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Leanne Wong, Jade Carey hope Olympics path goes through the NCAA Championships

NCAA Sticking Around Gymnastics
Posted at 10:03 AM, Apr 18, 2024

Jade Carey and Leanne Wong watched as the elite gymnasts they grew up with left college last summer so they could turn their attention to the Paris Olympics.

Suni Lee headed home to Minnesota after two years at Auburn. Jordan Chiles returned to Texas following a decorated stint at UCLA. Kayla DiCello asked longtime personal coach Kelli Hill to come out of retirement to help her get ready, a request that included DiCello taking a break from Florida so she could train full-time in Maryland.

Carey and Wong opted to stay put — Carey at Oregon State, Wong at Florida — even though they knew juggling college and elite gymnastics heading into an Olympic year could potentially up the degree of difficulty of making the five-woman U.S. team this summer.

Still, they felt they owed it to themselves and the programs that nurtured them to stick around.

On Thursday, Carey and Wong will step onto the floor at Dickie's Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, eying a shot at an NCAA championship.

Yes, it's been draining. Occasionally chaotic, too, for that matter. And totally worth it.

Carey, who won gold on floor exercise at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, initially wasn't so sure she'd made the right decision. The 23-year-old admitted she didn't feel “fully prepared” while competing as an elite last summer. She finished 15th in the all-around at the U.S. Championships and 11th on floor.

“I just kept stacking a lot of pressure on myself and felt like I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders,” Carey said. “I wasn’t really enjoying what I was doing just because I wasn’t doing well and I didn’t feel good about my gymnastics.”

She wasn't surprised when she wasn't selected for the world championship team and headed back to Corvallis, Oregon, in need of a reset. Carey took some time off and offered herself something that's sometimes in short supply in a sport where criticism — externally or internally — is almost unavoidable: grace.

“I knew that the Olympics was still my end goal and maybe that last year was just something I had to go through,” Carey said. “I would rather it be last year than this year.”

The confidence she was missing has returned. Carey enters the NCAA finals coming off a regional meet where she was the all-around, beam and floor champion. She's recorded two perfect 10s this season to push her career total to 13. Her next fall this season will be her first.

All while dedicating a significant portion of her practice time to building up the endurance necessary for elite routines, which are longer and far more difficult than what is required at the college level. She plans to return to elite competition at the American Classic in Katy, Texas, at the end of this month, a relatively low-stakes meet that will allow her to show the powers that be at USA Gymnastics that she's serious about this.

Not that they need any convincing.

While Carey hasn't attended a national team camp since last fall, she recently went through the skill verification process over Zoom. Carey had two phones focused on her during her routines — one conducting the Zoom so USA Gymnastics officials could watch in real-time, with another recording it all as a backup just in case there was a glitch — all while an elite judge monitored in person.

“It was kind of weird and different,” she said.

And also necessary. The “fear of missing out” while USA Gymnastics rolled on without her through the fall and winter is real.

It's much the same for Wong, an Olympic alternate in 2021 and a four-time world championship medalist. The junior — a pre-med student and budding entrepreneur and author — considered trying to fit in a national team camp the same week that Florida hosted an NCAA regional meet.

It turned out to be a little too much, one of the rare occasions when the 20-year-old Wong actually had to say “no.” That's typically not her style.

“I feel like I thrive with having a lot of things to do,” she said.

Good, because if anyone has “a lot of things to do,” it's Wong. When she's not helping lead a very young Gators team to the NCAA finals, she's helping her mother guide her booming hair bow business, meeting with sponsors, hawking her autobiography or studying for med school. Sometimes all in the same day.

In the hours before Florida hosted LSU in February, Wong watched three lectures, completed three assignments, and took an exam. Oh, and then posted a 39.875 in the all-around during the meet that included a 10 on floor.

You know, just a normal day.

Wong knows on the outside it looks like a lot. She has found a way to make it work. Sure, she could have returned home to Overland Park, Kansas, to train but with some of her classes making in-person attendance mandatory and the resources at her disposal at Florida, from coaching to athletic training, it made sense to stay.

Besides, there's something about being in a team-oriented atmosphere that has allowed Wong to find joy.

“It's a lot of fun," she said. "I am a pretty serious person. It’s just so different.”

All while not taking away from her Olympic aspirations. Wong has made each of the last three world championship teams thanks in part to the experience gained while competing in front of judges weekly at the NCAA level.

She has found peace, happiness and balance along the way. That hasn't always been the case. It's one of the reasons she's good with whatever happens this summer. She's prepping for Paris her way, and that's all she can ask.

“Since I’ve been through it all, I can almost control my gymnastics,” she said. “I feel like I have more ownership. It's almost like I'm in the driver's seat now.”