ON A winter morning at Twistars Gymnastics Club in Dimondale, Mich., a procession of pixies in pigtails moves in lockstep behind Jordyn Wieber. The attentiveness is unmistakable. She skips; they skip. She windmills her right arm; an air current trails behind her. Imitation is the sincerest form of self-improvement.
This is an article from the July 23, 2012 issue
These days gymnasts from Moscow to Beijing are also playing follow the leader, behind Wieber and her four Olympic teammates. The U.S. heads to London with its strongest women's squad ever, led by world all-around champion Wieber, 17, and Gabby Douglas, 16, who edged her at this month's trials. While the two stars will vie with Russians Viktoria Komova and Aliya Mustafina for all-around gold, the team's best chance for titles in individual apparatuses may actually come from McKayla Maroney on vault and Aly Raisman on floor. "It's an embarrassment of riches," says Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator, "except we're not embarrassed; we're ready for battle."
On July 31, as the U.S. women try for their first team gold since Kerri Strug and the Magnificent Seven in 1996, Wieber's exacting precision and Douglas's infectious exuberance should prove a dynamic combination. Two nights later, in the all-around final, those same qualities will make for one of the Games' most intriguing duels.
IN THE past 40 years only one female world all-around champion, Ukraine's Liliya Podkopayeva in 1995, has won the Olympic all-around the next year. The favorite's mantle has been more like a banana peel on the balance beam. So onto the four-inch-wide plank Wieber goes at her home gym. Back tuck with full twist? Nope, didn't like it. Try again. Another imperfection? Another leap. Her scowl suggests that she just air-balled a free throw, although the errors are imperceptible to the unseasoned observer. "I've seen other kids with her talent," says John Geddert, who has coached Wieber for 14 years, "but Jordyn's hunger to work separates her."
At age one, Wieber startled her father, David, one morning at their home in DeWitt, Mich., by standing on one foot and trying to dress herself. "Like a pelican," recalls David, a health-care executive. "Normally kids need to lean on you or on something. She still couldn't walk." That day he said to his wife, Rita, "She has really good balance, so do you think she'd like gymnastics?"
Jordyn soon caught the eye of Geddert's wife and fellow coach, Kathy, in a class at Twistars. "Jordyn was a three-year-old with muscles," Kathy recalls. "Most kids that age can't focus; she'd stare at you waiting for directions." Jordyn understood structure as early as five, when her parents put her in zone soccer. "She wouldn't leave her zone even if the ball was a step away and nobody was near it," says David. Today her room is impeccably orderly, and she fidgets if a carpooler is five minutes late. "I'm not OCD about stuff," she says. "I just like being on time."
By age 12, Wieber was routinely nailing double-twisting round-off vaults that were beyond Mary Lou Retton's repertoire when she earned gold in 1984. She won the first of two American Cup titles in 2009, but it was at the second Cup, in March '11, that John Geddert really sensed her emergence. Mustafina, who had won the world all-around title the year before (in the absence of Wieber, who at 15 was too young to compete), was tracking Wieber's every warmup stretch and twist with a stare straight out of northern Siberia. "Wouldn't take her eyes off her," Geddert says. "She knew: This is who I have to look out for."
Wieber beat Mustafina by .068 of a point. Last October, with Mustafina out with a knee injury, Wieber won the world all-around in Tokyo, topping Komova by just .033.
Wieber is explosive and purposeful rather than balletic—more Shawn Johnson and less Nastia Liukin—but she has added 90 minutes of dance a week to try to become more limber and expressive. She is still just a high school senior, learning how to be a star. In New York City this spring for the Today show and the Sullivan Awards, she declined a free $1,500 dress from Bergdorf Goodman because she might never wear it again. She's head-over-heels-over-head-over-heels (it's a gymnast thing) about Justin Bieber, and the thought of the T-shirt they could sell if they someday married—WIEBER-BIEBER FEVER—leaves her stuck on auto-giggle.
Wieber often employs the prevent defense with the media: Say nothing to offend or embarrass. Only when she appeared in January on The Ellen DeGeneres Show did she momentarily lift the sport's veil of cozy camaraderie. "We're pretty much best friends," Wieber said of her U.S. teammates. "When it gets out in the competition, we don't think about beating each other; we just think about doing our own thing."
"Whatever," DeGeneres answered. "I mean, really, you want to beat her. No matter how much you like her, she's your friend, but you want her to mess up."
"Maybe deep down, but...."
"Exactly, that's what I'm talking about."
GABBY DOUGLAS, born five months after her future rival, was two years old the day she disappeared inside her family's house in Virginia Beach. Her mother, Natalie Hawkins, who is divorced from Gabby's dad, Timothy, searched every nook at eye level and below, then finally found Gabby hanging from a door she had just scaled. The high jinks were nothing new. Hawkins once installed a spy camera to study the push-up to front flip Gabby used to dismount her crib. "I had to put her in gymnastics so she wouldn't kill herself," she says.
Gym classes ran into six figures, but Hawkins resolved not to let costs interfere, hoarding coupons and earning performance awards, from gift cards to gas cards, as a bill collector for HSBC. Two years ago Hawkins sent Gabby to live with a host family in Des Moines, where coach Liang Chow had mentored 2008 Olympian Johnson. "You came too late," Chow told her, referring to Gabby's age. "I'm not sure what we can do."
But Douglas was in a hurry. In March, as an exhibition gymnast, she outpointed Wieber at the American Cup. She nearly beat Wieber at nationals in St. Louis in June before her victory at the trials, where her father, an Air Force staff sergeant, was reunited with her for the first time in almost two years after a stint in Afghanistan. "When I saw him, I was overwhelmed," Gabby says.
Known as the Flying Squirrel, Douglas gets Michael Jordan--like hang time on her tumbling passes and her release moves on bars, and she carries herself with unteachable magnetism. Talk to her for five minutes and you're so energized you want to run around the block. If Wieber downplays the rivalry when she isn't on talk shows, Douglas eats it up, even offering play-by-play: "Jordyn has a great routine. Then Gabby nails it," she says in a mock-announcer voice. "Now Jordyn's fired up, and here's Gabby again. It's one-two. USA on top of the world, ahhhh."
AFTER FOUR decades of Eastern European dominance, the gymnastics landscape started shifting in the 1980s and '90s when China began competing, the Wall came down and coaches emigrated. U.S. fortunes soared after the implementation of regular Darwinian camps at the Karolyi ranch in Houston in 2000. The U.S. is the reigning women's world team champion and since '01 has led all other nations with 59 women's medals at worlds and Olympics. (Romania is next, with 35.) In the past eight years six different American women have won all-around golds.
"The expectation now has shifted completely from where it was," says Karolyi. "What was pretty good is now unacceptable; what was out of this world is now meeting the goal we set out to achieve in the first place." A high bar is no longer just an apparatus for men's gymnastics; it's also the standard that Wieber, Douglas, Maroney, Raisman and teammate Kyla Ross will be expected to reach in London. Karolyi is confident they will. "It's our finest hour," she says.