Olympic dreams, NCAAs and 10,000 hair bows: Leanne Wong's road to Paris

Olympic dreams, NCAAs and 10,000 hair bows: Leanne Wong’s road to Paris

طوبیٰ Tooba 4 months ago 0 1

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA junior Leanne Wong is crouched low on a balance beam, her body weight centered over the ball of her right foot while her left leg is extended to the side, toes pointed. She stretches her arms wide, winds up, and from this impossibly precarious position, begins to spin.

Wong is amid the first of two wolf turns, a skill popular with elite gymnasts because of its difficulty, but also detested because of, well, its difficulty. When executed well, the gymnast appears to float effortlessly above the beam like a music box dancer. But one wobble and it’s over.

In the elite (Olympic) world, difficulty reigns supreme, but in NCAA gymnastics, perfection trumps all. So why, during the No. 5 Gators’ opening meet of the NCAA season, would Wong take the risk to add a wolf double turn, not to mention a switch-leap mount and an upgraded tumbling pass, to her beam routine? Because this year is not like most. This is an Olympic year, and Wong, 20, is one of a few NCAA gymnasts with a legitimate shot at making the five-woman team that will represent the U.S. in Paris. She needs to keep her elite skills sharp.

Most of her peers took this year off from college to return to their club gyms. That means Wong is the only Olympic hopeful who chose to continue with collegiate gymnastics while also training her elite routines under her NCAA coaches, who travel with her to national team camps, elite meets and international assignments. In doing so, she and her coaches are forging a new path to the Olympics through college.

“Leanne wants to have the best of both worlds, and that is exciting for myself and our staff, to help her pave this path for future student-athletes,” Florida head coach Jenny Rowland says.

One reason Wong made the unprecedented choice to stay at Florida was to take ownership of her career, a distinct change from club gymnastics, where coaches have the first and final say over their programs. At Florida, Wong’s gymnastics, from what skills to work on at practice to choreography, is a collaborative process.

“In college, I’ve been the one driving my gymnastics, communicating with my coaches what I want to do and how things are going to be done,” says Wong, a 2021 Olympic alternate, two-time world champion and three-time all-SEC gymnast at Florida. “Most decisions are in my hands and the coaches are there to support me and help me make the right decisions. They also realize every athlete is not the same and they’ve learned who I am and what I need to be successful. That’s been a huge benefit.”

In theory, the partnership is a win-win. The Gators retain an Olympic-level athlete at her peak and Wong enjoys year-round continuity, more frequent competitions and all the perks Florida has to offer. But this isn’t a proven formula. No current NCAA gymnast has made a U.S. Olympic team.

“This is brand-new and we don’t have all the answers yet,” Roland says. “I have so much respect for Leanne that she has the confidence in us as a coaching staff. It is really hard to put into words what it would mean to all of us if Leanne makes this Olympic team.”

So far this season, Wong has helped the Gators to a 10-1 regular-season record and the regular-season SEC title while making the SEC Academic Honor Roll and training her elite routines on the side. This week, the Gators — runners-up in 2022 and 2023 — begin their quest for their first NCAA title in nine years. Then Wong turns her focus entirely toward Paris.

“TRAIN INSANE OR remain the same,” Wong says, and holds up a T-shirt she has designed with that quotation. She first saw the quote, which is widely attributed to fitness expert Jillian Michaels, at a level 5 meet when she was 6 and has never forgotten it. “Training hard is doing the minimum,” Wong says. “Training insane means doing extra. If you really want it, you train insane.”

It’s mid-January and Wong is in Gainesville, Florida, for the first week of the winter semester. This morning, she attended an American history class, then headed to the O’Connell Center for an interview, a massage and three hours of practice. Now home for the evening, she turns her attention to homework and her other full-time job: the Leanne Wong Bowtique.

In the living room of the off-campus house she purchased in December, she and her mom, Bee Ding, are working to fulfill an order they need to ship by 5 p.m. for the signature hair-bow, T-shirt and leotard business she launched in December 2021. Wong mans a mint-green heat press while Ding, who is in town for the Gators’ season opener, puts finishing touches on 25 bows. Ding’s fingers are coated in hot glue.

“It’s definitely a lot to balance,” says Wong, who is also juggling a full slate of pre-med classes and sponsor obligations. “But I feel like sometimes I thrive in chaos.”

Wong designs the products, runs the company’s website and oversees social media. Her mom crafts the bows by hand and her dad, Marco Wong, and little brothers, Michael and Brendan, pitch in sometimes by adding a crystal “LW” — which she has trademarked — to each bow. The “Train Insane” tee comes in hot pink, retails for $39.98 and is currently sold-out. In February, Wong released a collection of “Super Bowl champ” bows in her hometown Kansas City Chiefs colors for $25 each. Since launching the business, she has sold more than 10,000 handmade bows and enjoys a growing contingent of “Bowtique Ambassadors” on social media.

“It’s such an honor to see so many little girls and everyone supporting me and supporting the business,” says Wong, who recently co-authored a book, “My Journey: Trust the Process,” with Ding.

Wong still lives in a dorm on campus with two of her teammates while she finishes painting and decorating her house, but she plans to move in after this semester, possibly with a roommate or two. The success of Wong’s company, as well as the sponsor deals she’s signed over the past two years, have allowed her to buy the house, as well as the Tesla in the driveway. “She wants to buy another house near campus and rent it out,” Ding says. “She’s thinking about saving and investing. She’s smart with her money.”

