Konnor McClain is the first to admit she is a completely different person.

There was a time in her career when she couldn't mount the balance beam without nerves completely taking over. Her coach was always on standby with a plastic bag – just in case. 

Fast forward to the final routine of her freshman year at Louisiana State University. It’s the 2024 NCAA Championship Finals and McClain is faced with the pressure-filled task of getting her team back on track after a fall in the beam lineup. Every score going forward would have to count. 

At first there was a moment of panic. 

Then came a sense of calm. 

“Once I got up to the podium, "Bugs" (assistant coach Ashleigh Gnat) was like, ‘I’m going to stand over there. Go do your thing,’ McClain said. “So I take a deep breath before I go and I just settle into the beam; it’s just me and the beam in that arena.”

With the program’s first-ever NCAA team title on the line, she delivered a near-perfect 9.9625 to help seal the deal. Every beam routine she had ever done up until that point – all the good and the bad – flashed through her mind. 

McClain, who admittedly is not one to get emotional, couldn’t hold back the tears. What every college gymnast dreams of – and so few actually achieve in their career – had happened in her very first NCAA season. 

“After my routine I almost started crying myself and I don’t get emotional after my routines,” McClain said. “After Aleah (Finnegan) went and she landed her dismount, my eyes were watering … Everyone started crying. It was so unreal and unbelievable, almost.” 

McClain’s transformation is a story that continues to evolve along with her. 

There’s no doubt she’s a completely different person than she was three years ago when she was thrust into the spotlight after suddenly becoming age-eligible to try for a spot on the Tokyo Olympic team. Since that time, she has fought through injuries and the devastating loss of both her father and grandmother in December 2021. 

But she’s also a different person than she was just 12 months ago. She attributes it all to her decision to arrive at LSU a year early. 

“I needed a change up”

McClain originally deferred her enrollment at LSU in order to train for the Paris Olympics, planning to make her debut during the 2025 season. However, months of injuries and mental health battles left McClain feeling she had to make a change. 

In April of 2023, McClain left the Texas-based gym WOGA, which is best-known for producing world-class athletes such as Olympic gold medalists Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin and Madison Kocian. 

McClain began training at WOGA with Valeri and Anna Liukin in the summer of 2021. She went on to win the Winter Cup at the start of 2022 and then the U.S. all-around national title that summer. Everything looked great on paper, but deep down inside, McClain couldn’t shake the feelings of sadness. 

“I feel like I was just sad and I didn’t know what to do with my life,” McClain said. “I was hurt and I wasn’t doing gymnastics at all, so I was trying to figure out what to do. I wasn't happiest in Texas, but I have so much respect for Anna and Valeri and the whole gym.”

McClain moved to a new gym in Seattle – a decision she admits she “wasn’t ready for.” Two months later, she moved once more. This time to her native Las Vegas. 

“My family was there with me and it's really what I needed for my mental health,” McClain said. 

In July 2023, she announced her final plan: she would be heading to LSU a full year ahead of schedule. 

“It's what I wanted to do since October of 2022, so it was just a deal of convincing everyone to let me,” McClain said. 

McClain said she needed a break from it all: The demanding schedule. The intensity. The pressure and expectations. 

As it turns out, coming to LSU – where she has been able to balance school, gymnastics and a social life – was exactly what she needed. From the coaches, to her teammates, all the way down to her tutor, McClain feels supported in just about every facet and has started seeing the world from a different perspective. 

However, if it wasn’t for the NCAA policy that went into effect on July 1, 2021, which allows student athletes to monetize their name, image, and likeness, McClain may have never made it to Baton Rouge. 

“I never looked at going to college before NIL became a thing,” McClain said. “I guess I would still be an elite (gymnast) and still going at it, but my life completely changed once NIL came in as a factor.”

Unlike the generations that came before her, McClain doesn’t have to choose between competing in college and competing at the elite level. In fact, she is now able to partner with brands she genuinely loves such as Ozone – who will be designing her leotards – and Celsius, which she drinks every day before practice – while still pursuing her Olympic aspirations. She truly can have the best of both worlds. 

