Leanne Wong just showed that the jump from elite gymnastics to college and back again might be the future
Wong is one of a number of NCAA stars, including Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Jade Carey, who are going to try competing in both elite and NCAA gymnastics
Don’t look now, but the future of both NCAA and elite women’s gymnastics — when it comes to Team USA specifically — may have been irrevocably changed.
There was a time when elite American gymnasts — those who competed for world championships and Olympic medals — concluded their athletic careers by going to college and competing at the NCAA level.
College gymnastics served as a swan song for the greats of the sport, at least those who didn’t go pro and get their visage plastered on Wheaties boxes.
That doesn’t appear to be the case any longer.
Now there is Leanne Wong.
A standout freshman at the University of Florida during the 2021-22 NCAA season, Wong returned to the elite ranks this summer immediately after the college season concluded.
Saturday night at the Maverik Center in West Valley City, Wong picked up right where she left off in elite — she was a 2020 U.S. Olympic alternate and is the reigning world all-around silver medalist — and won the all-around competition at the U.S. Classic.
Wong finished with an all-around score of 54.400 and won not only the all-around title but the balance beam and vault titles, too.
Future Florida Gator Shilese Jones finished second with an all-around score of 54.050, and UCLA commit Katelyn Rosen finished third with an all-around score of 52.500.
The U.S. Classic was Wong’s first competition since returning to the elite ranks — on podium no less — and while she wasn’t perfect, her return was clearly a success.
“I think it went pretty well,” Wong said, with multiple medals draped around her neck. “It was a good start.”
Competing skills much more difficult than those required at the NCAA level, Wong wasn’t flawless by any means.
She fell on uneven bars while attempting a new skill — a Pak full — and committed a line violation on the second of her two vaults.
Otherwise, though, she and Jones were in a class of their own, competing neck-and-neck throughout the competition.
Making Wong’s showing all the more impressive was the fact that she has only been training her elite skills again since late April, after the conclusion of the NCAA season.
Half of that time she trained at Florida while finishing the spring semester, too.
Wong admitted that she had only begun practicing her full floor routine a couple weeks ago — she added a new tumbling pass to an old routine — but still managed to score a 13.600 on the event, good enough for third place behind Rosen and Jones.
Chelsie Memmel, recently named technical lead for Team USA’s women’s program, was nothing if not pleased about Wong — and Jones’ — performance, especially since it was her first competition back.
There is plenty of room for improvement for Team USA on the whole, though.
“Saw a lot of things that need improvement, beam being one of them. Beam is a little rough, has been a little rough,” Memmel said. “We definitely have work to do, but I’ve seen a lot of good things and think we are in a good place moving forward.”
What Wong displayed at the U.S. Classic is likely only the beginning when it comes to NCAA stars trying to compete both in college and elite.
Olympians Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles are both expected to compete at the U.S. Championships in August after standout freshman seasons with Oregon State and UCLA, respectively.
Wong will be competing at the U.S. championships, too, with an eye on making the American team that will go on to compete at the world championships in England.
Plus, Olympic all-around champion Sunisa Lee recently stated that she expects to return to the elite ranks next summer.
If any of Wong, Carey or Chiles make the U.S. team that will compete at this year’s world championships, it will interfere with their NCAA training.
The world championships are slated for late October and early November, and the NCAA season begins in January, with preparation for the season taking place throughout the fall.
Wong has yet to figure out exactly how she will handle that situation — whether she will do online school or return to Florida to train.
The way things are going, she won’t be alone in balancing NCAA gymnastics and elite. It very well might be the future of the sport.