Grace McCallum competes on the uneven bars at the American Cup on March 2, 2019 in Greensboro, N.C.
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Grace McCallum danced and tumbled across the floor as the beat intensified and the crowd inside the Greensboro Coliseum clapped along with the music.
With “Hava Nagila” blaring through the speakers, McCallum debuted her new floor exercise routine under the pressure of knowing the stakes were high. Going into the final rotation of the American Cup on Saturday, McCallum was in a head-to-head battle with U.S. teammate Leanne Wong.
Although Wong went on to win the FIG World Cup all-around event by the slimmest of margins — 56.765 to 56.465 — McCallum still had reason to be proud of her performance in North Carolina.
“I really liked my last (floor exercise) routine, but this one fits me a little better because the last one I got was when I was 13,” said McCallum, who turned 16 in October. “So it was a little more cutesy … and this one’s a little more mature and serious.”
In other words, it’s a routine befitting the world-class gymnast that she has become.
McCallum’s whirlwind first year on the senior circuit began last April, when she won the all-around title and helped the U.S. women’s team win gold in her debut as a senior elite at the Pacific Rim Championships.
That summer she took fourth in the all-around at her first senior national championships. Then she added another all-around championship to go along with another team title at the Senior Pan American Championships in September.
On Oct. 30, the Minnesota native celebrated her 16th birthday by helping Team USA dominate on its way to earning another gold medal at the 2018 world championships in Qatar, where she competed on floor and vault in the team final.
“It’s been amazing. It’s been pretty crazy,” McCallum, a high school sophomore, said. “(I) never really got a down time, but I’ve just been working hard in the gym, you know, keeping my skills up and been practicing.”
The American Cup was the latest stop during McCallum’s rise through the sport, and competing against a top international field and in front of a national TV audience, she again showed why she could help represent the U.S. at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
McCallum posted a solid all-around performance that put her tied with Wong for the lead halfway through the American Cup. It all came down to that final rotation — the floor exercise.
Despite McCallum earning 13.866 points with her new routine, Wong just narrowly edged her to top a strong field and win her senior debut.
For McCallum and her coach, Sarah Jantzi, the result was less a setback and instead just another step in the journey.
“I think when we started this journey of elite gymnastics I always told her, ‘Enjoy every opportunity that comes because you never know when it’s done,’” Jantzi said.
Not long ago, Jantzi wondered if McCallum was prepared to take the next step and compete at the senior level, though not because the teenager lacked the requisite talent. Rather, because of her birthday, McCallum was younger than most first-year seniors.
“I was like, ‘Ugh, shoot! I just wish you were one year before a junior!’” Jantzi said. “But it actually worked out for her benefit.
“Opportunities came along where she gained a lot of competition experience and that helped gain confidence for her.”
McCallum has proven to be strong in the all-around, and once she gets all the steps down for her new floor exercise routine, she’ll be even stronger.
Still, McCallum admitted she didn’t expect to be a part of the U.S. team, led by Simone Biles, that cruised to the gold at the world championships.
While one of McCallum’s goals was to earn a spot at the world championships, truth be told, she just didn’t think she had yet reached the same level as the other top Americans.
“I was really surprised,” McCallum said. “Like at the beginning of the year I would have never thought I’d make the world championships, let alone an international assignment.”
While in Qatar, Biles offered tips and spoke to McCallum about not getting nervous on the large stage.
Jantzi said the world championships gave McCallum confidence and the motivation after she realized that on her best day she’s good enough to stand on the podium.
“I’m just really proud of her. Our whole goal was to keep gradually adding in skills to make sure she’s confident and she can hit,” Jantzi said. “She stayed on the equipment, and that’s the No. 1 thing, and now it’s just improving the difficulty a little bit and cleaning up a little bit of the execution.”
McCallum has some time to work on that as she looks toward possibly making her Olympic debut in 2020.
“Obviously, that is the goal,” McCallum said. “But I try to take it one day at a time, not think too much ahead.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.