The 2022 NCAA gymnastics season is officially upon us and this year’s freshman class might just be the best ever.
No, that is not hyperbole.
In previous years, Olympic gold medalists like Sunisa Lee and Jade Carey would have likely foregone college gymnastics to pursue other activities, but with the new name, image and likeness (NIL) rules, athletes can do both. So it was possible for Lee to participate and accept prize money from “Dancing with the Stars” this past fall and still compete for Auburn University when the season starts on Friday.
But Lee and Carey are far from the only decorated gymnasts to be making their NCAA debuts this winter. Here are 12 freshman you won’t be able to miss this year:
Sunisa Lee, Auburn
Résumé: 2020 Olympic all-around gold medalist, team silver medalist and bars bronze medalist; 2019 world team gold medalist, floor silver medalist and bars bronze medalist
Watch Lee: Auburn at Arkansas; Jan. 14 at 8:30 p.m. ET on SEC Network
Even the 18-year-old Lee didn’t think she would be leaving Tokyo with all-around gold but she did just that, following the absence of Simone Biles from the competition, and she became an overnight global superstar after her incredible performance on the sport’s biggest stage. Since her star-making turn, it’s been a whirlwind for Lee, and she spent much of the fall semester in Los Angeles, waltzing and dominating on DWTS.
But even though she wasn’t on campus with her teammates, she trained remotely in California and is more than slightly familiar with head coach Jeff Graba’s coaching style: Her elite coach was Graba’s twin brother Jess at Midwest Gymnastics Center. Lee even came to camps at the school earlier in her career. Jess Graba told FloGymnastics he didn’t push Lee to pick Auburn but did make her a promise if she were to choose the program.
“The one thing I told Suni is, ‘Well, the one thing I know for sure is [Jeff] can’t [disregard] you. That’s the one thing because if he does, he’s not coming to Christmas,’ Jess said. “That’s kind of the way it is.”
While Lee has proven she can truly do it all when it comes to gymnastics (and everything else for that matter), her bar work remains her bread and butter, and she will be especially stunning on that event this season.
Jade Carey, Oregon State
Résumé: 2020 Olympic floor gold medalist; 2019 world championship team gold medalist and vault silver medalist; 2017 world championship vault and floor silver medalist
Watch Carey: UCLA at Oregon State; Jan. 23 at 5 p.m. ET on Pac-12 Network
Unlike many of her national team peers, Carey had her sights on competing at the NCAA level, and not at the Olympics, well into her teenage years. She didn’t even turn elite until 2016 and competed as a Level 10 until she was almost 17. But her incredible performances on vault and floor at the Junior Olympics got her an invite to national team camp — and the rest is history.
Carey, now 21, qualified for the Olympics as an individual and continued to shatter all expectations at the Games. She finished in eighth place in the all-around, then shook off a stumble in the vault final to win the floor gold. Not bad for someone who never expected to be there in the first place.
Carey committed to Oregon State in 2017, and is three years behind her original class after deferring to pursue her Olympic opportunity. She took online classes while participating in Simone Biles’ Gold Over America tour this fall, but is now finally in Corvallis.
Jordan Chiles, UCLA
Résumé: 2020 Olympic team silver medalist; 2021 U.S. national championships all-around and vault bronze medalist
Watch Chiles: Utah at UCLA; Feb. 4 at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN
The 20-year-old Chiles stunned gymnastics fans by taking the all-around crown at the Winter Cup last February, the first national event following the pandemic, and her momentum never slowed. At the Olympic Games, she stepped up when her team needed her most, following the absence of Biles in the team final, and hit on bars and beam — despite not expecting to compete on either event.
Her heroics, combined with her jovial personality and social media savvy, made her a star at the Olympics and make her a perfect fit for UCLA.
“It’s always been my dream school,” Chiles told ESPN in April. “I remember first watching them and saying ‘This is a vibe.’ [The Bruins] are known for their energy and getting to be themselves. I just liked the vibe and knew it was the place for me.”
Not to mention, like UCLA frequently does on floor, she’s already had multiple viral moments — with her “Super Woman” leotard in 2018 and one of the most creative wolf turn saves ever seen. Even her first day of practice with the team in December — after also missing most of the first semester while on tour — got the attention of those on the internet.
