Penn gymnastics senior McCaleigh Marr may be known for her quality on the balance beam, but her favorite event is the uneven bars. Though her journey has had its ups and downs, McCaleigh has found her swing in life, and it’s landing her at the University of Michigan in the fall.
Marr began her gymnastics career at two years old. “Those beams on the top of a swing set, I would get up and walk across it for hours. I had babysitters quit because of that,” she said. Soon, she and her sister Campbell moved gyms to First State Gymnastics in Delaware — training alongside gymnasts like 2017 World All-Around Champion Morgan Hurd. First State is also where Marr’s love for bars was nurtured.
“I wouldn’t be the person or gymnast I am today without Slava [Glazounov] and Cleo [Washington],” she said. “We would have entire practices just on bars.”
However, the college recruiting process didn’t come easy for Marr.
“I broke my ankles three times, my left one once and my right one twice,” Marr said. “It definitely hindered my recruiting a lot.”
Because scouts couldn’t see her at competitions, she sent in videos. Marr’s recruiting process began before rules were changed to not allow students to commit to programs before their junior year; Utah's Maile O’Keefe recently talked in an interview about her commitment to the University of Utah at age 11. In contrast, Marr's process ended in the summer after her sophomore year of high school.
Marr admits it would have been easy to look over her, given her injury-prone history. But one day, former Penn coach John Ceralde took the jump. She toured campus with her younger sister, Campbell, and said it immediately “clicked.” She recalls her phone call with the coaching staff in which they offered her a spot on the team.
“They were like, where are you right now? And I [said], oh, I'm in the car right now. I'm driving to practice … and I knew pretty much right away I was going to commit to Penn.” A month later, Campbell was offered a spot in the following year’s class.
“I definitely took for granted a little bit what it was like [competing with Campbell],” McCaleigh added in regards to her first year at Penn. She was training alongside an entirely new group of gymnasts and coaches. In the Red and Blue, the team score came before her own and everyone cheered each other on. However, Marr has always been a lone preparer, going off into a private corner and not watching any of the girls that compete before her. She noted the stark differences between club expectations and collegiate expectations.
McCaleigh found her swing in the her first season, reaching a 9.825 on bars and a 9.85 on beam before COVID-19 cancelled the rest of the season on March 12, 2020.
While the pandemic kept the team from the competition floor, both Marr sisters rested and trained to come back better than ever.
“We were driving to one of our teammate’s gyms in New Jersey so that we could practice together and have some sense of normalcy,” the older sister said. While Campbell learned a new vault, McCaleigh received two surgeries to fix bone chips in her elbows that previously restricted her flexibility — preventing her from even touching her shoulder blade.
“Gymnastics is 20% physical and 80% mental,” said Marr. She knows this from experience — the adjustment from the individualized competitions of club gymnastics and Junior Olympic competitions are much different than the team-first atmosphere found in the NCAA. Marr, as many gymnasts, struggled immensely with perfectionism from an early age. She credits her coaches at Penn for meeting her where she was mentally her freshman year, and letting her find herself in her own time.
The 2022 season was a fresh start for the Penn gymnastics team, and for Marr. With new elbows and, at last, an opportunity to compete alongside her sister, McCaleigh reached a program record 9.95 on the beam and qualified for the NCAA Regional Championships. She also notched a massive 9.925 on bars — tied for second best in program history. This year, Campbell also achieved a 9.95, sharing the beam record with her sister.
McCaleigh said that when she went to Regionals, she knew she wasn’t done. Every gymnast that didn’t get to compete in 2021 is eligible for a fifth year; however, the Ivy League does not allow fifth years in the conference. Though McCaleigh found her home at Penn, this meant it was time for a change.
“It's actually funny because I was really nervous to talk to my coaches about it,” Marr said. “They know the rule. They know I can't stay here. But they were actually the ones to bring it up to me first. It was the day after I competed at regionals.” Soon after, she entered the transfer portal.
Marr was shocked to see how many programs were interested in her after her regionals performance. Soon, coaches from across the country were contacting her, giving her the chance to pick the best fit. She knew she wanted to go into management, but heard from other gymnasts that an MBA would be difficult to balance with training. She also knew she didn’t want to go to a school with a new head coach, as the experience she had at Penn was a big adjustment she didn't want to relive.
With her search narrowed, she took official visits to UCLA, Michigan, Washington, and Maryland — all of whom offered her a spot on the team should she get into her academic program of choice.
In the end, she chose Michigan.
“My first goal [is to] put on a Michigan leo[tard] and be able to be in lineups for them,” Marr said. “Then going from there, I think I can bring a lot of value to the team, both as a gymnast and as a teammate. With Natalie [Wojcik] and Abby [Heiskell] leaving, there’s a void. I’ll be in the same boat as the freshmen essentially, except I have all this experience on the gymnastics side. I like being able to help them figure out school and figure out gymnastics, sort of like the older sister of the group.”
She hopes that her journey can open the door for other Ivy League gymnasts to consider fifth years, too. Beyond academics, she hopes Penn continues to prioritize mental health in discussion about athletics, something that has impacted her story so closely.
“The fact that I was able to give all of my love to Penn gymnastics for four years is something I will always be so grateful for.”