Jordyn Wieber: 'I feel like I walk a little taller now'
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Former Olympic gymnast and current UCLA assistant coach Jordyn Wieber added her name to a (still growing) list of women to accuse former USA Gymnastics national team and Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse in January. She first spoke at his sentencing hearing and gave a powerful testimony about her experience and the anger and confusion she felt as a result.
She has since spoken across the country, including on Capitol Hill, sharing her story and encouraging others to do the same, as well as pushing for legislation and organizational changes in hopes of protecting the next generation of athletes. The 23-year-old joined fellow Sister Survivor Sarah Klein on a panel Tuesday at the espnW: Women + Sports Summit and then spoke exclusively to espnW about the importance of speaking up, changes she would like to see in the sport and her expectations for the national champion Bruins this year.
espnW: How have the past nine months been for you since you came forward?
Wieber: It's been a crazy nine months, definitely not how I expected it to go. It's been very emotional, with so many ups and downs. What happened in January was a very hard time, but it fueled a new passion in me, and now I'm so determined to make gymnastics a safer sport and to ensure changes are made to make sure someone can't come on and take advantage like Larry Nassar did. The past nine months have been busy but definitely rewarding. Talking about it constantly is not easy, but if it's helping people, then I am willing to do it.
espnW: What have you learned about yourself in this process?
Wieber: After speaking in court in January, I feel like, not an entirely different person, but I do feel like it's made my life so different in so many ways. I feel so passionate about the advocacy work I'm doing. I feel like I walk a little taller now. I'm more confident in who I am. It kind of connected the dots in some ways for me in the way that I am and how I've thought about things until now. It's made me more confident in my voice and using my voice, with both public speaking and as a coach. It's made me a better coach. I just started realizing this in the last few weeks.
This experience has really helped me because when you use your voice over and over, it empowers you to keep doing it and doing it in different ways. There have been a lot of stressful things out of this, but there really have been good things as well.
espnW: You mentioned hoping to make gymnastics a safer sport. Have you been encouraged by any of the changes made by USA Gymnastics thus far?
Wieber: Not really. I haven't been very encouraged by anything. I was actually at the national championships over the summer because UCLA had an athlete competing [freshman Margzetta Frazier], and I was very observant and very aware, just trying to notice any changes. I do know there are still a number of people in charge who think we're lying and don't believe a lot of the girls. It's very saddening.
But at the same time, I did notice some small, cultural things -- like athletes seemed to have a little bit more of an opportunity to express their opinions, and there was more interaction between the gymnasts and the national team coordinator.
espnW: There has been talk about decertification of USAG, and it was mentioned today on the panel. Do you think that is the way to go, or can this organization be saved?
Wieber: I don't know the answer to that question, but I do think starting fresh could be a good thing. We've been saying that since January and pushing for the U.S. Olympic Committee to force USAG to decertify and start a new entity. I think if that had happened initially, there would have been enough time to build something up and be ready for the 2020 Olympics, but now we're less than two years away, and I don't know for sure what's best for the athletes. I do think that's the most important thing to remember: What is going to give these athletes peace of mind and allow them to go out there and compete? But starting fresh with new leadership would help. And if they're not going to do it themselves, maybe [decertification] is the way.
espnW: Who would be the ideal leader of whatever the governing body for gymnastics is, in your mind?
Wieber: I don't know, but it would be someone who understands what it means to be a leader and someone who really understands that in a sport like gymnastics, you're dealing with really young kids, and there are certain policies that need to be in place to make sure they're protected. I don't think that's been the goal of our governing body in the past. The new CEO needs to put safety as the No. 1 priority. I know the CEO of any company has to be able to do the business side of it, but the athletes come first.
espnW: UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field has been so publicly supportive of you and your fellow survivors and outspoken about the issues relating to abuse in the sport. What has her support meant to you, and what have you learned from her?
Wieber: She's been a rock for me over the past year. Whenever I was confused and didn't know what to do, I would process things with her, and she would talk me through it. She is so good at standing up for what she believes in and doesn't back down, and that's inspired me to do the same.
She's such a great role model for not just me as a coach, but for all the girls on the team. The transformation that all the girls go through from freshman year to senior year in our program, and the role that she plays in that, is so amazing to see, and it's something I hope to do in my coaching career. She's one of the few NCAA head coaches who is willing to put herself and her voice out there, and she does get a lot of criticism for that, but she's willing to do that when she believes something is right. I admire that so much about her. Not many coaches are willing to do that.
espnW: Kondos Field announced that she would be retiring after this season. How did you feel when she told you?
Wieber: I mean, I knew before most. I'm very excited for her. She's such an amazing coach and has done so many incredible things, but she also has so many other projects. She wants to direct and produce and choreograph, so I really see this as her starting her second career. I know she's going to go on and affect so many other people's lives in her new journey, so it's very exciting for her, and I'm genuinely happy for her.
espnW: You've both mentioned the hope that you will someday be the head coach of this team. How are you feeling about that now?
Wieber: That's my goal! This is my career path, and I want to be a head coach someday, hopefully at UCLA -- that's the dream -- but anywhere where I feel I can make a difference and an impact on the lives of young women during their college years. I feel like that's such an important thing, and I've really felt a sense of purpose with that, and hopefully I can be -- hopefully my own version -- but do a lot of the amazing things that Miss Val has done.
espnW: If they asked you to take over head-coaching duties next year, what would you say?
Wieber: Obviously, I wouldn't be able to turn that down. [Laughing] But we'll see. I don't know.
espnW: You're entering the new season as the defending national champions. How does that feel?
Wieber: Well, we just got these [national championship rings] a few weeks ago. I figured I had to sport it somewhere. But it's a weird dynamic because of course we all would like to do it again, but we've made it a point to not say, "We have to repeat what we did last year!" because every year is different. Every team is different. We just really try to hit the refresh button and start new. If you want different results, you have to do things differently. That was our motto last year, and it worked, so the same thing holds true for this year. We can't do exactly what we did last year. That doesn't work. Just taking it one day at a time and keeping the team motivated and figuring out what that key to the season is going to be. That develops over the course of the season. We have a really special team this year, and it's going to be exciting and hopefully a great last year for Val.
espnW: It might not be the focus, but can this team win the national championship?
Wieber: Absolutely. We have two Olympians [Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian], we have two incredible freshmen in Margzetta Frazier and Norah Flatley, so we are stacked with talent, but it really is going to come down to the team coming together and being able to do it as one unit and not as a group of individuals.