Grace McCallum, Utah
Résumé: 2020 Olympic team silver medalist; 2019 world championships team gold medalist
Watch McCallum: Oklahoma at Utah; Jan. 14 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2
McCallum earned the final team spot during Olympic trials with top-five showings on floor, bars and beam and her all-around skills were crucial during the Olympic team finals. Like Chiles, McCallum stepped up in the absence of Biles and helped lift the squad to a silver medal.
McCallum committed to Utah in the fall of 2020, telling Inside Gymnastics she was impressed by the team’s work ethic. “I saw how hard these girls work and I knew Utah was the perfect place for me,” she said.
Like many of her peers, McCallum spent the fall on tour, but she arrived in Salt Lake City once it concluded and turned her focus to collegiate success. With a talented roster and coming off a third-place finish at the 2021 NCAA championships, McCallum might just be Utah’s missing piece to help bring the program its first NCAA title since 1995.
Morgan Hurd, Florida
Résumé: 2017 world all-around gold medalist and beam silver medalist; 2018 world championships team gold medalist, floor silver medalist and all-around bronze medalist
Watch Hurd: Alabama at Florida; Jan. 16 at 3 p.m. ET on ABC
For the first two years of the latest Olympic quad, Hurd appeared to be all but a guarantee to make the Tokyo-bound team with a world all-around title and a slew of other impressive accolades and titles. But her hopes were derailed by a series of elbow surgeries, and she was ultimately unable to qualify for Olympic trials.
The 20-year-old spent the fall semester with many members of the national team on the Gold Over America tour and officially started with the team just last month.
A fan favorite, in part because of her outspoken activism and her trademark glasses, Hurd should be an immediate factor for the Gators despite her delayed arrival to campus.
Aleah Finnegan, LSU
Résumé: 2019 Pan American Games team gold medalist, 2019 International Gymnix team and vault gold medalist, 2019 U.S. Classic vault silver medalist
Watch Finnegan: West Virginia at LSU; Friday at 7 p.m. ET on SEC Network
At the U.S. Classic in May, Finnegan finished in fifth place in the all-around competition and looked to have a legitimate chance of making the Olympic team. But two weeks later, at the national championships, multiple mistakes caused her to tumble down the scoreboard and she finished in a disappointing 23rd place, failing to qualify the Olympic trials.
Now Finnegan, 18, will try to put her elite heartbreak behind her and focus on her next chapter. She will look to follow in the footsteps of her older sister Sarah, who won NCAA bars titles for the Tigers in 2017 and 2019.
During the team’s preseason showcase event for fans in December, Finnegan more than impressed and was in the lineup for bars, beam and floor. And with her strong vault background, as evidenced by her elite results and the video below, Finnegan has the makings of an all-around star for the Tigers.
Brooklyn Moors, UCLA
Résumé (representing Canada): 2020 Olympian and all-around finalist; 2019 Pan American Games floor champion and team silver medalist
Watch Moors: Utah at UCLA; Feb. 4 at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN
Consistently one of Canada’s best floor and all-around performers since she burst onto the senior scene in 2017, Moors has become known for her artistry, specifically on floor — and her dramatic routines.
Moors, 20, was originally slated to begin in Westwood during the 2020-2021 school year, but deferred to follow her Olympic dream. A back injury prevented her from training for much of the lead-up to the Games but she made the team — thanks in large part to winning the title on floor at the Canadian national championships — and even qualified for a spot in the all-around final while in Tokyo.
With her expressive movement and unparalleled artistry combined with UCLA’s tradition of showstopping choreography, Moors seems poised for greatness at the NCAA level.
Kara Eaker, Utah
Résumé: 2020 Olympic alternate; 2019 world team gold medalist; 2018 world team gold medalist
Watch Eaker: Oklahoma at Utah; Jan. 14 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Eaker, 19, has consistently been one of the nation’s best beam performers and won a slew of international and domestic titles on the event. Eaker was an alternate for the U.S. team in Tokyo but tested positive for COVID-19 while training and spent the Games isolated in a Japanese hotel room.
