Wieber still focused as London draws closer

NEW YORK -- Jordyn Wieber looked perfectly composed as reporters pelted her with questions like snowballs, pausing occasionally when several hit her at once, glancing from one person to another until she could distinguish a single voice. Her high cheekbones, alert hazel eyes and unflappable expression give her face unusual maturity for a 16-year-old, which isn't surprising given the fact that her life is moving at warp speed.

Wieber, the reigning all-around national and world gymnastics champion, is the cover girl for the AT&T American Cup at Madison Square Garden on Saturday -- an event that has often served as a harbinger of Olympic greatness. She strives for as much groundedness as a rising superstar can manage, attending public school part time in her hometown of DeWitt, Mich., and filling out her education with online classes.

"It's very important for her to feel like a normal kid," said Kathryn Geddert, who with husband John coaches Wieber at the Twistars USA club in Dimondale, Mich. "That's how she sees herself. She needs that camaraderie with her school friends along with her gym friends. I think if she didn't have that, it would be harder for her."

There's very little teen-speak to Wieber's public delivery, a noticeable absence of "likes" and "you knows." She does talk quickly, however, and when someone asked her to describe what's involved in the ultra-difficult Amanar vault, she complied in nearly the same scant few seconds it takes her to execute it.

"Basically, you do a round-off back handspring onto the table, you put your hands down on the floor and then your feet on the board and then your hands on the vault table, and then from there, you have to block and do two-and-a-half twists in time to land on the floor," Wieber said matter-of-factly.

One of the trickiest parts of the maneuver is the extra half-twist that leaves no margin for error and propels the gymnast into a blind forward landing, but Wieber is growing accustomed to those, both in and out of the gym.

The high beams of media attention veered toward her with full intensity after her win in Tokyo last fall, but so far, her status doesn't seem to have caused so much as a wobble. Her world championships gold "definitely gives me a little bit of confidence, but I have to kind of think about what I need to do right now," she said. "I can't think about what I've done in the past."

Wieber also turned pro a few months ago, and depicted that passage as a collaborative process with her parents.

"They trust me and my decisions and everything and they helped me make my decision. We worked it out and it's all a positive thing."

The pace Wieber is on requires a discipline most adolescents would find hard to live by. Her friend and fellow Olympic hopeful Alexandra Raisman portrays them as perfect roommates at international events "because we both like to get a lot of rest." The two are ardent nappers and recently have become enamored of scented candles as relaxation aids -- Raisman leans toward vanilla and Wieber likes "something cinnamon-y," Raisman said.

"She's handling it really well," Raisman said of the new expectations facing Wieber. "She's using it as motivation, which is really important and really good. She's the same Jordyn she was last year before she was world champion, so I don't think anything has affected her."

Geddert said she admires Wieber's comfort level with the media. "As a 16-year-old, I never would have been able to do the stuff she's done," the coach said.

Mary Lou Retton, who won this event three times, including the year she took Olympic gold (1984), observed that Wieber appears to have the ability to thrive on pressure rather than sag under it.

"If she stays healthy, she's the one to beat in London," said Retton, now a mother of four daughters ages 9 to 16. "She's the whole package. She's got explosiveness, she's got flexibility, she's got poise, upper-body strength, everything. As an athlete, you always kind of doubt yourself until you've got that big one in the bag, and she has that now.

"She's fierce on that floor. I wouldn't want to have to compete against her. She's just like a lion."