Karley McClain: Fearless and Focused

“Nothing phases her in competition. She’s as rock-solid as they come.”

That’s Scott Bauman, head coach for the Southern Utah gymnastics team. He’s talking about Karley McClain, the junior gymnast from South Jordan, Utah.

Bauman has relied on McClains skills from the moment she stepped foot onto SUU’s campus. She competed in all 13 Thunderbird meets as a freshman and all 11 as a sophomore. 

 “I’ve known Karley since she was like 8 years old. She wants to compete more than anyone,” Bauman said. “The beauty about [McClain] is she understands her team needs her there in the line-up more than anything else. She excels no matter where you put her. A lot of gymnasts think they need to be the anchor, but she’s built differently.”

Watching McClain perform is something that should be on the bucket list of all SUU sports fans. Similar to when a basketball player is at the free-throw line to shoot a game-tying free-throw, or a field goal kicker is lining up to hit the game-winning field goal, a certain hush falls over the crowd whenever McClain is preparing to launch.

As she readies for each individual routine, she has the same stone-like expression on her face. No smiles, no frowns, just intensity. She’s there to do her job.

“She’s one of the toughest competitors you’re ever going to see,” said Bauman. 

“I just take each day by itself and each routine one by one,” McClain said. “I go out and do my gymnastics and whatever happens, happens.”

She earned Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference Freshman of the Year in 2019, was named to the All-MRGC First Team in 2020 and before the 2021 season, Bauman touted McClain as one of the best all-around gymnasts in the country.

With four meets, three MRGC Gymnast of the Week honors, and one MRGC Floor Specialist of the Week award already under her belt so far this season, McClain has lived up to Bauman’s assessment.

Behind her strong scores in each event, the Flippin’ Birds rank No. 10 in the country on floor, No. 11 on bars, and No. 24 on both vault and beam. 

With the awards piling up and her team climbing in the standings, McClain has become a frontrunner for MRGC Gymnast of the Year. 

It could be her lucky year as well, as the last three winners of the award have been in their junior season. SUU has not featured a conference gymnast of the year since 2010, when Elise Wheeler won it while a part of the Western Athletic Conference.

A typical coach might put a gymnast like McClain as the anchor of each event in order to highlight her success and strengthen her chances to individual awards, but Bauman, now in his 30th year coaching SUU, is not a typical coach. He understands the strengths of all of his gymnasts, particularly McClain.

“She’s tricky to coach but also extremely fun to coach because it’s all business to her inside the gym,” Bauman said. “[Outside the gym] you wouldn’t believe she’s such a ferocious competitor. She’s never too up or too down.”

McClain also doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Any athlete can fall into their own head and get the “yips,” where they seem to fumble even the most basic of skills in their sport, but not McClain. At 20 years old, she has 17 years of gymnastics success to fall back on.

“If she does something wrong, she simply gets back up and does it again,” Bauman said. “She doesn’t overthink. So many [athletes] her age will have the tendency to overthink, but I’ve only ever seen Karley frustrated maybe one time.”

The one time Bauman mentioned occurred at the 2021 Best of Utah meet. According to Bauman, McClain had a tough time adjusting to the uneven bars in the Maverik Center. 

“It was probably the only time I’ve ever seen her visibly frustrated, but it was so brief,” Bauman said. “I just simply told her ‘Hey do this instead,’ and she did it, and she went out and had a great routine.”

McClain’s performances have helped the T-Birds rebound after placing fourth in the Best of Utah meet to start the season. SUU has since won four consecutive meets, posting wins against Air Force, Boise State, and a program-record road score of 196.650 against Utah State in Logan.

She has also led the Flippin’ Birds to No. 15 in the national rankings, the team’s highest ranking through four weeks since the 2017 season. 

“I don’t look at the rankings,” McClain said. “But for us to be ranked that high gives us all of the confidence. It helps us realize we just need to keep it business as usual.”

A business-like approach could be exactly what the Flippin’ Birds need to overcome No. 12 ranked BYU this week. The Flippin’ Birds went 0-3 against the Cougars last season. As a result, McClain is hungry to beat the in-state and conference rival.

Instead of overreacting or overthinking, McClain leads her team to Provo with the same even-keeled expression she’s sported all three years at SUU.

“There’s no reason to change things,” McClain said. “We just need to keep doing what we’re doing and trust our gymnastics.”