She’ll now look to put that disappointment behind her and make her mark on the collegiate scene — and maybe even take over the NCAA beam queen title.
Leanne Wong, Florida
Résumé: 2021 world championships all-around silver medalist and floor bronze medalist; 2020 Olympic alternate
Watch Wong: Alabama at Florida; Jan. 16 at 3 p.m. ET on ABC
Wong, Eaker’s club teammate and an Olympic alternate as well, also had to self-isolate in a hotel room due to Eaker’s positive COVID-19 test in Tokyo. There, she decided to attempt to make the U.S. team for the world championships in October.
She not only made the team, but ended the competition as the No. 2-ranked gymnast in the world. Then, in November, just a week after returning home, the 18-year-old was in Gainesville, ready to start her collegiate experience.
A true all-around threat and now surrounded by a highly stacked roster, Wong will be a major contributor to the Gators squad as they try and bring the program its first NCAA team title since 2015.
Emma Malabuyo, UCLA
Résumé: 2020 Olympic alternate; 2019 City of Jesolo Trophy beam and floor silver medalist and all-around bronze medalist; 2018 City of Jesolo Trophy all-around, beam and floor champion
Watch Malabuyo: Utah at UCLA; Feb. 4 at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN
After struggling with injuries in the lead-up to Tokyo, Malabuyo had a fourth-place all-around finish at 2021 nationals and was ultimately named one of the three alternates for the team. She went to Japan in case she was needed and brought home a new outlook and excitement for the start of her collegiate career.
“Competing in [the Olympic] trials and now going to Tokyo, I definitely have a lot more confidence and I believe in myself,” Malabuyo told the Daily Bruin. “I’m ready and I’m excited to go compete for [UCLA].”
Amelie Morgan, Utah
Résumé (representing Great Britain): 2020 Olympic team bronze medalist; 2021 European Championships bars bronze medalist
Watch Morgan: Oklahoma at Utah; Jan. 14 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2
While there are multiple teams with Olympic medalists this season, Utah is the only program that can boast about having medal-winning gymnasts from multiple countries. Morgan and her teammates from Great Britain were surprise podium finishers in Tokyo, earning the country’s first medal in the women’s team competition since 1928. After originally committing to California, Morgan announced her decision to compete for Utah shortly after the Games and made her way to Red Rock territory just weeks later.
Though she’s dealt with a series on injuries and setbacks over the past few years, including a broken wrist at the start of 2020 and COVID-19 in early 2021, the 18-year-old Morgan looks to be back to full health and ready to show gymnastics fans stateside what she can do — especially on bars and beam, her two signature events.
Riley McCusker, Florida
Résumé: 2019 world team gold medalist; 2019 Pan American Games team and bars gold medalist, all-around silver medalist and beam bronze medalist
Watch McCusker: Alabama at Florida; Jan. 16 at 3 p.m. ET on ABC
Did we mention this Florida team is loaded? Like her teammate Hurd, McCusker spent much of the last quad looking to have as good of a shot of anyone not named Simone Biles to make the Olympic team. Even after switching to a new gym, and overcoming a number of debilitating injuries, the 20-year-old McCusker remained one of the country’s best on bars.
But an ankle injury at the U.S. Classic in May set her back yet again. She competed at nationals on bars — and still performed the routine below — finishing second on the event. Looking to clinch one of the two individual spots, McCusker competed on bars at the Olympic trials but failed to make the final roster after falling on the second day of competition.
She couldn’t hide her disappointment the following day in an Instagram post. “Devastated is an understatement,” she wrote.
But now McCusker has the chance for a fresh start. Still recovering from ankle surgery, which she underwent in July, McCusker is currently training on bars and beam, with hopes of competing on all four events by the end of the season. Despite not being at full strength yet, she told ESPN in December she was thrilled to be a Gator and ready to do whatever the team needed.
“I’m just really excited to come and have a great experience, and enjoy every single day,” McCusker said. “My main goals, at least for this year, are to enjoy life more, heal my ankle up, get strong again, do the best I can to help out the team and be as supportive as I can.”