By WILL GRAVES – AP Sportswriter
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Konnor McClain arrived in Texas last spring adrift, her confidence shattered. The gymnastics that had come so easily for so long to the precocious teenager had become fragile. Uncertain.
At one point last spring, she felt she was “the trashiest gymnast ever.” She watched the 2021 U.S. Championships from the stands and caught the Olympics on TV, wondering if the dream that once seemed so near had fallen out of reach, perhaps for good.
There was McClain on Sunday night on the final night of the 2022 Championships, the talent that had always been apparent, buoyed by a self-confidence born of a mixture of loss, grief and determination.
The transformation that began when she changed gyms last spring ended with the 17-year-old on the podium, a gold medal around her neck and her confidence restored.
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McClain posted a two-day total of 112.750, just ahead of Shilese Jones at 111.900. Not bad for an athlete nursing stress fractures to both shins and less than a month out of a concussion sustained in training.
Perhaps even more remarkably, McClain reckons she is around 75% 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 excited for the future.”
The one that has become wide open again.
McClain was expected to be a factor in the build-up to the 2020 Olympics, but she struggled so much at the start of the competitive season last spring that she had to make a switch, moving abruptly from Virginia- Western in Texas. She rediscovered herself at the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Dallas, owned and operated by Valeri and Anna Liukin, parents of 2008 Olympic champion Nastia Liukin.
It was an arduous process, both inside and outside the gymnasium. She lost her father and grandmother in the space of a week around New Years. 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 build momentum for world championship selection camp in October. She did more than that, taking the lead in a rotation on Sunday night and never letting go.
McClain started Sunday just under a point behind Jones, but took the lead in the first rotation when she drilled her double-twisting Yurchenko jump as Jones leaped off the beam. McClain never returned the lead, although there were a few late nail-biting moments.
Dressed in a bedazzled red leotard with her bun held in place by a matching red scrunchie, McClain was half a point ahead going into the final spin, but lost her balance trying to complete a wolf spin on a floor exercise. His score of 13.850 opened the door for Jones, who was waiting to play uneven bars when McClain’s score flashed.
It appeared mostly from Jones’ polished bars that she was ready to slip by McClain. At least until her run-off, which Jones under-rotated, forcing her to sit on the mat, her national championship hopes were gone.
It was a difficult end to an otherwise encouraging encounter for the resilient 20-year-old, who promised her father Sylvester before his death from kidney disease last December that she would continue in hopes of reaching the 2024 Olympics.
It’s a goal that seems within reach if she can bank on two days that showcased her power, precision and maturity.
“I’m just super excited to be back here,” Jones said. “You know, falling twice and still finishing in second place, that’s really just the beginning for me.”
Even with reigning Olympic champion Sunisa Lee waiting to return to elite competition and Simone Biles on sabbatical, the Americans look set to reclaim the top step of the podium at the 2022 world championships.
Jordan Chiles finished third in her first elite competition since winning a silver medal in the team competition at the Tokyo Olympics. Kayla Dicello was fourth, with reigning Olympic floor exercise champion Jade Carey in fifth. Leanne Wong, who won silver in the all-around at the world championships last fall, overcame a foot injury to clock two graceful sets on bars and beam.
These three, along with McClain, Jones, DiCello and Skye Blakely, appear to be top contenders to make the five-woman squad that travels to Liverpool, England, for the World Championships at the end of October.
The team will not be selected until mid-October. Yet a year away from the Russian’s second-place finish in Japan, the Americans appear to be threatening to return to the top of the sport, even with reigning Olympic champion Sunisa Lee and superstar Simone Biles both on sabbatical from competition. ‘elite.
“I still think we’re going to be able to get through this and have an amazing result,” Chiles said.
With McClain, her confidence restored, at the dawn of an opportunity she feared would never come.
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