Aleah Finnegan’s Olympic dream was over. Then she found a new path and a ticket to Paris

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Nice article in The Athletic.


It's behind a paywall and I don't know of a way around it, unfortunately. I think you might be able to read it with a New York Times subscription.

Aleah Finnegan’s Olympic dream was over. Then she found a new path and a ticket to Paris​

Tess DeMeyer
Aleah Finnegan

Standing at the summit of Haleakalā volcano, Aleah Finnegan and her mother, Linabelle, looked out over the island of Maui.

They took the trip on a whim, jumping on a flight because the airline offered $99 tickets from Los Angeles to the Hawaiian island. Initially, the plan was to travel from Missouri to California to visit family before Finnegan began college at LSU, but, in a way, it morphed into a respite from the shock and grief in the summer of 2021 that followed what looked to be the abrupt end of Finnegan’s elite gymnastics career.

Just a few weeks prior, Finnegan was training for the U.S. National Gymnastics Championships in June that year. It was a precursor to qualifying for the Olympic Trials, and the top 17 all-arounders from nationals advanced to the final domestic competition before the Tokyo Games. Entering the meet, Finnegan was firmly in the mix of gymnasts vying for a spot at trials, but multiple falls over the two-day competition took a toll on her all-around score. She finished 23rd, missing the cut.

As gymnasts invited to trials got called up one by one, Finnegan stayed seated, thinking, “What am I supposed to do now?”

Five days later, she retired from elite gymnastics.

“I really just felt so much disappointment in myself,” she said. “I was really realistic about the Olympics and Olympic Trials, but to not even get there was really, really heartbreaking. I knew my skill level and I knew what I was able to do, and I wasn’t able to do that on that day. I had a bad competition, and unfortunately, that’s the sport that we do.”

The peak of Haleakalā reaches just over 10,000 feet, and there, Linabelle and Aleah took in the landscape while remembering Aleah’s father, Don, who died of cancer in 2019, and sang a song befitting their surroundings.

We’ll go up, up, up
But I’ll fly a little higher
Go up in the clouds because the view’s a little nicer


“I really believe the Lord spoke to her there,” Linabelle said. “I think that was a time when she was really able to let go of that pain and that dream. She said she was going to LSU and was really excited about it, believing that God has a great plan for her in spite of seemingly not including the Olympics.”

Now, two and a half years later, Aleah is Paris-bound. She will become the first female gymnast representing the Philippines, Linabelle’s home country, to compete at the Olympics after charting a path to the 2024 Games that she never predicted and nearly didn’t pursue.

“Just looking back, it’s so surreal. I never would’ve guessed my journey would’ve gone a different route than it has,” she said, “but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Aleah Finnegan

A disappointing 2021 U.S. championships led to the end of Aleah Finnegan’s elite career for Team USA. She now competes for the Philippines and is Paris-bound. (Kyle Okita / CSM via ZUMA Wire / via AP Images)

Finnegan got into gymnastics the way many do: by following her older siblings. Linabelle began taking Aleah, who has three older sisters, to classes at age 2, and by age 4 she was talking about going to the Olympics. As a teenager competing at the elite level, Finnegan trained 30 hours a week.

“I would threaten if she didn’t do her homework, I wouldn’t take her to gym practice,” Linabelle said. “That’s how much she really loved it.”

That passion for the sport, which waned a bit following the 2021 U.S. championships, was reignited at LSU where Finnegan, 21, has blossomed into a composed competitor. She scored four perfect 10.0s as a sophomore last year and has her eyes on helping LSU win its first NCAA title in April. LSU coach Jay Clark, who saw Finnegan’s potential while recruiting her but wasn’t sure of her consistency, now leans on her when choosing the Tigers’ six-person lineups on all four events.

“There’s a balance to what she does that’s perfect because she can do the big, powerful skills, but she also has an artistry and an artistic value to everything she does and the way she presents and moves when she’s on floor and balance beam that’s tremendous,” Clark said. “She’s the total package, really.”

Midway through Finnegan’s freshman season, the president of the gymnastics federation of the Philippines reached out to Linabelle. The federation stayed in contact with the Finnegans after Aleah’s eldest sister, Hannah, competed for the Philippines in 2011, and they asked Linabelle if her youngest daughter was interested in returning to elite competition.

Finnegan’s initial reaction was a firm “no.” She was finally getting in the groove of being a collegiate athlete, and she felt she had shut the door on that side of the sport.

