At Northwest High School in Germantown, Kayla DiCello is not your typical sophomore navigating the rigors of science, math and foreign languages. She is more widely known by her peers as “that gymnast girl.”
It is a crude yet fitting description for the 15-year-old Boyds resident who capped her meteoric rise in gymnastics by capturing the gold medal at the U.S. junior national championships last month in Kansas City. That development has prompted classmates to ask her for autographs.
“Everyone knows me because I do gymnastics,” DiCello said a little sheepishly with a laugh. “It’s pretty cool.”
The victory has propelled DiCello into an exclusive group of gymnasts that has turned that crown into more success on the senior level as she pushes for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team headed for the 2020 Tokyo Games. NBC Sports analyst Tim Daggett called DiCello’s win “a very big deal.”
“If you look at the history of gymnasts that have won at the junior level, it’s astounding what they have gone on to do,” said Daggett, who helped the U.S. men’s gymnastics team win the 1984 Olympic gold medal and captured the bronze in the pommel horse. “She’s in very elite company right now and has a lot of great qualities."
DiCello will have to compete against Simone Biles, the reigning Olympic all-around gold medalist and current U.S. champion, at the U.S. Olympic trials in June if she wants to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.
“She’s a very calm competitor, and she comes from Hills Gymnastics with Kelli Hill, and Kelli’s just about one of the top gymnastics developers that I know," Daggett said. "She just has a very good way about her and knows how to get somebody ready for an event and knows how to get somebody ready for a critical time. I’m a big fan of Kelli Hill, and you can’t watch Kayla and not think that she’s got some tremendous abilities.”
DiCello’s roots in gymnastics run deep as she first took up the sport at age 2. She tried soccer and swimming, but said she turned away in fear every time the soccer ball approached her. The somersaults of gymnastics, however, enthralled her.
“I liked the flipping and being able to do cool things that not a lot of people can do,” she said. “I guess learning them, that was different. It was a little easier. So I wasn’t as scared because I was the one flipping.”
Hill, who has been coaching DiCello for the past four years, said her student had a solid base but is made even better by two more understated qualities.
“I picked up right away that she is not fearful and that she is not afraid of hard work, and those two things go a lot further than just raw, natural talent,” said Hill, who remarked DiCello draws a little bit from former students Dominique Dawes (four-time Olympic medalist), Courtney Kupets (two-time Olympic medalist) and Corrie Lothrop (2008 Olympic alternate).
“I’ve seen them before, but they’re a little rare, that athletes will work as hard as they can possibly work. A lot of times, you’re pushing them to get that little more out of them, but she’s not afraid of that hard work.”
In her debut season last year on the junior circuit, DiCello finished first at the American Classic and second at the Pacific Rim championships and the U.S. Classic. She took home the all-around silver medal at the U.S. championships after winning gold in the vault and bronze in the floor exercise and uneven bars.
At the Junior World championships in June in Győr, Hungary, DiCello placed first in the vault and third in the balance beam to contribute to the American team’s bronze-medal showing.
But a month later at the U.S. Classic, DiCello slipped to 11th in the all-around competition after suffering falls in the floor exercise and balance beam. She revealed back pain that flared up after the world meet factored into her surprisingly poor performance.
“When I was competing, I felt confident, but not as well as I should have because my back was hurting,” she said. “When I fell on floor and beam, I was really disappointed, but I also knew that it was a learning experience. I knew I had to come back from that.”
After undergoing several physical therapy sessions and seeking treatment, DiCello felt healthy for the U.S. junior nationals, where she scored 56.000 on the first day and 56.700 on the second day to claim the title. She earned gold medals in the vault — which she called her strongest event — and the floor exercise.
“I was really happy and excited,” she said of her victory. “It was really meaningful, but I put in a lot of hard work in the gym, and then to go to the championships and win it on the floor, it was all worth it.”
Daggett noted that DiCello’s total score of 112.700 would have placed her third behind only Biles and Sunisa Lee at the senior level.
“I think she has a very bright future,” he said. “Powerful kid, nice lines. She’s pretty even-keeled all the way across. It bodes very well for her.”
If DiCello, who turns 16 on Jan. 25, does not qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, she could take aim at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, but she has already committed to continue her gymnastics career at the University of Florida.
Hill said DiCello is at a slight disadvantage to the country’s top competitors.
“She doesn’t have the experience that the other seniors do,” Hill said. “Have we talked about it? We’ve talked about it, but it’s not the pure focus. Right now, I believe we have to focus on her start values and her executions and things like that. I’m doing that type of work. I want her to just stay concentrating on her day-to-day job in the gym, not the other. It’s a very outside shot, but she does have a shot.”
DiCello said her top priority next year is representing the U.S. in Tokyo.
“I’m going to give it everything I’ve got,” she said. “Hopefully, I make the team, and we’ll see what happens. … That would be a big dream of mine, to go to the Olympics.”
U.S. gold = Olympic glory?
Fifteen-year-old Kayla DiCello of Boyds captured the gold medal at the U.S. junior nationals. Here is a sampling of American junior champions who have succeeded at the senior level.
Year;U.S. Junior National champ;Career achievements