Opinion: Young gymnasts trying to capitalize on unexpected chance at Tokyo Olympics

INDIANAPOLIS – The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics forced athletes in every sport to revise their plans, with most having to push their timetables back.

For a few athletes, however, it meant speeding them up.

Female gymnasts are required to be 16 during the Olympic year to be eligible for the Games. Skye Blakely and Konnor McClain are among those who, because they were born in 2005, set their sights on the 2024 Olympics in Paris because they were going to be too young for Tokyo. But with the 2020 Games delayed a year because of COVID, they’ve found themselves with an unexpected opportunity.

“It changes the strategy,” said Tom Forster, national team coordinator. “This would not have been a year they’re trying to make an Olympic team, obviously, and world championships would have been an individual worlds and much later. To fast-forward everything would be a really big challenge.

“So the skills they’re trying to plan for 2024, they take years to really perfect and I talked (to their coaches) about not pushing too fast so they stay safe and give them best opportunity to do their best this year.”

Konnor McClain competes on the balance beam during the Senior Women's 2021 Winter Cup on Feb. 27, 2021 in Indianapolis. (Photo: Jamie Squire, Getty Images)

The odds of one of the 2005 gymnasts making it to Tokyo would seem long. Earning a spot on a U.S. world or Olympic team is always difficult, and the International Gymnastics Federation, in its usual infinite wisdom, has cut team size from five gymnasts to four for Tokyo. Given that Simone Biles is getting one of those spots, that leaves just three available.

This at a time when the Americans are even deeper than usual. Jordan Chiles won Winter Cup with a 57.05, a score that, if she can duplicate it at Olympic trials, would all but assure her of a spot. Sunisa Lee’s “backup” uneven bars routine Saturday could easily earn her the Olympic gold in the event. Laurie Hernandez was solid in her first meet in 4½ years and has promised that upgrades are coming. Riley McCusker is much improved on vault.

And we haven’t yet seen Morgan Hurd, the 2017 world champion, or Kara Eaker, Grace McCallum and MyKayla Skinner, members of the 2019 worlds team.

The United States will have two additional gymnasts in Tokyo – Jade Carey has mathematically locked up one of those spots – but neither will count in the team competition. 

“They know they’re going against some of the strongest gymnasts we’ve ever had,” Forster said of the young'uns.

But Blakely and McClain showed at Winter Cup that they’re up for the challenge.

Blakely had the top score on balance beam – she and Chiles both scored 14.5, but Blakely had the better execution score – with a routine that was as lovely as it was difficult. Her leaps were done with an easy gracefulness, and ordinary folks have a harder time walking a straight line on the ground than she did doing a back somersault on a 4-inch-wide beam that’s 4 feet off the floor.

In a file photo from 2019, Skye Blakely competes during the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. (Photo: Jay Biggerstaff, USA TODAY Sports)

McClain was third on vault and fourth on beam. 

“It’s just crazy to think about how my whole life pretty much changed after the news (about the Tokyo postponement) came out,” McClain said before Winter Cup.

Echoing what Forster said, McClain said she and her coaches decided not to rush upgrades this year. They focused on ones that made sense and that her body could handle, and will add others over the coming years.

And when asked about her goals for the year, McClain mentioned Olympic trials, but not the Games themselves.

“I really didn't want to put too much on my plate right now,” McClain said when asked why. “The Olympics are definitely in the back of my mind, for sure. But right now, trials and see where that takes me from there.”

Given that she and the other 2005 gymnasts are on a completely new path from the one they expected to be on a year ago, that's a pretty good plan.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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