Stephens to compete for spot in Olympics on Friday

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Junior Clay Mason Stephens poses for judges at a meet. The Illinois gymnast will compete on Friday for a spot in the next Olympics.

By Bradley Zimmerman, Staff Writer

Illinois junior Clay Mason Stephens has dreamed of competing in the Olympics since he was five years old. On Friday, he will compete for the opportunity to make that dream come true.

For the last three months, Stephens has been in his native Australia preparing for Friday’s competition: the 2021 Oceania Continental Championships in Gold Coast, Queensland. Stephens will be one of five male gymnasts at the Championships — four from Australia and one from New Zealand — attempting to qualify for the Summer Olympics happening in Tokyo this July.

Out of the five, only one will qualify.

Stephens was not available for comment ahead of the Championships, but Illinois head coach Justin Spring spoke of Stephens’ standing compared to his competition and his hopes for how Stephens will perform.

“He’s in the top of the field amidst the strongest competitors in the field,” Spring said. “I’m very excited for him, I feel really good about it and I hope he has a good meet.”

Being in contention for Olympic qualification is sensational in itself, but there is more to Stephens’ story than just this fact.

This is not the first time Stephens has qualified for the Oceania Continental Championships with an Olympic berth on the line. He qualified for the 2020 Championships, but two months before the Championships were scheduled to take place, Stephens suffered a disastrous knee injury in a competition separate from the Olympic qualification process. He tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee.

It was the third time Stephens tore one of his ACLs, but this time was more devastating than the others because he was so close to qualifying for his lifelong goal.

Only a few weeks after the injury, though, Stephens’ hopes for competing in Tokyo were given new life from the most unexpected of things: a global pandemic.

The 2020 Oceania Continental Championships were canceled before its male Olympic berth was earned, and the International Olympic Committee postponed the Olympics by a year instead of outright canceling them.

It meant Stephens got a once-in-a-lifetime second chance to qualify for the same Olympic games he once believed were out of the picture.

“I guess this is a little bit of a silver lining to everything that’s going on,” Stephens said after the IOC’s decision was announced. “It gives a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, a little bit of hope.”

Though COVID-19 continues to ravage the world, including Japan, the IOC affirmed on Wednesday that the Olympics will be held this summer and assured the event will be safe for both the athletes and the Japanese community.

The pandemic also is the reason Stephens was not able to travel between Illinois and Australia repeatedly like he did last year. He was required to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in Australia and would have to do so again if he left the country. With limited time before his first competition, multiple quarantines would not allow him to practice efficiently, so he was forced to cut short his 2021 NCAA season and stay in Australia.

The quarantine did, however, enable Stephens to recover from an ankle injury he sustained before Illinois’ meet against Iowa, in which he was supposed to perform as an all-arounder for the first time since his ACL tear.

“I saw him do some light tumbling, and it was still bothering him a little bit, and then he jetted off to Australia,” Spring said. “The fact that he’s looking as good as he is is a testament to how strong his willpower is.”

Earlier this month, Stephens competed against 13 other Australian gymnasts in a selection trial for the Continental Championships, with the top four advancing to Gold Coast. Stephens placed first in the trial with an all-around score of 81.500.

“Focusing on my physical, as well as mental, preparation was key to my success this past weekend given some of the obstacles that accompanied me in this process,” Stephens said in an Instagram post afterward. “It’s so great to be competing in Australia. See you all soon for the final dance.”

Spring, former Olympian himself, has dealt with the roller coaster Stephens has gone through, but he says that Stephens has been through so much more.

“My journey to the Olympics was crazy and riddled with injuries, but Clay is on a whole other level,” Spring said. “He’s had an unbelievable journey of setbacks, he hit rock bottom with his third ACL tear and then he came back within a year. If he makes the Olympic team, this would be one of the coolest stories I’ve ever witnessed.”

@B_RadZimm