© John Cheng

By Blythe Lawrence

There are days when Grace McCallum still can’t believe that she’s a World champion. Four months removed from her debut at the World Championships in Doha, Qatar, where she helped the U.S. women capture their fourth consecutive world team title, the Isanti, Minn., resident is still warming up to that gold-medalist moniker.

“It still hasn’t sunk in all the way,” the 16-year-old confided in a recent phone interview. “[After Worlds] we kind of kept it low-key. I just wanted to get back on the schedule and into the swing of things when I got home. I took like two days off, but then I wanted to get back in the gym and start working for the 2019 season.”

Her efforts have paid off with another high-profile assignment: On March 2 in Greensboro, N.C., McCallum and 2018 junior national champion Leanne Wong will compete for the American Cup title at a competition that has been won by a rising or established U.S. woman every year since 2002. And if the names McCallum and Wong aren’t quite as well-known as those of U.S. stars Simone Biles and Morgan Hurd, the American Cup will provide the exposure that could change that.

In Doha, McCallum was cast in a supporting role to Biles, the Olympic all-around champion, and Hurd, the 2017 World all-around champion. She was a quiet power in her own right: performing on vault, uneven bars and floor exercise, the then-first year senior nailed every routine and wound up as second reserve to the vault final. Not bad for a young competitor who at the beginning of the season had just been hoping to score an international assignment.

“I feel like a lot of people don’t know Grace,” said Sarah Jantzi, McCallum’s coach at Twin City Twisters in Champlin, Minn. “They kind of think of her as this quiet person who kind of is in the shadows a lot in USA gymnastics, but I think they’re going to see the true force of her personality come out this next year.”

In Greensboro, McCallum is excited to debut a new floor routine to the music “Hava Nagila,” and may also unveil important new combinations on uneven bars and balance beam. “For us, American Cup is just a stepping stone into the whole year for her. Is this where we’re going to go out and do all of our new upgrades? Absolutely not,” Jantzi said. “She’s built confidence in herself doing a lot of international meets. She’s starting to blossom into a great gymnast, and I think that’s going to be fun to watch this year.”

Though the words “World champion” now figure prominently on her resume, McCallum said the hype hasn’t affected her much so far.

“After a while, getting back to the gym, I kind of realized, wow, I’ve been working so hard,” she said. “But my training never really changed. I’m the same person. I train the same. Nothing really changed my mindset.”

Wong comes to Greensboro with similar under-the-radar status. The high school freshman has enjoyed a steady rise through the junior levels to become one of the women’s program’s most promising young gymnasts. Her all-around potential became clear when she won the junior national title last August in Boston. The 15-year-old, who trains with Al and Armine Fong at Great American Gymnastics Express (GAGE) in Blue Springs, Mo., is “really excited” to make her senior debut in Greensboro, where she’ll be matched against an international field that includes World all-around medalists Mai Murakami of Japan and Ellie Black of Canada, in addition to German star Kim Bui, France’s Celia Serber, China’s Lu Yufei and Sanna Veerman of the Netherlands.

“I heard it’s a little different, because each gymnast goes one person at a time, but I’m just hoping to do the same as normal,” Wong said. Despite the glamour that surrounds the most high-profile international meet in the U.S. each year, “I’m not treating it as anything different.”

Wong’s motto, prominently displayed on her Instagram profile, is “Train insane or remain the same.” Soft-spoken she may be, but Wong possesses a tiger-like determination, Al Fong says. “She’s the kind of athlete that’s single-minded, but she’s also sharing and compassionate with other people — but not when it comes to winning. She wants to win, no question,” he added. “She’s very much a perfectionist, but she doesn’t let it destroy her. If she makes a mistake, she goes about trying to fix it. She has a great brain for that, and she’s very well-balanced in that way.”

True to form, Wong calmly ticked off the other items on her 2019 to-do list. First the American Cup. Then her planned upgrades. Good performances at this summer’s U.S. Classic and U.S. Championships. Finally, October’s World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, where she hopes to be part of the U.S. team.

And that’s just for starters. When asked how she wants people to remember her gymnastics, Wong’s answer came swiftly. “As an Olympic gymnast,” she says. Then, as an afterthought: “Who was clean and consistent.”