Jordyn Wieber prepares to take on the world
DIMONDALE, Mich. -- The questions, mixed with congratulations, started in mid-August for Jordyn Wieber, her parents and three siblings. Neighbors and friends in their small town of DeWitt, Mich., located just outside of Lansing, saw Wieber dominate the competition en route to winning her first U.S. senior all-around national title. The proud clan figured their favorite gymnast was booked for bigger things to come.
"So you made it to the Olympics? You're going to London, right?"
The Wiebers smile back at the well-intentioned praise and politely tamp down the enthusiasm with some reality. She is not on the 2012 London Olympic Summer Games team -- yet.
First things first.
She's part of the American team for the world championships in Tokyo, one of the favorites to win the all-around title. Wieber's star is quickly rising, as she's becoming one of the gymnasts to beat heading into the 2012 London Olympics. Her life is changing rapidly: She's a high school junior, becoming more famous by the day with possible Olympic -- and maybe mainstream -- stardom looming. Fans email her asking for autographs, and the media requests for her time are starting to mount.
For Wieber, there is much more work and many days of practice to come before she can call herself an Olympian. The moments at hand, nationals and now her first worlds, are important milestone experiences in her young senior-level competitive career.
"I think it's really nice that everybody is so happy for me, that makes me smile," Wieber, 16, said. "I know they think I've really done something because of nationals, but I'm not where I want to be yet. I don't even think about London yet, I mean, it would be awesome to be in the Olympics, but I can't think about that. I want to stay focused on every day and what I need to do. And of course, how I am going to do at worlds. I want to really do my best there and that's what we've been working on."
Preparing for worlds has been a careful dance, with choreography being learned on the fly by Wieber and her coaches, John and Kathryn Geddert. It's her first trip to Tokyo and her first time as the favorite on the biggest stage short of the Olympics.
Wieber's mom, Rita, thinks the gravity of where things stand is starting to fully dawn on her daughter. Her daughter has gone from being the precious talent at the local gymnastics school to one of the best all-around gymnasts in the world.
"She never said the 'L word' [the London Olympics] at home until she came back from nationals," Rita said. "That was the first time I heard her mention it when we were talking about things. That tells me this is all starting to become real to her. I know she's always dreamed about these things, like going to worlds, going to the Olympics and winning. I think those things seemed off in the distance, almost like dreams you have but don't know if they can come true.
"They're not so in the distance anymore, and that's scary, exciting, stressful, wonderful, all of it. I still pray for the same things now as when she started competing: for her to do her very best, not get hurt and we let the chips fall where they may from there."
The Gedderts and Wieber have been working hard to strengthen and perfect everything for worlds, with an eye on sticking landings. Every tenth is important at worlds, where Wieber's scores, as usual in gymnastics, will hinge on the devilish, minute details. But the balance of doing enough practice to attain perfect "hard" landings, without causing injury, is difficult. They have been doing a mix of hard and soft landings, trying to be very efficient in practices and working on mental precision.
The question always lurks silently: How many reps are enough? Too few, and you're not prepared. Too many, and you're increasing the odds of injury or accident. Wieber has been fortunate enough to escape serious injury so far, only enduring non-career-threatening hamstring, ankle and back issues.
John Geddert wasn't happy with the length of the world team selection process, which brought the top gymnasts from nationals down to the Karolyi ranch outside of Houston, Texas, twice: first for a training camp, then for actual selection of the worlds team. Martha Karolyi, the coordinator of the U.S. team for worlds and the Olympics, likes to have the team bond and practice at her facility.
John didn't like the travel, the upheaval from mid-Michigan to Texas and all of it happening during the time Wieber was starting school again after Labor Day. He is understandably protective of the best student his gym has produced in its 15 years of existence.
"It's the process, so we have to do it, but is it the best way to do things? I don't think so, but check back with me after worlds," John said, with a Cheshire Cat–like smile and questioningly arched eyebrow. "It's Martha Karolyi's deal, so that's what we have to do. Martha knows best, I guess. I just worry about things, the wear and tear, things that we all want to avoid to have Jo at her best for worlds. It's hard to really build a good training schedule around this coming and going stuff."
And John is also forgiven for being a little bit stressed in another way, as the multi-use sports facility that houses Twistars is in foreclosure. The club rents 15,000 square feet of space in the 176,000 square-foot facility, which also houses two hockey rinks and fields for indoor soccer. The foreclosure process could come to a head while the Gedderts and Wieber are in Japan.
