Jordyn Wieber vaulting to the top
The photographs are stored somewhere in their DeWitt, Mich., home, and Rita Wieber promised to dig them out one of these days. They offer the best evidence for why Rita and her husband, David, enrolled their daughter Jordyn in gymnastics as a 4-year-old -- a decision they didn't make for their other three children and one that, if everything goes as planned, might land them in London at the Olympics next summer.
"When she was 1, we have photos of her standing by the tub, up on her toes," Rita Wieber said. "If you look at her calves ... I don't know if they were muscles, but the way her calves were shaped, you could see where her muscles were. We joked that she always looked like this muscular kid.
"You know how when they're little, they're on the changing table and you're putting their pants on? My other kids would hang all over us for balance. Jordyn would stand there on one leg, like a pelican. We commented on her balance. Now, the balance beam is her favorite."
With strength and poise in her favor, Jordyn Wieber, who turned 16 on July 12, is on track to become the biggest American gymnastics star of these coming Olympics. Wieber established her international credentials in March in her senior debut, edging Russian world champion Aliya Mustafina for the all-around title at the American Cup in Jacksonville, Fla.
It wasn't the first time Wieber had knocked off a world champion or won the American Cup all-around. Wieber also did it at the 2009 event as a 13-year-old junior gymnast, surprising fellow American Bridget Sloan. Sloan went on to win the world all-around title later that year. (Wieber was too young to compete at worlds.)
The next big test for Wieber will come in August at the U.S. championships in St. Paul, Minn. Wieber needs to avoid the leg injuries that curtailed her 2009 season and forced her to withdraw from last year's nationals. But already, Wieber has created significant excitement in American gymnastics circles.
"Anything can happen a year out from the Olympics," said Elfi Schlegel, an NBC Olympics gymnastics analyst and a former Commonwealth Games and Pan Am Games gold medalist for Canada. "But if I were to pick the U.S. team for the Olympic Games, she'd be on the team and she'd be in the upper echelon of the group.
"I'm sure [national team coordinator for USA Gymnastics] Martha Karolyi is praying every night, 'Keep this kid healthy, because we need her.' She will be instrumental in helping the team accomplish its goal of winning a team goal medal. And I wouldn't discount the possibility that she could win the all-around gold medal."
That's heady stuff for a teenager who just got her driver's license. Expectations and pressure don't seem to faze Wieber, who attends her local public school and maintains as normal a life as an elite athlete can.
"I'm just looking forward to the next couple of years," she said. "I know there's going to be a lot of politics in it, but I just need to focus on myself and do the best I can. I'm interested to see what next season is going to bring."
Wieber's knack for handling the spotlight is important to Karolyi, one of three people who will choose the women's Olympic team.
"It's a very complex process," Karolyi said. "And we're looking for gymnasts who are able to perform their very best when the green light is on. Some gymnasts function in training but are not able to function in that situation. That's not the case with Jordyn. She always competes very well."
Wieber's earliest turns in gymnastics never indicated this was coming, at least not to her parents. The Wiebers started Jordyn in dance before enrolling her in a gymnastics class at Twistars USA, a popular DeWitt facility run by John and Kathryn Geddert. John Geddert noted Wieber's strength immediately.
"She was always one of those kids who looked like she was etched in granite," he said.
But as Jordyn spent more and more time at Twistars, the Wiebers wondered whether the investment was worth it.
"She wasn't one of those 3-year-olds who did flips all over the house," Rita Wieber said. "We asked John Geddert, 'Do you think she's really going to be good?' She was doing nine hours of gymnastics a week at the time, which seemed incredible to us -- now she does 30.
"John said, 'Skill-wise, she can't do much yet. But she's got strength and she's very competitive. When she starts learning the tricks, I think it can happen pretty fast.'"
John Geddert was right about Jordyn Wieber's competitiveness. Taking the President's Challenge fitness test in second grade, she did more pushups than any of the boys in her class, her mother said.
"I loved to come to the gym and learn new skills every day," Wieber said. "I always wanted to learn something new."
Young gymnasts are grouped for competition by age and skill level, and Wieber won her first state all-around title as an 8-year-old. By 2006, at age 11, she tied for ninth all-around in the junior division at her first U.S. championships and qualified for the national team. Two years later, Wieber won the junior national title.
Already, Wieber's success has taken her to competitions in Australia, Italy, Belgium, Guatemala and Canada.
"I think it's really awesome to get this kind of experience, and especially at such a young age," she said. "I enjoy going to other countries and experiencing other cultures and meeting a lot of new people."
But it also makes getting her education difficult. The Wiebers chose not to home-school Jordyn or to split up their family so Jordyn could train at an elite gym in another state.
"Jordyn has always responded to John and Kathryn's coaching," Rita Wieber said, "so we never felt like we needed to go anyplace else."
Between her morning and afternoon sessions at Twistars, Jordyn Wieber squeezes in two classes at DeWitt High School, where she will be a junior this fall. She takes two other classes online through a program offered by the school district. She finished the spring semester with a 3.94 grade point average, but keeping that up this fall might be a challenge. If she qualifies for the world championships in Tokyo in October, she will miss a month of school between the selection camp and the competition.
Schlegel thinks Wieber's parents have brought her up well, raising a girl without pretension who is easy to root for. That, Schlegel said, will serve Wieber well if she makes it to London.
"I talked to her after she won the American Cup, and she said she couldn't love any other sport like she loves gymnastics," Schlegel said. "And I thought, 'Bingo. She gets it.' There's a kid who loves gymnastics and she's doing it for all the right reasons. She's a very normal kid, and Americans love someone who is like their own daughter.
"I don't think any athlete is prepared when they reach the podium and see the five Olympic rings. Your heart takes a little bounce. You have to block it out and stay in the moment. But I have a lot of confidence in her."