Long before the world watched Jade Carey step atop the podium in Tokyo to receive an Olympic gold medal on floor exercise, Tanya Chaplin knew she had something special.
After seeing a preteen Carey practice “sky-high” tumbling passes, the Oregon State coach secured a verbal commitment from the future Beavers star when she was just 14.
“She made improvements after improvements each year. That was phenomenal to see, and that was before she even thought about doing the elite track,” Chaplin says.
Since the start of her freshman season in January, Carey’s been nothing short of dominant on every single event. (And that’s without any preseason training. She spent September through November performing 32 shows as a part of Simone Biles’s Gold Over America Tour). Though labeled as a vault and floor specialist early in her elite career due to her ability to hit extremely difficult skills on the power events, Carey nixed that notion when she finished eighth in the all-around final at the 2020 Olympics, even after falling off the balance beam.
Soon, she’ll be back to elite competition after announcing her intention to return to that side of the sport in an Instagram video April 6. But first, a stop in Fort Worth for this week’s NCAA women’s gymnastics championships, where Carey enters as the top-ranked all-arounder with potential to bring home some serious hardware.
Carey burst onto the international scene in 2017, when she won silver medals on vault and floor at her first world championships, and her instant success cemented her status as an Olympic hopeful. In the years leading up to the 2020 Games, she added more difficult skills to her bars and beam routines, fine-tuning those elements so she’d be more competitive in the all-around.
It paid off in Tokyo, when she was thrust into the individual all-around final after Simone Biles withdrew, and, while the top-10 finish may have come as a shock to viewers who had Carey pegged as a one-trick pony, Chaplin wasn’t surprised at all.
“If you tell Jade you’re not sure she can do something, she’s going to make sure she proves you wrong. She’s going to break all those barriers,” Chaplin says. “She definitely has that drive and that tenacity to go after anything that she sets her mind to.”
While competing for the Beavers, Carey has smashed every record she’s encountered, including setting a new program high in the all-around with a score of 39.850. She says the “form and execution” of all her skills have “gotten so much better” because she’s been emphasizing perfecting her routines rather than “trying to make them as difficult as possible,” which is the approach taken by many athletes on the elite side of the sport.
“I’ve gotten a lot more consistent, too, just because we’ve been competing every single weekend,” Carey adds. “I’m more comfortable with competing, and I’m just having a lot of fun.”
It’s difficult to convey how consistently Carey has excelled throughout this season, but perhaps the best way to do so is by simply pointing to the scores she’s earned over the last four months.
Through 11 competitions, Carey has competed 44 routines and scored below a 9.900 only twice. She’s hit every single set on all four events, and she’s earned three 10.0s. That steady calmness coupled with Carey’s tendency to be a bit more reserved may lead some to believe the 21-year-old lacks intensity. But both Chaplin and Carey’s father, Brian, who guided her to Tokyo and will continue working with her during her elite comeback, say that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Although she’s quiet, she has that quiet fierceness about her in some ways,” Chaplin says, while Brian emphasized his daughter is not one to be underestimated.
“Don’t let that calm or shy demeanor fool you,” he says. “She’s a competitor, and she’s going out to compete every time.”
During a trip to Melbourne for a World Cup event, the father-daughter duo stumbled upon an Elton John concert. Though Jade had to compete on floor the next day—with a chance at securing her ticket to Tokyo on the line—they made a split decision to mix in some fun outside the gym.
“At the time, I was thinking, ‘Well, she better hit tomorrow or this is gonna look bad,’” Brian says, laughing. “But the next day was when she definitely clinched her spot, she was definitely going to the Olympics when she hit that floor routine. It’s a balance. I think you need a balance. Even though there was a lot of pressure and stress on that particular meet because I knew she could clinch it, you can’t just live it 24 hours a day. You need a little bit of a release.”
After competing as an individual at the NCAA championships, Carey will turn her attention to a USA Gymnastics national team camp scheduled for later this month. She made the decision to return to the elite world “about a month ago” and says her time in Tokyo left her wanting more, particularly after a fluke stutter-step during her run-up to the vault springboard resulted in her finishing off the podium for that event.
“Finishing eighth in the all-around final at the Olympics with a fall on beam kind of just made me realize how good of an all-arounder that I was,” she says. “I think that I have it in me to be even better than that.
“After vault finals, I was like, ‘Hmmm. I’m gonna want a redo at this.’ So those have been my two main motivators, but I really love challenging myself and doing all the big elite skills.”
Carey kept some of those “big elite skills” in her college routines, like her double-twisting double back tuck on floor and her twisting transitions between the uneven bars, but eagle-eyed Instagram users spotted a certain skill in her announcement video that sparked quite a bit of excitement.
Ever since Carey showed off a triple-twisting double layout during a practice session at the 2021 U.S. national championship, gymnastics fans have wondered whether she’d ever do the wildly difficult skill in competition. Because no other gymnast has ever attempted it at a meet, if Carey were to successfully compete it at an international event it would be named after her and become the most difficult skill in the Code of Points for both men’s and women’s artistic gymnastics.
Neither Carey nor her dad are sure if the laid-out triple-double will make an appearance in her future elite routines, but she does practice the skill onto soft landing surfaces because “it makes her [double-twisting double back layout] a lot easier,” Brian says.
“We’ll have to see how she feels about it, where it’s at,” he says. “We have a whole process we go through to put it in a routine, if it’s going to go into a routine. We’ll see where the process is, and if it goes in, it goes in. If it doesn’t, obviously it’s O.K.”
In addition to the triple-double, Carey says she can still do “pretty much all” of her tumbling passes that she competed at the Olympics. She’s “looking pretty good for bars,” has kept all of her beam skills and plans to work with Chaplin to piece together new skill connections for a fresh elite routine.
Vault is the one event where Carey has had to overcome a few hurdles mentally.
“I would just get that picture in my head of me messing up right before getting to the (spring)board, so it was just me trying to figure out how to work through that and not think about that, because that was just one time,” she says, adding that her coaches and teammates at Oregon State helped her push through the rough patches that came with training the Cheng on vault, the specific skill that gave her trouble at the Olympics.
“I was really devastated after vault [in Tokyo]. I honestly didn’t even want to do floor the next day in the beginning because I just felt so defeated and down on myself,” she says. “But I knew that one, I would regret it in the end, and two, I still had one more opportunity to get what I really wanted. So I kind of just had to put it aside and focus on floor. I’m really proud of myself for bouncing back from that moment and getting a gold medal on floor.”
As Carey begins a potential run toward a second Olympic appearance, the plan is to use the U.S. Classic in late July as a tune-up meet ahead of the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in August. Carey and her coaches aren’t sure yet whether she’ll contend for a spot at the 2022 World Championships, but she’s ready for whatever is next at Oregon State and beyond.
“I’ve proven to myself that I can push through anything. I definitely went through a challenging experience, like the Olympics on vault, but I proved to myself that I’m strong enough to turn it around,” she says. “I’ve just really fallen in love with gymnastics again.”
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