New hope? Olympic coronavirus postponement could benefit America's next budding superstar gymnast

Lorinda McClain's phone has not stopped buzzing since it became clear the Olympics would be postponed.

Friends in the gymnastics community have reached out to ask McClain if her daughter would now be allowed to compete for a spot on the U.S. team. Family members have texted to see if they should start saving money so they can travel to Tokyo next year. 

“People are breaking down our doors,” Lorinda told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday. “All we can say is, ‘We don’t know yet, people. We don’t know. We’ll let you guys know as soon as we know something.’ ”

Konnor McClain is one of the world’s best gymnasts not yet eligible to showcase her talent on the Olympic stage. The runner-up in the junior all-around competition at last year’s U.S. Championships was born February 1, 2005, 32 days too late to meet the cutoff to be allowed to compete this year with her country’s senior national team. 

With the International Olympic Committee postponing the Tokyo Games to 2021 on Tuesday as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, McClain suddenly has new hope of being able to participate. She’s awaiting word from the governing bodies of competitive gymnastics whether they will keep age eligibility rules exactly the same or grant athletes born in 2005 the right to try out for their country’s Olympic teams.

A USA Gymnastics spokeswoman told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday that her organization does not yet know whether the IOC or the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique will adjust the age cutoff. An unnamed international official told the Wall Street Journal that the age criteria was unlikely to change, but FIG Secretary General Nicolas Buompane told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday that no decision has yet been made.

“Your question and many more are keeping us busy,” Buompane said. “The most fair and adequate solutions will have to be found first of all in the interest of the athletes but also all other stakeholders concerned.”

The decision ultimately could hinge on whether FIG’s executive committee prioritizes sending the world’s best gymnasts to the Olympics or being fair to current members of senior national teams. 

For example, the pool of promising U.S. juniors born in 2005 includes McClain, Skye Blakeley and Sydney Barros. If allowed to compete at the U.S. Trials, any of those three would have realistic hope of outperforming older gymnasts and seizing one of six spots on the country’s Olympic team.

Konnor McClain competes on floor exercise during the women's junior competition of the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships at the Sprint Center on August 11, 2019, in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

“FIG is going to have to sit down and decide what they want to do here,” Susan Brown, McClain’s longtime coach, told Yahoo Sports. “I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe they should just freeze things like they are for another year to make it fair to everyone, but I’m kind of on the fence.”

Count Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson among those who believe McClain possesses the talent, energy and charisma to thrive if given the chance to earn a spot on what should be another stacked U.S. team. Not only does Johnson believe McClain could make the U.S. team, she also views the 15-year-old as one of the few gymnasts capable of capitalizing should five-time all-around world champion Simone Biles falter. 

“Konnor McClain is an incredible gymnast, one that has shot up into the limelight,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports. “She’s one who can rival the skill set of all the gymnasts out there. I do believe Simone has that expertise and experience that will make it hard for anyone to compete with her, but Simone is also in that age where we haven’t seen gymnasts compete.

“I think it would be a rivalry that we would love to see.”

The notion that any gymnast could challenge Biles is tough to fathom, but McClain’s talent has been evident since she was in diapers. Her parents enrolled her older sister, Olivia, in gym class, and 1-year-old Konnor would mimic everything the 4-year-olds were doing. 

At 14 months, she was doing better handstands than Olivia. At 18 months, she walked across a balance beam without assistance. At 20 months, she surprised her parents again when she started doing backbend kickovers.

“I don’t know if you know anything about gymnastics,” Lorinda McClain said, “but that doesn’t really happen at 20 months old.”

Upon moving from Nevada to suburban West Virginia when Konnor was 3 years old, Lorinda asked a childhood friend of hers to begin working with her daughter. Susan Brown has been Konnor’s coach ever since and has helped her go from outshining her peers in West Virginia to establishing herself as one of the nation’s best gymnasts. 

There’s no single meet or routine that persuaded Brown that Konnor had the potential to be an Olympian someday. Konnor just kept improving year after year, making the junior national team in 2018, taking second among juniors at the U.S. Championships last year and claiming gold in all four event finals at her only international meet so far in 2020. 

“Every other week something awesome seems to happen,” Lorinda McClain said. “She got to go on TV with Steve Harvey. We’re like, ‘Konnor?’ Then she got to go to Italy. We’re like, ‘Konnor?’ So it’s very surprising for us. She surprises us every day.”

Competing at the 2024 Olympics has always been McClain’s dream, and Brown has brought her along gradually with an eye on that. There was never a need for Brown to deviate from that plan until last week, when the spread of the coronavirus first inspired serious discussion regarding the need to postpone the 2020 Olympics.  

If FIG were to alter the age cutoff and suddenly make the 2021 Olympics a possibility, Brown said McClain would have to dramatically accelerate her training. Balance beam is McClain’s signature event, while she still has the most room for growth in her tumbling passes during the floor exercise.

“As a coach, you put off those passes over the years that could hurt them or eventually wear them down,” Brown said. “Konnor can do a lot more on floor than she is doing right now, but we’re not going to go out right now and throw those skills yet. My No. 1 goal is to keep her healthy, keep her focused and keep her loving it.”

Brown addressed the possibility of the 2021 Olympics with McClain on Tuesday morning after they practiced together in an otherwise empty gym. They plan to meet with McClain’s parents and talk further should FIG decide she’s age-eligible. 

“She’d really have to redo her training plan and work even harder,” Lorinda McClain said. “Don’t get me wrong. We’d be very excited. But it would be a crazy, crazy year.”

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