New Milford’s McCusker Earns Spot on Gymnastics Junior National Team

Every four years, America’s attention turns to gymnastics, as the Olympics push the U.S. team to the forefront of competitive sports.  The road to Rio, and the 2016 Summer Games, is underway, but for Connecticut residents following the sport, the run-up competitions are providing an opportunity to look not only at this summer’s climactic event, but down the road a few summers. McCusker - beamConnecticut’s top junior gymnast, Riley McCusker of New Milford, put herself squarely on the radar screen for the future with a solid second place finish in the P&G Gymnastics Championships junior women’s event, held in St. Louis.  That earned McCusker, who turns 15 this month, a slot on the eight-member U.S. National Junior Women’s Team, with international competition on the horizon.

In addition to finishing in second place overall, McCusker finished in second place on the uneven bars, floor exercise and balance beam, reflecting solid performances on both days of the competition.

McCusker  is joined on the eight-member U.S. National Junior Women’s Team by Shania Adams of Plain City, OH; Jordan Chiles of Vancouver, WA; Morgan Hurd  of Middletown, DE; Emma Malabuyo of Flower Mound, TX; Maile O'Keefe of Las Vegas, NV; Gabby Perea of Geneva, IL and Trinity Thomas of York, PA.

“I had no expectations coming in,” McCusker said. “This was my first season as an elite and first P&G Championships. I just came in, did my gymnastics and then waited to see what would happen.”McCusker 2nd

What happened was about as good as it gets, and reinforced her trajectory in the sport.  She told CT by the Numbers: "Qualifying to the national team was the best day of my life because I realized then that all of my hard work and sacrifices have started paying off!”

Last month, competing at the Secret Classic at the XL Center in Hartford – with the vocal support of friends and family from New Milford, McCusker had stand-out moments and finished 9th overall in a crowded field.  That experience under her belt, the arena in St. Louis was yet another step forward in a progress-filled year.

The USA Gymnastics Elite Program is designed to provide competitive experiences for athletes aspiring to the National Team. The National Teams (Senior and Junior) are selected from the USA Championships each year. These athletes represent the United States in international competitions.

McCusker is coached by Maggie Haney and Victoria Levine at MG Elite in Morganville, New Jersey.  Her teammate, Lauren Hernandez, earned a spot on the U.S. National Senior Women’s Team in recent weeks, followed this week by being named to the U.S. Olympic Tealaurie, rileym for this summer’s Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  The U.S. Olympic Trials were July 8 and 10 in San Jose. The 16-year-old Hernandez was the 2015 junior national champion, and is a competitor that McCusker trains with and is inspired by.

McCusker, who began gymnastics at age 6, was enthused to have childhood friends – many of whom hasn’t seen her compete at the elite level – in the stands in Hartford.  Their handmade signs of support were quite visible, as were the vocal cheers.

Proud of her Connecticut roots, McCusker’s Instagram page includes a memorial honoring the victims at Sandy Hook elementary School in December 2012. And she was thrilled to participate in the Hartford competition earlier this summer, recalling when she was in the stands with family watching the competitors just as her dedication to gymnastics was taking root.

If her accomplishments during the past month are any indication, there will be more opportunities for fans to gather in support of Connecticut’s home town girl in the future.

As one of the many commenters opining on social media after her P&G performance noted, “2020 here she comes.”

PHOTOS:  Riley McCusker in St. Louis (John Cheng photos); with Lauren Hernandez.

Hartford’s Reputation As Excellent Host for National Gymnastics Brings Returns

If the three twenty-somethings enjoying  lunch and some brief down time outside at Trumbull Kitchen seemed familiar to passersby in downtown Hartford, it’s probably because they’ve been on national television a time or two.  And will be again. The casual lunch and conversation among three friends – competitors in the P&G Gymnastics Championships being held at the XL Center this weekend – are just one example of how hosting a major sporting event, in this case gymnastics, can boost the local economy and have reverberations that will continue to add value.

