Every four years, America’s attention turns to gymnastics, as the Olympics push the U.S. team to the forefront of competitive sports. The road to Rio, and the 2016 Summer Games, is underway, but for Connecticut residents following the sport, the run-up competitions are providing an opportunity to look not only at this summer’s climactic event, but down the road a few summers.
Connecticut’s top junior gymnast, Riley McCusker of New Milford, put herself squarely on the radar screen for the future with a solid second place finish in the P&G Gymnastics Championships junior women’s event, held in St. Louis. That earned McCusker, who turns 15 this month, a slot on the eight-member U.S. National Junior Women’s Team, with international competition on the horizon.
In addition to finishing in second place overall, McCusker finished in second place on the uneven bars, floor exercise and balance beam, reflecting solid performances on both days of the competition.
McCusker is joined on the eight-member U.S. National Junior Women’s Team by Shania Adams of Plain City, OH; Jordan Chiles of Vancouver, WA; Morgan Hurd of Middletown, DE; Emma Malabuyo of Flower Mound, TX; Maile O’Keefe of Las Vegas, NV; Gabby Perea of Geneva, IL and Trinity Thomas of York, PA.
“I had no expectations coming in,” McCusker said. “This was my first season as an elite and first P&G Championships. I just came in, did my gymnastics and then waited to see what would happen.”
What happened was about as good as it gets, and reinforced her trajectory in the sport. She told CT by the Numbers: “Qualifying to the national team was the best day of my life because I realized then that all of my hard work and sacrifices have started paying off!”
Last month, competing at the Secret Classic at the XL Center in Hartford – with the vocal support of friends and family from New Milford, McCusker had stand-out moments and finished 9th overall in a crowded field. That experience under her belt, the arena in St. Louis was yet another step forward in a progress-filled year.
The USA Gymnastics Elite Program is designed to provide competitive experiences for athletes aspiring to the National Team. The National Teams (Senior and Junior) are selected from the USA Championships each year. These athletes represent the United States in international competitions.
McCusker is coached by Maggie Haney and Victoria Levine at MG Elite in Morganville, New Jersey. Her teammate, Lauren Hernandez, earned a spot on the U.S. National Senior Women’s Team in recent weeks, followed this week by being named to the U.S. Olympic Team for this summer’s Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The U.S. Olympic Trials were July 8 and 10 in San Jose. The 16-year-old Hernandez was the 2015 junior national champion, and is a competitor that McCusker trains with and is inspired by.
McCusker, who began gymnastics at age 6, was enthused to have childhood friends – many of whom hasn’t seen her compete at the elite level – in the stands in Hartford. Their handmade signs of support were quite visible, as were the vocal cheers.
Proud of her Connecticut roots, McCusker’s Instagram page includes a memorial honoring the victims at Sandy Hook elementary School in December 2012. And she was thrilled to participate in the Hartford competition earlier this summer, recalling when she was in the stands with family watching the competitors just as her dedication to gymnastics was taking root.
If her accomplishments during the past month are any indication, there will be more opportunities for fans to gather in support of Connecticut’s home town girl in the future.
As one of the many commenters opining on social media after her P&G performance noted, “2020 here she comes.”
PHOTOS: Riley McCusker in St. Louis (John Cheng photos); with Lauren Hernandez.