Like many other young gymnasts, 16-year-old Aleah Finnegan has had the same goal for gymnastics since the infancy of her career: compete at the Olympic Games. “2020 Olympics,” Aleah would tell herself growing up. “That’s when I’m going to go.”
The 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo are the first to take place after her 16th birthday, the age one must be to compete in Olympic gymnastics. Now, just over a year out from Tokyo, Aleah is in a great position to make that dream a reality.
In U.S. gymnastics, an athlete can compete in international competitions, like the Olympics, after qualifying as elite. To reach this level, gymnasts must surpass the Junior Olympic levels, starting at level 1 and ending at level 10. Aleah qualified as elite last summer and began her second season at that level earlier this year. She was recently named to the U.S. women’s national team, and in March, competed at her first international competition where she accomplished two of her biggest goals on her journey to the Olympics. And if she makes it to Tokyo, she won’t be the first Finnegan to become an Olympian.
Aleah is the youngest in a family of gymnasts. Her three sisters — Hannah (24), Sarah (22) and Jennah (18) — have all competed in gymnastics, but Sarah and Aleah are the only ones who have competed at the elite level.
Sarah just finished her gymnastics career as a senior on the Louisiana State University gymnastics team. Sarah, a 23-time All-American, led LSU to a second-place finish at NCAA Championships as one of the nation’s top all-around gymnasts. Just this season alone, she achieved perfect scores on all four events and was named the Central Region Gymnast of the Year. She earned her second Southeastern Conference Gymnast of the Year accolade and won the AAI Award — the Heisman trophy of gymnastics. Sarah was the uneven bars national champion in 2017 and repeated as such this season. But the highlight of Sarah’s career came before college: when she achieved Olympian status as an alternate on the 2012 U.S. women’s gymnastics team. Aleah watched and rooted for her sister throughout.
Aleah has faced inevitable comparisons to Sarah. She will follow in Sarah’s footsteps not only in her Olympic aspirations, but also by having verbally committed to join LSU’s gymnastics team beginning with the 2021-22 school year. The comparisons can be flattering, such as when people say their gymnastics look alike, a testament to both their respective high skill levels, but they can also be difficult in terms of Aleah carving out her own path.
Both sisters — like many GAGE gymnasts — are known for their execution and elegance. So it’s no wonder balance beam is an event they excel in or that floor is an event that makes fans gush over their pointed toes and lines. The floor routines they competed last year even ended with the same pose. In an interview with FloGymnastics, Al Fong, Aleah’s coach and Sarah’s former coach, admitted there are “some big comparisons” between the two sisters and their gymnastics.
But one area that sets Aleah apart from Sarah is vault. Vault is an event that requires a lot of power and control, so gymnasts who excel at balance beam — an event synonymous with grace and poise — do not typically do as well on vault. This is especially the case at the elite level because, to medal in vault, a gymnast must compete two different types of vaults. Many elite gymnasts just do one vault, immediately removing them from consideration for any vault medals.
“She’s one of my biggest inspirations and role models,” Aleah said of Sarah, “and she’s such a great gymnast overall. It’s something that I strive to be, but I also want to make my own gymnastics.”
Up until 2008, the Finnegan family was based in St. Louis with all four girls training at St. Louis Gymnastics Centre, but Sarah’s potential would change their lives. A fellow gymnast’s mom noticed Sarah’s talent and approached her mother, Linabelle, to encourage Sarah to pursue the Olympics. The woman suggested the Finnegans move to a gym in Kansas City called Great American Gymnastics Express, better known as GAGE, a gym known for producing 2004 Olympians Terin Humphrey and Courtney McCool.
“Up until that point, I had never thought of the Olympics or an elite career or anything because I didn’t know anything about it,” Sarah said.
The thought of working toward the Olympics intrigued Sarah, fitting her hard-working mentality well; however, it would be a significant change for her family, too. Going to GAGE to pursue an Olympic dream would require moving across the state — a near 250-mile drive west on I-70. Her family discussed the possibility, visited the gym and decided it would be a good fit. So the Finnegans moved to Kansas City.
The move would pay off when Sarah made the 2012 Olympic team, and now hopefully again for Aleah, who continues to trains at GAGE under the same coaches Sarah once had.
For Aleah, the thought of going to the Olympics was inspired not only by her sister, but from the support she received from coaches, Al and Armine Fong. They always pushed her to do her best, reminding her of the possibility of elite. That dream became a real possibility during Aleah’s first year at level 10 in 2015. That was the year Aleah got “super intense” about the sport, realizing she could soon be an Olympic-level gymnast.
After two seasons of level 10 and becoming the 2017 Level 10 Junior Olympic all-around champion, Aleah started training to qualify to elite. She sought guidance for this process from Sarah. Whenever Aleah mentioned her desire to go elite, Sarah supported it but also emphasized the perseverance needed to reach such a level.
“There are going to be things you’re not going to like,” Sarah told Aleah of elite gymnastics. “There are going to be hard days, times when you just want to quit or you just don’t want to do it anymore, but just keep pushing yourself, and you’re going to accomplish your goal.”
Aleah initially failed to obtain the necessary scores after her first qualifier, and came up short again in her second attempt. But she continued working to improve and was finally successful in her third qualifying meet, meaning a Finnegan was an elite gymnast for the first time in six years.
“It’s so surreal that this is happening,” Aleah said. “I’m an elite now. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
When it came time to compete as an elite level gymnast, Aleah knew what to expect because she had an older sister who could provide her guidance — something Sarah didn’t have.
“Sarah would always tell me of her experiences in elite and what to be ready for and what to expect,” Aleah said. “It definitely really helped, especially going into these big competitions, that I know what’s going to happen. She kind of like laid it out for me.”
Aleah participated in three competitions in her first elite season: the American Classic, the U.S. Classic and U.S. Gymnastics Championships. Sarah was able to watch Aleah at the latter two performances, reversing the roles for the two sisters. It was now Aleah out on the competition floor with Sarah watching from the stands. Sarah admitted to being anxious watching Aleah compete.
“I kind of have the parent point-of-view where you just want her to do so well,” Sarah said. “You kind of get nervous, but I’m so proud of her. I know she has things to work on, but she also has things to be really proud of. Even in her young elite career, she’s accomplished so much and overcome so much. And watching in the stands, I couldn’t be more proud.”
Now with Aleah making a name for herself in gymnastics, Sarah doesn’t want her youngest sister to feel like she’s in her shadow.
“I don’t think she needs to feel that way because I have different strengths and weaknesses than she does,” Sarah said. “She has different strengths and weaknesses. We might be related. Our gymnastics might look the same. We also, as people, might look the same. She’s her own person. She should be proud for who she is and what she has accomplished and is going to accomplish, because that’s all her. That has nothing to do with me. That has nothing to do with her being Sarah’s younger sister. It’s all from Aleah’s own hard work.”
At Aleah’s first international competition in March, International Gymnix, she helped the U.S. win the team competition and then won gold on vault — an event Sarah never medaled on during her elite career.
That competition took place during a significant weekend for the Finnegans, because it was Sarah’s senior night at LSU. So while Aleah’s elite career starts to flourish, Sarah’s career was approaching its end. Sarah is staying involved with the sport as a camp coach, but her time in a leotard is over, giving her more time to support Aleah’s career in the same way she did for her.
“She’s been my cheerleader throughout the years,” said Sarah of Aleah. “And so it’s my time to be hers.”
Featured image from http://insidegymnastics.com.