’20 delay gives teens early Olympic shot

- Nancy Armour Columnist

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-19, they’ve found themselves with an unexpected opportunit­y.

“It changes the strategy,” said Tom Forster, the U.S. 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.”

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 has cut team size from five to four for Tokyo.

Given that Simone Biles is getting one of those spots, that leaves three available.

This at a time when the Americans are even deeper than usual. Jordan Chiles won the 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 4 1⁄2 years and has promised that upgrades are coming. Riley McCusker is much improved on vault.

And we haven’t 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.

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.

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 the 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.

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.

 ?? JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES ?? Konnor McClain was third on vault and fourth on beam Saturday at the Winter Cup meet in Indianapol­is.
JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES Konnor McClain was third on vault and fourth on beam Saturday at the Winter Cup meet in Indianapol­is.
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