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A whole bunch of Minnesotans could be legitimate contenders for the 2020 Olympics

Three Minnesota gymnasts — along with 17-year-old swimmer Regan Smith of Lakeville, who broke two world records at last month’s world championships — give the state a collection of up-and-comers to follow leading up to Olympic team selection.

Shane Wiskus
Shane Wiskus saves his routine with a one handed grab on the high bar during the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

University of Minnesota gymnast Shane Wiskus, the latest Minnesotan-turned-internet sensation, had just finished a high bar routine last week at the team’s dusty Cooke Hall facility when Gophers coach Mike Burns called him over. “You see this yet?” he said, smiling and handing Wiskus his smartphone.  

By then, video of Wiskus’ stunning one-handed grab of the high bar at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships had gone viral. In case you missed it: Wiskus flubbed a twisting airborne move known as a Cassina, caught the bar with his right hand while falling, then swung back into his routine, a Superman move only the strongest gymnasts could pull off. The gasps from spectators at the Sprint Center in Kansas City tell the story.

Wiskus’ snatch-and-go received much more attention than his national championship on vault, his bronze medal on parallel bars, or his fourth-place finish in the all-around, all of which put him in the conversation for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team. Wiskus said he picked up 1,400 Twitter followers just from the bars video.

But Burns had something else for Wiskus to see. Burns cued up another video, shot by USA Gymnastics high performance director Brett McClure, of the U.S. junior national team reacting boisterously to Wiskus grabbing the bar. Watch the middle of the screen for the two kids freaking out

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“That was awesome,” Wiskus said. “I know a lot of those guys so it was cool to see their reaction to that. I’ve seen similar reaction to similar fails or whatever you call it on high bar. To know they’re watching my Cassina is something pretty funny.”

A junior-to-be from Spring Park, Wiskus is one of four Minnesota athletes whose stellar performances the last few weeks made them legitimate contenders for next summer’s Olympics in Tokyo.  

Among women gymnasts at the U.S. Championships, 16-year-olds Sunisa Lee of St. Paul and Grace McCallum of Isanti did Wiskus one better, taking home silver and bronze, respectively, in the all-around behind four-time world champion Simone Biles.

Sunisa Lee
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Sunisa Lee performing her beam routine during the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships.
Lee, believed to be the first Hmong-American to qualify for a U.S. national team in gymnastics, walked away with three medals — gold on uneven bars (the only individual event Biles failed to win), silver in the all-around and bronze on floor exercise. Her final-day performance on bars moved NBC analyst Nastia Liukin, the 2008 Olympic all-around champion, to say Lee has a shot at Olympic gold in that event. And Lee did it with a hairline fracture in her left tibia, or shin, from a balance beam dismount while training in late June.

“If anybody would know what it takes to be an Olympic gold medalist on bars, (Liukin) would,” said Jess Graba, Lee’s coach at Midwest Gymnastics in Little Canada. “I don’t know if that helps or hurts. But I do think she’s right. If she goes, she has a chance to be an Olympic medalist on bars.”

The three gymnasts — along with 17-year-old swimmer Regan Smith of Lakeville, who broke two world records in the backstroke at last month’s world championships in South Korea — give Minnesotans a fresh collection of up-and-comers to follow in the months leading up to Olympic selection. NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines called Smith the next Missy Franklin. Impressive stuff.  

Lee’s breakout performance at nationals came in her first season as a senior gymnast. 

McCallum, five months older, gained valuable senior experience in 2018 while USA Gymnastics, the sport’s governing body, reeled from multiple misconduct investigations. The upheaval left the women’s national team without a coordinator or a training site. 

Grace McCallum
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
Grace McCallum performing during the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships.
Some national-caliber gyms and gymnasts, unsure how to proceed, pulled back from major competitions. McCallum’s coach at Twin City Twisters, Sarah Jantzi, who also coached Little Canada’s Maggie Nichols, took the opposite approach. When the U.S. declined to send a team to the highly regarded City of Jesolo Trophy competition in Italy, Jantzi entered McCallum and another Twisters gymnast as individuals. McCallum benefited from a low-key approach to her first international assignment, taking fifth in the all-around and third among Americans.   

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“I think it was a really good way to ease into it,” McCallum said. “It was a lot of fun.”

Later in the season, McCallum represented the U.S. at the Pacific Rim Championships and the Pan Am Games, winning team and all-around golds, and added a team gold at the world championships. Her confidence grew, which helped at nationals, when she fell off the beam and bars the first day. On Day Two she improved her scores on three of the four apparatuses, rising from ninth to third. 

Lee and McCallum know each other, and the significance of two homegrown Minnesotans flanking the great Biles on the podium wasn’t lost on them or their coaches. Lee still has a hard time believing she beat Biles on bars. “She seems pretty nice,” Lee said, “and it’s really intimidating competing against her because she’s, like, amazing.”

What’s next? In September, Lee, McCallum and Wiskus head to camps to select U.S. teams for world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, in October. Olympic team rosters were reduced from five to four for the 2020 Games, a change that angered so many international federations (the U.S. among them) that five-person teams were restored for 2024. For 2020 nations can qualify up to two more gymnasts for individual events, based on a complicated formula that Burns said many coaches themselves don’t understand.   

“It’s probably the most convoluted, confusing and nutty qualification system ever devised by FIG (gymnastics’ international governing body),” Burns said. “They should be ashamed of themselves putting that together. A lot of people agree with that.”

The gist: The route to the Olympics will be harder than ever the one time Minnesota has three gymnasts trying to get there. Male Olympic gymnasts generally skew older than females, and Wiskus, who turns 21 in October, will be one of the younger ones on the men’s side. Sam Mikulak, the six-time U.S. men’s all-around champion, turns 27 in October.

2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Overall Gold Medalist Simone Biles, center, and silver medalist Sunisa Lee, left, and bronze medalist Grace McCallum, right, pose on the podium during the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships.
Meanwhile, if anybody needs a jar opened, Wiskus and his Popeye-like forearms is the man to call. Incredibly, Wiskus has done the one-armed thing at least twice before — at the 2016 Winter Cup (there’s video to prove it), and a few weeks ago practicing at Cooke Hall. So when Wiskus, the reigning NCAA bars champion, missed that Cassina, he knew precisely how to recover. 

“The thing that amazed me was, not only was he able to hold on, but he was able to continue his routine in such a calm fashion, the way it was supposed to be done,” Burns said. “He had one little error later in the routine, but he was probably getting tired at that point. It was amazing how his training kicked in and he just kind of went on autopilot for the rest of the routine. That’s the beauty of preparation.”