Grace McCallum Defies The Odds To Come Back In An Olympic Year
Grace McCallum Defies The Odds To Come Back In An Olympic Year
Grace McCallum shares the setbacks she's overcome during an Olympic year and her plans for the season.
Grace McCallum is no stranger to battling the odds and overcoming insurmountable challenges. She’s become the conqueror of them.
Many have favored the superstar gymnast to make the 2021 Olympic team since she launched onto the senior scene in 2018 and won gold in the all-around and team finals at Pacific Rim Championships as well as silver on vault and floor.
She didn’t slow down from there, making her a favorite of this quad from her performances in 2018, from taking fourth at U.S. Nationals, placing first all-around and earning gold as a team at the Pan American Championships, and taking third all-around at Worlds selection camp, earning a spot on the gold-medaling 2018 Worlds team.
In 2019 she continued her success, taking second all-around at American Cup, third at U.S. Nationals (climbing a spot from the year prior), third all-around at the U.S. Classic, and was selected once again for the 2019 Worlds team, which placed first as a team. She had many upgrades planned after the 2019 season and was expected to climb in the ranks from there.
With upgrades planned for upcoming competitions, all plans were put on pause due to an unexpected injury at the end of January 2021. Grace was practicing her series on beam when her back leg locked out. She went for the skill anyway and ended up crooked. Reaching her hand out to catch the beam as she fell, she hit her hand and hoped she just jammed her fingers. A trip to the urgent care clinic after the fall showed that something more was wrong.
“I got a boxer's fracture in my pinky,” Grace explained. “They had to put in a plate and seven screws so that the bone wouldn't keep slipping, because they're worried that it would slip over time if I hit it wrong.” She also jammed her middle finger at the same time, which took longer to heal than her pinky - she still can’t fully straighten it.
Grace underwent hand surgery at the end of January for her pinky, and that wasn’t the last of her setbacks. “It seemed like everything that could go wrong did…I got an infection in my pinky..then I pulled a little pulley muscle in my fingers, so I couldn't hang onto the bar for quite a while, because it hurt so bad and my fingers physically just couldn't hold onto the bar,” Grace shared. She’s also hit a growth spurt growing two inches since Worlds 2019, throwing off some of her timing and skills. Some would say that enduring the emotional and mental difficulties of the past year was challenging enough but add in the physical hurdles and limitations, Grace faced the biggest test of her life.
Due to Minnesota enforcing stricter lockdowns, Grace was out of the gym for quite some time. Along with those struggles, her paternal uncle, who lived with ALS, passed away after getting COVID which was too much for his body to handle, shaking the family and taking a huge mental and emotional toll.
“Her uncle was her biggest fan. He convinced all of his friends - and he had a lot - to watch Grace and become gymnastics fans. His goal was to live long enough to watch her at the Tokyo Olympics and to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding,” Grace’s mom Sandy shared.
In the face of mounting challenges, Grace remains stoic.
“I've been pushing through. It's been really good for the past couple of weeks and I'm really happy with the progress I've made and excited to get out there and show what I can do...I know it'll be hard, but it'll all be worth it in the end,” Grace shared.
She stays motivated by knowing her end goal and what it takes to get there. So far in the 2021 season, she’s competed beam at the American Classic and took fourth on the event, competing for the first time since her surgery, after missing the Winter Cup earlier this year.
“It felt great, I was so excited to get back out there and compete again. I haven't gone that long without competing ever, so I really, really missed it and it was really good to be back out in that environment with all those amazing girls,” Grace shared.
“Winter Cup was really hard to be home and sitting on the sidelines for that, she wanted to get back out there. I think that that's what's been motivating her, is wanting to get back out and see what she can do. The girl loves to compete,” Sandy shared.
Two weeks before the American Classic, Grace went over the vault table for the first time since surgery, and began doing tucks, layouts, and fulls around the time of American Classic. At the competition itself, she did her first beam dismount without a spot, which she had to fight for, as Jantzi wanted her to just throw a layout.
“I didn't want her to. She said, ‘I'm not doing a layout, I am at least doing a double back. I don't know about a pike, but I am doing a double back,” shared Jantzi. In typical Grace fashion, she had so much power she over-rotated but managed to stay on her feet.
This declaration is unsurprising from Grace, who loves using competitions to organize her training and goals. “I love the energy and I love seeing where I'm at, fixing things from there. If I noticed I got a couple of tenths off on this skill, then I'll really focus on that skill to fix it for next time,” she shared. Her goal for competitions this season are to hit her routines, be consistent, and be dependable.
