Eyes on Tokyo: Local Olympic hopeful credits faith, family for gymnastics success

Grace McCallum has a gift. And she believes when you’re given a gift from God, you should use it to the best of your ability.

She’s doing just that.

At just 16, the shy teenager is quietly becoming a star in the world of gymnastics.

As a member of the U.S. Women’s National Senior Gymnastics Team, she has a long list of medals from national and international competitions over the past couple of years, most recently winning a bronze medal in August at the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City, Missouri. In 2018, she was a member of the gold-medal-winning team at the World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

Grace McCallum will compete at the World Championships at Stuttgart, Germany in late September.

Her focus right now is on the world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, in October. But, looking ahead, there is the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Grace has been involved in gymnastics since she was 5 years old, but it wasn’t until she was about 13 that she decided to pursue competition at the elite level. She transferred from the gym where she was training to the Twin Cities Twisters in Champlin, Minnesota, a gym with the coaches and staff to help her move ahead.

“Knowing that her current club couldn’t give her what she needed, she knew it was time and her family knew it was time to find another club for the next step in her journey,” said Sarah Jantzi, Grace’s coach at Twin Cities Twisters.

Three months after she started there, she dislocated her elbow and needed major reconstructive surgery. Her parents told her that she didn’t have to continue with the sport, but she was determined to return to competition.

“When we saw that she was really serious about wanting to do this sport, we just said, OK, if this is where you choose to go in life, then we’ll support you, whatever you need,” said Sandy McCallum, Grace’s mom.

Grace McCallum takes a moment from her practice to chat. (Dianne Towalski/The Central Minnesota Catholic)

“We have so many talented kids that come through this program who have the great things to be an elite gymnast … but it’s the desire and the want and the work ethic behind it that is so fun to see,” Jantzi said. “That’s what she displays.”

Competing at the elite level takes a huge commitment, not only from the athlete, but their family as well. And the McCallums are up to it. “You don’t necessarily know when you put your kid in the class if that’s going to become their life’s passion someday,” Sandy said. “You don’t know those things, but we kind of always let her guide the way.”

Her family sees that she gets to the gym, which is about an hour away from their home in Isanti. They also travel with her to competitions around the United States and the world. They make sure at least one of her parents is at every meet. Sandy has only missed two meets in Grace’s career.

Grace practices up to 28 hours a week, which means attending the online school Connections Academy, where she is a junior, so she can plan her studies around her practice schedule.

But the most important way her family and community support her is through prayer.

“That’s one of those areas that we say, ‘Keep her in focus, keep praying,’” Sandy said. “Because it really does make a difference.”

The McCallum family — which includes Grace, her parents Sandy and Ed, as well as siblings Rachael, Madelyn, Joseph, John and Xavier — are members of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Isanti and also attend St. Patrick Parish in Oak Grove, Minnesota.

“It’s just amazing all the people who have reached out to us and said, ‘We’re praying for her,’” Sandy said. “And honestly and truly, I don’t think that Grace could ask for anything more. Nothing probably means more to her than having everybody praying for her. It’s a tough sport, mentally and physically.”

Prayer, in fact, played a big part in her bronze medal finish in August, she said.

The first day of the U.S. championships was particularly tough. Grace didn’t do as well as she was hoping, but she kept cheering for her teammates, she said, and focused on the next day’s competition.

The second day was Aug. 11, the feast of St. Philomena, her confirmation saint and an early martyr of the Church.

“Everybody knows she’s kind of a kick-butt saint,” Sandy said. “We said ‘Use her as your intercessor and pray to her,’ so it was kind of cool that it just happened to land on that day.”

Her older sister, Rachael, also had been praying a novena to St. Philomena for Grace during the meet.

Her coach encouraged her to go out there and show them what she’s capable of. “It’s not over till it’s over,” Sandy said. “So, literally, she just went out there on Sunday and I saw the Grace that I know.”

Grace McCallum of Isanti, right, third-place finisher at the U.S. gymnastics championships in Kansas City, Missouri, shares the podium with all-around winner Simone Biles, center, and second-place finisher Sunisa Lee of St. Paul. Far left is fourth-place finisher Morgan Hurd of Delaware.

She was able to focus and ended up sharing the podium with gold medalist Simone Biles and fellow Minnesotan Sunisa Lee.

“Definitely, whenever I have a rough day, in the gym or competition, I just know God gave me this talent,” Grace said. “I need to use it and not waste it.”

When she travels with the team and can’t attend Mass, she keeps her faith close in other ways. She has a rosary in her backpack as well as a special cross from her grandmother.

Grace McCallum hopes to represent the US at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

“She travels with those things to kind of bring her peace and calm,” Sandy said. “Grace won’t travel anywhere without them.”

Her sport has taken her all over the world. Just in the past year Grace has participated in competitions in several states, as well as Doha, Qatar; Lima, Peru, and Medellin, Colombia.

“When I travel with Grace, the only thing that keeps me sane is church, that’s my mainstay,” Sandy said. “I find a church nearby because it helps me center myself so I can be there for Grace.”

Grace and Sandy are grateful to experience different cultures. It’s been eye-opening, they said, to see the extreme differences in the countries they have visited. In Doha, people have so much wealth they don’t know what to do with it, they said. But in Peru and Columbia they saw astonishing poverty.

The news and social media tend to highlight the bad in the world, so they were a little nervous about traveling internationally, but they felt safe everywhere they went, they said.

“I actually never felt unsafe, even in some of the rougher areas,” Sandy said. “But the thing that’s amazing is you can find joy anywhere.”

So, about that trip to Germany.

Before she sets her sights on the 2020 Olympics, Grace is focused on the World Championships in Stuttgart, which began Oct. 4. USA Gymnastics announced Oct. 7 that McCallum will be one of five women in the line-up to compete in the finals on Oct. 8. Team USA earned the highest qualification team score, and the U.S. women are seeking their fifth consecutive and seventh overall team title.

“If she continues to do her gymnastics the way she knows how to, she should make it,” Jantzi said. “I don’t see them leaving her off the team.”

Grace was confident going into the competition, she said, and excited about showcasing what she can do.

“I think it’s really cool, you work so hard in the gym every day and then all your hard work pays off when you get to travel and compete for Team USA.

This story was updated Oct. 7. Fans can watch the 2019 World Championship women’s finals on Oct. 8 at 7:30 a.m. on NBCSN or online at: http://stream.nbcsports.com/nbcsn


Author: Dianne Towalski

Dianne Towalski is a multimedia reporter for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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