TAMPA — A year ago, Konnor McClain had lost confidence. She would get sick with nerves during competitions. And even as many told her otherwise, she said she felt like the “most renegade gymnast ever.”
Now she is the National All-Around Champion, a completely transformed athlete who performed calmly and consistently at the Amalie Arena this weekend. McClain, 17, needed balance under pressure, and she delivered eight solid routines over two days of competition to make a total of 112,750 beating Shilese Jones.
“I never thought this could happen — ever,” McClain said. “Just looking back at last year and being where I was last year, this is just so crazy to me.”
McClain, in second place after the first day of competition, jumped to the lead when Jones fell to beam during the first rotation. Jones responded with remarkable performances on the floor and jump, narrowing her deficit to five tenths of a point. In the final rotation, with Jones on bars and McClain on floor, Jones would have prevailed if both gymnasts had repeated their routines from Friday. After McClain had an imperfect but solid floor exercise, her hopes of a gold medal depended on how well Jones executed her usually excellent bar routine.
Jones soared through the air on her release elements with superb technique throughout, hitting vertical handstands and keeping her legs glued together. But on her final element, a double forward dismount, the 20-year-old sat down on the floor, a big mistake that cost her first place on the podium. In an effort to hold onto the landing, Jones said, she opened from her tucked-away position “a little early.” Jones took the silver with 112,000, landing just ahead of Tokyo Olympian Jordan Chiles, who had a 111,900 in her impressive return to elite competition.
For McClain, a sudden decision to move from West Virginia to Texas drove her to this moment. As she struggled last spring, she realized she needed a change and abruptly left her old club for the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Texas — with about 12 hours between the decision and her departure. She trains under Valeri and Anna Liukin, the parents of 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin, with a handful of other elite gymnasts. Since then, her mindset has changed and her confidence has grown.
After the switch, McClain had a tough road here. Her father, Marc, died of the coronavirus in December and her grandmother passed away shortly after – consecutive devastating losses for the teenager.
“It’s been a really great year,” said Anna Liukin. “This boy has grown up so much. You wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but she really triumphed.”
McClain recently suffered stress fractures in both shins, then a concussion and illness. McClain said she felt “70.75 percent” ready for this meeting, with her primary focus on World Championship roster this fall.
But at the US Championships, she looked prepared and confident. She flipped high above the bar on her difficult tumble sequence, taking the highest score on that device alongside her all-around crown. Her improved show on bars, with a score of 14,050 compared to a 13,300 on Friday, gave her a boost. And in the end, her floor routine, with precise jumps and tumbling steps and only small jumps on the landings, helped secure the title. She stumbled out of her wolf turn—a dance element done in a crouching position with one leg extended—but after Jones’ mistake, that didn’t matter anymore.
When Anna Liukin understood the end result, she whispered to McClain, “Guess what? You won.” There’s no big party, not with others joining in, but McClain smiled amid her surprise.
McClain found it difficult to explain what this meant to her, adding that it might take a while to sink in. But when asked about the thoughts in her head, she had a quick response: “Honestly, I wish I could talk to my dad properly. right now.”
Without Simone Biles here, this competition had a cluster of gymnasts in a tight race for that top spot on the all-around podium. Coming in on Sunday, just 1.55 separated the top five gymnasts—Jones, McClain, Chiles, Kayla DiCello, and Jade Carey—all of whom made it through the first day without major mistakes. DiCello was fourth with a 110.950, just ahead of Carey in fifth with a 110.900. The 1.85 margin between first and fifth place is the narrowest among U.S. citizens since the introduction of the open scoring system in 2006.
“They will continue to improve and be where they want to be for the world,” said Chellsie Memmel, the technical leader of the women’s high-performance team. “This is not necessarily the meeting, especially for the seniors, the meeting where you want to peak. I think there is room for improvement for everyone, and they are in a good place.”
Another top American gymnast, Leanne Wong, scratched her way out of competition on Friday after two events and returned to performing on beam and beam alone on Sunday. Wong, last year’s global all-around silver medalist, won the US Classic a month ago and would have been squarely in the mix for a medal here.
Despite the disappointing end for Jones, she had a weekend full of highlights. Jones tied with Wong for the bar title, and her floor routines were filled with powerful tumbling, excellent technique and safe landings. Jones’ two-day total on the device defeated Carey, the Olympic gold medalist on the floor, to win the title.
“Two crashes and second place is really just the beginning for me,” Jones said.
Jones didn’t think she’d be here. She planned to compete for the U.S. Olympic team only once, although her father, Sylvester, would try to convince her that she was far from the end of her elite career and that her dream could live on.
But everything has changed. Her whole life is different now. Jones’ father died in December after a battle with kidney disease. The date of his death, written in Roman numerals, sparkled in rhinestones on her left sleeve as she delivered standout performances on both match days, despite a toe injury. Her father’s words inspired her to keep going, to hold on to that Olympic dream he always believed she could achieve.
After even missing out on an alternate spot for the Tokyo Games, she’s back in the mix, approaching what could be her first world championship berth this fall. In Tampa, she proved she is one of the best gymnasts in the country as she stood on the podium next to the other athlete who could understand the grief that permeated her path to this feat.