There will be no shortage of compelling storylines and entertaining routines to watch as the second weekend of NCAA gymnastics begins, with notable teams like Florida opening their season. And this Olympic year, there's a unique group of gymnasts to keep your eye on -- those who will be balancing the college season alongside their Olympic dreams.
While there have been several gymnasts who have competed at the collegiate level after participating in the Olympics -- Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, Grace McCallum and Jade Carey are some of the most recent examples -- few have qualified for the Olympics as current members of their NCAA team. In fact, most elite gymnasts never return to that level of international competition once they begin their college careers. But over the past few years -- due in large part to new NIL rules and with more gymnasts now competing into their 20s -- things have started to change.
After competing for Utah for three years and winning two individual NCAA titles, MyKayla Skinner returned to elite competition and earned the silver medal on vault in Tokyo in 2021. Others are hoping to follow a similar path. Trinity Thomas ended her decorated five-year college career at Florida following last season and is now back training at the elite level with a focus on Paris. And Lee and Chiles, who competed for Auburn and UCLA, respectively, for the past two seasons, are back in their home gyms in hopes of making their second Olympic teams.
But Carey and a group of others are carving their own path -- one that will see them competing weekly for their college teams while simultaneously training elite skills and pivoting to various national and international competitions immediately following the NCAA championships in April. Meet some of the gymnasts pulling double-duty in 2024:
Collegiate team: Oregon State (junior)
Country she's representing in elite: USA
Olympic status: Hopeful (U.S. team to be named in June)
Carey, who won gold on floor in Tokyo, became the first Olympic medalist to compete for the Oregon State gymnastics team when she made her debut for the Beavers in 2022. Since then, she's become one of the most decorated NCAA gymnasts in the country, winning the Pac-12 all-around title twice, and becoming the 13th gymnast in history to complete the "Gym Slam" (scoring a 10.0 on every event) last year.
Through it all, Carey has still managed to train and compete at the elite level -- earning three medals at the 2022 world championships -- with her sights squarely set on making her second Olympic team. That means a lot of extra time in the gym, but she always starts her practices at the same time as the rest of her teammates.
"I've always been someone who just wants to enjoy my journey and have a lot of fun with gymnastics, so being able to have a team by my side every day is really special," Carey said. "It makes the hard days a lot less hard because it's not just me in the gym trying to get myself going. I have about 20 other girls to turn to, and I think we're all just so close and so great at knowing what each other needs in specific moments, especially hard moments."
But even Carey, who committed to Oregon State seven years before she actually began and deferred her freshman year by two years in order to train for the Olympics, says she's surprised she's been able to maintain elite training.
"I always thought you had to pick one -- elite or college -- and that's just what you do," she said. "But then I came to school and I was like, 'Why not do both?'"
Now she's thrilled to see others doing the same and hopes it will show future gymnasts a different path. Still, Carey said she will be limiting her participation this season in an effort to stay healthy and best prepare for the Olympic lead-up. Instead of competing all four events every week, she will likely be focusing on bars and beam. Traditionally her weaker events, Carey said they were "a bit easier on the body" but she also was looking to build more confidence on both.
She was also excited to be able to cheer on her teammates from the sideline more -- something she said they have all done for her throughout her time on the team.
"I want these goals for myself, but I also feel like I'm sharing this journey with my whole team," Carey said. "I want to make them proud and do it for them as well because they've put so much into me. I feel like I'm representing for [all of my Oregon State teammates] and I'm a reflection of all of us. I want to do the best I can for them."
Collegiate team: Florida (junior)
Country she's representing in elite: USA
Olympic status: Hopeful (U.S. team to be named in June)
Leanne Wong has wanted to make the Olympic team for as long as she can remember. She narrowly missed out on that dream in 2021 when she was named an alternate for the Tokyo Games.
