It all feels so familiar. The lights glaring down at the smoky stage. The thud and boing of gymnasts launched from springboards. The faint whiffs of fresh, yet somehow stale arena popcorn.

Grace McCallum dips her right arm into a white plastic bin in search of chalk. She dusts every crevice of her fingers and her grip — a strip of leather that protects her palms from the shredding physics of friction on the uneven parallel bars. Yes, she’s been here before.

Many times. Most notably as a Team USA gymnast, helping Sunisa Lee and her fellow Americans claim silver last summer in Tokyo. The tattoo on the outside of her right forearm — the Olympic rings, now powdered white — reminds everyone watching at home. But to hear her tell it, what’s happening at West Valley City’s Maverik Center on this January evening — the annual “Best of Utah” meet, and McCallum’s first college competition — is, in fact, new.

University of Utah gymnast Grace McCallum poses for a photo at the Dumke Gymnastics Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

She’s competed all over the world, earning accolades that most little girls who yearn for gymnastics glory only reach in their daydreams. But to find success at the collegiate level, she knows she can’t rely only on past achievements. Success in a new environment is about adapting, learning, putting yourself in challenging situations over and over again, and never getting too comfortable — especially with Utah entering the season ranked fourth, hoping to claim its first national title since 1995 at the championship meet in April/

Just listen to McCallum’s fellow freshman teammate Amelie Morgan, who competed for Great Britain in the Tokyo Games, explain it. “I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘You’ve competed at the Olympics, surely you’re not going to be nervous for this,’” she says. “But it’s a very different experience.”

At the highest levels of elite gymnastics, challenge and individuality reign. Even on Team USA, McCallum explains, packing as much difficulty as possible into a routine and worrying about your score and your score only are the norm.

“There’s still team events, because we have the team finals, and that’s where we won the silver (in the last Olympics). But it’s very much individualized,” she says. “It’s almost like every man for themselves out there.”  

Not in college, where perfection and teamwork are prized. The routines just need to be executed well, all in the service of scoring the most points as a unit.

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It’s an adjustment. It’s visible in McCallum as she begins her bars warmup in the Maverik Center. While performing a “stick” — where the gymnast goes vertical and points her toes toward the roof — she wants to go forward, but her body won’t let her. She contorts her frame, bends her spine, tries to bring her momentum where she wants it, but it’s no use. She falls backward and plops onto the mat below.

Although she’s now living in Salt Lake City, 19-year-old McCallum originally hails from Isanti, Minnesota. Her brush with gymnastics began by happenstance: She was a very energetic toddler, and her parents figured they could tucker her by enrolling her at the gym a mile from their home.

By her early teenage years she’d outgrown it and switched over to Twin City Twisters, then the home of future two-time collegiate all-around champion Maggie Nichols. It challenged her in a way she’d never experienced, and even now, the tone of her voice indicates some upsetting memories.

“At the time, I didn’t like it. I was really struggling with gymnastics, because the environment is so different. It was so much more intense,” she says. “But ... I definitely wouldn’t be the athlete I am today without them.”

Almost as soon as she made the switch as a 13-year-old, she shattered her elbow. It happened in 2016, a week before her first Junior Olympic Nationals and two weeks before an elite qualifier, so her first thought was whether she’d still be able to compete. The answer was no. Her doctors only gave her a 50- 50 chance of ever competing again, matter of fact, though her parents kept that information from her to avoid discouragement. She made it back after nine months of physical therapy and continued her rise.

Utah’s Grace McCallum does her floor routine as the Utah Red Rocks compete against Minnesota in a gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 4, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

She “verbally committed” to Utah when she wasn’t yet 15 years old. A gym mate of hers from Minnesota — Abby Paulson — was already on her way, so she figured she’d have at least one friend. Plus she loved the campus and the people the first time she visited. The climate was enough like Minnesota, she says, to feel homey and different at once. “And who wouldn’t love being in the mountains?”

The Utah social climate was also a good fit, given her devout Catholicism. And although she missed almost three months of adjustment time during her first semester while on the 35-city, Simone Biles-led Gold Over America Tour, she excelled in her online academics and made it back in time to learn four routines and compete in the all-around.

“She’s handling it like a champ. Those are fastballs and curveballs — she doesn’t know what’s coming at her,” says longtime Utah head coach Tom Farden.

Just look at her balance beam routine — the first of the night. She dazzles with her refined skills: From a springboard near the center of the beam, she faces the opposite way. She vaults into the air as if attempting a backward somersault and grabs the beam with both arms. She hangs upside down, her feet arrow-straight toward the sky, the apparatus pressed against her chest.

The balance beam, with a four-inch width, is the sport’s least forgiving event. The margin for error is miniscule. Stumbles are commonplace. But not for McCallum. She sticks her dismount and finishes with a 9.875, tied for second among the Utes. It’s the beginning of a long night; she’s the only Utah gymnast tabbed to compete in every event.

After a 9.85 floor routine and a team-leading 9.9 on the vault, McCallum finishes her first competition as a Ute on the bars. Farden, his arms crossed, looks on beside her. She tries to empty her head during routines and let her extensive muscle memory do the work; she ignores the crowd whenever possible, because she doesn’t want her performance to depend on anyone else’s enthusiasm. But this is the apparatus that befuddled her during warmups, so perhaps she’s thinking a little harder than she should be as she once more dusts her hands in the chalk bowl and bops her head along to “Party in the USA.”

She starts on the shorter bar, then moves to the taller, then back to the shorter. Something is off. She stops her routine by stepping on the ground — a major deduction. Farden’s explanation for what went wrong would require a Ph.D.-level understanding of gymnastics, so I’ll spare you the specifics except to say that he offers some advice before McCallum gets back on and finishes. She exchanges a few courteous head nods and high-fives with teammates. Her body language tells a story of disappointment but not of devastation. She’s learned to regulate her emotions — and her identity — well over the years.

“I always tell people, ‘Yes, I did those things, but that doesn’t define who I am. It’s something I accomplished, but I’m just Grace outside of the gym.’ My parents always told me to stay humble about my achievements and my success, so I think that’s kept me very grounded in who I am.”

That approach should serve her well as she continues her collegiate career. “I think Grace is going to blossom,” says Farden, the key term being “going to.” Learning takes time. Though the new challenges and atmospheres, McCallum insists, are welcome ones.

“It’s a really nice change,” she says. “I love it, having everybody’s support, and working toward one goal.” 

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.