Point After: The NCAA's Golden Rule
This story originally appeared in the April 6 issue of SI. To subscribe, click here.
The pride of UCLA's vaunted gymnastics team is an Olympic gold medalist and a world champion who has won six major all-around titles and captured three American Cups. Only 19, she is healthy and strong enough to do push-ups on parallel bars.
During meets at Pauley Pavilion she displays her talents in all the ways she can: She moves mats. She fills water bottles. She fires T-shirt guns. She selects matching leotards for the Bruins, but she doesn't get to wear one. She never changes out of her sweat suit.
Meet Jordyn Wieber, the most overqualified student manager in college sports. Normally the manager is an earnest undergrad who yearns to be around the program but could never make the cut. Wieber was a key member of America's Fierce Five, helping Team USA claim gold at the 2012 Olympics in London, despite suffering from a stress fracture in her right shin. Her presence on the floor at Pauley prompts many confused whispers. Is that really Jordyn Wieber, and if so, why is she laying down tape?
When Wieber was 17, just before the London Games, she signed with Wasserman Media Group and turned professional. "So many amazing opportunities came my way because of that decision," Wieber says. She appeared in commercials, delivered speeches, grew famous and financially secure. The only drawback would come a year later. NCAA rules on amateurism prohibit her from participating in college gymnastics.
Wieber enrolled at UCLA in the fall of 2013, and even though she couldn't join the squad, she couldn't stay out of the gym. She found managing the next best thing to competing. Every day at 6 a.m. she trained alone in the Wooden Center, then morphed from golden girl to gofer when the Bruins entered at 8. She savored her dual identity, but to prepare for the '16 Olympics, she couldn't interrupt her schedule and take long road trips to Arkansas. "She came to me one day with tears in her eyes," recalls UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field. "I figured, She's done, she's out of here, she's going to get ready for Rio." Instead, Wieber told Kondos Field the opposite: "I've decided I'm not going to Rio. There's no way I'm leaving my team."
Wieber retired from competition last month yet continues positioning springboards, sending email blasts and giving pep talks. The NCAA tournament begins this Saturday, and her seventh-ranked Bruins will be chasing their seventh national title. Her campus job is a source of gratification and pain. "It kills her when we struggle," says senior Samantha Peszek, one of Wieber's roommates. "She wants so badly to jump in and help us."
"It's a crime," Kondos Field says, "because she is not ready to be done." Kondos Field is speaking for all Olympic gymnasts facing the same dilemma: Capitalize on their moments atop the medal stand or preserve their amateur eligibility. You can tell them to forgo the six-figure endorsement deals, enjoy college sports and cash out later. But by then, their moment has typically passed. "There's no such thing as professional gymnastics," Kondos Field says. "They can go to Cirque du Soleil, I guess."
Kondos Field believes the rule book will eventually be amended. Maybe money earned by young Olympians can be put into NCAA-sanctioned trusts and withdrawn after graduation. But that won't help Wieber. She'll be in the working world by then with a degree in psychology. Wieber insists she has no regrets about her choice. What's maddening is simply that she had to make the choice at all.
Then again, Wieber is familiar with bureaucratic heartbreak. Three summers ago her qualifying score was high enough to reach the all-around final in London, but she was excluded because of a Byzantine rule that limits participating countries to two competitors. She quickly gathered herself and shone in the team final. "Sometimes," Wieber says, "you just have to put your own disappointment aside and focus on how you can help the group." That's one element of her routine she is still allowed to perform.