In an unprecedented move for a first-time U.S. Olympic prospect, reigning national gymnastics all-around champion Konnor McClain will not defer her freshman year of college and will compete for LSU while also training for the 2024 Olympics.
McClain had previously planned to spend the upcoming year preparing for the Olympic trials and then join the Tigers for the 2025 season, following the blueprint of 2020 Olympic all-around champion Suni Lee and her teammates, Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles. Those gymnasts took advantage of the NCAA’s NIL rule change that allows college athletes to profit from their sport, and became NCAA stars after competing in Tokyo.
Lee and Chiles, however, announced they are leaving their college programs next year to focus on making the five-woman team that will represent the U.S. in Paris. Because gymnasts compete with different skills in college and elite gymnastics (the path to the Olympics), athletes who double dip must train their elite skills and routines and attend national team camps while also competing weekly for their colleges.
“It’s not the original route I was going for,” McClain told ESPN, “but I believe I have to take a different route to get to my happiest place. I’ll return to elite competition after the NCAA season next year.”
McClain changed her plans after multiple coaching switches and the death of her father and grandmother from COVID-19 in December 2021. She was burned out on the schedule, intensity and solitude of an elite gymnast. She talked with former elites who competed on NCAA teams and began to believe that competing in college gymnastics, which is known for its supportive, joyful atmosphere, would help her rediscover her love for the sport and the motivation to fulfill her childhood dream of making the Olympics.
“When Konnor’s dad passed away, she dug in and busted her butt that first year and now she’s grown up and is looking at the big picture of life,” Konnor’s mom, Lorinda McClain, told ESPN. “Maybe this is going to be a harder route [to the Olympics] or maybe this is exactly what she needs.”
McClain also said she was impacted by four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles’ choice to pull out of the team competition at the Tokyo Olympics after she suffered a loss of spatial awareness known in gymnastics as the “twisties.” Watching the best gymnast in the world put her mental and physical health first, McClain said, inspired her to do the same.
“Making the Olympic team is still at the top of my list,” McClain said, “but I knew I wasn’t going to make the team if I wasn’t happy and healthy and at my best. For so many years, you had to do gymnastics a certain way or you were never going to make it. Now you can put what you need first and gymnastics after.”
Although she is a top prospect for the 2024 team, McClain has not competed since winning the 2022 national title last August. She’s had two surgeries this year — one to remove a cyst and part of a disk in her lower back, and another to remove a metal plate from her right hand. She says both injuries have fully healed, but she is still working to regain her elite skills and will not compete at U.S. Classics or defend her national title at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in August. Instead, she begins college classes at LSU on Aug. 21.
When McClain returns to elite gymnastics next spring, many of the women against whom she’ll compete at the Olympic trials will have more than an extra year of elite competition under their belts. It’s expected to be one of the toughest U.S. gymnastics trials in history, but McClain believes time away from elite gymnastics is precisely what she needs to be successful next summer. And she said she feels supported by her collegiate coaches in her Olympic pursuit.
“It’ll be tough to balance, but we will figure it out together,” LSU coach Jay Clark told ESPN. The biggest challenge right now is getting Konnor healthy, happy and adjusted to her new environment.”
In summer 2021, McClain split with her longtime coach and moved to Plano, Texas, to train with Valeri Liukin and his wife Anna at World Olympic Gymnastics Academy.
Valeri Liukin, an Olympic champion for the Soviet Union, coached his daughter, Nastia, to the 2008 Olympic all-around title and briefly headed the U.S. women’s national team. Since January 2022, he reportedly has been investigated by the U.S. Center for SafeSport due to multiple complaints of psychological and verbal abuse.
During her year and a half in Texas, McClain struggled with illness and injuries. In April, she left WOGA and moved to a new gym in Seattle before returning to her native Las Vegas.
“I went through so many injuries and was like, I need to stay away from the injuries and get healthy,” McClain said of her split with the Liukins. “I was just looking to become happy and healthier and take care of my body.”
Since June, McClain has been living and training at Gymcats in Vegas, where she worked out periodically over the years during summer trips to visit family.
“It was time to come home,” McClain says. “It’s nice to have my brothers and family around me all the time. My grandpa is here and it’s also where my dad is buried. I’m in a good mental spot right now.”
McClain said she is unsure if she will continue to train with her elite coaches at Gymcats once she starts college. Homeschooled since she was 8, she is focusing on figuring out how to juggle in-person classes, schoolwork and training before setting her sights on making the Paris team. She’s also looking forward to living in athlete housing with roommates and finding joy in gymnastics.
“I’m ready for a social life. I’m ready to be happy and love gymnastics again and have a team around me that supports me,” McClain said. “I’m really excited for the future.”