Note: I’ve already done a profile of Angelina Melnikova which can be found here. Instead, I’m going to use this article to focus on the gymnasts who finished 2nd and 3rd.
At the 2021 World Championships American gymnasts Leanne Wong and Kayla DiCello shared a podium in the All-Around in one of the most prestigious events in gymnastics. This result was special and not just because two gymnasts experienced success for the first time, but because they are two of the most intertwined gymnasts of the last Olympic quad.
We don’t spend a lot of time thinking of Kayla and Leanne as synonymous with each other, but in many ways they are. Kayla and Leanne have the distinction of rising up the ranks together. As a junior, Leanne Wong won both the American Classic and the U.S. Classic in 2018. While Wong took gold, in both cases it had been DiCello who had taken the silver medal alongside her. It was the beginning of a little rivalry between the two where Leanne clearly had the edge, but DiCello was close enough to be considered a worthy peer.
It wasn’t just that both gymnasts had established themselves as standout juniors, but they were producing strong results as their junior careers came to an end. Making it a virtual certainty that they would carry all their momentum into the next year when they competed senior for the first time. And in many ways, they did.
Leanne Wong won the 2019 American Cup and was a member of the gold medal winning team at the Pan-American Championships. For Kayla DiCello, she finished 2nd at the 2020 American Cup and took the #6 spot in the All-Around at the Olympic trials. Combined with their results in various domestic competition on top of the repertoire they established for themselves as standout juniors, Kayla DiCello and Leanne Wong were by far, the two most accomplished American gymnasts who never competed in a major competition of the last 5-6 years.
The mutual connection between Kayla and Leanne is that they rose up the ranks together, are separated by only four months in age, and then experienced heartbreak that only they could understand. It is heartbreaking for any gymnast to not make a World Championships and/or Olympics. But for Kayla and Leanne, they stood out a bit from everyone else because their body of work in other competition was just that impressive. In senior competition alone, DiCello and Wong combined for 9 podiums in Event Finals at all the various competitions of the American domestic circuit. In the All-Around they finished in the top-5 on five different occasions. And yet these two gymnasts couldn’t find their way into the starting lineup of a major gymnastics competition?
It would have been a gymnastics sob story if Wong and DiCello completed their careers having never received the honor of at the very least having their names enter into the record book of Group-1 competition. Kayla and Leanne did everything right and had established themselves as amongst the very best in the world. But there simply weren’t enough spots available for a program with so much depth. Instead, both gymnasts would have to settle for being an Olympic alternate. The role that is in one way a highly prestigious honor. But in another way, kind of like rubbing salt in your wounds as a gymnast has to travel to the Olympics and personally witness what she is missing out on.
Leanne and Kayla paid their dues, then they had to pay their dues a little bit more. But in the end, these two gymnasts kept faith with the system and were rewarded when the 2021 World Championships came around and finally their names were called. Symbolically, the two gymnasts who had waited so long would finally get their turn together. The two gymnasts who shared an All-Around podium twice as juniors, would battle it out in the All-Around one more time.
This time it would be on the literal world stage and with one of the most prestigious medals in all of gymnastics on the line. Once again Leanne came out slightly ahead of Kayla. For years Kayla and Leanne have been touted as amongst the very best in the world, they simply never had the opportunity to prove it. In Kitakyushu, they did prove it. Both gymnasts beat Vladislava Urazova, the reigning 4th place finisher from the Tokyo Olympics which had been held only two months ago.
They even kept pace with the brilliant Angelina Melnikova who gave a stellar performance of her own. Leanne had been right on Melnikova’s tail and finished only .292 points behind her. Melnikova was the reigning #3 gymnast of the 2021 Olympics, and before then she also won a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships. It was a fulfilling moment to see Leanne and Kayla win their medals. But hidden below the surface, there was a lot of symbolism that they did it together and wrote a page of their own into the gymnastics history books. There are so many heartbreaking moments in gymnastics, but sometimes the sport conspires to give fans an amazing story. At the 2021 World Championships, that amazing story was two young gymnasts who for so long, never got their turn only to taste success for the first time. And they did it together.