Life of Riley: McCusker seeks more at U.S. Gym Champs
Riley McCusker’s all-around second place at the U.S. Classic in Ohio two weeks ago was no fluke.
It was the result of a thoughtful, disciplined approach with coach Maggie Haney's New Jersey-based MG Elite team helping her produce her best when it mattered most.
Haney’s exacting eye has quickly produced a handful of talented athletes, including Olympic champion Laurie Hernandez.
And with Tokyo 2020 less than two years away, McCusker hopes her success at the Classic was just the first step.
RILEY'S RAPID RISE
In 2015, McCusker left her training base near her home in Connecticut to work with Haney.
She had seen the success of Haney’s two protégés – Hernandez and Jazzy Foberg – and wanted a piece of the action.
Hernandez went on to win team gold and balance beam silver at Rio 2016 while Foberg, a surprise U.S. junior champion in 2014, is currently a stand-out gymnast at the University of Florida.
The move, however, did not come without sacrifice.
McCusker lived away from her family, staying with a host family near MG Elite for a year.
But the chance to train with Haney was worth it.
"It’s been amazing – she's the best coach in the world." - Riley McCusker on Maggie Haney
"I just have so much respect for her. We all have our personal relationship with her, and I think that's really special."
McCusker travelled back to Connecticut on weekends before her family relocated to New Jersey in November 2016.
The move came after some impressive results in a short time, with McCusker not even considered an elite gymnast before hooking up with Haney.
"When she first came, I would say she was very, very fresh," said Haney.
"Very eager and excited to learn… she had nice flexibility, and she had good basic bar skills. It gave me a lot to work with."
And work with it, she did.
In June 2016, McCusker finished second in the junior elite all-around at the U.S. nationals in St. Louis.
That marked her out as one to watch in the year after the Olympics when the stars of Rio stepped away.
INTO THE SENIORS
McCusker made her senior international debut in early 2017 at the American Cup, representing the United States along with 2016 Olympic alternate Ragan Smith.
The competition, held near her new home in New Jersey, was to be her coming out party, a chance to show the world that Haney had another budding champion.
But the occasion got to her, and mistakes on the uneven bars and balance beam dropped her down the standings before she finished strongly on the floor.
Haney said, "She had never competed internationally. The focus was really on learning how to compete and how to prepare for competition, and, then, handle competitions.
"We were really focusing on competitions because she had not really competed in the elite world."
McCusker came back with a strong showing at the Jesolo Trophy in Italy a few weeks later, winning the team, all-around and balance beam gold medals.
She looked well on her way to a spot on the American team for the World Championships and contending for medals, but injuries intervened.
"Last year, around the time of [nationals], I had a really bad hamstring injury, and I was unable to keep going for the Worlds," said McCusker. "It was devastating at first."
McCusker spent around four months completely "shut down" – not doing any gymnastics.
She went to the gym every day in tracksuits and watch as her teammates worked away.
Eventually, she started with rehab and then the long, difficult process of building back her skills and endurance.
"Last year, she kind of had little things – like a lot of little things," said Haney. "I felt like we kept having to cram to get ready for each competition."
This year, Haney has changed the focus from getting experience in competition to being strategic with when McCusker gets up for competitions.
"With all of the things that are going on in USA Gymnastics, I definitely didn't find it necessary to push her to get out there when there weren't even really international competitions where she could compete and represent our country,” said Haney.
"I thought it was just kind of a good year for her to back off and rest and slow down and then, not go to competition until she was really ready."
McCusker certainly looked ready at the end of July, beating 2017 all-around world champion Morgan Hurd to take second in the all-around at the U.S. Classic.
Only the great Simone Biles finished ahead of her in Columbus, Ohio.
The 17-year-old won the uneven bars and was runner-up to Biles in the balance beam.
As good as they were, the results were not the focus.
McCusker just wanted to get back into competition after almost a full year away, focus on her technique and see what happened.
Needless to say, Haney was happy with the result but said it was no surprise to her as she has always believed that McCusker has what it takes to be one of the top gymnasts in the United States.
The bigger challenge in 2018 has been reassuring McCusker that their hard work will not go to waste as uncertainty grips USA Gymnastics following the Larry Nassar scandal.
"I just try to tell her that USA Gymnastics is going to put a team out at Worlds, and they're going to put a team out at the Olympics. That’s definitely going to happen," Haney said.
"There’s going to be a governing body that wants our best athletes to compete at Worlds and to compete at the Olympics."
And a year after injury denied McCusker a first tilt at glory on the world stage, she is ready to take another step toward that goal at this week's national championships in Boston.
"I feel like it's just motivated me, honestly. Seeing what I missed out on just lit a fire." - Riley McCusker
McCusker is the defending champion in the uneven bars and was second in the balance beam and third in the all-round 12 months ago.
While Biles is the hot favourite having missed last year's event, her young rival is hopeful of backing up her Classic performance.