The week of National Signing Day, “the gymternet” is always abuzz with tweets, articles, and speculation over the yet-uncommitted recruits of the incoming class of freshmen, and this year was no different. In fact, rumors flew even more wildly this year, as one final USA national team member, Leanne Wong, had still not revealed where she would be attending next school year. Careful social media sleuths had their theories – Utah to be with training mate Kara Eaker, Stanford to pursue her academic dreams after gymnastics, and even the small program at Temple had become a possibility after coincidental timing put a surprise announcement from them around the same time Wong planned to announce.
Stanford had been the prevailing theory for some time, as it was widely known that Wong wanted to pursue a career in medicine after retirement, and it’s common for Stanford signees to wait until they are admitted academically before announcing their signing with the gymnastics program. However, in the final days before Signing Day, Florida began to enter the rumor mill. Some eagle-eyed fans had seen recent evidence on social media that lent credence to the theory, and the more the rumors circulated, the more people were getting onboard. On Saturday, November 14th, Wong took to Instagram after an in-house competition at her gym, GAGE, to announce her signing with the Gators, surprising many fans and giving Florida gymnastics fans even more to look forward to.
Wong opened up later on, telling us, “I was offered a full-ride scholarship to three other colleges: Stanford, UCLA, and Alabama, so I also considered those schools,” meaning that the Stanford theorists weren’t far off, but COVID-19 unfortunately played a role in her recruitment process. “I was hoping to visit many different schools so I could compare them, but I only had a chance to visit… Florida. I didn’t get a chance to visit [the other three] due to COVID-19.” If you weren’t already aware, future student-athletes had a restricted visitation rule to contend with in their recruitment process this year, as in-person visits have been suspended through April of 2021 for all DI schools. She didn’t say when, but Wong did say she “was fortunate to have been able to visit [UF] despite having an intense training schedule and being in the gym for over 32 hours per week.”
Florida wasn’t just the opportunist pick, though. “I have always wanted to go to a college with warm weather and palm trees,” the Kansas native told us. “I also wanted a school with one of the top gymnastics programs and strong academic programs… I want to major in a science like Biology or Chemistry [with the goal of] becom[ing] a medical doctor.” Of the teams that would have gone to Nationals last year (had the final rankings been the results of Regionals), the top three programs that fit Wong’s bill for strong health professional programs were UCLA, Michigan, and Florida (per U.S. News and World Report). Throw in Wong’s desire to live in a warmer, sunnier climate, and Florida makes total sense for her.
Wong is the latest in Florida’s parade of recruits from the U.S. national team, a list which includes all of her classmates-to-be (Blakely, Hurd, and McCusker) and several future teammates. This is no surprise, as head coach Jenny Rowland herself was a two-time member back in the day. When we asked Wong about her future head coach, she said, “I thought Jenny always looked very serious and focused, but as I got to know her better, I found her to be very welcoming, friendly, and nice.” The national team commonality also already gives her a built-in dynamic with her teammates as well. “I have the best connection with Trinity Thomas… because [we’ve] been to national team training camps and we competed at U.S. Championships.” They’ve been on the national team together since Wong’s addition to the junior team in 2017, and in 2019 stood side-by-side as they received their national team plaques (top left).
Wong is often touted for her bars and beam, but she refuses to be limited to her two best events. “I consider myself a strong all-around gymnast, so I believe I can help [Florida] with all four events.” She doesn’t necessarily have a favorite apparatus or skill, since she trains such a wide variety of them, but she loves twisting, so expect to see her floor routine end up more reminiscent of an Alex McMurtry than an Alyssa Baumann. She’s currently training a quadruple twist, which would make her the first woman to perform the skill if she can pull it off.
She definitely has the accolades to back up that all-arounder goal, too – she won the American Cup in 2019, her first year as a senior elite. “It was an unforgettable experience as my senior debut. I loved competing with athletes from other countries and I met so many former Olympians.” Well, not only did she meet many Olympians, she beat them, taking gold over athletes like Japan’s Mai Murakami and Canada’s Ellie Black, who have four World medals and three Olympic berths between them. Wong was actually the wildcard entry at this event, with the headlining American athlete Grace McCallum taking silver behind her.
Gymnastics isn’t just about being a daredevil or winning medals for Wong, though. Her favorite thing about the sport “is traveling and meeting new people. At the 2019 Pan American Games, my teammates and I stayed in an athlete village with U.S. athletes from all different sports.” One experience in particular she shared on Instagram, as she, Hurd, and Aleah Finnegan met with the USA Rugby team, which won bronze at the Games.
Wong has competed against and alongside some of the greatest names in the sport, but befriending the Greatest of All Time doesn’t stop her from holding her in just as high a regard as the rest of the world. She calls U.S. teammate Simone Biles her favorite gymnast “because she makes all of the extremely difficult skills look effortless.” Wong has been training alongside Biles at national team camps since 2018, so she has some firsthand experience with what that effortlessness looks like. She too has such a knack, and she’s about to implement some upgrades that, at first glance, may not look that difficult. She posted this Ray dismount on Instagram a few weeks ago that she’s training to add to her routine in 2021 – a skill even Biles hasn’t competed. It’s rated at a G, the highest value skill rating currently possible on bars.
Wong looks perfectly poised to make a huge splash in her Gator debut, but she has an important year ahead of her before she’ll hit campus. She’s very optimistic for 2021, as she hopes to compete in all the usual Olympic year competitions both domestic and international. “My goal for [my last] elite season are to compete in some international competitions, do well at U.S. Classics [and] Championships, and most importantly, the Olympic Trials to make the 202One Olympic Team as one of the four members.” Wong, like her fellow classmates Hurd and McCusker, has Olympic ambitions, and she’s very specific about the path she plans to take to achieve that goal. She knows the milestones she has to hit and when her performance will count the most in order to be named to the squad, and she knows competition will be fierce. Instead of five as in the past two Olympic cycles, there will only be four gymnasts named to each country’s team for the Tokyo Games. However, over the course of the year leading up to the Games, there are also opportunities for countries to earn up to two additional spots to qualify individuals separately from the team. Wong has her heart set on the team, though, and with her all-around pedigree and attention to detail in her form, she has a strong chance at joining the Gators with some Olympic hardware in tow.
Featured photo via The UAA / UF Gymnastics