"I hope we can stay here, we're good tenants, we pay our rent," John said. "But if we have to move someplace else, we will. This has been such a great place for us to be, because we walked in here from the first days and made it exactly how we wanted it. It's all out of our hands right now."
Wieber, who is called "Jo" by everybody around the gym, understands John's pre-worlds angst about changes big and small. They're a matched set, two focused perfectionists who like following a groove in order to succeed. For 13 years, the Gedderts and Wieber have been in sync and steadily climbing the gymnastics levels together.
Kathryn Geddert wants to make sure Wieber is not putting too much pressure on herself at worlds because she is one of the favorites. She will be in the stands, fidgeting and stressing, while John will be on the floor coaching Wieber in Tokyo.
"I've never met anybody like Jo, she's always been so focused and known what she's wanted to be -- the best -- since she was so little," Kathryn said. "The Jo you see now was the same one you would have met 10 years ago. She's not going to take a break or stop until the task is accomplished. We're getting into some pretty big things now, where everything has to go right to have that storybook finish everybody wants. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't."
Wieber shows the classic American gymnastics star traits: a powerhouse tumbler, a showman's flair on floor exercise and a boldness to push the envelope on difficult skills. When Wieber is on, attacking her routines, she's in the rare air of sublime elites. But when she gets conservative and plays it safe, the steam starts to rise from John.
"That's the challenge we have, she can't play it safe and still win when you get to places like worlds or the Olympics," John said. "You have to go for it, be confident and really hit it when the pressure is on. Jo got away with relaxing a little at nationals because she had so big of a lead after the first day, but that didn't make me happy. We've got a lot to work on, and that's at the top of the list -- going for it every time, every single time."
Wieber's life could shift into overdrive shortly. If she goes to worlds and performs up to her capability, she could win and then the pre-Olympic hype and pressure will shoot to new levels. If she falls short in Tokyo, the pressure could warp into people and pundits wondering if she is strong enough to handle the off-the-charts stress of the Olympics.
In the meantime, Rita and Dave Wieber, the rest of the family and other components of Team Wieber try to keep things as normal as possible. Jordyn still goes to a public high school, attending modified days so she can train eight hours per day in the gym, split into two four-hour sessions.
She does chores at home, handles her own laundry and is expected to help drive younger sister Kyra when necessary. There are the usual sibling issues in a house with two teens and a tween, but in the end, everything gets solved through some healthy family dynamics.
Homework must often be done well in advance, so Wieber can spend time on the road for training camps and worlds without falling behind in her classes. Wieber is focused on competing in college someday, so she remains an amateur. College gymnastics is a proud tradition in Twistars, with the wall of the gym's entrance lined with pictures of the dozens of athletes who went on to compete in Division I.
"I'm really good with time management, so I've learned how to get everything done, with school and practice," Wieber said. "My life has been this way for a while with the training and school, but yeah, it does get more serious now as I'm getting older. This is what I want to do, so I know how to get everything done when I have the time to do it."
There isn't much time left over after school and gymnastics, but Wieber loves going to older brother Ryan's prep football games, where he is the star senior quarterback for DeWitt. The local paper recently declared "Wieber Fever," a take-off of (Justin) Bieber fever, when Ryan led his team to victory. Going to games with her family and friends, sitting in the stands cheering for Ryan, makes for a fun Friday night on a crisp fall evening in mid-Michigan.
Wieber's parents take Ryan's games seriously, too, trying to schedule their flights to make it to Tokyo to watch worlds without missing any snaps. Rita admits trying to keep everything in balance, and maintaining a regular family life is often elusive with two busy high schoolers and an active 12-year-old playing travel soccer. Oldest daughter Lindsay is in medical school at Michigan State University.
Rita added a small tattoo, saying "Faith" in flowing script, earlier this year as a way to maintain focus. She looks at it when she's stressed, using the tattoo as a reminder to say a quick prayer for calm and perspective.
"Our faith means a lot to us, and I pray all the time for Jordyn, all of my kids, because I really believe everything we're doing is in God's hands," Rita said. "No matter what happens, we're on a really special adventure and we have great kids. All you want as [a] mom is for your kids to chase their dreams and be happy and safe. That's the road we've been on with Jordyn all these years, and I know we're far from seeing the end of it. It's quite a ride and I just pray. I pray a lot."