Konnor McClain competes at the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 11, 2019 in Kansas City, Miss.
Even in Mommy and Me class, Konnor McClain was precocious.
Not yet 2 years old when she started gymnastics, McClain’s potential manifested itself early. In one of her first classes, she took hold of a toddler-sized pair of rings. While the other tots in the class simply hung on them, McClain used her little arms to execute baby chin-ups, pulling herself up so that her ears were level with the rings.
“The little Mommy and Me instructor was like, ‘Whoa, she’s very strong,’” her mother Lorinda McClain recalled.
A gymnastics coach herself, Lorinda guided her daughter in the early years. By the time Konnor was about 6, she was working standing backflips on the balance beam, an advanced skill most girls don’t start working until much later. That was about when Lorinda decided that her daughter’s ability had outpaced her.
Nearly a decade later, McClain is still ahead of almost everyone else. As one of the leaders on a talented U.S. junior team, her unusual combination of airy grace and pure athleticism has turned heads, as has her ability to handle decidedly senior-level skills. In 2019, she won the junior title at the U.S. Classic. Three weeks later at nationals, she took the U.S. junior crown on balance beam en route to finishing second in the all-around.
Already considered an early hopeful for the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team, the Cross Lanes, West Virginia-based 15-year-old was shocked last week when she found out that she would suddenly be age eligible to compete at the Tokyo Games, which due to the COVID-19 pandemic will now take place in the summer of 2021.
Female gymnasts are not allowed to compete at the senior Olympic level until the year they turn 16, which for 2020 meant gymnasts must have been born on or before Dec. 31, 2004. That was a month too early for McClain, whose birthday is Feb. 1, 2005. But with the Games delayed a year, the FIG announced last week that gymnasts who turn senior in 2021 — those born in 2005 — would also be able to compete at the Games.
And just like that, McClain became a Tokyo Olympic hopeful.
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The news blew up her Twitter feed last Thursday as she sat at home watching a movie with her older sister Olivia. It was a surprise, because though McClain and everyone else had been waiting for the FIG to make a decision about 2005-born gymnasts, she wasn’t expecting it quite so soon.
“I was pretty shocked at first,” McClain said. “I didn’t know what they were going to do about it, so I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’”
Sports talent runs strongly in the McClain clan. Lorinda played college soccer and was a cheerleader, and Konnor’s father Marc was a football player at Southern Utah. Her older brother Cole was on the football roster at Waynesburg University in Pennsylvania, and Olivia has accepted a full ride softball scholarship for Niagara University, beginning in the fall. Another brother, Deuce, plays baseball and football. Konnor is the only gymnast.
The Olympics have been in McClain’s head “forever,” or at least since 2012, when as a 7-year-old she and her teammates gathered for a viewing party of the women’s team final during the London Games. Watching the “Fierce Five” capture the United States’ first team gold medal in a generation opened her eyes to her sport’s Olympic possibilities.
“When I found out about it, that’s when I wanted to do it,” she said.
And maybe, just maybe, she could do it a little earlier than planned. McClain isn’t pinning her hopes on Tokyo, though.
“My goal in general is still 2024,” she said.
For next year, she’d be delighted to make it as far as the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. From there, “what happens happens.”
As a coach, Lorinda McClain understands that being an Olympic hopeful and making the team are two very different things, be it in 2021 or 2024.
“You just never know in gymnastics,” she said. “Our plan was slow and steady for four more years — that’s what we thought. And so this was not our plan. So it definitely changes things, but again it also just means she’s eligible. We’re not packing our bags or anything. We’re just going to keep training and keep doing what she’s doing.”
For her part, Konnor McClain is keeping a lid on her expectations.
“If I could make it to the trials and compete there, that would be awesome,” she said.
The 2021 world championships in Copenhagen, Denmark, are also on her radar, and she sees them as a more realistic objective.
“I don’t set high goals for myself because I already know I have pressure on me. So I try to set lower goals for myself, even though at the back of my mind I have higher goals for myself, if that makes sense,” she said.
Unlike some of the national team, COVID-19 hasn’t kept McClain out of the gym, though her hours at Revolution Gymnastics have been cut from 33 to around 25 per week. She and her coaches and teammates practice social distancing, keeping to groups of five or less and spacing themselves apart in the gym. And if the virus has disrupted her training to some extent, she is firmly focused on the future; she’s working on adding a full twist to her first tumbling pass on floor, two new skills on balance beam and some big upgrades on vault.
“Right now I’m just really thinking about upgrades, what I can to do for next year since I don’t know about this year yet,” she said.
Some things may be up in the air, but McClain isn’t concerned about where she’s going to land.
“I’m just staying focused in the gym,” she said, “and not worrying about any of that.”
Blythe Lawrence has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.