Fred Richard Emerging as Top Hope for USA in Men’s Gymnastics at Upcoming Olympics

At the gymnastics world championships in Antwerp, Belgium, in October, Fred Richard found himself in an unfamiliar position—face down on the mat.

Entering the last event in the all-around competition, in which gymnasts compete in six events—vault, floor, high bar, parallel bars, pommel horse, and rings—he did something he doesn’t normally do. He glanced at the scoreboard. His name was second.

“That was the biggest mistake,” he says. As Richard mounted the high bar, his best event, his mind raced with the possibilities. He had a chance to win! Or he could fall and finish without a medal at all. Approaching one of his more difficult release moves, he flung himself off the bar, flipped, twisted 180 degrees in the air, and turned back to catch the bar. Except, in the split second he was airborne, he worried about jeopardizing his standing and twirled closer to the bar than he normally would to ensure he wouldn’t miss grabbing it.

“I changed my technique under pressure, which is definitely not what you want to do, played it safe, cut it close, missed the skill, and fell,” he says.

Lying on his stomach, Richard became philosophical. “This fall was supposed to happen,” he told himself. “You’re supposed to be in fourth place. You’re supposed to go home pretty angry but then grind for the upcoming Olympics and make a statement where you go from fourth to first place.”

He got up, finished the routine, and stuck the landing, fully expecting to finish off the podium.

Then came the second surprise of the evening. When the final scores were tallied, Richard had earned enough points overall to finish third, earning the first world-championship medal in the all-around competition for a U.S. male gymnast in 13 years and, at 19, becoming the youngest U.S. male gymnast to do so. And that was on top of the bronze that he and the U.S. men earned in the team event. The triumphant showing fueled speculation that not only would Richard represent the U.S. in the upcoming Paris Olympics, he might also bring the men their first Olympic medal in the sport since 2012.

“I have no problem saying that I want to win this Olympics and I want to be in the sport for 10-plus years and dominate, because that’s sports,” says Richard, now 20, on a snowy March day at the University of Michigan gym where he trains. “That’s what you’re supposed to do—you’re supposed to talk big, you’re supposed to challenge yourself.”

Richard has the resume to back up the talk. Aside from his world-championship medals, he’s a national all-around bronze medalist and a national champion on the high bar. In April, he earned silver in the all-around competition at the NCAA championships and helped Michigan win silver in the team event. He was one of six finalists this year for the James E. Sullivan Award for the top U.S. athlete at the collegiate or Olympic level. ( won for the second year in a row.) He has deals with Crocs, Celsius energy drink, Marriott, and Peloton, as well as his own apparel brand, aptly named frederickflips, whose logo is a silhouette of him in a backflip. And to reach an audience that might otherwise pay attention to his sport only every four years, he’s also leveraged social media to attract a combined 900,000 followers to his TikTok and Instagram accounts.

Even in the seconds-long clips he posts, Richard’s delight in learning new skills is obvious. “You know when you see kids in the playground and they look innately happy? That’s Fred when he’s in the gym,” says Jordan Gaarenstroom, assistant coach for men’s gymnastics at University of Michigan, where Richard is a sophomore. “He has a charisma that a lot of people work toward but comes so natural to him.”

This summer fans will tune in to the Games to see the powerhouse U.S. women, likely headed by Simone Biles, but Richard’s athletic prowess and personality will certainly generate some real excitement for the men’s competition too. “He sets goals other people may laugh at,” says Paul Juda, a Michigan teammate who was also part of the world-championship team, “but once Fred gets that desire in his heart and in his mind, the only person to tell him no is himself. And he never does.”

If you’re looking for Richard on the Ann Arbor campus, chances are you’ll find him at the Newt Loken Training Center, the headquarters for the men’s gymnastics team. Richard, who is studying film and media, spends so much time in the facility that he has groceries for breakfast and lunch DoorDashed there. “Most of the time when I come to practice an hour before we start, Fred’s either taking a nap in the pit [of foam blocks] or working on schoolwork or on his social media content,” says Gaarenstroom.

His love of the sport began early, in Stoughton, Mass., where he “literally flipped out of his crib,” says his mother, Ann-Marie, a researcher and patient-engagement specialist at Pfizer. “He was always upside down.” When 2-year-old Fred first watched kids tumbling at the gym where his older sister Alexandra took classes, he wasted no time imitating what he saw when he got home. “I tried it on my parents’ bed and landed on my head a couple of times, so my parents figured they had better put me in some classes,” he says.

It was hard for young Fred to contain his excitement, however, and he ran unchecked around the gym, darting under and between the gymnasts working on their routines. Tom Fontecchio, who would become his first coach, politely asked Richard’s parents to bring him back in a couple of years when he could better follow directions.

When they did, Richard was still enamored. He became so dedicated that he gave up several family vacations, staying with his grandparents or Fontecchio, because he didn’t want to lose time in the gym. “I felt bad leaving him behind, but it’s what he wanted,” says Ann-Marie.

A natural athlete, Richard takes an analytical approach to his training. He envisions what it takes to execute new skills before stepping on the mat and carefully reviews his routines after each meet, breaking down what worked and what didn’t. “It’s kind of like a puzzle but physical,” he says. “There are an infinite number of new things to figure out and learn. If you get bored with one skill, you move on to the next, and if you master that, there is another challenge waiting.”

Richard’s climb up the ranks has been more stepwise than meteoric. It took him two years to master one of the more basic skills on the bars, the kip—swinging under the bar and then hoisting yourself up on top of the bar with straight arms. As with grades in school, gymnastics is structured around levels, and Richard repeated levels four, five, and six. “I felt annoyed because I would get close to the kids training with me in the gym every day. And those kids would move up and I didn’t train with them anymore,” he says.

Fontecchio urged him to be patient. At the junior national training camp for the top young gymnasts when he was about 10, Richard would take three turns on each piece of equipment to other gymnasts’ one. Around that time, he asked Fontecchio if he could train with older athletes because he felt the boys in his age group weren’t serious enough about the sport. Fontecchio started driving him to other gyms in the area so Richard could learn from other coaches and take advantage of more advanced equipment. “I knew if he were to compete at the world level, he needed a world-level facility,” says Fontecchio, who still watches all of Richard’s college meets and texts with him weekly. “Plus, he needed to be around other good gymnasts so they could push each other.”

But just as he was establishing a reputation in the junior ranks, Richard was forced to pause his intensive training. At 14, he fractured one side of the L4 vertebra and took six months off, including three in a bra