The Kiwi gymnast leading the Broncos to victory

Most weekends, Courtney McGregor jumps on a bus, and takes an interstate trip to a gymnastics meet somewhere in the United States.

An eight-hour coach ride is no burden on the young Kiwi Olympian. “I always get a row of seats to myself, and just watch movies most of the way,” she says.

A fortnight ago, she made a 12-hour round trip from Boise, Idaho - her home-away-from-home - to Provo, Utah, for the annual Mountain Rim gymnastics conference championship.

After winning the top all-around gymnast title, and playing a major role in Boise State University claiming the conference championship for a fifth year in a row - the longest streak in the college's history - McGregor is off to bigger things this weekend.

She’s heading to Corvallis, Oregon, for the regional finals of the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships.

This time, she’s flying. But it will be eight hours home on the bus again.

In American college sport, it’s a big deal. (The regionals, that is, not the bus journey.)

And it’s a big deal, too, for McGregor, New Zealand’s top women’s gymnast, who's also about to return to the international stage with the hope of competing at her second Olympics in Tokyo 2020.  Her four years at Boise State should help get her there. 

Around 12,000km away from her home in Christchurch, 20-year-old McGregor is making quite an impression on Boise – and vice versa.

She’s now in her third, or junior, year at Boise State University, where she’s majoring in health science. She has one year remaining in her full scholarship.

Speaking with a slight American twang, McGregor says this has been her best year yet. She’s been an anchor in the Boise State Broncos gymnastics team this season, after they lost their most senior member to injury.

Shani Remme – described as “the most decorated gymnast in Boise State history” – tore the ACL in her left knee halfway through the season, which could have spelled disaster for the Broncos.

But with McGregor putting out some of her best performances (particularly on the uneven bars where a judge awarded her a perfect 10), the team have held on to a national ranking of 12th.

And the Kiwi gymnast is confident the Broncos can make it through to the national championships – featuring the country’s top eight college teams – in Texas in a fortnight.

“We’ve had a really good year, even after we lost Shani a few weeks ago,” McGregor says. “I think we can make nationals. It’s definitely our goal.”

McGregor is already being celebrated on campus. This week, she was named Boise State ‘Athlete of the Week’, for her performance at the Mountain Rim championships, where she won the all-around title with scores of 9.850 on vault, beam and floor, and a 9.925 on bars.  

But what does all this mean to McGregor’s international gymnastics career, and her plans to compete at Tokyo 2020?

“I’ve definitely learned new skills since I’ve been here,” she says. “The difference this year is that I’ve been cleaning up skills I already had and perfecting those, so I’ve been able to execute them cleanly every weekend.

“Because we compete so often over here, it’s given me confidence in my abilities that will definitely translate into my international performance.”

Once the college gymnastics season is over, McGregor will turn her attention to representing New Zealand again; she last competed for her country at the 2017 world championships.

She plans to go to the World University Games in Naples in July, and then, she hopes, the world champs in Stuttgart in October.

That will be her first opportunity to qualify New Zealand for a spot at the Tokyo Olympics. If not, she will have a second chance at the Pacific Rim championships, in Tauranga next year.

Now that’s a big deal for New Zealand gymnastics. Held every second year, the Pacific Rim event gathers the best men’s and women’s artistic, rhythmic and trampoline gymnasts from 21 nations around the Pacific – including the sport’s power-houses Russia, China, Japan and the US.

McGregor has been to three Pacific Rim championships in her career, and won two medals on the vault – a silver in 2014 and bronze in 2016. “I’d love to compete in one at home,” she says. And a gold medal would cap it off nicely.

Courtney McGregor competing on the beam at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo: Getty Images. 

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, McGregor finished 13th in the vault – after she was upgraded three places when Gym Sports NZ successfully appealed the score of her second vault.

McGregor will return to the guidance of Kiwi-born, US-based gym coach Mary Wright, who was her coach in Rio. Wright, who lives in Texas, has coached multiple American Olympic medallists and was the US national team co-ordinator.

It was Wright who helped McGregor, who’d been at the Christchurch School of Gymnastics, into the Boise State University fold.

It wasn’t easy adjusting to college life. “The first year is really hard. The gymnastics is almost like a different sport, because it’s all team-based, and there are different scoring systems,” she says.

Women's NCAA gymnastics still uses the "perfect 10" scoring system, whereas the international side of the sport now combines one score for difficulty and one for execution.

Because they compete virtually every weekend between January and April, there's a big emphasis on college gymnasts looking after their bodies, so the level of difficulty required is not as high as at an Olympics. 

McGregor had surgeries to “clean up” her meniscus and ankle at the end of the last two seasons, but says so far this season, she’s been doing fine.

“Because it’s really hard on your body, we tend to do easier skills but do them really well,” she says. “When I do international events, I have to have a lot more difficulty. Vault is my best in international competition because I have two big vaults – but here I don’t have to do those.”

At Boise State, McGregor has improved her routines on the other apparatus. At a recent meet, she scored a 9.975 on her uneven bars routine – a 9.95 from one judge and a 10 from the other. “That was my first 10 from a judge, which was pretty exciting.”

Perhaps the biggest learning curve has been being part of a team – which is what college gymnastics is all about. “I’ve had to learn to communicate more, because Americans are very expressive. They are extroverted, where we Kiwis are introverted. So I’ve had to learn to work within a team,” McGregor says.  

“I’ve also learned to live by myself. I left home when I was 17 and I didn’t know how to cook. There’s no New World or Countdown here, so you have to learn how to shop. It was a big deal when I got here but now I’ve got it down.”

Gymnastics NZ’s performance pathways manager, Anna Robertson, says the US college system has provided McGregor with access to services and a “whole different environment” than high performance gymnasts can receive here.

“It’s a totally new experience, a whole new culture. She has ongoing access to support services like physios and doctors,” she says. “And she’s competing in front of huge crowds. In New Zealand you might have parents at a local weekend meet in a crowd of 200. But some of the crowds Courtney competes in front of now are around 14,000 people.

“We definitely expect that confidence she now has will give her an advantage.”

Two other top New Zealand gymnasts are also at US colleges – Mackenzie Slee at Southeast Missouri State, and Charlotte Sullivan at the University of Iowa. This weekend, Sullivan will compete in her Iowa Hawkeyes team against McGregor at the Corvallis regionals.

Both Sullivan and Slee, who competed at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, have decided to concentrate on their college gymnastics, rather than compete internationally.

A major part of college life is the scholastic side, and it's a big deal to the Boise State Broncos - who last year were ranked the No. 1 academic team in US women's gymnastics, based on the team's GPA (grade point average). 

McGregor is a leader in that field too - last year earning the perfect 4.0 GPA in her health science studies; she hopes to work in the medical field when she returns home.

For now, in Boise, she has classes in the morning, then trains in the gym for four hours, before returning to class at night, finishing at 8.45pm. It’s a long day, and then there are the marathon bus trips at the weekend.

McGregor hasn’t decided whether she will continue competing after her senior year. “Over here, once you’re done with college, you’re done with gymnastics,” she says. “But I have the option of continuing to compete for New Zealand. So we will just have to see.”

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