Californian Sam Mikulak, 23, who has won the men’s national title each of the past three years, remembers Hartford well.  His string of three consecutive all-around championships started here in 2013.  Fellow athletes Donathan Bailey, 25, of California and C.J. Maestas, 24, of New Mexico, have also competed in national championships held in Hartford.lunch

This weekend, the Capitol city is hosting not only the men’s championship for the third time in a decade (2010 and 2013 previously) but is also hosting the Secret U.S. Classic, a key tune-up for the nation’s top women gymnasts, with the Olympics just two months away and the U.S. teams to be chosen in the coming weeks.  It is the first time that Hartford has hosted major gymnastics events in an Olympic year, when public interest peaks.

The roster of past Olympic and international medalists competing in Hartford is lengthy – unprecedented in the view of some observers – and in many cases, Connecticut is part of their individual Olympic journeys.

2012 Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman of Needham, Massachusetts recalls competing in Hartford in 2010, and says of her return, “I feel like I’m competing at home.”Aly

The Connecticut Convention and Sports Bureau (CTCSB) projects 1,425 hotel room nights, an estimated attendance approaching 30,000, a business sales impact of $1.5 million and $50,000 in local taxes generated.  But the impact goes beyond those numbers.

“It raises awareness of what we have in the state,” when people visit to enjoy the competition, or root for family or friends, points out Bob Murdock, Director of Sports Marketing at CTCSB.

Add to that the national network television coverage (NBC telecasts coverage on Sunday and NBC Sports Network also provides coverage), and the Hartford locale mentioned in news stories published worldwide and plentiful on social media, the exposure for the city and state is incalculable.  “It has lasting effects,” says Murdock, and “helps grow the brand of Connecticut.”

USA GymnasticsWhy does USA Gymnastics keep coming back?  “Everything runs smoothly,” suggests Mikulak, expressing a competitor’s viewpoint. “They trust us,” adds Murdock, noting that when Connecticut bids to attract future national caliber sporting events, the first question asked is “what else have you hosted.”

“The sports talk to each other,” Murdock explained.  They ask about community support, and the overall experience.  That USA Gymnastics has returned multiple times with its top national events speaks volumes.

Some up-and-coming hopefuls wouldn’t mind seeing the Hartford tradition continue awhile longer.

Among those competing at the Junior elite level is 14-year-old Riley McCusker of New Milford, the lone Connecticut resident at either the Senior or Junior

“I am so excited to be in Connecticut,” she says, seeking to advance her fledgling career at a major competition in her home state. Many of her friends and family will be on hand, including some that may be surprised when they see her on the XL Center floor and realize the full dimension of her steadily progressing gymnastics career.conv

McCusker recalls being at the XL Center as a spectator for a previous national championship, and being wowed by an extraordinary floor exercise she witnessed. This weekend, she may turn some heads herself as she continues to emphasize quality and consistency  as her track-record grows, although not quite looking ahead yet to Olympic possibilities in 2020.

Four years beyond her Olympic experience in London leading the U.S. team and earning individual and team gold medals, the just-turned-22 year-old Raisman says it “feels like forever ago.”  With a field of potential U.S. Olympians as deep as it ever has been all vying for one of only a handful of slots on the 2016 U.S. team, having the journey come through a familiar place – with nearly two dozen close friends and family coming to Hartford to join the many fans here to cheer her on - may offer a lift.

The competition itself certainly does so for the XL Center, Hartford and Connecticut.  Mikulak, as only a visitor could, sums it up succinctly:  “Hartford is a popular place.”



Aly Raisman of Needham, Mass. won the senior all-around title at the 2016 Secret U.S. Classic at the XL Center on Saturday, June 4.  Rachel Gowey of Urbandale, Iowa was second, and Alyssa Baumann of Plano, Texas finished third. Earlier in the day, Irina Alexeeva of Plano, Texas, captured the junior all-around title.  Connecticut’s Riley McCusker of New Milford finished 9th.  The 11,771 who attended the Secret U.S. Classic on Saturday evening were the largest one-day crowd USA Gymnastics has had for events held in Hartford. In 2010, the largest daily crowd was 11,325, and in 2013 the largest daily attendance was 10,233.


