HIGH PROFILE: Jordyn Wieber became an elite gymnast but pursued coaching after a leg injury

Wieber combined her loves of psychology, leadership and gymnastics

“It’s a constant battle to be one of those top [athletes] in the country. It was intense because only five athletes were chosen on the [U.S. National] team out of however many there are in the entire country. You have to excel when it counts the most. It’s a tremendous amount of pressure.” -Jordyn Wieber
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
“It’s a constant battle to be one of those top [athletes] in the country. It was intense because only five athletes were chosen on the [U.S. National] team out of however many there are in the entire country. You have to excel when it counts the most. It’s a tremendous amount of pressure.” -Jordyn Wieber (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)


Being a gymnast was always in the cards for Jordyn Wieber. From the time that she was barely a toddler, she was balancing on one leg as her mother attempted to put her pants on after a diaper change. Rumor has it she had noticeable biceps and quads as a young child, too.

"My mom was like 'How does that happen? How does she have that kind of balance?'" says Wieber, now head coach for Arkansas Razorbacks Gymnastics, while taking a break after practice at the Bev Lewis Center for Women's Athletics. Everything about Wieber's energy radiates precision and efficiency. "That's eventually how I got into gymnastics -- because my parents thought I looked like a gymnast, even when I was really young."

Wieber officially entered gymnastics at age 4. By 7 years old, she was at level five, training between 20 and 25 hours a week. Two-a-day practices began in fifth grade.

It all began to pay off when she made the U.S. National Team at age 11, winning second in the all-around at the Junior Pan American Games in Guatemala. She continued to rise from there on -- winning as a team at the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo and finally the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

Later she would be inducted into the Greater Lansing (Mich.) Sports Hall of Fame and the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame as a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.


[INTERVIEW: Hear more from Jordyn Wieber » nwaonline.com/1009wieber/]


"I remember Jordyn's being the big name, the big competition," says Kyla Ross, assistant coach for Arkansas Razorbacks Gymnastics. "I looked up to her. She was such a strong competitor. She had won junior nationals in elite, and just seeing how fierce and consistent she was at such a young age and dominating all the events" was impressive.

Ross looked to Wieber for experience, mentorship and for someone who could pump her up along with the other gymnasts, to talk to them and bring everyone together, first as teammates, then as her collegiate coach and now as her colleague.

"I just loved that feeling of being on a team and the way we would go into an arena feeling invincible, cheering for each other the whole time and that support I felt from my teammates," Wieber says. "You don't get that a lot of times in elite gymnastics."

That feeling would ultimately lead Wieber into coaching, since college gymnastics is more of a team effort than the individual, elite competition side.

"Having such a long history and friendship with Jordyn, really being in that same environment, has allowed me to be open to learning, and I think that's something she's really good at in the leadership perspective," Ross says. "She's good at showing people the ropes ... she knows the balance of being there for an athlete and when to push them."

Wieber has also become a champion for child abuse survivors in her transparency about her own experiences as a survivor of sexual abuse by sports doctor Larry Nassar. She will be named the 2022 Blue Ribbon recipient by the Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas at the Woman of Inspiration event on Oct. 28 at the Statehouse Convention Center for her victim impact statement's contribution to Nassar's sentencing.

This award is given to an adult who has been affected by the trauma of abuse in order to bring awareness to the problem of child abuse and neglect, according to a news release from the Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas. "Beyond the gym, Wieber has served as an outspoken advocate for victims of child sexual abuse. Wieber has used the platform of gymnastics to encourage and inspire generations of young girls and others around the nation."

FAMILY OF ATHLETES

Wieber got her athletic genes from both sides of the family. She grew up in Dewitt, Mich., at the center of a very athletic family, in which each member had his or her own sport. Her dad had several, but played primarily football in high school and her mom ran track in college -- her best event was the long jump. Throughout her childhood, they did a lot of cycling and ran marathons.

"At first, gymnastics was just really fun for me," Wieber says. "I think most young girls who start (out) feel that way. I walked into a gym and saw the foam pit and the trampoline, and I thought 'Yes, this is the place for me.'"

Even as a 4-year-old, there were aspects of the sport that came naturally right away. Wieber was naturally strong, but also found the conditioning and strength exercises were really fun and easy -- not the average person's response to the work.

In the first phase of her gymnastics experience, it was mainly about excelling in those physical abilities. The actual gymnastics came later. But once she got into it, Wieber really got sucked in. She never tried any other sport.

"I didn't progress as fast as most other gymnasts do, but my personality is what led me to get there eventually," Wieber says. "I'm a huge goal setter. If there's something I set my mind to, it's pretty likely I'm going to achieve it."

At age 9, Wieber watched her first Olympics on TV, the 2004 games in Athens. When she watched Carly Patterson win the all-around, that was the magical moment. That's when she said, "I want to be in the Olympics one day."

