Wong stars at American Cup in Greensboro

The 15-year-old gymnast is on track to compete for a spot in the 2020 Olympics

Leanne Wong does a flip on the balance beam during the American Cup gymnastics meet Saturday in Greensboro. (Khadejeh Nikouyeh / News & Record via AP)

GREENSBORO — The 2020 Summer Olympics are still a year-and-a-half away. But for at least one medal hopeful, the road to Tokyo began at Greensboro Coliseum last Saturday.

Fifteen-year-old Leanne Wong lived up to her hype as the “next big thing” in women’s gymnastics by winning the championship at the 43rd annual American Cup event in her senior international debut.

It was an achievement her coach Al Fong called a “milestone.”

Wong was much less dramatic in her assessment of the achievement, focusing more on the big picture than a single meet early in the Olympic cycle — even if it is a meet that also helped launch past champions Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin and Simone Biles to stardom.

“It’s definitely a stepping stone,” the teenager from Overland Park, Kan., said when asked about the significance of her victory in the four-event all-around competition. “I’m just taking it one meet at a time and doing the best I can at every meet.”

Wong won the vault and balance beam events at the American Cup while placing second on floor exercise to earn a score of 56.764, outdistancing fellow American Grace McCallum and several other accomplished gymnasts with World Championship medals to their credit.

When asked if she was surprised to win in her first time out as a senior gymnast, the 2018 junior all-around national champion giggled and said, “Kind of … but not really.”

Now that she’s broken the ice and her first big senior event is out of the way, Wong has set her sights on preparing for even more prestigious events such as the Pan-American Games in Lima, Peru, this July and the 2019 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, in the fall.

There, she’ll come face-to-face with the best competition the world has to offer — including the still formidable Biles.

Based on the way she went about her business in Greensboro, though, it’s hard to imagine her being intimidated by either surroundings or the opposition. She said she approached the competition the same way she did as a junior by tuning out everything around her and concentrating only on her own performances in each of the four rotations.

“I was a little nervous at first,” Wong said. “But once I started my routines, it just felt the same.”

Her poise and confidence were tested right away Saturday when she drew the leadoff spot on the opening event, the vault. Taking a deep breath before heading down the runway at full speed, the high school freshman responded by posting a 14.666 — the best score of the day.

She followed that with a solid 14.100 on the uneven bars before retaking the lead in the overall standings by scoring 14.066 on the balance beam.

Then after watching all eight of her opponents perform their floor routines, Wong stepped onto the mat needing 13.633 for the win, she nailed an energetic routine that included some new moves she’d never previously attempted in an actual competition.

“She unfolded two brand new skills on floor,” Fong said of the double Arabian pike and the 3½ twist. “We were gambling. Everything was on the table.”

When that gamble paid off, Wong’s other coach Armine Barutyan jumped for joy before rushing to embrace her young phenom as she bounced off the mat.

“Winning wasn’t our main goal,” Barutyan said. “It was hitting our routines. But I know what she’s capable of doing and what that means at the end. At that moment, I wanted to celebrate with her because she did everything she could and it’s going to be awesome.”

Barutyan and those in attendance at the venue rapidly becoming synonymous for hosting major gymnastics and figure skating events weren’t the only ones impressed with Wong’s successful debut.

Runner-up McCallum, a member of the gold medal-winning U.S. team at last year’s World Championships, said the young newcomer has the skill and disposition to be a major player on the international stage. The 16-year-old said she’s looking forward to competing with and against Wong in the months heading into the Tokyo Olympics.

“She’s really fun to train with,” McCallum said. “It’s different being individual and not team. I definitely like team better, because you have all the support and cheering and working together. We get along really well.”