The Grace McCallum file

Full name: Grace Ann McCallum

Age/birthday: 18/Oct. 30, 2002

Hometown: Isanti

Parents: Edward & Sandra

Siblings: Rachael (19), Madelyn (15), Joseph (13), John (10), Xavier (7).

High school: Connections Academy

Future college/major: University of Utah/Kinesiology

How many hours do you train? “I train 4-5 hours per day, 25 hours per week. I think I train a little less than most elites. I feel we’re pretty efficient, so we do our work and then get out.”

Favorite gymnasts growing up: “Nastia Liukin or Shawn Johnson. Nastia showed so much elegance and grace in her gymnastics, and Shawn showed the powerful side of gymnastics.”

Favorite gymnastics event to perform: “Uneven parallel bars. I love the feeling of swinging, and of flipping over the bar. My favorite is doing a ‘ricna’ over the bar.”

Favorite food: “Any type of fruit. Probably raspberries.”

Favorite singer or band: “I don’t have a favorite. I listen to everything.”

Favorite Movie or TV show: “Any comedy. I watch a lot of those with my family.”

Favorite hobby: “In the summer we hang out at the lake and do a lot of swimming.”

What is something nobody knows about you: “I probably have about 200 leotards, starting from when I began gymnastics. And I really love knitting and crocheting. I have crocheted a couple of blankets. It’s not something you would think an athlete would do, but it’s really calming. I get into a rhythm and keep going, and I find it relaxing.”

—John Wagner

When the pressure to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team was at its greatest, Grace McCallum turned into “Amazing Grace.”

The Isanti native overcame a variety of injuries and delays to finish fourth at the Olympic Trials held in St. Louis on Sunday, June 27. And the Olympic selection committee picked McCallum to join Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee and Jordan Chiles as the four-member team that will represent this country in Tokyo later this month.

For Sarah Jantzi, McCallum’s coach at the Twin City Twisters facility based in Champlin, that decision was no surprise because of her pupil’s relentlessly positive attitude.

“I think Grace’s mindset wasn’t, ‘I think I can make it.’ It was, ‘I’m going to make it,’” Jantzi said. “She came in willing to fight for everything, and she never gave up.”

Still, there were no guarantees. Following the competition, McCallum and the rest of the competitors were forced to wait for the decision of the committee to fill the four-person roster.

“I was really nervous, kind of sick to my stomach,” McCallum admitted. “I knew that, in a few minutes, I would know if my dreams would happen – or were shattered.

“When they said my name, I turned to my friend Jade Carey and said, ‘Did they actually say my name?’ I wanted to make sure I wasn’t hearing things.”

McCallum did hear her name, a glorious sound that closed the book on a long, arduous journey filled with more twists, flips and turns than one of her routines.

Dreams delayed

McCallum was preparing for a competition in Birmingham, England, in March 2020 when she first heard about a strange new virus called COVID-19 that eventually wrecked her well-laid Olympic plans.

“When I heard that particular competition was canceled, I was sad,” McCallum said. “But I thought it was OK, because we still had the Olympics to prepare for. Then we went into lockdown, so I tried to keep working out and stay sharp.

“But then they announced the Olympics wouldn’t be held. And that was devastating.”

While Jantzi said the news was not a surprise, it was not easy to create a new plan to prepare for an event that would take place a year later.

“The pandemic was awful, because we had planned out in detail how to have Grace at her best for that particular meet, and now those plans were pushed back for a whole year,” Jantzi said. “But when it was delayed, we knew we couldn’t do anything about it. So we tried to make it into a positive. We tried to add some upgrades to her routines, and we allowed her body to rest and prepare for the grind.”

While not having the gym open during the pandemic made physical workouts difficult, the mental strain at times was even tougher.

“There were a lot of Zoom workouts because the gym wasn’t opened,” McCallum said. “But it was really hard mentally, because when the Olympics were postponed, we lost some motivation. It was hard to find the motivation at first, but eventually I realized that the Olympics were just delayed, and I thought I might regret it if I wasn’t prepared when the Olympics came back.”

Dreams destroyed?

Last January, while McCallum was practicing a series on the balance beam, she momentarily lost her balance. To catch herself, she reached out her hand – and instead jammed her fingers against the wooden beam.

“At first I thought I had just jammed my fingers, but then my pinkie got ‘stuck,’” McCallum said. “I realized that wasn’t very good, so I drove myself to the emergency room to get an X-ray.”

McCallum suffered a “boxer’s fracture” of the pinkie. Rehab involved either placing the finger in a splint for six weeks or having surgery that would return her to action faster.

“I thought my Olympic dreams had died right there,” she admitted. “I had been healthy for the three years prior, and then to have this happen during the Olympic year?”

It appeared that feeling was validated when the recovery process went as poorly as possible. McCallum pulled a muscle in her finger, jammed her middle finger – she still cannot fully straighten that particular digit – and dealt with an infection in the pinkie, which kept her from holding onto the bar during routines.

“Until April or May, I still didn’t think I had a chance,” she said. “But I worked my butt off to give myself a chance if everything would heal. I just wanted to give myself the best chance I could.

“There were days that were frustrating because I wasn’t able to move forward like I wanted to. But I learned that I had to be patient.”

Both Jantzi and McCallum tried to learn lessons from a former Twin City Twisters gymnast, Maggie Nichols, who suffered a knee injury just before the 2016 Olympic Trials.