THE UNSPOKEN GOAL

From then on, that was the goal in her mind that drove everything else. No one in the Wieber family was allowed to say the "O word," because no one wanted to jinx it, but the unspoken goal was running the show.

Instead, Wieber remained hyperfocused on each next little step of the process until they became bigger and bigger, like making the U.S. National Team, competing internationally and attending training camps each month.

"It's a constant battle to be one of those top [athletes] in the country," Wieber says. "It was intense because only five athletes were chosen on the [U.S. National] team out of however many there are in the entire country. You have to excel when it counts the most. It's a tremendous amount of pressure."

Unlike a lot of other elite gymnasts, Wieber chose to remain in school. Each day, she would practice two and a half hours in the morning, go to school for half a day -- her mental break from the sport -- and then practice again for another four and a half hours when she returned. Then it was back home to complete homework and make sure she let her body recover.

Wieber was always at the gym. That's where she spent her entire childhood.

Wieber didn't get to go on many family vacations or see her siblings' sporting events. Her parents' itinerary was sometimes a crunch, like for instance when they had to fly to Tokyo to see Wieber compete in the world championships and be back as soon as humanly possible to attend her brother's senior night football game, since he was the quarterback.

"They tried to balance it the best they could and make us all feel supported, but we were definitely a busy family," Wieber says.

She may not have attended many Friday night football games or school dances, but Wieber knew they were necessary sacrifices in gymnastics, where the window of opportunity for success was very small and the toll on the body very high.

THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE

Wieber arrived at her first international assignment, the Junior Pan American Games in Guatemala, at age 11. It was the first time she went outside the United States and just the beginning of a string of international competitions that would lead her ultimately to the Olympic Games.

Being in another country at Thanksgiving was a bit strange for someone so young, but the feeling of wearing a Team USA leotard for the first time overrode it as she took pride in representing her country abroad.

"It was the first time I remember thinking 'Wow, I really love this,' and wanted to keep working on it," Wieber says. Stepping out to do her routine, she says she "never got nervous. Part of that was because I tricked myself into [it]; I always just said 'I'm excited.'"

Already she was learning that nervousness and excitement felt so similar in the body. By then she was practicing up to 30 hours a week, from drills and basics to ballet; conditioning, stretching and even more conditioning. It felt like she had practiced the routines millions of times. Before her turn, she reminded herself that it was just one more.

As a coach, she tells her athletes much the same thing to keep them from losing a mental battle, reminding them that the more routines they get under their belts, the more they have to draw from when the time is right.

"That mental training is what separates good athletes and great athletes," Wieber says. "The ones who are so mentally strong and confident [to] where competition isn't a big deal, it's just another routine. That's what I learned from my coaches was the discipline that it takes to be a great athlete and come in every day even when it's really difficult and your body might be saying 'I don't want to do it today,' to be resilient, every single day."

TORE HER HAMSTRING

While competing, Wieber leaned back on that mental toughness and earned second in the all-around.

A few years later, as she approached ages 15-18, the peak window of gymnastic performance where her best chance for making the Olympic team lay, Wieber tore her hamstring at age 14. The pressure was mounting with the amount of time to Olympic trials closing in and making the jump from junior to senior level. It was a hard time to be injured, she says, especially since the injury couldn't be fixed with a surgery.

"It's one of those injuries that if you come back too early on it, you can tear it again easily," Wieber says.

It kept her out of competition for a year and a half. During practices, there wasn't a lot of gymnastics she could do while healing. She had to focus on physical therapy, conditioning and stretching, but most of all, not letting it get to her head.

Wieber had been going to Larry Nassar, and it was during this period, she says, that he began abusing her.

"Looking back, that was one of the toughest times of my gymnastics career, and I didn't even process it in the moment," she says. "All I wanted to do was compete and get back into training, and I just had to wait and let it heal."

Wieber had to rely on her years of competition experience while she was unable to train as much as she wanted in the last few weeks leading up to the Olympic Games.

FROM TOKYO TO LONDON

The 2011 World Championships in Tokyo is, in Wieber's opinion, when she peaked in gymnastics. Focused on the team competition that she loved so much, she made it to all-around finals, made a couple of mistakes but inched out and won, to her surprise, granting her a huge confidence boost.

"I was the best in the world at the time," Wieber says. "That's just a crazy thing to be able to say about yourself, but really that ... confirmed with the national team staff that I was capable of achieving a high level of gymnastics on the international stage."

As the world champion the year before the Olympics, all eyes were on Wieber, expecting her to make the team and go on and defend her title in London.

Once there, Wieber sustained a tough stress fracture on her tibia. She competed through it and trained through the excruciating pain with the knowledge that she might not have the opportunity again. She felt like it was worth pushing herself. The day after the games, Wieber slapped a boot on her leg and let it heal.

While at the Olympics, Wieber didn't qualify for all-around finals again.

