Artistic GymnasticsNews

Leaving Nothing To Chance, Gymnast Kayla DiCello Has Gone Home To Go All-In On Paris

by Chrös McDougall

Kayla DiCello competes during the senior women's floor exercise at the 2024 USA Gymnastics Winter Cup on Feb. 24, 2024 in Louisville, Ken. (Photo by Getty Images)

Kayla DiCello’s first year of college had gone well. It was great, actually. But around April of last year, that nagging feeling wouldn’t go away. To achieve her goal, she needed to leave school. So at the close of spring semester, DiCello packed up her things and left for a gap year.

The 20-year-old DiCello isn’t out backpacking around the world, though. Not exactly.

Instead she’s taking a year away from her studies at the University of Florida to go all-in on her gymnastics training in the hope that it ultimately leads her to this summer’s Olympic Games Paris 2024. To do that, DiCello determined she had to go home to Boyds, Maryland, where her longtime coach came out of retirement to lead the effort.

“Ultimately, I decided I had to put myself first,” DiCello said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I want to be able to say at the end of this, no matter how it went, that I did everything I could. So going home, training, that was in my best interest.”

Gymnastics stereotypes can be hard to break. Some no doubt still believe a gymnast who owns a driver’s license is too old for the Olympics. DiCello is not only one of several 20-somethings actively proving that wrong, but she’s also part of a select group of women who are taking a break in their NCAA careers this summer to make a run for Paris.

It’s a sharp turn from the usual narrative of elite gymnasts going to the NCAA to “retire.”

With less than three months until the Paris Games, DiCello is right in the mix for one of the five spots on the U.S. team. She’ll have her next chance to show that this weekend at the Core Hydration Classic in Hartford, Connecticut.

“Back in 2021, I would say I was confident. But I was very nervous,” DiCello said at the Team USA Media Summit in April. “Like, this was the first time, everything was so new for me. And things are different now. I just feel much better going into this year than I did before.”

Coming back to elite gymnastics wasn’t a given for DiCello.

One of the country’s most highly touted junior stars during the last quad, DiCello traveled to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 as a U.S. alternate, then went back to Japan a few weeks later to compete in the world championships, where she earned all-around bronze. The next year, in 2022, she enrolled at Florida for her freshman year.

Competing for one of the sport’s top teams in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference proved to be a natural fit for DiCello. She scored a pair of perfect 10s and earned 2023 SEC Freshman of the Year honors while helping the Gators finish second in the nation.

The Olympic itch never went away, though.

Last spring, as the NCAA season was coming to a close, DiCello called up Kelli Hill, the accomplished club coach who she’d worked with throughout her entire elite career.

“As soon as I went to Florida, she retired, like, went down to the beach,” DiCello said. “So she’s like living out the beach, and then I had to give her a call.”

Kayla DiCello competes during the senior women's uneven bars at the 2024 USA Gymnastics Winter Cup on Feb. 24, 2024 in Louisville, Ken. (Photo by Getty Images)

Hill didn’t hesitate. Before long, coach and gymnast were together again in Maryland.

Had Hill said no, DiCello still would have made her Olympic run, she just would have done so with her coaches at Florida. But going back to Hill — the coach who “knows my gymnastics and me more than anybody else does” —  was the ideal setup.

“I wanted someone to coach me who would kind of be one step ahead of me,” DiCello said. “A lot of times she knows what’s going on with me before I do.”

Being able to spend a year training with sisters Karleigh, 17, and Kyra, 15 — both level 10 gymnasts — was another bonus. Kayla also knew she’d need some balance in her life, so she signed up for a pair of classes at a local community college.

The next step is actually making the U.S. team.

DiCello insists she’s not focusing on strategy or where she might fit in on a potential U.S. team. But in a group stacked with gold-medal talent across all four events, DiCello’s sweet spot might be as the consistent all-arounder who can contribute on any apparatus in the team final.

After returning to the elite national championships last summer, and then traveling to Belgium as a U.S. alternate for the world championships in the fall, DiCello has shown her all-around bona fides with a pair of wins at the 2023 Pan American Games last October and the 2024 Winter Cup in February.

She credits at least some of her recent success to what she learned at the NCAA level, where gymnasts compete nearly every weekend.

“I think it really helped my confidence just going in and doing the same routines week after week,” she said.

The real test of that starts now, at the Core Hydration Classic, before the summer goes into overdrive with the 2024 Xfinity U.S. Gymnastics Championships on May 30 in Fort Worth, Texas, and the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Gymnastics starting June 27 in Minneapolis.

Three years ago, DiCello came oh-so-close to having her Olympic experience. After finishing sixth at the trials, she was one of the U.S. alternates who traveled to Tokyo and trained with the team in the lead-up to the Games. But with COVID restrictions in full effect, the Olympic experience was limited — and abrupt.

“As soon as they put in their names for the meet, we were back on a plane going home, so we didn’t get to watch anything,” DiCello said.

That experience now has DiCello yearning for another shot, and she’s not taking anything for granted.

“One of my teammates once asked me, like, how do you stay so motivated every time you come to the gym?” DiCello said. “And I’m like, well, it’s like a choice. I know what goes into this dream, in this goal. It’s a short time period. So I’m going to do anything possible.”