According to Jantzi, Grace will compete all-around at the GK U.S. Classic at the end of May if she’s ready. If you ask Grace, she’ll tell you she’s competing all-around - determination is just part of her DNA.
Without competing in a major competition since 2019 Worlds, all eyes will be on Grace as she takes on the U.S. Classic at the end of May 2021 Nationals at the beginning of June, and eventually, the coveted U.S. Olympic Trials.
A Competitive Edge
Grace is known as one of the quieter gymnasts in this quad, people often don’t realize the personality she holds. For one thing, she’s more competitive than most people would imagine. Jantzi describes Grace as a quiet competitor who likes to sit back and observe everyone at a meet to see where they are at and use this as motivation for her own training and meet preparation.
Besides being competitive, Grace has other character traits that favor her in competitions. “She doesn't get worked up if something goes wrong, well she just stays medium level, which I think is really important when you're selecting a team,” Jantzi added. Consistency is another strength. “You know what you're going to see when Grace goes up to do gymnastics...She's clean, calm, consistent. She's very humble. She's strong, steady, beautifully lined, confident, in a quiet confident way,” Jantzi praised.
Even after a tough year, Grace’s mental acuity is undeterred. “She's on her way back and she's highly motivated. I don't have to motivate her as a coach. She usually wants to do one more. I could say, ‘That's enough,’ and she's relentless, ‘Let me do one more," Jantzi shared - but she wasn’t always like that.
Grace's Strong Transformation
In the beginning, her parents enrolled her into gymnastics to meet other people and become more social. With a gym named Gymnastics Galaxy a mile away from the house, gymnastics was an obvious choice to get her out of the house.
She fell in love immediately.
“They literally couldn't get me out of the gym. I would beg them to go to every open gym there was. I just knew I loved it right away,” Grace admitted. Her parents didn’t keep her in the sport because they saw she had a talent, but rather because of her pure joy from doing gymnastics.
“We knew from the beginning that she loved the sport...as long as she continued to love doing it, we just continued to support her and never really had in mind that she would get where she's gotten in this sport,” Sandy added.
Grace trained at Gymnastics Galaxy to start, then switched to Flyaways Gymnastics for six years when Galaxy closed. When she was thirteen, she transferred to Twin City Twisters. Though she loved Flyaways and loved her teammates and coaches like family, she outgrew it and her coaches suggested the move so she could try the elite path. “They saw that I had potential and knew that I needed coaches that could help me reach my full potential,” Grace shared.
Luckily, Twin City Twisters, a well-known elite gym, was only 45 minutes away from her house. Grace is the second oldest of six children, so uprooting everyone to move out of state wasn’t an option for the family, and knowing that Maggie Nichols went to TCT, they knew it was a gym that had experience coaching elite gymnasts on the Olympic path.
Grace was a level 10 with a goal to go elite. “We knew that it was a now or never moment because she was 13 at the time, and so we either needed to just go full speed ahead and change gyms, or we needed to stay where we're at and have her be content with being a level 10. We were happy to support her either way, but we wanted her to make the decision and make sure she is happy with whatever decision she made,” Sandy shared. Grace wanted to pursue elite, so they tried out TCT.
For Jantzi, who coached Grace from her first day at TCT, the goal was the Olympics, “the minute [Grace] stepped in the door.” Jantzi immediately noticed her raw talent, how she wasn’t scared of anything and had many skills already. She also noticed a few things needed work, so her form, consistency, and strength were the first things they worked on.
“I could tell she was talented,” Jantzi shared. “She was quick, she had good air sense, and that's what I look for in a kid, if they're quick twitched, if their air sense is pretty good, they can figure out how to do gymnastics by their body if their air sense is good. She had a lot of broad talent that wasn't tapped into yet, and I think being surrounded by a lot of better kids only pushed Grace to want to be that good too.”
When she watched the 2016 Olympics Games, she remembers realizing that was her dream. “I loved the atmosphere and the girls and they all seemed like they just worked so hard to get there and I knew that's what I wanted to do. And it motivated me even more to go for this goal...I realized that's really what I wanted to do,” Grace shared.
With many years under her belt at TCT, her gymnastics improved and made her into one of the best elite gymnasts in the world. “You see it by her presentation, by her confidence, and that's really fun for me to see as a coach,” Jantzi added. Not only has Grace’s gymnastics evolved during her years at TCT, she’s grown as a person as well.
