Fred Richard, after lifetime of handstands, is built to burst onto Olympics scene

MINNEAPOLIS — He’s sucking on a pacifier and wearing a onesie stuffed, it would appear, with a diaper. Squished into the far corner of his crib, Frederick Richard is also doing a handstand. In the charming picture published a year ago in Richard’s college paper, the Michigan Daily, his older sister stands on the side of the crib staring at him. Because, well, he’s barely a toddler and he’s doing a handstand.

This is where we say the obvious: Richard, the newly minted all-around champion at the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials and 2024 Olympian, was born for this. Which he will tell you, he was. He itched to get to a gym, begged to stay at a gym, never wanted to leave a gym since the first time his parents let him try gymnastics. He bagged family vacations and begged for instruction.

His path was hardly linear — his first coaches sent him home until he could get his energy under control and as he came up through the system, he was essentially held back in gymnastics school, “repeating” levels four, five and six.

But he arrives at this perfect precipice, the Olympic Games in Paris, at exactly the right time for U.S. men’s gymnastics.

The United States men have won but one team gold in their history. Just before the latest version of the Olympic squad was announced, that team was feted here for its anniversary — its 40th (!). Honestly, at this point, the U.S. isn’t even picky about  medal color. The Americans’ last Olympic team medal of any kind came in 2008.

After a disappointing fifth-place finish in Tokyo, program directors made a concerted effort to make the Americans more competitive. The United States arrived at the 2020 Games essentially running uphill; their routines lagged well behind the sport’s leaders in difficulty. Afterward, national team organizers made crafting harder routines a priority. The result is that, heading to Paris, the Americans’ difficulty slots third behind Japan and China but, only two and 3.6 points behind respectively, and solid execution could close the gap. (Admittedly, it helps that the Russians — gold medalists in Tokyo — won’t be in Paris, either.)

“We control our own destiny,” said program director Brett McClure. “What’s the goal? That we’re going to get back on the podium. That’s the goal. That’s the objective. That’s all we’re shooting for.”

There are plenty on the team who can medal, but it is Richard who has the best shot. Despite face-planting on a crash off the high bar, he finished third at the 2023 world championships, becoming the first American man to medal in the all-around there in 13 years. His routines are packed with difficulty — of the six events here, he finished first on high bar, second on parallel bars and third on floor — and at 20, he is young enough to get even sharper and better.

Fred Richard pulled back his NCAA training to focus on the Olympic run-up. On Saturday, it paid off with an all-around title at the U.S. trials. (Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

It is, of course, about the medals. It is always about the medals. Lots of medals is why the women’s team members are first-name famous, and the men remain relatively anonymous. America loves a winner, and the U.S. men haven’t delivered one on the Olympic stage in a while.

Richard, though, is not just athletically up to the task; his personality is ideally suited to become the face of a team in desperate need of a visage. Bright smile, charming persona, emotionally charged — all conveniently packaged into one very powerful athlete. Some call him cocky, but a little arrogance could go a long way for the U.S.

Immediately after securing his spot, Richard promised hardware. Asked what people could expect of him in Paris, Richard grinned, “What can you expect to see from me and the team in Paris? Medals. You can expect to see some medals in Paris.”

No doubt, you’ll see whatever Richard does on social media. He has more than 600,000 followers on TikTok, where he loves to show off his skills. He’s also wisely flipped feet first into the expanding opportunities offered by name, image and likeness. He has deals with Crocs, Peloton and Celsius, not to mention a clothing line (frederickflips).

He is, in other words, the sort of athlete built to burst onto the Olympics scene.

And he not only knows it; he’s not afraid of it. Plenty of athletes — swimmers Caeleb Dressel and Regan Smith, and 2020 all-around gold medalist Sunisa Lee among them — have spoken openly about how overwhelming it is to be suddenly shoved into the spotlight. Olympic athletes are both lifers and phenomena, spending countless years toiling in relative obscurity trying to make an Olympic team, only to arrive like a shooting star in the short three weeks that the world finally is watching. Few are ready for it and not everyone is hard-wired for it.

Richard looks ready for his spotlight. He purposefully, if reluctantly, dialed back his workload in his second season at the University of Michigan to pursue his Olympic dream (he still finished second in the all-around at the NCAA championships), crafting a plan that much to his delight — and surprise — has gone off nearly without a hitch. After NCAAs, he finished second at U.S. Championships, earning his spot at trials.

Yet faced with the challenge of his first Olympic Trials, Richard flipped the switch on what nearly everyone else called a pressure-packed situation.

“It was more like a going-away party,” he said. “A celebration. The hard work was done. The competition days are the easy days. I gave everything for months before that. My body was ready. My mind just had to relax and let my body do the work.”

He admits, sort of, that Paris is a different animal. There are, for starters, more days of competition what with qualification rounds, team finals, all-around finals and event finals, so he wants to up his workload to prep for the demands. The competition, of course, is even tougher, and he intends to finetune his routines to squeeze every possible value he can.

But he’s also, merely a few minutes into his status upgrade to 2024 Olympian, already moving his own goalposts. The goal of becoming an Olympian realized, the dream of winning a medal voiced, what’s a little worldwide domination?

“I mean, I’m 20 years old,” he said. “The whole world is watching. I’m going to give them something to be entertained by.”

Kinda like throwing a handstand in a crib.



Frederick Richard highlights men’s U.S. gymnastics team

(Top photo of Richard after his pommel horse routine Saturday at U.S. trials: Elsa / Getty Images)

(Photo: Elsa / Getty Images)

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