Olympics

Konnor McClain rallies past Shilese Jones in finals to claim first US gymnastics national championship

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TAMPA, Fla. — Konnor McClain won her first US gymnastics national championship Sunday night, rallying past Shilese Jones in the finals to complete a stunning turnaround since switching training gyms last year.

The 17-year-old McClain posted a two-day total of 112,750, just ahead of Jones at 111,900. Jordan Chiles, part of the US team that won silver at the 2020 Olympics last summer, finished third. Kayla DiCello took fourth, followed by Olympic floor exercise champion Jade Carey in fifth and Skye Blakely in sixth.

McClain was expected to be a factor in the run-up to the Tokyo Games but struggled so much early in the competition season that she felt like « the most garbage gymnast ever, » as she said on Wednesday.

A change of scenery from West Virginia to Texas helped considerably. McClain has flourished at Dallas-based World Gymnastics Academy, owned and operated by Valeri Liukin, the father of 2008 Olympic champion Nastia Liukin. Her confidence has soared in lockstep with her development.

She began Sunday just less than a point behind Jones but took the lead in the first rotation when she drilled her double Yurchenko vault while Jones hopped off the balance beam. She never gave the lead back, though there were some nail-biting moments late.

McClain led Jones by a half-point going into the final rotation but lost her balance while trying to complete a wolf turn spin. Her score of 13.850 opened the door for Jones, who was waiting to go on uneven bars as McClain’s score flashed.

It appeared for most of Jones’ polished bars set that she was ready to slip by McClain to the top of the podium. Then came her dismount, which she under-rotated, forcing her to sit on the mat, her hopes of a national championship gone.

It was a difficult ending to a promising meet for the resilient 20-year-old.

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Jones put together the best single-day performance of her career on Friday, sprinting to the front with four powerful and polished routines that validated her decision to push toward the 2024 Olympics rather than head to college at Florida.

The momentum she built on opening night didn’t last long. A miscue on beam cost her the lead. Yet she bounced back following a long 45-minute wait with a dynamic and decidedly grown-up floor routine that seemed to loosen her up.

If Jones was still stewarding about falling behind, it didn’t show. During warm-ups before vault, Jones basically bench-pressed Chiles, lifting her friend clear over her head during a « Lion King »-themed competition between rotations.

It was a moment that symbolized the slightly looser, more relaxed vibe atop the women’s program in the first meet under a new leadership paradigm that split the job of the high-performance director into three separate but equal positions.

Olympic medalists Alicia Sacramone Quinn (strategic lead) and Chellsie Memmel (technical lead) and Dan Baker (developmental lead) are charged with putting together a program that is athlete-centric and world-class at the same time.

Even with reigning Olympic champion Sunisa Lee waiting before returning to elite competition and Simone Biles on sabbatical, the Americans appear to be in good position to reclaim the top of the podium at the 2022 world championships.

Chiles and Carey, who are attempting to compete at the elite and collegiate level at the same time, were solid in their first meet at the sport’s highest level since Tokyo. Leanne Wong, who claimed silver in the all-around at the world championships last fall, overcame a foot injury to put together two graceful sets on bars and beam.

Those three, along with McClain, Jones and DiCello appear to be the top contenders to make the five-woman team that will head to Liverpool, England for world championships in late October. The group will be chosen at a national team camp earlier in the month.

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