And while that is a challenging experience on its own, it became somewhat of a nightmare in Japan, when Wong's roommate Kara Eaker tested positive for COVID after just a few days of practice. Both were forced to quarantine. Even though Wong never tested positive, she spent 10 days alone in a hotel room while her teammates made their dreams come true on the Olympic stage.
"It was definitely an experience, but not the Olympic experience I had envisioned," Wong said.
It also made her even hungrier for 2024, and she's been simultaneously competing elite and NCAA ever since. Months after her Olympic heartbreak, Wong won silver in the all-around competition at worlds, as well as bronze on floor exercise. She's now competed for the U.S. at the past three world championships and has helped the team earn gold in 2022 and 2023.
Wong proved just how valuable she was in October, when she filled in on vault for teammate Joscelyn Roberson, who was injured moments before competition started. Wong earned a 14.066 on vault (and later, a 13.166 on floor, where she stepped into the lineup as well).
She proved equally invaluable to her Florida team in her first two seasons. A two-time SEC beam champion and 15-time All-American, Wong has been an integral part of the Gators lineup since her debut in 2022, and has helped lead Florida to back-to-back NCAA team runner-up finishes.
While Kayla DiCello, her Gators teammate and another Olympic hopeful, chose to train with her club team this season, Wong wanted to remain in Gainesville. With tangible goals and interests outside of making the Olympic team -- including winning an NCAA team title this year, taking pre-med classes and running her bow-making business -- Wong says remaining at school was simply the best decision for her as a gymnast and as a person.
"Of course seeing other people defer or not compete [at the NCAA level] this season made me wonder if that's what I was supposed to be doing too, but we're not all the same," Wong said. "I honestly just love being a part of the team and getting to compete [every week] and getting that experience is something that I feel like is beneficial for me. ... I think life would be hard if it were just gymnastics. So having school and a social life and my business really helps me."
Collegiate team: LSU (freshman)
Country she's representing in elite: USA
Olympic status: Hopeful (U.S. team to be named in June)
Initially planning on deferring her freshman season for a year as she trained for the 2024 Olympics, 18-year-old Konnor McClain made headlines over the summer when she announced she would be starting at LSU in the fall. Then the reigning U.S. national all-around champion, McClain insisted that did not mean the end of her Olympic dreams, despite a series of injuries that had kept her out of competition and the unorthodox decision to compete in college in the Olympic year.
Even her mother and sister were initially concerned about what the decision could mean for her lifelong goal. But now, with the NCAA season underway, McClain couldn't be happier with the path she's taken. She has been homeschooled for much of her life, and the college experience has been a refreshing change.
"It's definitely the best decision I could have made," McClain said. "I feel like I knew I was going to have a better time here, but I didn't know it was going to be this much better. Everything I dreamed of came true. Having the team has made me happier and having people around me at all times has made me happier. My emotional life and mental health are better. And then also my physical health is so much better too."
McClain said her mom is now thrilled with the choice she made too.
"I called her the other day and told her I really loved gymnastics again and missed elite and was ready to start training again," McClain said. "She said 'I never thought I would hear you say those words again.' She knew how much I was hating gymnastics and everything before. She was almost in tears hearing me say that I was loving it again."
McClain competed two events in last week's season opener for LSU, earning a 9.825 on bars and an 8.95 after falling on beam. It was her first competition at any level since the U.S. national championships in August 2022.
Once the season gets further underway and McClain feels like she has her routines perfected, she said she will begin training elite skills as well and adding additional time to her practice schedule. She has been talking to elite coaches and plans on training full time at a club once the NCAA season is over, ahead of U.S. nationals.
"I definitely want to win the NCAA championship with this team," McClain said. "That's of course one of the biggest goals for me and all of my teammates here. And then back to elite, it's the same dream I've had since I was 6: Go to the Olympics. That would be everything to me. That's the goal of my life and that's it.
"If I could achieve those two things, and then get my college degree, I'm good because my life is complete. I don't need anything else."