Hartford Is Next Stop on the Road to Rio for Olympic Gymnastics Hopefuls

Gymnastics will once again take center stage in Hartford this weekend, as for the third time in a decade Connecticut’s Capitol City is the center of the gymnastics world – this time in an Olympic year, when public interest ramps up to peak levels. mikulakThe three-day event  begins on Friday at the downtown XL Center and features the two-day P&G Championships, the national championships for senior men’s gymnastics, and the Secret U.S. Classic, the final women’s qualifier for the P&G Women’s Gymnastics Championships.  The field for both events is nothing short of phenomenal.

The men’s 2016 P&G Championships will determine the men’s senior national champions and national team, as well as the men who will advance to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Men’s Gymnastics in St. Louis, June 23 and 25.

The Secret U.S. Classic, which has women competing on the junior and senior levels, serves as the last opportunity for female gymnasts to qualify for the P&G Women’s Championships in St. Louis (June 24 and 26), as well as a tune-up for many of the country’s top women leading into the national championships.

Led by three-time World all-around champion Simone Biles of Spring, Texas, eight gymnasts who have won World Championships or Olympic gold medals, including athletes who helped Team USA win the World team titles in 2011, 2014 and 2015 and the team gold medal at the 2012 Olympic Games, are expected to compete.

The 2016 Men’s P&G Gymnastics Championships begin on Friday, and will feature a field of 11 men who have combined fogymnas logosr 39 U.S. titles and 12 world championships medals. 2012 Olympian and three-time U.S. champion Sam Mikulak of Newport Coast, Calif., is pursuing his fourth consecutive U.S. all-around title.  Including Mikulak, four members of the 2012 U.S. Men’s Olympic Team are slated to compete in Hartford this weekend.

The competition will determine both the men’s senior national champions and national team, as well as the athletes who will advance to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials on June 23-25 in St. Louis. From there, five men will be chosen to represent Team USA at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.

For those interested in looking well beyond this year’s Olympics, The Hopes Championships, which features young, aspiring female gymnasts (ages 10-13) , is held in conjunction with the Secret U.S. Classic and is scheduled for June 3 at 2:30 p.m.  Throughout the weekend, fans in attendance will have opportunities to visit the Kellogg’s Nutrition Zone and learn about International Gymnastics Camp.

The XL Center has hosted the USA Gymnastics national championships twice: in 2010 and 2013.  Both were important events building toward Olympic years, and Olympians competed both times, but neither was in an actual Olympic year. The Summer Olympics are scheduled for Aug. 5-21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“When we left [Hartford] last time, I said, 'We'll look for a way to come back,' USA Gymnastics President and CEO Steve Penny said on a conference call when the events were awarded to Hartford in late 2014. "The density of our community is so great in that northeast part of the country. We knew we would have a good following for men's and women's gymnastics.”

The gymnastics events will garner national sports media coverage, including a live telecast on NBC on Sunday afternoon, and taped coverage on NBC Sports Network on Sunday night.  Some events will also be streamed live online.

Connectilogo-Travelers-Championship-Golfcut will be back in the sports spotlight later this summer, with the Travelers Championship PGA Tour event, traditionally held in June, pushed back to August, due to the Summer Olympics.  The run-up to that event, perennially a big draw for fans in Connecticut and New England, begins when defending champion Bubba Watson is interviewed during the MetroHartford Alliance’s Rising Star Breakfast on June 20.  The tournament will be August 1-7 at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, with the final round telecast by CBS Sports.

site-logo-ctoJust weeks later, New Haven will be hosting the Connecticut Open, formerly the Pilot Pen, tennis tournament August 19-27. Connecticut Open presented by United Technologies features world-class women’s tennis players, highlighted by three-time champion and World No. 6 Petra Kvitova and Americans Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens. The event at the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale will also be telecast nationally.  ESPN2 will broadcast the women’s semifinals (Friday, August 26) and finals (Sunday, August 27). Early round matches can also be seen on ESPN3.

