American gymnasts find fulfillment competing abroad — Thoughts from Emma Malabuyo and Janelle McDonald

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, June 1, 2024

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Although not every national team headed to the Olympics next month (!) has been named, all of the Olympic berths available to individuals are set. One unmistakable trend in those individual spots is that several belong to American athletes competing for other countries.

Aleah Finnegan, Levi Jung-Ruivivar and Emma Malabuyo will all compete as individuals for the Philippines. Lynnzee Brown will represent Haiti. Luisa Blanco will represent Colombia. All have been American elite gymnasts; Malabuyo was even an American alternate for the Tokyo Olympics. All have competed (or will compete, in Jung-Ruivivar’s case — she is a rising Stanford freshman) in the NCAA, and all have been standouts on their respective teams. 

Switching nationalities is not a new phenomenon. Gymnasts have always trained and competed for countries other than where they reside, or with whom they have dual citizenship. And it’s not limited to Americans; Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos of France, for example, lives and trains in the U.S. Danusia Francis and Toni-Ann Williams represented Jamaica while competing in the NCAA and living either in the U.S. or Great Britain. Oksana Chusovitina represented Germany in the early aughts because her family relocated while her son was receiving medical treatment there. 

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What strikes me this year, however, is most of these American athletes are publicizing the connections they have to the countries they represent, in an effort to head off the criticism that Americans are taking spots that might otherwise be filled by athletes who live in those countries.

Certainly, fuel was added to the “who deserves citizenship?” fire in 2016 when two Americans, Kylie Dickson and Alaina Kwan, received Belarussian citizenship under murky circumstances — that is, Nellie Kim circumstances — and competed at the 2015 World Championships in Glasgow for Belarus. Dickson also competed for Belarus at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Kim, then the president of the FIG Women’s Technical Committee, exploited a loophole in Belarus that allowed non-residents to obtain citizenship if they would contribute to the country’s development in some way; you can read more about that here. Lauren Hopkins offered a different perspective here

All of the American athletes headed to Paris this summer have either a first- or second-degree relationship to the countries they now represent. Blanco’s parents are Colombian, and Brown’s father is Haitian. Finnegan’s mother is Filipina, and Malabuyo and Jung-Ruivivar have Filipino grandparents. All have said in interviews that they have strong cultural connections to these countries through their relatives, and some have discussed giving the federations in those countries a boost through their representation. Blanco has discussed being a role model to young Colombian gymnasts. Jung-Ruivivar visited Filipino gyms and gave leotards to young athletes. 

The truth is that qualifying an athlete to the Olympics (or three, in the case of the Phillippines) means money and recognition for the federation in that country. For a small program with gymnasts perpetually on the edge of being able to make elite international competitions consistently, that can push them to the next level. For a country like Haiti, which has never qualified a gymnast to the Olympics, it can change history. 

And this year, it seems the gymnasts are navigating the occasionally controversial topic of switching nationalities with finesse.

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Other gym news

The U.S. National Championships are this weekend! I’ll have more on that next week, as the women began their competition after I submitted this baby yesterday. But you can tune in to Day 2 of the junior competition (mixed with some seniors as well) on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET on YouTube and to Day 2 of the senior competition live on NBC, Peacock, or on YouTube at 7 p.m. ET. 

College Gym News spotlights the many NCAA athletes competing at nationals this weekend. They also have a Judge’s Inquiry column about gymnasts who never got 10s, but perhaps should have

The Gymternet has results from the Pan Am Championships and from Asian Championships

And while Spencer Barnes hasn’t returned to The Balance Beam Situation yet, he’s on GymCastic’s Behind the Scenes this week discussing his recovery from colon cancer surgery. He’s doing well, he reports, with chemo still ahead. Wishing him the best. 

Gabrielle Douglas withdrew from nationals and ended her bid to make the 2024 Olympic team. 

Speaking of Cal’s Toni-Ann Williams (see above), she is now the Technical Director for the Jamaica Gymnastics Organization.

Larissa Libby, who resigned last month as Iowa’s head coach, received a $499,999 settlement from the university. 

Five at The IX: Emma Malabuyo and Janelle McDonald 

A gymnast in a blue leotard performs on the floor exercise mat.
Emma Malabuyo performs on floor exercise at the Asian Championships. (Photo credit: Jesus Ramirez)

As mentioned, Emma Malabuyo will represent the Philippines next month at the Paris Olympics. The UCLA junior had hoped to earn a berth via the World Cup series, but fell a bit short. She finally secured her spot at the eleventh hour with an all-around bronze at the Asian Championships last week. Janelle McDonald, UCLA’s head coach, will accompany Malabuyo to the Olympics. They had media availability this week and answered a few questions, I have lightly edited the interview for clarity. 

Aaron Doyle of the UCLA Daily Bruin: What was going through your head, knowing this was your last chance [to qualify] for the Olympics at the Asian championships?

Emma Malabuyo:  I was just so happy just to be competing all four events, and I haven’t done that in two years. I found … fulfillment [in] competing all the events. So I didn’t really put too much pressure on myself.

AD: Can you kind of take us through what training has looked like? On all four events, and your comfort level on that event specifically for the time being.

EM: So I had such a short period of time to prepare for the competition. And so I started just training vault, like right after [the World Cup in] Qatar. And I was like, let’s just see how vault goes. But I was able to get that fairly quickly, and then on bars … I got my skills back very quickly, too, as well. And then it was just all about building endurance. So I added a lot of new elements, but really pushing myself to get that endurance aspect, too. [A] lot of new things that I had to add into my routines.

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AD: It’s been a really long journey for Emma. You know. What can you say about her perseverance to achieve such an important goal to her.

Janelle McDonald: You know it. It’s really inspiring what she’s been doing, I mean, just balancing everything that she has. And she had this goal to take on, you know, elite and and NCAA. And at the same exact time — it almost seems impossible. And to balance, you know all, all of the travel and her academics. The way that she has it’s really been inspiring. And you know, I think there’s been a lot of emotions up and down, with with how some of the world cups finished up … And to see her just really be determined to to create this all around program and and to go and give it this shot, and for it to work out, has just been like one of the most special memories in my coaching career. I’ll never forget that moment when when we realize that she qualified because it really is about perseverance and dedication. And and I think sometimes, you know, success comes from from the people that just don’t give up … And she hasn’t, and she’s done everything that she can to be prepared for these special moments. And it’s just been a really wonderful journey to be a part of.

AD: Emma’s adding to a very long history of UCLA Olympians. What does this tradition of excellence mean to the program as a whole?

JM: You know, I always want our student athletes to feel like they’ve pushed themselves to become the best that they can be, and that they always felt like they were in an environment where they could really chase their dreams. And I think Emma Is a perfect example of that. You know, she wants to compete at the highest level. And she wants to dream really big. And I think that it’s an inspiration, for, you know, future Bruin generations to come. And it’s definitely an inspiration for our team right now, too.

Eva Geitheim, PAC-12 Network: Are you working on any upgrades for any routines, or trying to stay with what you currently have done?

EM: I am gonna be working on some upgrades just because I have new goals for myself now that I’ve qualified. And I just want to basically go for my life out there and just give it my all. So I’m going to hopefully be upgrading on floor, with maybe my double layout, and then on beam just getting back some old skills, too. So just giving it my all.

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Written by Lela Moore