U.S. gymnast Konnor McClain on resetting after tragedy: "If Suni says it, then I can do it."

After the death of her father in December 2021, McClain turned to Olympic champion Sunisa Lee for support and guidance. The pair tell us how their friendship helped McClain get back on the mat.

5 min By Scott Bregman
(Picture by 2021 Getty Images)

As 2021 was winding down, tragedy struck U.S. gymnast Konnor McClain.

McClain’s father, Marc, passed away on 27 December due to COVID-19. A week later, her grandmother also passed.

“My best friends, my rocks, my twins, and the best dad and grandma I could’ve asked for decided to say their goodbyes this past week,” McClain wrote on Instagram at the time. “They taught me pretty much everything I know. These two were the most amazing people I knew. I loved them almost more than anyone in the world.”

Devastated, McClain reached out to a friend, Tokyo 2020 Olympic all-around gold medallist Sunisa Lee, seeking comfort, advice, and guidance. Lee had been through hard times herself, including in August 2019 when her father, John, fell and was paralyzed from the waist down just prior to the U.S. Championships.

“She had reached out to me and asked me how did I stay motivated when my dad had his accident? Obviously, they're two very different things because my dad obviously didn't pass away, but I kind of just told her, ‘Remember your 'why'’,’ Lee told Olympics.com. “It kind of took me a long time to get back into the groove of things. I was very unmotivated, I didn't want to go to the gym, I didn't care about the Olympics and I just wanted to be done with gymnastics completely because it felt like there was a part of me that was like missing and that's what I told her."

Continued Lee, “I was like, ‘There's going to be a part of you that's missing, but you're just going to have to rebuild. You're going to have to refocus. Remember your ‘why’, remember why you started, remember how proud you made your dad.

"If Suni says it, then I can do it."

McClain took Lee’s words to heart.

“She was like, ‘Yes, you can.’ She was like, ‘I felt the same way, too, at one point,’” McClain told Olympics.com of her conversations with the Olympic champion. “I was like, 'OK, then I got it.' Like, if Suni says it, then I can do it.”

The two have had a long friendship, dating back to their days attending U.S. developmental program camps together.

“She’s really taught me, and she’s really built me up all the way from developmental camp,” said McClain.

Almost two months to the day of her father’s passing, McClain entered her first event of the 2022 season, the Winter Cup Challenge. She wore a small patch with the letters ‘MM’ on the back of her leotard, a tribute to the painful reality she’d been living.

“[Coach] Anna [Liukin] gave me the patch three days before the competition. She was like, ‘Here you go. I just wanted to give you this just so you have something to remember him and just to know that he's right there with you,’” explained McClain. “It's like, 'Oh my gosh, thank you,' like I almost... I teared up a little bit because I was just so sweet and so special. It felt like he was there actually just with the patch there. It was kind of crazy.”

An unexpected win and a new role for McClain

McClain says she didn’t have expectations to win the Winter Cup, just getting back into the gym and then competition had been hard enough. But – despite an error on the uneven bars – McClain won the competition.

“I would say I had very low goals for myself at this competition, so I went in really thinking, 'Just do your best. It doesn't matter where are you're going to end up,'” she said. “But I was not expecting the outcome that happened.”

With Lee and the rest of her Tokyo Olympic teammates either in NCAA, taking a break from elite competition, or retired, McClain finds herself quickly as one of the leaders of a USA team that has long dominated women’s gymnastics. The U.S. has won every world team title dating back to 2011 and won gold at London 2012 and Rio 2016 before taking silver in Tokyo.

McClain, who competed at her first world championships in October 2021, marveled at her position in the sport.

“It's definitely really weird because they always call me the baby and they always call me ‘Baby Konnor,’ and, so, when we went to Winter Cup, everybody was younger than me and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they're so tiny and cute,’” she said.

Eying Paris 2024, again

Once a junior standout herself, McClain’s career was fast forwarded during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the Tokyo Olympics were postponed a year, she suddenly found herself eligible for a Games she’d never thought about.

“I think it definitely happened way too fast for me and too fast for my brain to handle all of that,” she said.

She’s pushed an unexpected run at the Games out of her mind, reverting back to what the plan had always been: Paris 2024.

“I feel like in 2024, when the season comes, I feel like it'll be a lot better that year just because I've been preparing for this for my whole life,” McClain said. “It’s a lot different, I won’t have to switch up [my plan] in a year or less.”

For the time being, however, she’s looking forward to competing again at the DTB Cup in Stuttgart, Germany, and then, hopefully, later this year at the World Championships in Liverpool.

“I'm actually really excited for [the trip to Germany] and excited for later in the season where I could hopefully put some upgrades in and be at my full potential and peak at worlds,” said McClain.

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