When gymnastics worlds collide: Aleah Finnegan’s low-stress approach to elite could be her ticket to Paris 2024

By Karyssa D'Agostino | September 25, 2023
LSU's Aleah Finnegan competes on floor during the semifinals of the 2023 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships.
© Matthew Smith

Artistic gymnastics can be divided into two worlds: elite and college, but now, more than ever, gymnasts are choosing to do both simultaneously. In this series, Gymnastics Now talks with athletes who are straddling the line between worlds to highlight the nuances of representing college and country.

Gymnastics Now spoke with LSU stronghold Aleah Finnegan this past February when the then-sophomore gymnast was still undecided on whether she would pursue the 2024 Paris Olympics after making an elite return in 2022. We caught back up with her for this series, and although she is still taking the journey as it comes, a run for Paris 2024 isn’t out of the question. Whatever she decides, Finnegan’s athletic priorities are clear: LSU over everything.

Staying focused on the purple and gold

“In the grand scheme of all this, at the end of the day, LSU still is my number one priority,” Finnegan said. “And it’s kind of just cool to think – it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s just another competition that I get to do.’ I really try not to think bigger than it needs to be, and so I thought that was really cool – that I was just kind of switching my mindset, from going into each competition like life or death and like your whole career’s on the line, but no, I was just grateful that I was able to do another competition in the summer.”

In June, Finnegan competed for the Philippines at the 2023 Asian Gymnastics Championships, alongside UCLA gymnast Emma Malabuyo. It was there that the now-junior placed sixth in the all-around, earning her a berth to compete at this week’s world championships in Antwerp, Belgium, and pushing her another step closer to a potential Olympic berth.

However, Finnegan is still adamant that she will keep NCAA gymnastics her priority, which made the decision to compete at the Asian championships a tough one.

“It was kind of a tough decision,” Finnegan explained. “Because this is a lot on your body, especially this age. I mean, I’m only 20, but at this age it can be a lot on your body. And so I was really grateful to be able to work with Garrett [Griffeth] – he was able to come out and come with me to the Asian championships, and it’s really just kind of working on fine-tuning what’s best for my body and we just kind of went for it.”

Uncharted and unfazed

Finnegan’s pursuit of competing in NCAA and elite is uncharted territory for her and the LSU gymnastics program as well.

“World Championships is just end of September, so it’s also right around the corner, and they’ve never really had a gymnast at LSU be also in elite gymnastics as well,” Finnegan explained. “But I knew that I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity with [this] LSU team… It’s going to be so special. I’m so excited and really looking forward to that. And so you’re really just going to try to figure out a plan to balance both because this is like a new thing.”

Finnegan and her coaches may be heading into uncharted territory, but you would never know it. She’s about as level-headed about the entire journey as you can get.

“We don’t really know what to expect, but we’re gonna go full force ahead for the World Championships. And then I do fully intend on competing the whole [NCAA] season from January to April, really just focusing on LSU during that time, and then there’s a few chances from the end of April to hopefully go to the Olympics. World championships [will] kinda [help] me decide how that looks a little clearer after that happens.”

If Finnegan finishes in the top 14 of eligible athletes in the women’s all-around during qualifying at worlds, she’ll earn a berth, by name (i.e. for herself, not the Philippines), to next summer’s Games.

As alluded to earlier, Finnegan has had a change in mindset on how she is approaching her elite career, which has taken the pressure off her in terms of upgrading.

“I think we’re just gonna keep how my elite routines are now, and if the upgrades come then great – that door’s not shut completely – but if not, I don’t have any pressure or, ‘Oh, I have to get this skill or my life is ruined,’ nothing like that,” she said. “I love playing with upgrades; I love playing with new skills, and so if it sticks, great, and if not, that’s no big deal.”

In it together

Although Finnegan is having fun with her elite comeback and, by all accounts, not letting the pressure get to her, the transition to and from and balancing of both worlds can still be hard.

Finnegan said the amount of gymnasts who are now competing in both elite and college gives her a sense of comfort during some of those challenges.

“It is just cool knowing that I’m not the only one that has to go through this process,” Finnegan said. “Emma also had a long season, and she had to prepare for this too. And it’s just so cool being able to kind of relate. Like Luisa Blanco for Alabama just recently went to a competition, and I just think that’s so awesome just knowing that like, ‘Okay, well if they can do it, I can do it too.’ And so we’re just kind of bouncing off of each other.”

Fortunately for Finnegan – and all the men’s and women’s NCAA athletes competing in Antwerp this week – a short break is in sight before the college season begins in January. Training will continue, but all elite athletes, especially the elite crossovers, deserve some time to relax and enjoy the holiday season. Because come 2024, it’s all systems go.

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