A year ago, Paul Juda found himself a surprise member of the U.S. men’s gymnastics senior national team.
A freshman at the University of Michigan, Juda had been a standout as a junior competitor winning a Junior Olympic all-around title in 2017. He finished second that same year in the 15-16 junior category at the U.S. championships.
An eighth place finish in the all-around at last year’s Winter Cup landed Juda on his first senior U.S. team. Something the Chicagoland-native hadn’t expected.
“I was like, ‘Holy crap. Like it's all happening so fast. I didn't expect this,’” Juda said in an interview with Olympic Channel last week.
“I kind of mapped out my year up to the Olympic trials and up to the Olympic Games, and I was ready to really buckle down and see all the things coming,” he continued. “In my head, I was like, all right, 30 weeks of competition.”
Time to re-evaluate
The then 18-year-old knew it was likely going to be a wild ride and that making the U.S. team for Tokyo would be a tall order, especially at his age. Only one teenager has made the U.S. men’s gymnastics team in the past 20 years: John Orozco, who went to London 2012 at 19.
But those 30 weeks of competition quickly faded, as a busy schedule gave way to the grinding halt the coronavirus imposed on sports. Ultimately, of course, Juda’s freshman campaign for Michigan would end weeks before its scheduled conclusion and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were pushed to July 2021.
“When everything started getting slowed down, I took a little bit of time and realised, like, ‘Man, maybe you were a little too stressed at the moment,’” Juda reflected.
He used the time to re-evaluate his plan, while doing his best to stay in shape for when he could return to training.
“It was nice for me, at least for the first couple months of quarantine to just really take it back slowly and just kind of evaluate what my plan kind of looks like,” said Juda.
Uchimura to Juda: "You're the flare master!"
Juda returned to competition last November at the Friendship and Solidarity competition in Tokyo, giving him a glimpse at what the Olympic Games could be like. The competition, his only international event of the 2020 season, also gave him the opportunity to compete alongside and meet his idols: double Olympic all-around champion Uchimura Kohei and reigning World all-around champion Nikita Nagornyy.
Juda was on the winning team, alongside both stars of the sport. But he took away something more special than a team victory.
After Juda performed his routine on the pommel horse, which includes a flare sequence that garnered applause from the audience, Uchimura approached him.
“It was probably the best routine I've done in the entire prep for Japan and pretty much for like the past year. I'm ecstatic,” recalled Juda, “And Kohei comes up to me, gives me a double fist bump, and says, ‘You are the flare master!’ My jaw drops. I don't think he knew who he was to me."
A lifelong dream feels more attainable
Juda calls his experience in Japan “probably the single handedly coolest thing I’ve ever done.” It also showed him that his lifelong goal of competing at the Olympic Games is in reach.
“I think that going there, watching gymnastics and kind of seeing where the best of the best are in the world and kind of being like, it's not too far away. It's definitely obtainable,” said Juda. “The biggest thing that I took away from [Japan], is that the process stays the same. Trust the process, trust the time that it takes to develop things. Good things take time.”
Juda feels as though he has made the most of the time he’s had with Olympic postponement.
“Another year, being so young is honestly super helpful,” said Juda. “I think where I am right now, I'm in much better position than I was last year to make to potentially make the Olympic team.”
With just under six months to go until the Games kick off in Tokyo, Juda admits that a lot can happen and that he’s not “too optimistic or too pessimistic.” But regardless of what happens in 2021 or 2024, Juda will keep pushing toward the goal he’s had his whole life.
“I've been dreaming about [the Olympics] every day since I've been a little kid,” said Juda, as he panned his camera to show off the Olympic flag hanging over his bed. “The number of tears that I've cried and the blood that from my hands and the ankles and the joints and the wrists and the surgeries, every tough day, getting up at random hours and X, Y and Z, making that Olympic team would finally give purpose to all that I've done.
“Whether it be this year or the next one, I'm a student of the sport and I love the sport,” he continued. “I feel like that is what the sport is most important about: You do what you do because you love it, and why not do something that you do at the highest level against the best guys?”