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Suddenly Wieber faces new challenge
SAN JOSE, Calif.
If television time and media exposure told the whole story then the whole story of the 2012 Summer Olympics would come down to four people: Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth. Michael Phelps, trying to add to the legend of his record-setting Beijing. Ryan Lochte, Phelps’ top rival in the pool.
And a preternaturally serious Michigan girl who turns 17 next week, the reigning gymnastics world champion, a girl who loves shopping at Forever 21, who just got her driver’s license, and who until this past weekend had only been beaten in all-around in one meet over the past two years.
Jordyn Wieber has performed on balance beam in Rockefeller Plaza on “The Today Show.” She’s done her double layout dismount on uneven bars on “Ellen.” Her face is on a Corn Flakes box. But up until last week in San Jose, she had yet to compete in an Olympic trials, and when she did, the girl who has been dubbed the heiress apparent for USA Gymnastics finished a surprising second to the upstart 16-year-old, Gabby Douglas.
All of this adds up to a deep sense of déjà vu in the American gymnastics scene. Could this be 2008 all over again, when the unbeatable girl who NBC and sponsors made the face of the Olympics, Shawn Johnson, ended up winning silver instead of gold in the all-around, ceding her top spot to Nastia Liukin? After all, Wieber is the reigning women’s world champion, and the reigning champ has only netted an Olympic all-around gold medal once since 1972.
Perhaps the better question is this: Does the American “It Girl” now go into London as the definite No. 2 on the women’s gymnastics team, or does the Olympic trials really not matter one lick?
“I don’t think it mattered,” said one of Wieber’s coaches, Kathryn Geddert. “The whole goal out of the weekend was to make the team. Obviously it would have been nice to come out on top, but a tenth (of a point, the margin between the top two) — that could have gone any way ... I don’t know disappointed is the correct word. It’s always nice to be on top, and she consistently is there. I guess it’s a different feeling. We’re not used to her being second.”
And the rivalry between Wieber and Douglas?
“It used to be the Shawn and Nastia show,” Geddert said. “Now it’s Gabby and Jordyn. People like rivalries. It sells magazines. It sells shows.”
For all that’s being made of Douglas upsetting Wieber, a tenth of a point was the entire margin of victory. That could have been one wobble on beam, or one landing that wasn’t exactly perfect, or one judge’s whim. Wieber is still the only gymnast Martha Karolyi, the American team coordinator, has compared to the Romanian legend Nadia Comaneci.
But the fact Wieber didn’t win the meet is jarring in a sport that’s become used to seeing her atop the standings, and that saw her win nationals last year by a full six points.
On Monday morning, less than 12 hours after she was named to the Olympic team, Wieber just shrugged it all off. Who remembers the winner of an Olympic trials? Nobody. The whole point of the trials is to form an Olympic team, and Wieber made that team. End of story. Now, she’s on to London as reigning world champion.
“I try not to think about the jinx,” Wieber replied to the fact that reigning world champions typically don’t win all-around Olympic gold. “I imagined this moment my whole life, of making the Olympic team.”
It’s a typical response from a girl who is far less effusive than her bubbly counterpart, Gabby Douglas. Yes, Jordyn Wieber gets emotional, but it’s typically when she’s being hard on herself after messing up part of her routine. Such as during warm-ups before Sunday’s second day of trials, when she missed part of her routine on uneven bars and appeared near tears.
“I think she’s come a long way in that category,” Geddert said. “In the past she’s had problems dealing with, if one little thing goes wrong, it turns into more. But I think she’s turned that around a lot. Now she appears (older than her age) because of her intensity and focus. We always say she was so focused at such a young age.”
She needs to be. A month from now these five girls will be, as USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said, “the faces of America.” And when the girl crowned by sponsors and television as America’s Queen Gymnast steps up to her apparatus, a lot of pressure will be on her shoulders.
Yet as she sat before reporters Monday, shuttling back and forth between photo shoots, Wieber seemed calm, even complacent. It’s easy to forget, when you see her gravity-defying gymnastics, that she’s still a kid. Her favorite movie is “The Notebook,” her favorite book “The Secret.”
And yes, she does still like Justin Bieber. But Jordyn Wieber wants us all to get one thing straight: It’s no longer an obsession, like when she brought Justin Bieber posters to decorate her room at a national training camp two years ago. She just likes his music. Nothing more.
When asked about it, Wieber just rolled her eyes. She’s ready to grow up.
“I still get asked questions about it,” she said. “In every ... single ... interview.”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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