By Blythe Lawrence | April 03, 2019, 11:15 a.m. (ET)
Jade Carey competes at the FIG Gymnastics World Cup on March 21, 2019 in Doha, Qatar. 

 

On the threshold of her Olympic dream coming true, Jade Carey could be found at her Phoenix gym last week, coaching foster kids on the finer points of walking the balance beam.

“We split them up by ages and then we did little gymnastics classes with them, with obstacle courses and Tumbl Trak and the pit, and kind of let them play but also taught them basic skills,” Carey recounted enthusiastically in a recent phone interview with TeamUSA.org. “We did balancing stuff with them, like walking across a beam with a beanbag on your head to make it fun and taught them how to jump off the beam and stick the landing.”

The class, part of a day where Arizona Sunrays Gymnastics opened its doors to more than 300 local foster families, represented a rare break for Carey, who has spent much of the last month on the other side of the planet, vaulting toward a berth to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

The highest ranked gymnast on each apparatus in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 FIG individual apparatus world cup series qualifies directly to Tokyo (with some added caveats, like the fact that only one gymnast per nation can qualify that way), and Carey, one of the top gymnasts in the world on vault and floor exercise, has opted to take this route, new and unorthodox in gymnastics, to qualify for the Games. If successful, it will allow her to bypass next summer’s pressure-packed U.S. Olympic selection process, but it will also preclude her from participating in the Olympic team competition, where the American squad will attempt to defend its gold medals from London and Rio. Carey would still represent the United States, and in competing in women’s qualifications in Tokyo she would have the ability to earn a spot in any of the four women’s apparatus finals.

But first things first: in order to win the world cup series, Carey will need to be the highest ranked gymnast on at least one apparatus when the eight-leg series comes to an end next spring. Since a gymnast’s three best finishes at world cup events count toward his or her world cup ranking, three first places on the circuit comes close to sealing the deal. 

Carey finished second on vault at the Cottbus World Cup in Germany last November, then followed up by winning the event at world cup events in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Doha, Qatar last month.

The only way Carey wouldn’t get the Olympic spot is if Carey does not win any of the next four world cup events and another gymnast wins three world cups, or if Carey wins one more and another gymnast also wins three while also compiling a higher total score for her three winning vaults.

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In the midst of the scenarios and unknowns, the 18-year-old Oregon State commit is keeping calm and carrying on.

“It’s pretty cool that I’ve done so well so far, but I’m still just trying to focus on what I need to do because there’s a lot that can still happen,” she said. “There was some pressure (at the world cups), because there were a lot of really good athletes there that have been in the Olympics before, but just tried to stay focused on what I do in the gym every day.”

In Baku, Carey showed off a new vault, the Cheng, which gives her a difficulty advantage over most of her competition. The vault carries a 6.0 difficulty score, bolstering her already impressive difficulty on the event.

After finishing just fifth on floor in Cottbus, she added a pair of wins on floor exercise in Baku and Doha, her routines highlighted by an extremely difficult double twisting double layout first tumbling pass, which only a handful of women have ever shown in competition.

“I’m really glad we went to the world cup in Germany, because we learned a lot about how to attack the rest of the series,” said Brian Carey, Jade’s father and coach.

In Cottbus, Carey never quite got over her jetlag, and it might have affected her performance. At her more recent competitions, Carey employed more strategy, holding back on her most difficult tumbling skills in the qualification rounds and bringing them out only in the final.

“There was competition and pressure to make finals, but we treated it more like a training day,” Brian Carey said. “We just needed to squeak into eighth place to make finals and then we pulled back out the big guns, and then we’d back up again and then we’d do it again. And it seemed to pay off really well.”

Unlike many who make the Olympic team, Carey was not pegged from childhood as a potential national team member. Instead, she went through the Junior Olympic program, a somewhat less intense pipeline for future NCAA recruits one step below the elite level. 

At a Junior Olympic camp in the fall of 2016, she was spotted by Texan coach Dan Baker, now the elite development coordinator for the U.S. national team. Baker was impressed by Carey’s skills and felt she had the potential to go further. At Baker’s suggestion, the Careys sent a few videos to the national team coordinator, which scored her an invitation to a national team camp. Her first international competition was the 2017 world championships, where she came away with silver medals on vault and floor. 

It was a turning point.

“The 2017 worlds was when I first realized that (the Olympics) could be something that I could do,” Carey said. “It was my first international meet, and for it to go so well just made me feel like I could keep going.”

Carey wants to achieve more than just competing in Tokyo. Her goals for this year include the slate of summer elite domestic competitions and hopefully a return trip to October’s world championships in Stuttgart, Germany. To that end, she’s working on bringing her uneven bars and beam routines to the same level she’s at on vault and floor.

“I think having like a more difficult bars and beam from last year, and having a more consistent routine that I can hit, can show that I could do those two other events if I needed to, and it would give me a better chance,” she said.

By this time in 2020, maybe those Phoenix foster kids will  be able to say they were coached by an Olympian-to-be.

Blythe Lawrence is a journalist based in Seattle. She has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.