For the past few years, injuries have kept Jordyn Wieber out of major competition, both in the U.S. and abroad. But 2011 has been a year of steady progress for the 16-year-old native of Lansing, Mich., culminating with the team and all-around golds at the world gymnastics championships in Tokyo. Following is a profile on Wieber, which first appeared in the March 2009 issue of International Gymnas...
AHEAD OF THE CURVE
When you win a U.S. junior title at age 12, you’re really asking for it. Premature comparisons laden with lofty expectations are inevitable. So, too, are whispers of warning. All of which raise the question: Is rare talent a blessing or a curse?
Such is the curious case of Jordyn Wieber, whose two-day total of 120.600 blew away most of the junior field—and ranked sixth among the seniors—at the 2008 U.S. Championships. The victory followed a third-place effort in ’07 and a tie for ninth in ’06.
The last 12-year-old to win the U.S. juniors was Dominique Moceanu, in 1994, and from 1999-2001, Kristal Uzelac won three junior titles in a row. Wieber (pronounced WEE-ber) is in position to match Uzelac’s streak, and at this point in her career has already surpassed the accomplishments of Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson at the same age.
That’s heady stuff for Wieber, who turned 13 last July 12. John Geddert, who with wife Kathryn coaches Wieber at their Twistars USA gym in Lansing, Mich., is well aware of the pitfalls of pushing prodigies too fast. “If you read [what they’re saying on] the Internet, we’re not pacing her,” he says with a laugh. “We’re gonna burn her out, we’re doing too much,” he adds, paraphrasing the cyberspace critics.
Geddert, who compares Wieber to former pupil Katie Teft in terms of physical ability, says he’s aware of the obvious comparisons to Uzelac, whose senior career never really materialized. “I know that story very well, and that plays into our whole deal,” he says. “If [Jordyn] wants to go skiing with her family, she goes skiing with her family. We’re not nose to the grindstone, every day, you can’t miss gym.”
In fact, Geddert has purposely turned down international assignments for Wieber, and he’s also held her out of some of the periodic national team training camps at the Karolyi ranch.
“We’re taking our time,” says Geddert, adding that his elites practice 29 hours a week, well shy of the 35-40 that some gymnasts train. “I want to keep the hours down. [Jordyn is] not home-schooling. She’s enjoying life outside the gym.”
An eighth-grader at DeWitt Junior High School, Wieber carries a modified schedule of classes, of which language arts is her favorite. “Sometimes when people train way too much they end up getting hurt and they can’t go on in the sport anymore,” says Jordyn, who singles out 1984 Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton as a role model.
Wieber trains Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings, and every weekday evening except Wednesday. She also practices on Saturday, with Sunday free. Her training squad includes fellow elite Kamerin Moore and a group of Level 10s. “They’re really good for each other,” Geddert says of Moore and Wieber.
Although Wieber consistently finishes higher than Moore at this point, she says the two are not rivals at all. “We don’t really have that kind of relationship,” she says. “We both just want each other to do the best that we can.”
It’s a good thing Geddert is pacing Wieber, because her personality is the type that could probably handle more hours in the gym. “At practice I just try to get everything with all the details, and stuff like that,” says Wieber, who has an older sister, Lindsay; and older brother, Ryan; and a younger sister, Kyra. “I’m definitely a perfectionist. Like, when my room is messy, it makes my head a mess, so my room always has to be semi clean. And at school I have to keep everything organized.”
Apparently, Wieber was born to compete in a sport like gymnastics. Perhaps the only thing stronger than her powerful 4-foot-9-inch frame is her mind. “She’s a go-getter, a daredevil, not afraid of anything,” Geddert says. “But mentally, she’s off the charts. When she gets in competition she doesn’t see anything but the equipment. She’s a competitor.”
Adds Rita Wieber, Jordyn’s mother: “I’ve got four kids, and there’s clearly a difference in her intensity and her ability to focus that is amazing to me. …She loves to compete. She actually enjoys it even if there’s pressure involved.”
Last November Wieber won the prestigious Top Gym International in Belgium, and in January she received an invitation to the 2009 American Cup in February. (This issue of IG went to press prior to the competition.) Her American Cup goal? “It’d be great to place,” Wieber said.
Wieber already has the difficulty of a senior—she’s training an Amanar vault and a layout double-double off bars, e.g.—so all she really needs is more seasoning and polish. “She doesn’t have a weak event,” Geddert says. “If you had to pick a weak event it would be bars, just ’cause she can’t do the Chinese-type stuff. She’s a little tight in the shoulders.”
Still, Wieber won the gold on bars at the 2007 Junior Pan American Championships in Guatemala City.
For all her success so far, Wieber is not the type to revel in glory. She’s more focused on the next goal. “She is extremely humble and quiet about what she’s thinking,” says Rita, who is a nurse and a part-time instructor at a community college. “She might be extremely proud of herself and feel like she rocked it out, but she would never say that.”
Geddert is hopeful that Wieber can compete in the first Youth Olympic Games in 2010, and both are obviously looking further ahead to the 2012 Olympics. “That’s definitely, like, my No.-1 goal, my long-term goal,” Wieber says of the London Olympics.
For now, 2009 will present a different type of challenge for Wieber, who has relied heavily on a high degree of difficulty in the past. The 2009 Code of Points for Women has lowered the required skills from 10 to eight, which means that execution will be more important than before. “Because Jordan is power oriented and acro oriented, it’s presented its challenges, because she’s more of a Shawn Johnson type, not a Nastia type,” Geddert says. “So we’ve really increased the dance time, which I think in the long run is going to also help keep injuries down.”
On floor, for example, a gymnast must now count three dance elements and no more than five tumbling skills. Wieber has already felt the difference. “It gives me a chance to breathe before my last pass,” she says matter-of-factly.
Not that conditioning has been an issue with the compact Wieber, who takes after her dad’s side of the family. David Wieber, an IBM executive, is a muscular 5-foot-9. At the national team training camps, Jordyn often finishes at the top of the physical abilities tests. “It’s a lot of work on your body, mainly, but I’ve gotten more used to it over time,” says Wieber, who adds that she’s attended 15-20 of the camps. “They’re actually really fun. I like going there and getting to train with all the national team staff and being with the other girls on the national team.”
At Twistars USA, Wieber splits her time between John and Kathryn. “John is more, like, outspoken,” she says. “I guess he’s a little bit harder of a coach. He pushes me a lot, and he gets real excited when I get a new skill and stuff. And Kathryn is a little more soft-spoken.”
Despite Jordyn’s growing status, David and Rita are doing their best to keep her gymnastics in perspective. They also plan on keeping her in public school until she graduates. “We work with her as parents on goal-setting, and making realistic goals and not being disappointed with not winning every time,” Rita says.
Should Wieber win again this August, when the U.S. Championships are in Dallas, perhaps Geddert will encourage her to take an extended vacation. After all, he must be doing something right if Wieber continues to finish on top.
“At this level, time off does have an impact immediately,” Geddert says. “They come back and look like they’ve never done a skill before. But this is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. A couple days later they’re back on track, but that rest is what’s going to get them to the end.” By 2012, Geddert simply wants Wieber to be at her best when it counts most.
With her daughter well ahead of schedule already, Rita is cautiously content to sit back and watch. “You never know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing,” Rita says of her daughter’s early success. “We’re always hoping the right decisions are being made, but there’s no crystal ball.”
Not surprisingly, Jordyn seems to understand that all the comparisons and expectations don’t really mean a thing. “I think every person is different—different mindset and things like that,” she says. “I’m just trying to take it a year at a time and trying not to think about the future too much.”
Smart girl … and well ahead of the curve.