Watching Worlds

"Excuse me," the Australian woman said, turning around to look at Rita Wieber. "Could you please stop wiggling?"

It was April 2010, and Wieber and her husband, Dave, were in Melbourne to watch their daughter Jordyn compete at the Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships, which had drawn top teams from Russia, China, Canada, Mexico and the United States. Down on the floor, 14-year-old Jordyn Wieber was exuding her trademark cool focus, unfazed by the extreme difficulty in her routines or the pressure of competing on the international stage. Up in the stands, Rita was fidgeting as though someone had put itching powder in her socks.

"I thought she was going to be like, 'Excuse me, are you Jordyn's mother?'" she recalled, laughing at the memory. "I had to move seats."

Eighteen months later, little has changed, except that Jordyn's routines have gotten harder, the international stage bigger, and Rita has reached the point where she can't even sit next to Dave while their daughter or any member of the U.S. women's team is competing.

"The more expectation there is, the more nervous I am," Rita said earlier this week after she and Dave arrived in Tokyo to watch Jordyn compete at her first world championship. "Her first everything, I'm not nervous. And then once you win something, OK, then there's a little more expectation."

In her first year as a senior international elite gymnast, Jordyn, now 16, has exceeded one expectation after another. She was expected to win the national title in August in St. Paul, Minn., but she did so by a whopping six points over her nearest competitor. That eyebrow-raising margin of victory fueled speculation she could win the women's all-around title at her first world championship.

Less than 48 hours after contributing four calm and confident routines to the U.S.'s gold medal-winning effort in the world team final earlier this week, Wieber did just that, edging Russia's Viktoria Komova by 0.033 to become the 2011 world all-around champion, only the sixth American woman to accomplish that feat.

As the rookie-filled American squad competed for the world team title Tuesday night, Rita paced the Tokyo Metropolitan Arena, clutching the same handful of charms, crosses and symbols of her faith that she has held since Jordyn began competing 10 years ago.

Rita's own routines have evolved with her daughter's. "It's this ridiculous ritual where I do this rosary thing while she's warming up and then when she competes I take all the charms and put them in my hand and squeeze them," she said. "You try to make some kind of control, but there is no control. And that's the hardest part."

The Wiebers learned years ago that there was also no controlling Jordyn's passionate attitude toward gymnastics, which she began at age 4, at Twistars Gymnastics near their home in DeWitt, Mich. At one point, her parents thought Jordyn was spending a bit too much time at the gym and suggested she quit for a while. "She started bawling," Dave said. To this day, if Jordyn is getting a ride to practice from the parent of another gymnast, she'll peer out the window five minutes early, worrying whether her ride will be on time.

When Jordyn reached the sport's elite level at age 10, many assumed she was trying too much difficulty too early. "Everyone was talking, saying she was going to be a burnout," Rita said. Since Jordyn was still so young, the decision to let her compete at the highest level fell to her parents, who were torn between her desire to do gymnastics and their desire not to see her get hurt. As usual, Jordyn's strong will carried the day. Her first junior national title, won in 2008 when she was only 12, proved to the Wiebers that the decision had been a good one.

Wieber's intensity and obvious love for the sport have carried her through some hard times, including a 2009 hamstring strain that kept her from defending the U.S. junior title she won in 2008. Then last year, she rolled her ankles warming up at the U.S. Championships. Despite the pain, Jordyn went out on the beam anyway and fell twice, then crashed to her hands and knees on her dismount. Coach John Geddert and U.S. team doctor Larry Nassar subsequently yanked her from the meet, and she had to wait until February to compete again.

"In football, if you have a bad play, you have another play in 10 seconds," Dave Wieber said. "You can redeem yourself. But in gymnastics, when she hurt her ankles and she had to wait like six months to compete again, that's a long time to prove that it wasn't a mental breakdown."

Jordyn looks like her mother, a former long jumper for Central Michigan University. The cool, intense focus comes from her father, who played high school football. Although Jordyn is their only child to do gymnastics, her parents have passed their athleticism down to each member of the family: Jordyn's older brother, Ryan, quarterbacks the DeWitt High School football team, and younger sister Kyra plays soccer. The Wiebers' oldest daughter, Lindsay, is a third-year medical student interested in sports medicine, thanks in no small part to Jordyn's gymnastics career.

Being the world champion heading into an Olympic Games means Wieber will likely carry the expectations of the U.S. team next summer in London while also competing with a target on her back. In addition, the prestige of being world champion is likely to lead to demands on Wieber's time.

At this point, Wieber has not given up her NCAA eligibility and is interested in doing college gymnastics, although she and her parents have decided not to make college visits before the Olympics. Even with a world title under her belt, the Wiebers say they are hesitant to have her go pro.

"You really need to do well in the Olympics to make that sort of a thing pay off," Dave said. "So what you do from now to the Olympics for the next eight months is pretty important. If you put a whole bunch of distractions into the next eight months because you're turning pro and having to meet a bunch of obligations there, it's almost self-fulfilling, right? You're only going to be distracted and do less than what you could have, or not make it at all."

The Olympic countdown is likely to begin the instant Jordyn's plane touches down back home in Michigan. It will be fun, stressful and in some ways deeply satisfying. But the Wiebers also know it is likely to be fleeting.

"I don't know if we're ready for what's going to come, but I feel like there will be a big sense of relief [when the Olympics are over]," Rita said, about Jordyn's dream of competing in London next year. "Just to know that she accomplished one of her lifetime goals would be great."

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