McClain will also be featured in an upcoming NIL-focused Amazon series called "The Money Game," which will follow McClain, as well as LSU athletes Livvy Dunne, Angel Reese, Flau’jae Johnson and Jayden Daniels during the 2023-24 school year. 

While McClain says she doesn’t quite feel like an A-list celebrity with cameras following her around, she’s excited for people to get a glimpse of her life as a student-athlete. 

“I wanted people to have a look at my life and know that it’s not that easy with NIL and college and elite gymnastics,” McClain said. “Everything isn’t as easy as it looks on social media … People from the outside world see us on social media, but we also have a lot more to us and a lot more personality going on inside, so I hope that’s what it shows.”

It’s Geaux Time

It’s been nearly two years since McClain last competed in an elite competition, but her dream of going to the Paris Olympics is the one thing that hasn’t changed. 

“I came to college knowing I still wanted to do elite gymnastics and I told (head coach Jay Clark) that when I first told him I wanted to come early,” McClain said. “It was never out of my mind because I knew that was my dream since I was a little girl. I didn’t want to give up on that, but I knew I needed a change up and something different.”

Throughout the NCAA season McClain continued training her elite skills. She used the team’s “lighter” practice days to make sure she still had all the more difficult skills she would need for her elite routines. 

The goal is to get her routines back to the level they were in 2022, although McClain hinted there might be some upgrades in the mix as well. 

Thanks to Clark, she’s also thrilled to have her full-out dismount off the uneven bars back in her routine – a skill she competed as a junior elite but struggled to maintain after a growth spurt. 

“I lost it and I just could not get it back,” McClain said. “I got really scared of it. Once I came to school Jay was like, ‘We’re learning a dismount. That's the first thing we’re going to do.’ After two weeks of going into the pit, I got my dismount!”

LSU Tigers Konnor McClain performs on the uneven bars during the SEC Gymnastics Championship at Smoothie King Center.
Konnor McClain performs on the uneven bars during the SEC Gymnastics Championship at Smoothie King Center.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

After competing every single weekend for three months straight – nearly triple the amount elite gymnasts compete in a year – McClain not only feels more confident in her gymnastics, but has found joy in competing once again. 

That joy has also helped her find balance in life, as well as an understanding that her gymnastics results are not the be-all and end-all. 

“It’s honestly just about having fun,” McClain said. “Learning that all season was the best part about the season … It’s just gymnastics in the end. Once you put up your arms and go up on the beam, that’s the only thing that matters, and whatever happens, happens, but then you go home and it’s a normal day. There’s always going to be a tomorrow.”

McClain has her sights set on the Core Hydration Classic on May 18, where she will need to have a strong performance, as this is her one and only shot to qualify for the Xfinity U.S. Championships. At the championships, she would have a chance to be named to the U.S. national team, which would advance her to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. 

But no matter the outcome, McClain knows she will be satisfied. 

“If I go to classics and I have the worst meet of my life, I tried and that's all that matters,” McClain said. “I just want to put an effort into this season and whatever the outcome is, I’ll be happy with.”

McClain is currently training with her assistant coaches, 2004 Olympic silver medalist Courtney McCool Griffeth and her husband Garrett Griffeth. Courtney is expected to accompany McClain to competitions, while Garrett is expected to accompany McClain's LSU teammate Finnegan, who has qualified to the Paris Olympics for the Philippines, to her competitions. 

Since her freshman season has come to an end, McClain is pleasantly surprised by the progress she is making in the gym, which she attributes to her being in the best shape of her life – both physically and mentally. 

Her routines are coming together nicely and soon she’ll be shining bright under the lights of the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut. 

So, what can fans expect from McClain?

“I think they can expect a happier Konnor when I’m competing,” McClain said. “There’s not going to be a serious Konnor anymore. I’m always going to be having fun and I hope they can see that.”