When she started, she was very quiet and shy, intimidated by all the amazing gymnasts training at TCT. Now, she’s a totally different person. “She's changed a lot, she's definitely matured, grown just in her confidence,” Jantzi shared, saying she’s also better at communicating and taking leadership of her training.
“Sarah pushes Grace a lot to step outside her comfort zone...and pushes her sometimes when you need that gentle push to dig deep and know that you're capable of more,” Sandy shared.
Defying the Odds
For a few months, Grace and Nichols’ training overlapped at Twin City Twisters, and for Grace, it was a teaching moment. Watching Nichols make a comeback after surgery so close to Olympic Trials was always inspirational, but Grace had no idea how much she would end up using that blueprint for a quick comeback until she had to.
“I remember seeing her in the gym and just seeing how hard she worked. And she had an injury before the Olympics too...hers was a lot closer to the Olympics and I thought to myself, ‘If she can do it and she can get back there, I most definitely can too,’” Grace shared.
Grace is no stranger to coming back from unlikely circumstances herself. At thirteen, she had a complete elbow dislocation that resulted in the two main ligaments in her elbow being torn as well as a muscle, giving her a 50-50 chance of coming back again and competing in the sport. This was right before she first qualified elite, after moving gyms to give that goal a try. Once she became injured and had the odds stacked against her, her family thought she would quit gymnastics or move back down to level ten.
“She was the one that said, ‘no, I want to give this thing a try.’ She qualified elite that year, and again, I was just amazed that she had come back so far. Doctors gave her such a low chance of ever competing at a high level again, and not only competing at that level, but she came back stronger than she was originally,” Sandy shared. She was off her arm completely for seven months, and it took two years for her elbow to fully straighten. The experience of overcoming an injury taught her how to come back safely.
“When I hurt my elbow that time, I did everything I could to get stronger in areas that I couldn't before. I strengthened my legs. I worked on my flexibility. I worked on my endurance and I did everything that I could to improve in areas that I couldn't at the time,” Grace shared.
“She's been thrown a lot of tough curveballs in the sport with injuries and challenges at different times,” Sandy said. “And she always seems to use it to her advantage, to just dig deep and come back stronger. She doesn't let one rough event or anything ever get in her mind or pull her down. She can always rebound from it and come back better.”
On Her Way Back to the Top
Though the American Classic was her most recent competition, we didn’t see Grace compete because she just began training for all events two weeks before the American Classic and was still working on endurance rather than full routines. She didn’t want the people watching to judge her or counting her out when she knows she has the time to be ready by Trials.
Counting her out would certainly be a mistake - Grace is on her way back to the top. “Three weeks ago she couldn't do a stalder, and now she's putting bar pieces together. Each week she improves it. Every day, she gets a little bit stronger,” Jantzi shared. “TCT isn't made to give up. It's not in our gym's blood. We breed, ‘Work hard, figure a way no matter what,’ and we do.”
“She's just quiet and I think sometimes people count her out. She may be quiet, but deep down she's a fiercely competitive person,” said Jantzi. Jantzi knows Grace won’t be at full strength by the G.K. Classic, but she isn’t worried: trials is when she needs to be ready to go full out.
“After [the G.K.Classic] you’ve got two more weeks until championships, and then two more weeks until Trials. Trials are where you need to be good. By the time trials come and by the time the Olympics come, and people are tired, she won't be tired. She'll be ready to go.”
Gymnastics fans will be ready to see it.
Looking Towards the Future
Committed to Utah for the 2021 season, she will be teammates with longtime elite competitor Kara Eaker.
“I'm super excited to compete with the team. The environment's amazing, the girls are amazing, the coaching staff is great. So I'm just super excited to go out there and compete with them,” Grace shared.
She’s undecided on what she’d major in, but wants to go into the medical field in some form, as science is currently her favorite class in school.
“She fell in love with the mountains out there and the people that we met out there were so kind and so welcoming, and she just felt at home,” Sandy shared, adding “We're an outdoor family. We love hiking. We love exploring. We love being out in nature, and so I think it just was a really good fit for her.”
No matter how this season ends, Grace looks forward to continuing doing the thing she loves most, gymnastics.
Grace’s Fast Facts
Three words the other girls on the national team would use to describe her: Kind, Welcoming, Positive
Hobbies outside the gym: spending time with family, hiking, being outside
Favorite Animal: Dog
Favorite Color: Light Pink
Favorite Food: Fruit
Someone she’s always texting: Mom and Jade Carey
Gymnastics Idol: Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin
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