Collegiate team: LSU (junior)
Country she's representing in elite: Philippines
Olympic status: Qualified (earned her spot at 2023 world championships)
Ahead of her freshman year at LSU, Aleah Finnegan announced she was retiring from elite gymnastics. A three-year member of the United States national team, Finnegan hadn't qualified for the Olympic trials, and she believed that chapter of her career was over.
But fate had other plans.
Halfway through her freshman season, her mom received a phone call from Cynthia Carrion, the president of the Gymnastics Association of the Philippines, asking if Finnegan might be interested in representing the country. Finnegan's mom is from the Philippines and the family had been in contact with the federation throughout the years. Her older sister Sarah had briefly considered competing for the country. But Finnegan initially wasn't so sure.
"I was just very comfortable where I was, and very much settled into just the collegiate route and everything that has to offer," Finnegan said about her hesitation. "I was really just finally getting into the groove of things. I wasn't sure if elite was something I wanted to deep dive back into again."
But after talking extensively with her mom, Finnegan realized what an incredible opportunity it was. She began competing for the Philippines that summer, helping lead the team to a first-place finish at the Southeast Asian Games, and earning second place in the all-around competition.
After her impressive sophomore season for the Tigers -- in which she received six All-American honors -- Finnegan represented the Philippines at the 2023 Asian Games. It was there that she earned an individual spot to compete at the world championships in Antwerp, Belgium, in the fall. Of course, as a student athlete, that required a multiple-week absence from school and she needed to get Carrion to write a letter explaining why she needed to miss so much class. Most professors were supportive, if not slightly skeptical initially.
Finnegan knew she had a chance to earn a spot for the Olympics if she were to finish in the top 14 of all-around competitors who weren't representing the 12 countries that had qualified for the team event. Despite the weight of the moment, she tried to not put too much pressure on herself and enjoyed the moment as much as she could.
"I was just trying to be proud of myself for even just making it this far and just taking it all in," Finnegan said. "Taking in the arena -- the sounds, the smells, just all the senses, and really just living in the moment. I just wanted to hit my routines and I was like, 'Let the scores fall where they may, that's not in my control. Only I can control what I can control essentially.' And so that's what I did."
Finnegan had no idea where she stood at the end of her competition. And with many gymnasts still competing, she knew it could be a long wait. So she went out for pizza, then came back to her hotel room and waited some more. Alongside her mom and her sister Jenna, the trio looked up scores online and tried not to get too excited. After what felt like an eternity, she got the text from LSU assistant coach Garrett Griffeth, who was with her in Belgium: "You did it."
Finnegan couldn't believe it.
"I felt like I was in a movie, I just kind of had a flashback to all of the years that I've been training, all the good days, the bad days, the hard days, and just knowing that they were all worth it and ultimately I did it," Finnegan said. "There was nothing else to it. I booked my ticket [to the Olympics] and that's it. I'm just so thankful that all those days were worth it."
She became the first female gymnast representing the Philippines to qualify for the Olympics since 1964.
"I've wanted this for so long, since I figured out what the Olympics were, and I had no idea it would be in 2024. But if I had to do it all over again, even with all the trials and tribulations, I wouldn't do it any differently."
Collegiate team: Nebraska (junior)
Country she's representing in elite: Canada
Olympic status: Hopeful (Canadian team to be named in June)
For Emma Spence, reminders of the Games were everywhere throughout her childhood. Her great-grandmother Mary Vandervliet was a sprinter and represented Canada in the 1932 Olympics -- just the second Games in which women were allowed to compete in track and field events. Vandervliet died when Spence was an infant, but Spence's grandmother (Vandervliet's daughter) proudly displayed pictures and mementos of the athletic feats around her home.
"Even before I was actually thinking that I had the possibility to achieve it myself, I knew the Olympics were really special just from being around all of that," Spence said.
