After whirlwind 2021, Grace McCallum enjoying freshman campaign at Utah

The Olympic team silver medallist hasn't ruled out a return to elite-level gymnastics, but is focused on NCAA glory in her first year as a student-athlete.

By Scott Bregman
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Grace McCallum is taking some time to slow down.

The U.S. artistic gymnastics Olympian had been on a whirlwind ahead of Tokyo 2020 in 2021. Like everyone, she was dealing with the effects of a year-long delay caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

But on top of that, injuries that required surgical repairs slowed her progress early in 2021 ahead of the U.S. championships and Olympic trials. She never quit, earned a berth to the Games and, eventually, a team silver medal.

“I think it's slowly starting to sink in more that I like actually accomplished those things and went through all of that,” McCallum told Olympics.com earlier this week in an exclusive interview. “I don't know if it'll ever fully sink in and be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I actually did that.’ Just like thinking about the Olympics, I achieved that goal that I've had since I was like four or five years old.

"It's just crazy to think about that, and then everything, all the injuries and stuff that happened along the way that you have to overcome in order to achieve that dream.

One thing that hasn’t been going slowly: her schedule. When McCallum returned home from Tokyo, she only had a few days – filled with celebrations and welcome home parties – before leaving her native Minnesota for the University of Utah, where she is a freshman.

“After the Olympics, life was really crazy. I had like a little over a week at home before I had to leave for college, and so I had tons of people that had like coming home parties for me, which was like amazing,” McCallum told us. “I felt so supported and so loved. But it didn't give me a whole lot of time to spend time with family before I left because I was out, doing this with this person, and going to these places. It was kind of crazy.”

She also only had a few days on campus before leaving to join Simone Biles’ U.S. tour. There, McCallum, a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. teams at the 2018 and 2019 worlds, was balancing a busy performance schedule with online classes, often finding Tokyo teammate Jade Carey to do schoolwork with on the road.

As she’s settled into life as a college athlete, McCallum has had a chance to just be a normal student, meeting new people, going to football games and the like.

Like most college freshman, she’s taking her time on future decisions. She had been leaning toward studying kinesiology, she says, but now is interested in psychology and sociology.

McCallum is – pun intended – giving herself some grace as she adjusts to the hectic, NCAA competitive schedule that sees more than a dozen meets packed into a four month season.

“It hasn't been super easy for me just because it's so different,” McCallum admitted. “I think physically it's a lot easier, but mentally, it's a lot different because you're competing every weekend.

“[At elite level] we competed three times a year, four times a year, so after competing [previously], I'd be like, 'Oh my gosh, like, OK, now we can kind of chill,’” she continued. “And [now] it's like, 'Wait, we have a meet next week.’”

The transition from the difficulty-packed world of Olympic-level gymnastics to a more detail-oriented NCAA gymnastics hasn’t been easy either.

“In elite, it's all about 'how difficult can you make your routines.' where in college, it's 'how perfect can you make those routines?' And so, that's another thing that's a little different that, for me, was a little difficult to switch over to just because I wasn't used to it. But I've loved every second of it, and I think it's a great learning experience and I can't wait for the years to come.”

She’s also keeping the door open for a return to elite gymnastics in the years ahead, but unlike her Olympic teammates Carey, Jordan Chiles and Suni Lee, McCallum is less concrete on her plans.

“It's definitely not out of the question. I've thought about it and I'll keep thinking about it, but I definitely want to take this year to just kind of enjoy gymnastics and life,” the American said when asked about her elite plans. “I just kind of want to enjoy it and just relax a little bit. But I'm definitely not going to take it out of the picture because I love doing elite gymnastics and representing the U.S., and I love to do it again, but we'll see.”

As she figures it all out, personal ambition is taking a back seat with McCallum focused on doing her level-best to help the Utes to their first NCAA title since 1995.

“I haven't really thought about like an individual goal that I want to achieve yet… so I'm slowly trying to figure that out,” McCallum said. “And I mean, this year, I’d love for this team to win the national championships. That would be amazing. I know that's all one goal we have.”

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