Helena Magazine

Springboard to stardom: Claire McLain’s dedication to gymnastics sets her on the path to success

Published 1:14 am Wednesday, February 14, 2024

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Written by Donald Mottern

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Claire McLain is currently a student at Helena Intermediate School and at just 11 years old, she is already on track to achieve great things in a sport that she is consumed with.

Having only begun an active competitive involvement in the sport of gymnastics two years ago, Claire recently competed in the USA Gymnastics’ (USAG) Alabama state meet and placed first in her age group. Even more impressively, she also managed to place 12 out of the 155 kids who competed in level 4 gymnastics across the entire state.

It is an accomplishment that may come as a surprise to many who are well versed in the sport of gymnastics, given that students are sometimes introduced to the activity before their first birthday and that the USAG advocates students begin from ages between 2-5. Therefore, when compared to many of her fellow gymnasts, Claire can be said to have entered the field rather late, which has done nothing to slow her down.

“I started gymnastics when I was eight because I thought it was really cool and so I wanted to try it,” Claire said. “Then they asked me to be on the team. I enjoy being a part of the team. I’ve made a lot of friends.”

While Claire was recreationally involved with gymnastics for a time prior to the start of her real involvement two years ago, she has greatly impressed both her parents and her coaches with both the pace of her improvement and how she has exceedingly surpassed other kids her age.

“She’s ahead of where she should be,” said Rachael Mclain, Claire’s mother. “Her skill level is a six to seven skill level but they wanted her to finish what they call compulsory. Her skill level is higher than that, which is why I think she does so well.”

Those levels are among the different classifications in what USAG refers to as their Development Program. The Women’s Development Program was organized by USAG to construct a foundation for athletes that provides knowledge and developmental opportunities for the basic skills that make the natural advancement in the sport as safe as possible. It further allows for each gymnast to move forward and adopt skills at their own pace, and even allows for a gymnast to compete in more than one level in a single year if they so choose.

For that purpose, the WDP is divided into three major segments and those segments are further broken down to include a total of ten levels. The first segment in the program is referred to as Developmental and consists of levels 1 through 3. It is in those levels where skills are introduced and implemented in usually non-competitive and achievement-based athletic programs. That being said, some programs do utilize these levels as introductory and recreational competitive programs. Although all athletes in USAG must enter at level 1, they may progress through the events and skills at different speeds.

Following Developmental, a gymnast will then move on to Compulsory, which consists of levels 4 and 5. Progressive in nature, both of the levels build upon the skills that were previously introduced and allow for athletes to partake in competitive opportunities including the USA Gymnastics State Championships. It is from this segment where Claire is currently preparing to springboard her way to a bright future in the sport.

At her current age bracket, there is not necessarily any specialization that occurs toward any one particular gymnastics event, meaning that Claire performs it all regardless of preference. This includes floor, balance beam, the vault and bars.

“Bars (is my favorite),” Claire said. “Just because it is more fun and I feel like you can do a lot more to make it yours. It’s a lot more fun than the other events.”

Claire and the other team gymnasts who are enrolled in program compete in a variety of competitions throughout the season. In most of those competitions this past season, Claire averaged scores as high as 36 and 37, out of a possible total of 40.

In breaking those scores down, Claire’s level 4 performances this year included her personal bests of 9.3 in vault, 9.375 on bars, 9.6 on the beam and 9.4 on her floor performance.

“Those are all very good scores, with 37’s being an excellent score.” Rachael said. “The maximum score would be 40 but in this compulsory age group you rarely ever see anyone make a 40, I’ve seen the occasional 38 but it’s rare, 37 is considered very very good.”

With those other competitions more or less considered opportunities for practice prior to the USAG state meet, her success in all of them and her subsequent first place win at state serve only to indicate a bright future ahead for her. For Claire, her eyes, plans and objectives are already set for a future beyond the immediate meets and competitions.

“I’m planning to go to college gymnastics and even higher levels,” Claire said.

“She wants to be on a college gymnastics team,” Rachael said. “Going to the Olympics is definitely a goal (also). She’s been saying she is going to be an Olympian for a long time and I believe her—this kid spends about 25 hours a week in the gym and goes to school. She is a busy kid.”

On the road to that future, Claire is currently looking forward to her graduation up to the third segment of the WDP, known as Optional gymnastics which she might reach as early as within the next season. That third segment includes levels 6 through 10 and is where true mastery of the sport is located.

Levels 6,7,8 and 9 all include difficult restrictions within them, while level 10 has no restrictions in the skill choice. Beginning at level 8, an athlete’s composition is also evaluated in their performance.

Beginning at level 6, which stands in Claire’s immediate future, she will have the opportunity to explore new competitive events, which might include the possibility of regional championships if regional needs are met.

To prepare for that next leap forward, Claire has fully dedicated herself to the sport.

She is currently a member of Legacy Gymnastics, who operate a facility that is over 18,000 square feet in size and features a 37-foot tumble track, performance floor, bars and vault along with other sport activities including trampoline.

At those facilities, Claire currently takes part in three-to-four hours a week of private lessons that she has pursued of her own volition in addition to the 16 hours of training each week she undergoes with her team. This is followed by a subsequent three-to-four-additional hours of other training each week. For roughly the past six months, she also participated in another training on top of that busy schedule one day a week with girls that are in higher age brackets.

“Because she has shown those higher-level skills, they invited her to participate with the higher-level girls one day a week,” Rachael said. “But now those higher-level girls have started competing and Claire is done competing (for the season), so now she is taking a break from that (additional training). For that time, she was doing five days a week with three to four hours of private lessons on top of that.”

That training allowed for Claire to get a head start on many advanced skills and to better hone her performance to degrees that honestly surpass her current level placement. Even then, Claire does not appear to be content and is always hungry for more time in practice.

“My other daughter teases about the gym having joint custody of Claire,” Rachael joked.

Outside of gymnastics, Claire’s favorite subject in school is math and there too, she has found success.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the hard work and dedication that she puts in,” Rachael said. “Just watching her soar and doing something that she loves makes me so proud. The amount of dedication that she shows is not like most other kids. The gym owner told us a while back that these are all special kids—not like normal kids. Claire just loves it and will work constantly to achieve her girl. Whatever her goals are she has always worked to achieve them.”

That tireless work and effort is currently being put into bettering her performance and developing a mastery of every event now available to her, including the vault, which at this time is her least favorite of the events and one that she is consistently working to improve.

“You just have to have so much power and do it a certain way,” Claire said.

Along with her favorite event, the bars, Claire also highlights the balance beam as another event that she greatly enjoys and one that she feels she can build a specialization in.

“She’s the beam queen,” Rachael said. “She’s scored really high on beam in almost all of her meets. She is also able to demonstrate a skill that none of her classmates are able to do, which is the back handspring on the beam. They haven’t taught it to them yet, it is something she has worked ahead and gotten ahead on. She can do that flawlessly and because of that extra confidence from training higher on the beam, she received very high scores there all season.”

With the state meet and at least 7 level 4 competitions under her belt between August and December of last year, Claire’s focus, hard word and determination have set the stage for another eventful and successful year ahead. With every performance and every event, both of her parents are also sure to be cheering her on with their support all of the way.