glimpse into how champions will form themselves for the next quadrennium—which, thanks in large part to the painfully gained autonomy of forbears such as Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, looks quite a bit different than it did in previous decades, wherein tiny teenagers cowered under the withering gaze of infamous national team director Marta Karolyi at “camps” that were the precise opposite of fun.

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Yes, the U.S. program still utilizes the monthly centralized training camp system—but that camp is no longer on an isolated, gymnast-starving compound, and the national team program now has three coaches committed to athlete well-being. Two of these coaches, former World and Olympic medalists Chellsie Memmel and Alicia Sacramone Quinn, trained during what we now recognize as some of USAG’s darkest years. They of all people will ensure those years do not resurrect.

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McClain and Jones going 1-2 at the championships was an especially emotional moment for both young women (McClain is 17; Jones is 20), given that both athletes also trained through the unfathomable loss of their fathers, each of whom was memorialized on his daughter’s leotard as she competed.

Furthermore, despite recent endeavors in the ever-confounding Code of Points to make it even harder to get whatever a “good” score is in the post–Perfect 10 era—once upon a time it was a 17, and then a 15, and now I guess it’s a 13.5? I give up—both women netted all-around numbers that put them in the top of the international field as the Russia-bereft 2022 World Championships approach.

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I’ll dispense with the obvious up front: Neither McClain nor Jones is comparable to the (currently not competing) GOAT, Simone Biles, on her marquee events: vault or floor. Unlike Biles, for example—who has two vaults named after her that nobody else can dream of competing clean (or doing at all)—Jones and McClain both compete the more common double twisting Yurchenko. However. While Biles is incomparable in power, and her in-air execution as close to flawless as possible, both Jones and McClain have something she doesn’t: what we in the gymnastics world call the “lines” of the body, which come from one thing the 4-foot-8-inch Biles does not possess: height. At 5-feet flat (McClain) and 5-foot-3 (Jones), both up-and-comers simply have longer limbs, so when they fly high with good form—and they do—it’s breathtaking.

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Another way that Jones specifically distinguishes herself: She shines on the uneven bars, which the GOAT has famously expressed a desire to disembowel. Though a rough case of nerves derailed her dismount on the second night of the grueling two-day championships, Jones’ night-one bars were a sight to behold.

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Again, what makes Jones special here is the magical-seeming combination of those lines, and her swing, which requires patience and rhythm and a kind of oneness with the apparatus that cannot be powered through. If she keeps this up and the nerves don’t return, a score like this—6.3 difficulty plus 8.55 execution—is world-caliber even if you knock off a few tenths for the “domestic-meet bonus” most gymnasts seem to get at home.

The true tear-jerk of the 2022 U.S. season, however, remains McClain, who has been a fan favorite since her standout time as a dynamo junior, and is world renowned for her skills on balance beam, which include a staggering back layout done from a two-foot punch (rather than the step-out most elite gymnasts compete) which flies higher than her head.

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However, what McClain was also known for until a month ago was a case of nerves so severe that despite having some of the highest difficulty and best form of the elite set, she seemed to choke at every high-profile competition. Viewers of the pre-Olympics Peacock docuseries Golden (disclosure: please fast-forward through parts where my visage appears) were even treated to multiple scenes of this poor child vomiting into a plastic bag before mounting the balance beam at almost every competition, making us wonder: Why the hell was she putting herself through this?

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However: Like any worthwhile piece of reality television, Golden gave us a twist, which was that after falling out with her longtime coach Susan Brown over what appeared on the show to be Brown’s and her husband’s garden-variety MAGA nonsense, McClain enrolled at the vaunted World Olympic Gymnastics Academy (gym names are not known for the subtlety), under the tutelage of legendary coaches and parents of 2008 Olympic champion Nastia Liukin, Valeri Liukin and Anna Kotchneva. And while the WOGA staff are no strangers to controversy regarding harsh coaching practices, McClain seems to be thriving there despite everything she’s been through. (As a fairly recent member of the Dead Dad Club myself, I find Golden wrenching to rewatch because Mark McClain, still very much alive, so clearly adores his daughter.)

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Case in point: On the first night of Championships, McClain had to wait out a lengthy judging delay—which derails even the steeliest athlete—on national primetime television, at the exact moment when both expectations (hey everyone, it’s the Puker!) and her nerves (… will she puke?) were highest.

And then she got up there and completed the most incredible beam set I have ever seen her do.

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Watching McClain achieve the greatness she has always displayed as potential, you simply would not know that she’d ever had a confidence problem.

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Led by McClain and Jones—and with a little help from Olympic veterans doing double duty in the NCAA—the American program seems to be taking its “rebuilding” phase seriously. Sure, the U.S. lacks a Simone Biles at present. There is only one Biles in the universe, and she is busy. But against many odds and despite little international exposure for the U.S. “A-team” so far, leading to calls for “alarm bells” which appear to be premature, the state of the U.S. gymnastics program appears strong. With Russia off the world stage for the foreseeable future, the World Championships are more of a toss-up than they have ever been—with names you don’t often associate with gymnastics, like Italy and Brazil, making headlines. But still, given the talent and resilience on display at U.S. Championships, the top of the Worlds podium remains very much in reach. And better yet, it seems in reach by athletes who seem happy, healthy—and unlikely to fade from memory anytime soon.

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