"That was really tough on me, because everyone had expected me to qualify, expected me to vie for that Olympic all-around title, because I had won world the year before," she says. "So when I didn't qualify, I was really disappointed in myself and knew I was capable of more, but behind the scenes I was dealing with a lot."

Looking back, Wieber realizes she might not be sitting on the Razorback campus as a head coach in the SEC if things had gone differently. Still, having a redemption moment at the Olympics and being there for her teammates was the highlight of her experience.

A VOICE TO USE

After London, Wieber returned to the gym and to her final year of high school. She kept training for a couple of years because part of her felt like she had unfinished business in gymnastics with that all-around title.

Wieber then started college at the University of California, Los Angeles, and began studying psychology and realized that fighting for an individual title didn't motivate her the same way. There wasn't as much fire under her for that, and so she closed the chapter of her life that was elite gymnastics.

While she studied with hopes to become a sports psychologist and then shifted focus to pursuing a path as a leadership coach for business executives, Wieber was also UCLA Gymnastics team manager for three years. During her senior year of college, she became the volunteer assistant coach. Her focus shifted very naturally into the coaching path. Wieber had, after all, been watching the every move of UCLA Coach Valorie Kondos Field and reading as many books about leadership and coaches as she could get her hands on. Coaching was the best combination of her three main interests -- psychology, leadership and gymnastics.

But there was something else new. In the very public case against sports doctor Larry Nassar, who was accused of abusing hundreds of children and young women, victims were being asked to testify. Wieber struggled with the decision to be one of them.

"One thing we felt growing up through elite gymnastics was that we didn't have a voice," she says. "We were always taught in our sport to be really disciplined, to not speak up, to do as you're told, to keep your head down and just work."

But because she was an Olympian, Wieber felt that she suddenly did have a voice. Because so many survivors were choosing to speak up, she knew she wouldn't be alone in the courtroom. It helped, seeing others with the same courage. Collectively, she says, it made all their voices really powerful, sending a statement that the level of abuse should not happen again, not just in gymnastics but in any sport.

"I didn't want people to Google my name and that be the first thing they read," Wieber says. "I didn't want that to be my whole life or what people thought about when they thought about Jordyn Wieber. But there was this other side of things ... I was overtaken by this sense of responsibility and a duty to speak out in hopes that it might create some awareness and that if one other person who's been affected by child sexual abuse or abuse of any kind in their lifetime, you can speak up and stand up against your abuser."

On Dec. 7, 2017, Nassar was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison for possession of child pornography and destroying and concealing evidence. In early 2018, he received two more sentences of an additional 40 years or more each for sexual assault.

The work didn't end there. Wieber and her teammates have had many opportunities since to create awareness and change in the sport of gymnastics and the way people view sexual harassment and child sexual abuse.

"We're just figuring out ways that everybody can help prevent it and be on the lookout for it," Wieber says. "Sometimes the people who are the most trusted or the people you least expect are the abusers."

SELF PORTRAIT

Jordyn Wieber

• FAMILY: Fiance Chris Brooks, who is an Olympian of men's gymnastics and also one of my assistant coaches. Fun fact: our entire coaching staff is Olympians. We're the first and only ever all-Olympian coaching staff in any sport in the NCAA.

• A TYPICAL SATURDAY NIGHT FOR ME INCLUDES: Watching a Razorbacks football game or on the road recruiting.

• LAST BOOK I READ: "Row the Boat" by Jon Gordon and P.J. Fleck

• IF I SAW ANOTHER GIRL TRYING SOMETHING NEW AT THE GYM: I had to try that same skill. That's what kept pushing me, wanting to be the best all the time.

• THE OLYMPICS WAS: Always my biggest goal and dream, but looking back the biggest wins were the team ones, the gold medal at the London Olympics and we won the world championship as a team the year before in Tokyo.

• I'M ONE OF THE ONLY OLYMPIC GYMNASTS WHO: Never had a surgery. It's unheard of, not just for Olympics, but college or really any gymnast.

• COLLEGE GYMNASTICS IS: The most team-oriented version of gymnastics that exists.

• COACHING IS MORE THAN JUST: Technique and gymnastic skills. It's coaching confidence and resilience and having those conversations through hard times that 'Hey, I've been through this and here's what helped' and at other times, helping them realize it on their own.

• WHAT KEEPS ME GOING: When I walk into this practice gym every day and see the looks on our team's faces and just how excited they are to be here and how excited they are to keep working and striving toward their goals, it really is inspirational.

• THREE WORDS TO DESCRIBE ME: Competitive, confident, compassionate.


  photo  “I didn’t progress as fast as most other gymnasts do, but my personality is what led me to get there eventually. I’m a huge goal setter. If there’s something I set my mind to, it’s pretty likely I’m going to achieve it.” -Jordyn Wieber (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)