Gymnasts like Jordyn Wieber are what make gymnastics special.
Women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) is constantly presenting remarkable stories. From the gymnasts who made history on the Olympic stage (Gabby Douglas), to the ones who conducted themselves so honorably in the face of defeat, you couldn’t help but think they won more hearts than gold (McKayla Maroney). There are even those who didn’t make it to the Olympics but still found a way to win the hearts of fans everywhere (Katelyn Ohashi).
And then there are the gymnasts like Jordyn Wieber, who experience the highest of highs only to be struck down and forced to endure the lowest of lows. Only to bounce back stronger than ever as they move on to the next chapter in life.
For Jordyn, the “high” was spending years being celebrated as America’s greatest child prodigy, turning senior and immediately winning the All-Around title, achieving the #1 WAG ranking in the world, and entering the Olympic Games as the media darling. The “low” was experiencing heartbreak on the Olympic stage and being the only member of the Fierce Five to not enjoy any post-Olympic success. In the end, the gymnast NBC had spent the most time promoting ahead of 2012 finished her career ranked last amongst the five members of Team-USA in my points system which measures career success.
Now I will be the first to go on a lengthy rant proclaiming how Jordyn was entirely blameless for the way things panned out in 2012 and the true culprits rested on USAG, her coach, and misaligned media narratives. But that is a story for another time. The story for today is the remarkable turnaround of Jordyn Wieber. While her four Olympic teammates had maintained elite careers for a little while longer, Jordyn found herself literally on the sideline in an assistant coaching role at UCLA.
At first glance, it was devastating watching Jordyn’s athletic career disintegrate at such a young age. Unlike Denisa Golgota, this wasn’t an athlete who choose to retire young, but had been pushed out of the sport. The culprit was a mix of NCAA elgibility rules and an overloaded American roster now featuring Simone Biles that didn’t seem to have room for Jordyn. But one of the perks of leaving the sport young, it gives an athlete a head-start as they move on to the next chapter in their lives.
At 23 years old, Jordyn Wieber became the head coach of Arkansas. It came with a six-figure a year salary and represents the highest level a coach can rise in her respective industry. In any other white collar field, this is the type of goal most hope to achieve by their mid-50s. Jordyn did it at just 23 years old. When it comes to “winning life,” Jordyn was as successful as any member of the 2012 Fierce Five. But that’s not the premise of this article. The premise of this article is the following picture:
The above picture features Jordyn Wieber with a young Olivia Dunne. Jordyn is perhaps the most famous coach in the NCAA, while Olivia Dunne is one of its best known freshman gymnasts. Even though she doesn’t compete for Arkansas, Olivia at LSU is likely to cross paths with Jordyn Wieber on countless occasions over the next four years due to both belonging to an SEC program.
Because the athletes in gymnastics skew unusually young, the age of the fanbase skews young as well. There are the millions of viewers who casually watch the Olympics once every four years. Then there are the thousands of aspiring gymnasts who range from the ages of 6 to 12 who spend the next three years begging their parents to take them to the “meet & greets” and other post-Olympic victory tours. In doing so, Jordyn was able to interact with thousands of child athletes who see her as one of the biggest role models of their childhood.
It has created a unique situation where these children have come of age and now participate in the college level alongside someone who once meant so much to them. This is very unlike what we typically see with other coaches.
NCAA athletes frequently see their coaches as mother/father figures and even someone they deeply respect. But do they view him or her as an extension of themselves? I would say “no” because the age gap between a coach and an athlete is usually extreme, while the coaching role is usually perceived as being a fundamentally different role than being an athlete.
Young aspiring athletes don’t root for the coaches, they root for the famous athletes who they relate to and see as an extension of themselves. But for the famous athletes who go on to become coaches, they run into the same problem. By the time they become coaches themselves, so many years have passed that most high school aged athletes no longer relate to them, but rather the younger athletes who now headline the sport.
But because Jordyn has risen up the ranks in the coaching world so fast, she has broken the typical age gap that drives a wedge between an NCAA athlete and an NCAA coach. It has created an unusual and something of a magical scenario where gymnasts who grew up watching Jordyn compete, now coexist alongside her inside the halls of a televised gymnastics competition.
For all the rhetoric of how incredible Jordyn Wieber was for rising up the ranks so fast, this conversation has been told through the lenses of how Jordyn has benefited from it. What we haven’t given much attention to how it benefits those surrounding her. Your current NCAA gymnast was around the age of 10 when Jordyn competed at the 2012 Olympics. They were old enough to remember the moment, but also young enough where they remember very little before then. The result being, Jordyn Wieber may have been the first gymnast they ever fell in love with.
This “magical scenario” which is possible only under the most unusual circumstances won’t last forever. Jordyn will grow older, but the ages of her student-athletes will remain the same. Eventually, Jordyn will find herself coaching gymnasts who weren’t even alive when she was an elite-gymnast. Completing the prophecy of an “age-gap” occurring between athlete and coach which makes the current dynamic between Olivia Dunne and Jordyn Wieber impossible to replicate amongst future generations.
But that is for the future. As things stand now, Jordyn and Olivia belong to rival programs. And while you may wonder what LSU gymnasts like Olivia Dunne stand to gain from the presence of Jordyn Wieber, it is the message Jordyn conveys to everyone who watches her.
Jordyn Wieber’s defining Olympic moment was experiencing failure in the most cruel way possible. In a sport which frequently teaches its athletes that Olympic success is all that matters, Jordyn Wieber is teaching gymnasts that you can experience Olympic heartbreak in the worst way possible, and still come out on top.
From the time she was 12 Jordyn’s status as a well known athlete made her a role model for girls even younger than herself. Now 25, Jordyn’s the same role model she always has been. The message she conveys may have evolved over the years, but it has always remained positive.
Olivia Dunne just so happens to be part of a generation of gymnasts to experience it in the aftermath of the 2012 London Olympics when they weren’t even teenagers, and again as a college gymnast. For Olivia Dunne to have crossed paths with Jordyn Wieber under two different circumstances is a unique occurrence worth mentioning. Even if Olivia is doing it while wearing rival colors.