November 19, 2012

(AP) -- The face that launched a thousand Internet memes is laughing. McKayla Maroney can't help it.

It's all a bit ridiculous, really, the way the most agonizing moment of the 16-year-old's life has taken on a life of its own.

Yet everywhere Maroney goes - talk shows, airports, hospitals, the White House - people want to see "the look," the one that transformed the American gymnast from two-time Olympic medalist into crossover celebrity.

Michael Phelps can have all those gold medals. Maroney is fine with "the look." At least, she is now.

"To me at first I thought it was kind of like weird, but I never took it as a bad way," Maroney said. "But now I kind of like it and embrace it because no Olympic athlete has ever had anything like that happen to them, so it makes me different and I like that."

Of course she does.

It was, Maroney admits, a mistake. Standing on the podium in London three months ago, the gold medal in vault she spent years chasing turned to silver following a stunning slip in the event finals, Maroney tried to keep it together while Romania's Sandra Izbasa stood three feet away and heard her national anthem played.

Fighting back tears, Maroney pursed her lips in an expression that can be loosely translated as "OMG, I can't believe that just happened."

And a star was born.

The picture became a sensation on the Web, with one inventive designer photoshopping the image into various historical moments - the moon landing, the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima - and adding the phrase "McKayla Maroney is Not Impressed."

It's funny, to be sure, even if it's not technically accurate.

"It wasn't me being unimpressed, it was me being sad with myself," Maroney said. "I've never fallen on that vault my whole life and so I'm going to be upset."

It wasn't until Maroney arrived back in the U.S. shortly after the Olympics ended that she grasped what just how much her life had changed.

While there were roars aplenty for Maroney and the rest of the "Fierce Five" - a nickname Maroney gave the gold medal-winning U.S. women's gymnastics team of Maroney, Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman and Kyla Ross - wherever they went, there was something about Maroney's unfiltered disappointment that translated beyond the typical gymnastics crowd.

U.S. women's soccer stars Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux - along with countless others - dressed up as Maroney for Halloween. When the "Fierce Five" stopped by the White House last week, President Barack Obama insisted having his picture taken side-by-side with Maroney, "the look" included to earn cool points with his daughters Sasha and Malia.

"It's so crazy," Maroney said. "It kind of has affected my life. When people look at me, that's what they remember."

Though Maroney insists she's returning to the gym when she's cleared to resume training after recovering from toe and leg injuries, she's doing her best to capitalize on her newfound fame. She will make her acting debut with a cameo on the CW Network's "Hart of Dixie" on Tuesday night. It must have gone well; producers have already asked her to become a recurring character.

"You have to enjoy it," Maroney said. "Since I was 2 years old I've been in the gym. If I didn't enjoy it that would be horrible. I need to celebrate what I worked my whole entire life for."

While becoming a Hollywood regular remains a part of her long-term plan, Maroney insists she's focused on making a run at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It's a path she might not have chosen if she hadn't slipped in London.

When she stepped into her home gym in Southern California during a brief break from a post-Olympic tour, Maroney broke down crying.

"That's reality for me," she said. "That's the real world. That's what I've been doing my entire life. I miss being in the gym. I miss being in shape. Going back felt like home."

One she's not quite ready to abandon. There's still room left in the huge bin in her parent's house in Long Beach, Calif., that contains the more than 600 medals and trophies she's won during her career.

It's a group that includes one Olympic gold medal, not two. Maroney is OK with that total for now. There will be other chances to win medals. There may never be another moment, however, like the one that produced "the look."

"I think it was just kind of destiny," she said, "the way things are supposed to be."

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