The cheers say it all.
Before every college gymnastics meet inside the Huntsman Center on the campus of the University of Utah, the Red Rocks — Utah’s gymnasts — are introduced to a jam packed house.
Fire, music and other theatrics usher thousands of people — mostly clad in red — to their feet, and soon after, every gymnast runs out onto the floor to raucous applause.
Listen closely, and the applause does vary, if ever so slightly. And almost always, the louder the applause, the greater the expectations that follow for the gymnast.
So it is only fitting that this season, the cheers that ring out for Grace McCallum are among the loudest received by any Red Rock. No shortage of expectations followed McCallum to Utah.
An Olympic silver medalist, a two-time world champion and a longstanding member of the U.S. national team, McCallum is arguably the most decorated and most internationally experienced gymnast to ever compete for Utah, not to mention one of the most talented.
McCallum is a national name, having been part of the four-woman U.S. team dubbed “The Fighting Four” at the Tokyo Olympic Games. She’s made international headlines and all this after having been one of the best American gymnasts of the last four-year cycle.
Along with fellow U.S. Olympians Sunisa Lee, Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles, McCallum opted to continue her gymnastics career in college and now a month into her freshman season, the question arises: How has McCallum done so far?
McCallum will be the first to admit that her freshman season hasn’t gone exactly as expected, nor how many on the outside believed it might.
She describes it as a “rollercoaster,” noting that while “it has been super fun,” it hasn’t been exactly what she believed it would be.
“I haven’t had the best start to my season,” McCallum said, matter-of-factly. “It hasn’t been bad, but it is very different.”
Through the first four weeks of the year, McCallum is ranked No. 28 in the country on vault, No. 36 in the all-around, No. 45 on floor exercise, No. 186 on uneven bars and No. 221 on balance beam.
By way of comparison — and comparisons to Carey, Chiles and Lee are inevitable — Carey is ranked in the top 10 nationally on every event, including the all-around, while Lee ranks in the top 25 on everything, save beam.
Chiles and McCallum have had slightly similar starts to their collegiate careers, but McCallum has been the better all-around gymnast, even as Chiles is ranked No. 23 on bars.
McCallum has had moments of greatness already this season, to be sure. In Utah’s win over Oklahoma, she won the all-around competition with a 39.675 and recorded a career-high 9.975 on floor.
Two weeks later against Stanford, she did it again, with a 39.625 in the all-around and another event win on floor.
ARE U KIDDING ME GRACE MCCALLUM 😱 It's a 9.975 for Grace!!!— Utah Gymnastics (@UtahGymnastics) January 15, 2022
📲 https://t.co/HQBTRkHEDL pic.twitter.com/ffaLtEUsgo
In other weeks, though, she struggled, at times greatly. At the season opening Best of Utah, she fell on bars, and against Arizona State, McCallum fell off the beam and stepped out of bounds on floor. She also has yet to really nail a vault this season.
There is no panic at Utah in regards to McCallum, though. Head coach Tom Farden has consistently tried to temper expectations, all the while understanding that McCallum’s talent is special.
“She is a freshman and we have to remember that,” Farden said. “Yes she has the most international experience and medals of anyone who has been on this campus, but we also have to remember that she is a freshman.
“There is a curve to this, and she’ll get it. She loves this sport and loves being a gymnast at Utah, so I have full confidence that she’ll get there.”
A culture shock
In truth, the transition from elite gymnastics to college gymnastics hasn’t been easy for McCallum in regards to the kind of gymnastics that is competed at the collegiate level, as well as the mentality needed to be successful.
McCallum thrived in elite gymnastics, which values difficulty over precision and consists of irregular competition compared to the weekly meets of the NCAA world.
“The thing is, it is a little bit of a culture shock,” Farden said. “You are always going after the D-score (difficulty score) in elite, just constantly asking ‘What can I do to get my D-score up?’
“When you come to college, you need enough skills for the six-tenths bonus, but after that, it could be a deduction, so why are you doing it? That mind frame, the idea that there is a ceiling now, that changes them.”
“The transition was actually a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” McCallum said. “My skills are not as difficult, but in elite, you are just trying to perform the hardest skills that you can, while in college you are going for perfection. That mindset has been completely different for me.”
Throw in a completely new environment, featuring an actual team — seven Red Rocks have competed for their respective national teams and all are quick to say that the team aspect of college gymnastics is unlike anything they’d experienced before — plus NCAA-mandated limits on practice, and there was a lot to adjust to.
There still is.
“The environment, competition and practice is completely different,” McCallum said. “It has been quite the transition, but I think I will get used to it.”
A quick study
The good news, per Farden, is that McCallum is ideally suited to make quick and significant adjustments and improvements.
Not because she thrives at the perfection element of college gymnastics — fellow Utah freshman Kara Eaker was much better suited for that part of the sport due to her style of gymnastics, but she has been out for nearly a month with an ankle sprain — but because McCallum’s work ethic and demeanor are as elite as her international career was.
Following her struggles at the Best of Utah, McCallum immediately went to Farden, disappointed in her showing, and applied fixes on bars, beam and floor. The result was her standout meet against Oklahoma.
After she tried too hard to replicate her strong performance against the Sooners in the meet against Arizona State, McCallum had to learn new lessons — “She had to kind of let it happen and not force it,” Farden said — and the result again was a standout competition, this time against Stanford.
Grace McCallum 🤝 Career-high 9.95 on beam!!— Utah Gymnastics (@UtahGymnastics) January 29, 2022
💻 https://t.co/u5DJxnyjXR pic.twitter.com/9xLEqlUVTx
“Her openness to work hard, to come into the gym and be determined, I’ve seen it every week,” Farden said. “We are talking about an athlete that is a two-time world champion and an Olympic medalist and she comes into the gym on Monday and says, ‘OK, let’s work on this. I want to work on this, and this is what has helped me in the past.’
“It just shows you how open that woman is. How humble is she? To constantly ask what she can do to get better. That is awesome.”
There likely will continue to be some ups and downs for McCallum as her freshman season progresses. This weekend, she’ll compete in her first true collegiate road meet, in Los Angeles against the rival UCLA Bruins.
It is an environment that she is prepared for given her international experience, but as she has learned, college gymnastics is a unique experience.
At this point, McCallum isn’t in the discussion as one of the best gymnasts in the NCAA, but the odds are at some point she will get there. She is too good not to. Hence, the expectations.
“It has been different,” McCallum said, “But I really love it (college gymnastics).”