“She was injured even closer to the Olympics that I was,” McCallum said. “But she came back pretty quickly, so I realized there was no reason I couldn’t come back pretty quickly. That motivated me to keep pushing.”

Still, Jantzi admitted to having concerns.

“I thought Grace was peaking at the right time before that injury,” Jantzi said. “But when she broke her finger, I thought she was done. I really did.”

Dreams delivered

McCallum fought her way back and was healthy enough to compete at the U.S. Championships, which were held in Fort Worth, Texas, June 3-6.

At that competition she tied for seventh with an all-around score of 109.550, which was a mixed blessing. While that score was well behind the top competitors – Biles won with a 119.650 score – McCallum was close to the top four. Emma Malabuyo, who placed fourth at that event, was less than a full point ahead of McCallum with a 110.450 mark.

“I definitely did not do my best, because I wasn’t fully ‘back,’” McCallum said of the U.S. Championships. “I still needed to work on arm endurance and floor endurance, and training wasn’t going super-great. But it motivated me: It pushed me because I felt I wasn’t far behind, although I wasn’t where I wanted or needed to be.”

The downside was that a seventh-place finish did not signal that McCallum clearly belonged in the top four who would be chosen to compete in Tokyo.

“Placing seventh at championships didn’t help my chances of making the team,” she said. “So I knew I had to prove that I deserved that spot at the Olympic Trials. I felt the weight, knowing I had to hit my routines.

“But it also motivated me. I knew I would have to work my butt off to prove to them that I deserved a spot on the team.”

Jantzi said she admired McCallum’s positive attitude in the weeks leading up to the Trials.

“There was no counting her out,” Jantzi said. “It wasn’t in her mind that she wouldn’t make the team. Instead she was thinking things like, ‘I wonder what kind of luggage we’ll get.’”

At the Olympic Trials, McCallum posted an all-around score of 114.631 that earned her fourth place – and was three-tenths of a point in front of MyKayla Skinner in fifth. Her best finish came in the floor exercise, where she scored a 27.666, and she finished fifth on the beam (27.666), and the uneven parallel bars (27.833).

“I didn’t do my best routines,” McCallum said. “I had a couple of bobbles on the beam, and I don’t wobble in the practice gym. But I’m pretty happy overall. While my routines may not have been my best, I think I showed people I can ‘hit’ when I needed to.

“I knew, when we were waiting for the team to be announced, that I had done everything I could to make the team. From that point, whatever happened, happened.”

What happened was good news: McCallum was selected to the team, which then was introduced to the crowd at the The Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis in a wild fanfare filled with lights, sound and confetti.

“That was crazy,” she said. “I was so excited, and it felt so surreal. It was an amazing feeling to have the weight lifted off my shoulders, the stress of the past two years was gone. Now I can just enjoy everything.”

New dreams

When McCallum returned home from the Trials, she received another celebratory welcome.

A number of gymnasts from Twin City Twisters waved flags and created a red, white and blue receiving line as she walked into the building on a red carpet that led to one of the main practice floors. There she was met by foam blocks that spelled out her name and also took the shape of an American flag.

“I felt so much support and love,” McCallum said. “I have the best support system here.”

Then it was back to work for McCallum. For example, she began fine-tuning a different routine on bars that should provide a higher degree of difficulty – and thus improve her possible score in that event.

“I feel I’m still getting better each day,” McCallum said. “I don’t think I was at my best at the Trials, and I feel I have a lot more still in me. Everyone else is trying to be steady and hold the place where they’re at, and I think I’m still on the way up.”

Jantzi agreed, adding: “That’s not her best – I think she was at 75 percent. She had three weeks after the Trials to improve, and she’s putting in the work to reach her new dreams.”

And that new goal is to help the U.S. team to a medal while also earning an individual medal.

“But I’m going to focus on enjoying every moment,” McCallum said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that few people get to enjoy. I’m going to absorb everything and have fun. I think I compete better when I’m calm and confident, because when I’m not, I can overthink things and stress out – and don’t perform to the best of my abilities.”

McCallum and the U.S. women’s gymnastics team flew to Tokyo on Wednesday, July 14, then began final training before the Olympic gymnastics competition starts on Saturday, July 24, with the team competition.

“The weeks since the Trials have gone by in the wink of any eye,” McCallum said. “But when I look back at my career to this point, it has gone by so fast, too. It’s been my life for the last four years, and I’ve loved it.”

One of the few disappointments McCallum has suffered is that her parents will not be able to watch her compete in person.

“They’re not letting anyone from outside the country enter,” she said. “That’s sad, because my parents have always made the effort to have at least one of them attend. It stinks, but they’re with me in my heart.”

And the Isanti native is quick to remember all of the people who have backed her on this quest for Olympic gold.

“I can’t thank my parents and family enough for their support,” McCallum said. “Through all the hard days, they have always been there for me no matter what. I’ve been blessed to have an amazing community around me – the people of Isanti have shown their support through the years, and I can’t thank them enough.”

While the injuries and delays that have bedeviled her this year are now behind her, McCallum still has to pinch herself every time she realizes her Olympic dream came true.

“I don’t think it has hit me yet that I’m an Olympian,” she said. “Maybe it will when we fly to Tokyo, or when we get to the Olympic venue.

“But I haven’t changed. I’m still me.”

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