Jordyn Wieber prepares for nationals pressure
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Too few people watched podium training at the Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday to muster a collective gasp. But enough pairs of eyes noticed Jordyn Wieber's troublesome routine on the uneven bars, two days before the women's preliminaries at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships.
Wieber lost her grip trying to finish a Tkachev, a tricky move that requires regripping the bar in midair, with a quick catch by her coach John Geddert preventing a nasty fall. Wieber took a few minutes to gather herself, then completed the Tkachev on her next attempt. But she couldn't land her dismount, ending up on all fours.
She hit it the next time, though.
The Tkachev is the same move that caused Wieber, one of the rising stars of American gymnastics, to fall while at the American Cup finals in March. The mistake did not prevent Wieber from beating world champion Aliya Mustafina, because she bounced back with a monster performance on beam, then a strong floor exercise.
This will be the first senior nationals for Wieber, who turned 16 last month, and her first chance to make a senior world championship team. That's pressure enough.
The first time on the big stage can be nerve-wracking, but Wieber said she's okay.
"I usually don't get too nervous," she said before her training session on Tuesday. "I'm just excited to come out and hopefully do well."
That mental toughness and composure is why Martha Karolyi, the women's national team coordinator, and the most influential voice on the three-person committee choosing the Olympic team for London, loves Wieber and expects big things from her this week.
"I watched her training and competing and the training camps, and I think she matured very nicely," Karolyi said, referring to the gatherings at the Karolyi Ranch near Houston. "This year was a very good year for her. I'm expecting her to do good. I would be surprised if she would not."
Of course, just knowing Karolyi is in the building, monitoring flips and flubs, can make some gymnasts with Olympic aspirations quake in their tights. Just ask Shawn Johnson, the 2008 Olympian and as big a star as there is here, trying to come back from left knee surgery.
"I know the process," Johnson said. "Every second, Martha's watching, kind of deciding who she wants on the team, every skill, every mistake. Understanding that is definitely harder. But it's good. It's a learning experience. It makes me that much stronger of a competitor."
Wieber will face strong competition, including defending national all-around champion Rebecca Bross and three former Olympians -- Johnson, who will compete in everything except floor exercise; vault world champion Alicia Sacramone; and Chellsie Memmel. Former world champion Bridget Sloan is training here, but will not compete.
Karolyi will take more than a dozen top finishers to the Karolyi Ranch for a training camp next month, and she'll pick the world championship and Pan Am Games teams there.
Wieber figures to go regardless of her finish -- she's that highly regarded -- and can lock up a world championship spot by finishing first or second. If getting her driver's license last month is the biggest thing that happens to Wieber this summer, it will mean this week did not go well.
Wieber's mother, Rita, said her daughter showed no sign of nervousness or apprehension in the days leading up to nationals. Jordyn spent much of last week hanging out with friends from Twistars USA, her training gym, who are heading off to college this week.
"You'd never know this meet was coming up if you didn't follow gymnastics," Rita Wieber said. "Her friends from high school wouldn't even think this was going on."
But will that change as Thursday's preliminaries grow closer? Geddert, who has developed many top-notch collegiate gymnasts but never an Olympian, challenged the theory that Wieber has never faced this kind of pressure.
"Going against the defending world champion was a pretty good test, rocking that beam set out when she absolutely had to at the American Cup," he said.
"She's been put to the test before. She's gone head to head with some of these guys, even as a junior in international competitions, and always fared well. She always stays within her game. It's not about beating someone else. It's about doing what she does well. It's a tough art to teach. She comes by it naturally, and I'm just going to let that train run."
With Olympic rosters reduced from six to five for 2012, Karolyi has much to consider in picking a team. Though Twistars lacks the national cachet of, say, WOGA Gymnastics in Texas, Geddert said that shouldn't work against Wieber. In 2008, Karolyi chose Johnson out of a little-known club in Des Moines, Iowa, because she was terrific, not because some powerful coach demanded it.
"Martha has no vested interest in anything other than USA doing well," Geddert said. "And that's the difference in the national team program now and where it was when I came up years ago, when it was all about, or a little more about, politics.
"Now it's her job to put the best possible team [on the floor]. If she thinks it's a one-tenth advantage to put one kid on it over another, she's going to take that advantage. I don't have any issue with her selecting what she feels is going to be the best team for USA."
It's just up to Wieber to show she belongs on that team. That task begins in earnest this week.
"Our goal is a little bit farther down the line, even though this is a very seductive event, and it's tough to look past it," Geddert said. "Our goal is making that world team. Everything is just a stepping zone. She's really good about that. She never gets ahead of herself, and that's healthy."