2x World medalist and Olympic gymnast Leanne Wong sets sights on future

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Photo by: Filippo Tomasi

By Julia Tong, AsAmNews Intern

When Leanne Wong was four years old, her parents enrolled the energetic toddler in ice skating classes. Wong, however, didn’t take to it. Skating on ice meant slipping, and slipping meant pain—something that she did not appreciate. Instead, she changed sports to one that would also allow her to do acrobatics, but in a much more padded environment: artistic gymnastics.

“Falling on hard ice was not fun,” Wong recalled. “So when I started gymnastics, I just really loved it a lot more. It’s definitely different, because of all the soft mats.”

As it turns out, with the safety of padded cushions, Wong was very good at tumbling, flipping, and jumping. Today, the 18-year-old is a decorated elite gymnast: she has won two medals at the 2021 World Championships, been named an Olympic alternate, and is a regular member of the national women’s gymnastics team. On top of all that, she is a freshman at the University of Florida, competing for the school’s NCAA gymnastics team, and an entrepreneur, selling handmade bows which have become her fashion staple at competitions.

Wong began her career at GAGE gym in Missouri—the first, and only, gym she’s trained at. GAGE, she recalls, was a 45-minute drive away, further than the local gyms she lived close to. Regardless, her father decided on GAGE due to its reputation of producing successful gymnasts—some of whom have made it all the way to the Olympics.

Her father’s decision worked—Wong soon became successful on the junior stage, eventually debuting in the elite field as a teenager. To Wong, the familial support she’s received throughout her competitive career—from starting her at GAGE to cheering for her at competitions—has been critical to this success.

Family photo

“My family has definitely been really supportive throughout my whole gymnastics career since this sport is just so demanding,” Wong said. “Actually, all four of my family members—my parents and my two younger brothers—they used to go to every single one of my meets. And then I think the first meet that they didn’t go to was probably, I would say, the Olympics [due to COVID regulations].”

In 2020, a year after her senior debut, Wong faced the “biggest week” of her career: the Olympic trials. Having never competed at the world level stage, Wong was particularly nervous: “it’s the meet that determines if my dreams come true or not, so there was just a lot of pressure.”

On the first day, she recalls, that pressure got to her, as she made numerous mistakes that took her out of Olympic contention. With nothing left to lose on Day 2, Wong let go of the pressure. She ended up having the “best meet of the season,” placing 5th and earning an alternate spot on the Olympic team.

Wong’s Olympic experience in Tokyo, however, was “pretty challenging.” Because she was an alternate, she knew she had a low chance of actually being able to compete. On top of that, she was identified as a close contact for a COVID-positive teammate, resulting in her being stuck in a hotel room for 10 days before she flew straight back home.

“[The Olympic experience] definitely motivated me to really want to compete at the [2021] World Championships,” Wong recalled. “Just sitting in my hotel room and just thinking really pushed me to want to make the world team and be successful.”

However, aside from her newfound ambition to compete at the international level, Wong came to an important realization: gymnastics was not only about winning, but also having fun.

“I’ve learned from that experience like there’s no need to put so much pressure on myself,” Wong said. “It’s just a sport of gymnastics, and the best thing to do is just have fun and enjoy every moment.”

Wong upheld this philosophy at the 2021 World Championships, which she described as the “biggest meet” she’s competed at. As she “had a lot of fun” with her coaches and teammates, gaining valuable experience competing on a global stage, she found considerable success as well. Her “highlight of the competition” came when she won an all-around silver medal. Encouraged by her first world-level victory, she was determined to win more. Despite a few mistakes on beam, which took her out of podium contention, she took home a bronze medal on floor.

Photo by: Filippo Tomasi

Now, the two-time World medallist is at school and facing a new set of challenges and experiences. At the University of Florida, Wong is expected to be a student first and athlete second—spending only 20 hours a week at the gym, 10 less than what she’s used to. The team-centered nature of NCAA gymnastics has been thrilling for her, as she’s found mentorship and support from the other women she competes with. And she, of course, contends with usual college difficulties: adjusting to living on her own, choosing her major, finishing coursework.

Wong takes her life step by step, focusing on the present. Today, her goals revolve around finishing the current NCAA gymnastics season “strong,” and preparing for the postseason, which is “when everything elevates onto another level.” This isn’t to say that Wong never thinks about her future: “I’m definitely gonna think about meets…and see what I would like to do in my elite career,” she says. But when asked about speculation about her career, including rumors that she will represent the US in the 2024 Olympics, Wong says she keeps her focus on what she can do in the present.

“It’s in the back of my mind. It’s a couple of years away, so I’m just gonna take it one day, and year and month at a time,” she said. “So we’ll see when I get there.”

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