Aleah Finnegan

Aleah Finnegan performs at the NCAA tournament in April. Her fifth-ranked LSU squad takes on No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 Utah and No. 12 UCLA in a quad meet Saturday at 4 p.m. ET, televised on ABC. (Jerome Miron / USA Today)
But she tucked the idea away while finishing out her first collegiate season, then kept returning to it in conversations with Linabelle.

“The more I was talking to her, the more I realized that this was such an opportunity to be able to give back to my mom and give back to my family and my heritage and be able to represent them on a higher stage.

“I feel like I represent them no matter where I go, but being able to represent them in a more cultured way was really, really awesome.”

Finnegan made her debut with the Philippines women’s gymnastics team at the South East Asian (SEA) Games in May 2022 with less than a month of preparation for the competition following the end of her freshman year.

Despite the quick turnaround, Finnegan led the team to a gold medal in the team event, picked up an individual gold on vault and added a pair of silver medals in the all-around and on balance beam. After the SEA Games, “she was almost hailed like a hero in the Philippines,” Linabelle said, adding that her daughter received a national merit order from the President of the Philippines.

A year later, another international opportunity arose. Finnegan was still unsure about elite gymnastics, but when she learned the 2023 Asian Championships offered a chance to qualify for the world championships in Antwerp, she set Belgium as her goal.

Joined by fellow former U.S. national team member Emma Malabuyo, who was an alternate for Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics and is now a star for UCLA, Finnegan helped the Philippines to fifth place in the team competition. She finished sixth in the all-around and earned a spot as an individual competitor at worlds, which came as no surprise to Malabuyo.

“She just looks so confident when she’s up there,” Malabuyo said. “You can see that she does every single skill with ease, and there’s a sort of lightness about her.”


The biggest stepping stone in Finnegan’s comeback came in Antwerp. In the back of her mind, she knew the 2023 world championships offered the chance she never got in 2021. If she put up a solid all-around performance, she’d have a shot to qualify for the 2024 Olympics. A fall on any of the events would almost assuredly knock her out of contention, and she hadn’t made it through an entire bar routine leading up to the meet.

Beginning on floor exercise, Finnegan nailed her trademark double Arabian — a skill that begins with a backward entry followed by a quick half turn into two tucked front flips — on her first tumbling pass and danced through her sassy choreography with smirks and smiles that sold the routine.


She carried the momentum to the vault, where she earned her highest score of the day, then rotated to bars. After 32 seconds of handstands, release moves and pirouettes, Finnegan dismounted with a double back tuck. Her feet hit the mat with a satisfying smack, and she beamed as she saluted the judges.

Her most challenging routine, the one she struggled to piece together until mere days before world championships began, was behind her. Her reward: a high-stakes date with the balance beam.

A chance at Olympic glory was on the line. A four-inch-wide line with the reputation of being the most unforgiving, nerve-wracking event in the sport.

But you wouldn’t know that by watching Finnegan’s routine. She floated her acrobatic series of two back handsprings into a layout step-out down the length of the beam and sealed the deal with only a tiny hop on her dismount.

Then, she got pizza.
 
There were 10 sessions at the 2023 world championships, and Finnegan competed in the eighth. So she played the waiting game, keeping track of other competitors’ scores in her hotel room with the help of her sister Jennah, who had brought a notebook to do some calculations on the fly.

All was clear around 11 p.m. when LSU assistant coach Garrett Griffeth, who traveled with Finnegan to Antwerp, sent her a text.

“You did it.”

The notebook flew. Finnegan bawled.

“It was so special being on the other end of the spectrum of excitement and the feeling of it was worth it instead of, back a few years ago, when I was on the other side and just feeling disappointment and confusion,” she said.


About 30 minutes after she punched her ticket to Paris, when she had finished calling her sisters, aunt and grandma, Finnegan filmed a TikTok. It was a duet to a post from June 2021, in which she slides on sunglasses and flashes a peace sign while lying in bed with a giant teddy bear. Pitbull’s “Time of Our Lives” plays over the clip that’s captioned, “When your life-long dream gets crushed by not even making it to the Olympic Trials but then you remember Mr. Worldwide has been there, done that so we gucci.”

In the second TikTok, Finnegan’s wearing her Philippines warm-up suit and her eyes are still red from crying. This time it was tears of joy.

The caption reads: “Mr. Worldwide probably wasn’t expecting this one
 

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