Prioritizing happiness, O'Keefe moves on from elite

The road to happiness in gymnastics does not necessarily pass through the Olympic Games.

Maile O’Keefe gets it. One of the best elites in the country for the past six years, O’Keefe voluntarily dropped back to level 10 following a challenging 2018 season. The stylish 2016 and 2017 U.S. junior national champion, who competed in her first ever level 10 gymnastics meet at the Brestyan’s Las Vegas Invite this week in her hometown.

“I just had to do what was best for me mentally and physically,” O’Keefe told FloGymnastics following the competition. “It was really hard [to make the decision to do level 10 instead of elite], but you’ve got to do what makes you happiest.” That sounds like Katelyn Ohashi, another seemingly Olympic-bound elite who found happiness as a level 10 and collegiate superstar.

O’Keefe made a poised beginning on the senior stage last year, taking the bronze medal at the American Cup despite errors during the competition. Her sophisticated choreography on floor and the way she handled herself when routines didn’t go as planned belied a maturity beyond her years.

So is making the decision -- likely the hardest of her life so far -- not to continue down the elite path. Most likely only six American gymnasts will make the 2020 Olympic team, and while their faces will be everywhere before and during the Games, they represent the top 0.001 percent of people in the sport. To say that it’s not easy to make an Olympic gymnastics team is a gross understatement, and power to those like O’Keefe who decide that two weeks under the Olympic rings isn’t everything there is.

In her interview with FloGymnastics, O’Keefe harked back to one of her favorite moments, her emotions coming off the floor in 2016 right after winning the first of her two junior U.S. all-around titles. “Remembering that feeling is why I do gymnastics,” she said. She’s on the right track, even if it’s not the Olympic one.