Aiming high with McCaleigh Marr

The fourth-year gymnast discusses her love of gymnastics and her record-setting career at Penn.

McCaleigh Marr, wearing her Penn leotard, lies in a pile of foam squares, next to a mat.

McCaleigh Marr’s mother likes to joke that when she was born, McCaleigh came out during cartwheels.

Attentive to her toddler’s love of tumbling, swinging, and climbing (sometimes dangerously so), she signed Marr up for gymnastics when she was 2. 

Twenty years later, Marr, a fourth-year gymnast on the gymnastics team, will graduate on Monday with two ECAC/GEC Co-Specialist of the Year awards, three First-Team All-ECAC/GEC selections, two consecutive GEC team championships, an Ivy Classic team title, an individual Ivy Classic title, and an individual spot in the 2022 NCAA Regionals.

Perhaps her mother wasn’t joking.

A communications major in the School of Arts & Sciences, Marr has been a crucial contributor to the colossal success of the gymnastics team over the last four years. Nine of the Top 10 team scores in school history have occurred in the past two seasons, including a 196.950 at the 2022 GEC Championship, a new school record.

Marr herself holds the second-highest score in school history on the uneven bars (a 9.925 at the 2022 GEC Championship) and, along with her sister Campbell, holds the highest score in school history on the balance beam (9.950 at the 2023 Temple Quad).   

From Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, Marr has one year of eligibility remaining due to the COVID-canceled 2021 season. She will use her extra year of eligibility to continue her gymnastics and academic career at the University of Michigan.

Penn Today sat down with Marr to discuss her love of gymnastics, staying balanced on the beam, the training regime for gymnasts, and the unprecedented heights the gymnastics team has achieved during her Penn career.

Image: Penn Athletics

What do you enjoy about gymnastics? What is there not to enjoy? One of my favorite quotes of all time is by Walt Disney: ‘It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.’ That’s kind of how I view gymnastics; I’m doing things that a lot of people view as impossible. I think enjoying gymnastics is very important for somebody who’s doing this sport at this level. Even just talking about it brings a smile to my face. I have an incredible passion for it, and I really do love to compete. I think being in college has heightened that even more. I also do enjoy wearing a nice, sparkly leotard. I think that just adds a little more pizzaz to it.

Your younger sister Campbell is also a member of the gymnastics team. How has the experience been competing alongside your sister? It’s something I’ve been really grateful for because not everyone gets to compete with their sister and genuinely enjoy it, so I think that’s something that I’ve been really blessed to have. It’s nice that I can always talk to somebody about what’s going on in my life who actually understands. I can talk to my [older] sister about it, I can talk to my brother about it, I can talk to my parents about it, but they don’t truly get what you’re going through, especially when you’re having a tough time mentally or even physically. Having her there as someone I can always count on and lean on is something that I’ve always loved.

Image: Penn Athletics

You specialize in the uneven bars and the balance beam. How do you work on staying balanced or maintaining your balance? Is it something that you have to train your body for and you develop over time? I think because I was exposed to it at such a young age, a little bit is kind of intrinsic. The balance beam is four feet above the ground, and that is a bit daunting. I think letting go of that fear piece is huge because at the end of the day, we always say gymnastics is 20% physical and 80% mental, and you are capable of so much more than your mind sometimes lets on. Of course, it comes with hours and hours of practicing and training and repetition, but I think at a certain point—especially doing the sport for so long—you have to be able to let go and kind of have the beam almost be a part of you. It’s kind of a weird feeling. We talk about how we want to work with the equipment, and that the equipment and you should be in sync and that you shouldn’t be fighting it or you shouldn’t be forcing it, and there’s a rhythm to it. That might sound a little bit weird, but I think’s it’s the only way to fully describe it.

If you are off the beam for some time, is it like riding a bike or do you have to sort of retrain your body to be balanced? I would say it’s definitely like riding a bike. I think there are definitely some skills that I haven’t done for a little bit that if you told me to just go up there and do it, after a brief warmup, it would feel like second nature. I think for certain gymnasts, it depends on the skill and the event, but for beam, at least for me, it’s one of those things where I have gone weeks without doing it between injuries and COVID, and when I got back up, the first 30 seconds may have felt a little weird, but once you kind of get moving, you kind of get into your rhythm and it all just kinds of comes back naturally.

Image: Penn Athletics

What kind of training in involved to prepare for the uneven bars? Pretty much like everything in gymnastics, a lot of time is spent just working on basics. A lot of repetition. I think with bars, even more so than beam, it’s important to find your swing and find your rhythm because bars is so different compared to [vault, floor, and beam]. The other three events kind of build off each other. We like to joke that a beam is essentially just a floor. Yes, it may look a bit different, but at the end of the day, your technique kind of remains the same between events. One could say vault and floor are very similar, just by looking at it, but bars is unlike anything else.

The gymnastics team has reached unprecedented heights over the past four years, especially the past two. To what do you credit the success? At the end of the day, I credit it to the team. We were the ones that were able to come together. When you look at those scores, those were amazing scores, but we still had ups and downs. There were falls, there were mistakes, but I think just coming from COVID, we learned to adapt. Another thing I would attribute our success to is the coaches. [Kirsten Becker] became head coach right when COVID hit, then we got [assistant coach Casey Rohrbaugh] halfway through my sophomore year, and then [assistant coach Cassie Hageman] joined us I think in January of last season. I think their ability to click and then help us and motivate us was what we needed to get us in gear. I think the team dynamic was so important, just us interpersonally but then also with the coaches.

Image: Penn Athletics

I read an interview you did with the Philadelphia Inquirer where you talked about how one of your individual goals is to perform ‘a perfect routine that the judge has no choice but to give it a 10.’ This was after you scored a 9.950 at the 2022 GEC Championship. Are you able to tell the difference between a 9.950 and a 10? When you received a 9.950, were you able to tell what you did wrong? I’m probably my harshest critic. I can get so nitpicky sometimes. We video record all of our routines. I will go through my videos and just comb them over, slow-mo, as slow as possible, to see what went wrong and how I can improve myself. That’s great in a sport where perfection is the goal, but it can also be slightly debilitating. I have to sometimes remind myself to take a step back and be like, ‘That was a great routine. Let’s just take a second and recognize how proud of yourself you should be about that.’ Sometimes I think with perfect 10s versus a 9.95 or that type of score, it’s really, really hard to see the difference. I think a gymnast can figure it out quicker than others, but even sometimes a gymnast can be just as baffled or just as confused about a score. That kind of gets into the politics a little bit of gymnastics. It’s so subjective. We can’t control the judges; we can only control what we do.

What are plans between Commencement and when you enroll at Michigan? I start Michigan in June because that’s just when the program starts, so I have a little bit less time than most people. After graduation, I’ll have a little less than a month and half before I start at Michigan. I’m actually going on a trip with my friends post-graduation and then I have two weeks where I will probably go home to my home gym. I will mostly focus on staying in shape and working on basics, and then I’ll head out to Michigan. I have a week of orientation and then after that, my classes will officially start, and I’ll probably get into the gym. I’ve actually been talking to some of the girls on the team to get a feel for what summer is like.