For her 15th birthday, her grandmother gave her Vandervliet's treasured Olympic ring. She's never worn it -- for fear of losing it -- but keeps it with her.
And now, she's hoping to earn a ring of her own. She was a non-traveling alternate for Tokyo, and knows what it's like to come oh-so-close close to her goal. Since then, the 20-year-old has been a member of Canada's historic bronze-medal-winning team at the 2022 world championships and an important member of Nebraska's team. In 2023, she was given first team all-Big Ten honors and hit all 48 of her routines during the season.
While most of her Canadian national team teammates are focusing on elite this year, and not competing at the NCAA level, Spence didn't even consider not being in Lincoln this year. There will be some stipulations -- she likely won't be competing all-around every week in an effort to remain as healthy as possible and will try to compete in as many international competitions as she can following the college season -- but she knew Nebraska was where she needed to be.
"I really found my passion and my love for the sport again here," Spence said. "And this is where I have my support systems, I have my friends and my teammates, and if I want to give it my best shot at the Olympics, I thought that this would be the best environment for me to be in so that I'd be mentally and physically be in the best shape I could be in."
Collegiate team: Nebraska (sophomore)
Country she's representing in elite: Hungary
Olympic status: Qualified (earned spot at 2023 world championships)
Csenge Bacskay arrived in Antwerp in September for the world championships with one goal: Help her Hungarian team qualify for the Olympics.
The team came up short. Bacskay tried to console herself by making a new goal for the team in 2028, but she was quickly reminded that she still had a glimmer of hope of qualifying as an individual. She had earned the 11th-best score on vault in qualifying, and still had a chance of making the event final featuring the top eight gymnasts, if there were withdrawals. She would instantly qualify for the Olympics if she were to reach the event final, because she'd be the highest-finishing gymnast on vault who hadn't already qualified with her team or as an individual.
Somehow, in the most baffling of ways, that unlikely scenario happened. On the morning of the vault final, two gymnasts withdrew due to injury. While the spot should have gone to Wong, who had finished 10th in qualifying, the organizers mistakenly gave it to Bacskay. Confusion ensued, but ultimately Bacskay and Wong were both allowed to compete -- and Bacskay's Olympic berth was secured. Told she was competing just 45 minutes ahead of the competition, she finished in eighth place.
"I was nervous, I was happy, I was shaking because I knew that if I compete, that means I qualified for the Olympics, but that also meant that mentally I didn't fully prepare for competing," Bacskay said. "I just tried to focus on not getting injured. I had a lot of feelings going on."
Bacskay was excited to qualify for the Olympics, but the moment was bittersweet. She had wanted to experience Paris with her teammates, which includes one of her best friends, and was heartbroken for them.
She arrived back to Lincoln, the very next day, exhausted and emotionally drained. It was late in the evening, and she turned on the lights in her house to find all of her Nebraska teammates inside waiting to surprise her. They started playing the Olympics theme song and made the Olympic logo out of lasers.
"Everyone was cheering and clapping, and it was so amazing," Bacskay said. "They didn't know how mentally low I was, and that the experience [at worlds] had been a lot, so it really was the best surprise ever. I love them and I'm so grateful for them."
It was also further proof for Bacskay that she was in the right place. She had initially become aware of NCAA gymnastics through Instagram videos as a young teenager in Budapest and felt an immediate connection with the Nebraska coaching staff through a Zoom meeting early in the recruiting process. She still experienced homesickness and some culture shock during her freshman year -- and couldn't believe just how loud it was in the gym during practice and meets -- but she feels adjusted now.
"It took a little time but I really like it," Bacskay said. "And when I went home and was doing gymnastics [over the summer], I was shocked by the silence. Now I need the noise."
With her ticket for Paris officially booked, Bacskay is now fully focused on the NCAA season. She dealt with an ankle injury during her freshman season, and is hoping to compete regularly on all four events and improve her consistency. She said she will start working on her elite skills again after the season ends.