Wong, who comes from a family of doctors, chose the pre-med track knowing the hours of late-night studying her classes would require in addition to everything else she has going on. Her ability to focus amongst all this chaos is a virtue she’s beginning to better understand. Hoping to learn more about herself, Wong researched personality types this semester and believes she has a polychronic personality (as opposed to monochronic). Polychrons value multitasking and interpersonal relationships and view time as being flexible rather than linear.

“Leanne is able to minimize outside distractions and compartmentalize different parts of her life,” Florida coach Owen Field says. “And she never wastes time.”

IT ALL COMES down to Wong.

On a Friday evening in late February, the Gators are facing No. 2 LSU at home. A Florida win would be considered an upset, and the Gators are one floor routine away from shocking the Tigers.

Wong salutes the judges, steps onto the mat and takes her opening pose. She looks calm and focused, even though moments earlier, her teammate Payton Richards went down on her opening tumbling pass and was carried off the floor with an injury. Wong is the final athlete to compete. She needs a 9.825 or better to secure the Gators’ biggest win of the season. A 9.9 and she will also win the all-around.

Wong opens the routine with a beautiful double layout and ends with Florida’s signature “Gator chomp.” Her teammates swarm. They don’t need to see her score; they know it’s enough. When both judges flash 10s, the O’Dome erupts. It’s Wong’s first career 10 on floor, making her only the 15th gymnast in NCAA history to earn a “Gym Slam,” or at least one perfect 10 on all four rotations.

Moments like these, when she must block out the chaos and deliver a clutch performance for her team, are priceless. They are proof that, despite the doubters who say she is spreading herself too thin, Wong made the right decision for her this year. She’ll draw on the confidence she gained competing for the Gators to convince a USA Gymnastics selection committee that she’s worthy of one of those five Olympic spots. “This works for me,” Wong says. “I felt like NCAA gymnastics has been really beneficial.”

Working with college coaches, who are responsible for an entire team rather than any individual gymnast, has given Wong space to learn about herself and what she needs as an athlete.

“Some athletes need a lot of instruction before they compete,” Wong says. “Some need the coaches to talk about something else to get their mind off-topic. I’ve learned what I need is not much of anything. I don’t like a lot of pep talk before my routines. I like to stand off by myself and think. I didn’t know that before I came here. My club coach was always by my side, but with a team, our coaches can’t be with every person every minute.”

Wong has become a stronger, more powerful gymnast since implementing a strength training program at Florida, where she has daily access to a trainer, physical and massage therapists, and nutritionists — benefits all covered by her scholarship.

She also has an elite training partner who is eyeing a spot on the Paris team. NCAA great Trinity Thomas, who set the all-time perfect 10s record in her final season last year, returned to Florida as a volunteer assistant coach this season. Like Wong, she is training for Olympic trials with the Florida coaches and returned to elite competition at the Winter Cup in February, where she finished fourth in the all-around.

Wong and Thomas grew close over Wong’s first two years at Florida. This season, Thomas is learning to navigate being Wong’s coach, as well as her training partner.

“Leanne is one of the best gymnasts I’ve ever seen. And we really push each other in the gym,” Thomas says. “We have different strengths, different weaknesses, and help each other as teammates, but we also kind of coach each other as well. I feel like we’re a very cool dynamic duo.”

As part of a team, Wong says she has learned to have fun and express herself in and out of the gym. “A lot of people comment on how you see more joy in Leanne when she’s competing,” Field says. “She shows more personality than she did in the past.”

Now a junior, Wong is a leader on a young Florida team. “I didn’t realize how much some of the freshmen look up to me,” Wong says. “I’m leading the team more than I did at the start of the season.” After the Gators posted a disappointing score in their opening meet, Wong created a “self-reflection sheet” for herself, then presented the concept to her coaches and teammates. “After each competition, we watch film, fill out our packets and reflect on what happened and where we want to be the next week,” Wong says.

For the first seven weeks of the season, the Gators were the only squad in the nation to improve their team score every week. “It’s what I’m most proud of this season,” Wong says. The team earned the regular-season SEC title and enters NCAA competition ranked No. 4 in the nation. They host regionals for the first time since 2017. “We’re almost starting at the bottom again [after a disappointing SEC meet],” Wong says. “But we know our potential.”

In May, after NCAAs, Wong will return to elite competition at the U.S. Classic in Hartford, Connecticut, alongside Thomas. She will join an unprecedented group of hopefuls in what will be the most competitive race to make the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in history. The past three Olympic all-around champions — Sunisa Lee, Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas — are all in the mix, as are the majority of the 2021 Olympic team, two-time world champion Shilese Jones and a handful of elites who are coming of age this year. That field includes two other current powerhouse NCAA gymnasts: Oregon State’s Jade Carey, whose dad continues to coach her in college, and LSU’s Konnor McClain, who stepped away from elite competition in 2022 and plans to return at the U.S. Classic.

“There’s so much depth in the U.S., it’s going to come down to who is ready at that moment and who’s in the best shape,” Wong says. Throughout the process, she will remain in Gainesville and even take summer classes. “I’m not going to change anything,” she says. “I’m not one to change something when it’s working.

“The dream 2024 would be an NCAA national title and ultimately making the Paris Olympic team.”

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