Photos above: Three-time U.S. champion Sam Mikulak; Juniors competitor Riley McCusker of New Milford.



2016 US Gymnastics Championships Back in Hartford, All About the Men

Connecticut residents watching the televised coverage of the men’s and women’s gymnastics competitions at the 2016 Olympics from Rio de Janeiro will likely see some familiar faces.  The run-up to the Olympics will come through Hartford that summer, as USA Gymnastics rolls out a new split schedule for the men and women, which will bring the mens’ National Championships to the XL Center, and the women for a pre-Olympic competition. For the first time since 1976, the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in gymnastics will be held on different days, in different cities.  The women's gymnastics trials has been awarded to San Jose, and the men's trials to St. Louis, to be held in late June and early July.

The trials will follow USA Olympic Gymnastics Trials 2012the U.S. Championships, which will also be held in different cities.  The men’s championships will be held in Hartford, June 3-5, 2016.  The women will also be in town, competing in the Secret Classic – a major pre-Olympic event.  The women will move on to their national championships three weeks later in St. Louis.

Why the new event pairings and tradition-breaking schedule?  It’s all about the men.

In an effort to boost the mens’ team’s chances in the 2016 Olympics, and increase public interest in the team, the competition schedule has been revised.  USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny explained in published reports that the organization moved up the men's trials to give the team more recovery time before the Rio Games. The U.S. men earned the top score in qualifying at the 2012 London Olympics but dropped to a disappointing fifth in the team finals. The men will have about six weeks to prep between the trials and the Olympics, which begin on Aug. 5, 2016, compared with four between the trials and the games in 2012.

Performance and notoriety go hand-in-hand.  Despite having earned a Silver Medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for example, American gymnast Jonathan Horton did not become a household name in the U.S.  That’s not surprising, as the public generally is more focused on the women’s teams competing in the Olympics every four years.Hartford Has It_black-aqua

“People think gymnastics, and they think little girls in leotards, powerful and graceful, and they forget about our side,” Horton recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Right now, there’s this stereotype that we’re not a masculine sport. All of us are trying to change that image that it’s a sissy sport. It’s not.”logo

The Post-Gazette noted that in most other countries where gymnastics skills are cultivated, the men are still more popular than the women. Because of that, Penny noted, there is more depth among the men in international competitions, which has made it tougher for the U.S. team to bring home medals with the same frequency as the women’s team.

Inside Gymnastics magazine reported last year that “in the NCAA, men’s teams are losing funding while women’s teams are being created,” adding that “The reality is - boys’ gymnastics has never been as popular as girls’ gymnastics.”

Only six states sponsor a high school boys gymnastics championship, and only 17 Division I colleges still support men’s gymnastics programs, the newspaper reported. USA Gymnastics is making a concerted effort to reward male gymnasts who are competing in club programs at the high school and college level with recognition for their effort, Penny told the Post-Gazette. “There’s always been more sport opportunities for young men than there were for women. The role models for women always stand out. For men, it’s a more cluttered sports landscape.”

There’s little doubt about the popularity of gymnastics during the Olympics.  After the 2012 Olympic Games in London, there was an analysis of the sports and athlete mentions on Twitter, which revealed that there were more than 150 million Summer Games tweets. According to Twitter, the sport which saw the most Twitter conversation was soccer with well over 5 million Tweets.  Rounding out the top five were swimming, track & field, gymnastics and volleyball.

USA Gymnastics tends to return to cities that have been successful hosts previously for major gymnastics competitions, and that is true for San Jose, St. Louis and Hartford.  The XL Center has hosted the USA Gymnastics national championships twice: in 2010 and 2013.  Neither was an Olympic year.  2016 will be.

2016 Competition Schedule


  • National Championships, Hartford, June 3-5
  • Olympic Trials, St. Louis, June 23-26


  • Secret Classic, Hartford, June 3-5
  • National Championships, St. Louis, June 23-26
  • Olympic Trials, San Jose, July 8-10