For the 19-year-old, who last competed at the U.S. Championships in August 2019, that begins later this month at the Winter Cup (26-28 February in Indianapolis) where she is planning to compete in at least two events.
“Honestly, since it's been so long and I've had so much time in the gym just to work and just improve, I think it's almost like going out there with a clean slate, just starting over basically,” McCusker told Olympic Channel earlier this week in an exclusive interview.
“I’m really excited for this meet,” she continued. “I'm really not putting any pressure on myself to do anything amazing, but I just can't wait to go and get out on the floor again.”
Though her exact plans for competition remain in flux, McCusker said she will definitely participate on the uneven bars and balance beam.
“I love gymnastics again. I am so happy in the gym every day, doing what I love. I'm really actually thankful that I got an extra year out here training in Arizona. I'm just so happy and I love the sport. I think that's the biggest difference.” - Riley McCusker
Riley McCusker and the many changes
Since August 2019, almost everything in McCusker’s life has changed. Weeks after those U.S. nationals, she was forced to withdraw from the camp that would select the gymnasts for the U.S. women’s team at the World Championships due to a case of rhabdomyolysis, a disease that causes the breakdown of muscle tissue.
Then, in early 2020, accusations of emotional and verbal abuse about McCusker’s coach Maggie Haney began to surface. By February, McCusker had accepted the invitation of her good friend and U.S. national team teammate Jade Carey to train in Arizona.
“I honestly didn't really have an idea of where I was going to end up, but Jade reached out to me. She's been my friend forever,” recalled McCusker. “She's like, ‘Why don't you come to my gym?’ And I was like, ‘Arizona? Ok.’
“I talked to [my new coach] Brian [Carey] the night before I was leaving, and then I was like, ‘Can I come the next day?’ I talked to him at six that night, and I was on a plane at seven the next morning. I haven't left since.”
“I love gymnastics again.”
The move, combined with the Olympics being pushed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has been beneficial – both in terms of confidence and for McCusker’s gymnastics.
“I love gymnastics again,” said McCusker, a big smile across her face. “I am so happy in the gym every day, doing what I love. I'm really actually thankful that I got an extra year out here training in Arizona. I'm just so happy and I love the sport. I think that's the biggest difference.”
There was a moment of doubt, though, for McCusker when the announcement that the Olympics would be postponed came down.
“I was like, ‘Do I just go to college? I don't know what to do. I don't know if I can last in this sport another year,’” she recalled. “But ultimately, I decided to stay. And it's been the best decision of my life.”
That decision and her rekindled love are reflected in her gymnastics.
McCusker has changed her bars dismount (“My other dismount used to stress me out so bad, but I feel really good about this one,” she says), added new elements on the floor exercise (“I have some stuff on the floor that I'm working on, too, that I'm really excited about.”) and found confidence on vault, an apparatus she says she used to try to avoid at all costs.
“My vault has improved so much, and I used to be so scared of vault every time I went,” explained McCusker. “I would avoid vault. I'd be like, ‘Can we just vault last?’ I would do my best to avoid vault, but now, I feel really confident about it and I'm excited about that.”
Riley McCusker away from home
McCusker’s move to Arizona hasn’t come without sacrifice, however. She sees her family from time-to-time, but spent Christmas away from them.
She lives with one of her teammates, Sara Hubbard, who McCusker says she’s looking forward to competing against when she heads off to the University of Florida in the fall (Hubbard will compete for Auburn University).
The distance from home and her family, she says, has forced her grow up a lot in the past year.
“I just kind of take care of myself,” McCusker said. “But, that was a hard transition, moving across the country and being like, ‘OK, this is what I'm doing now.’ But I feel like I've really grown up and figured it out.”
Enjoying the journey
She's figured out more than just learning how to pump her own gas, something she didn’t have to contend with back in New Jersey (though she has learned that, too).
It has meant finding a new perspective on the sport she’s trained for more than a decade.
Originally from Connecticut, she first made the U.S. national team, as a junior, five years ago. Suddenly now, the 2018 World and 2019 Pan Am team gold medallist finds herself one of the veterans of Team USA.
“I didn't know anything when I first started elite,” admitted McCusker.
Those five years have taught her a lot, but no more so than 2020.
‘I've grown up so much in five years,” she said. “It's crazy, especially over this last year, I've figured a lot of stuff out for myself and who I am.”
“If I could go back and give myself a piece of advice, I'd say, ‘Make sure you're enjoying the journey, make sure you are happy every day, especially when you're putting that much hard work and that many hours into the gym,’” McCusker continued. “I'd want to go back and tell myself, ‘Make sure that you're happy doing this.’
“I feel like this whole year has been kind of just completely different for me, honestly, but in a great way."