Jordyn Wieber survived abuse, and is now out to change gymnastics culture

BEFORE HER TEAM'S rotation on balance beam at their final home meet of the regular season, University of Arkansas head coach Jordyn Wieber gathers her gymnasts for a huddle. She asks them to take a collective deep breath, calm their energy and focus on the start and finish of each skill. She reminds them they are ready and resilient. As she speaks, a black face mask obscures all but her dark, expressive eyes.

While most of the 1,241 fans in Barnhill Arena for February's Women's Empowerment Meet in Fayetteville are likely unaware of what she is going through outside of the gym, Wieber's own calm resiliency is on display.

Just 24 hours earlier, former USA Gymnastics coach John Geddert, Wieber's longtime personal coach and the head coach of the 2012 Olympic team on which she was a star, was charged with two dozen crimes. Long seen as one of the chief enablers of USAG team doctor Larry Nassar, who worked at Geddert's gym, Geddert was charged with lying to a police officer about Nassar's decades of sexual abuse. He was also charged with sexual assault, human trafficking and forced labor, and racketeering. As police sought his arrest, Geddert died by suicide at an interstate highway rest stop in Michigan on Feb. 25.

"I immediately thought of Jordyn when I heard the news," says Kathy Johnson Clarke, a former Olympian who calls gymnastics meets for the SEC Network. "I know what it feels like to have a coach, someone you cared about and was so much a part of your success, turn out to be somebody who did so much damage."

Wieber betrays no signs of emotional turmoil at the meet, coaching with the same focus and energy she displays every week. Although she has been open about her experience in elite gymnastics under Geddert, Wieber declined to speak publicly about his death.

"Knowing she had to coach the next day, that's when her training as an elite gymnast kicks in," Johnson Clarke says. "She has that ability to compartmentalize and do amazing things under extraordinarily stressful situations."

Now in her second season at Arkansas, Wieber, 25, carries her past with her in every moment of her young coaching career. She continues to advocate for sexual abuse survivors and speak out about the lack of accountability by organizations such as USAG for the abuse she and hundreds of gymnasts suffered from Nassar under their watch. Drawing on her experience in elite gymnastics -- and the trauma she endured -- Wieber is working to create a compassionate, caring style of coaching still rare in a sport plagued by emotional abuse and overtraining.

"This style of coaching is a longer process," Wieber says. "The easiest thing for coaches to do is to make their athletes robots and say, 'Do this,' and then make them do it. To find a way to encourage and motivate change versus dictating change is harder, but I truly believe you'll end up with better outcomes and your athletes will become stronger, more resilient human beings."

That night in Fayetteville, and for the second week in a row, Wieber leads her team to a season-high score on floor and an impressive 197.000 overall. The next week, on the road against No. 12 Auburn, the No. 6 Razorbacks score an all-time program high of 197.425 in their win over the Tigers.

But it's not the score Wieber wants to talk about three weeks later from her office on campus. "What stands out to me about that meet is their fight," she says. "It wasn't a perfect meet by any means. But when we competed against Kentucky earlier this year, and they got to the last event on beam and looked up at the scoreboard and saw the potential for a 197, they played tight. They didn't do that at Auburn. That's progress."

WHEN WIEBER FLEW to Fayetteville from Los Angeles to interview for the job in spring 2019, she knew her name alone would not land her the position. Nor would her credentials as a world and Olympic champion. She was 23, barely older than the women she would lead, and her coaching resume reflected only her years as a volunteer assistant at UCLA under longtime head coach Valorie Kondos Field.

In the meeting, Wieber explained she had chosen to remain as an unpaid volunteer with the Bruins rather than seek assistant-coaching positions elsewhere. She wanted to learn from Kondos Field, one of the most successful coaches in the NCAA, known for her positive, empowering style. She also explained her long-term vision to turn the Razorbacks into a national championship contender while establishing a program defined by hard work, communication, openness and joy.

"The culture we all grew up in is you do what you're told when you're told and you don't argue," Wieber says. "The culture we're trying to develop is open and vulnerable and communicative. The way we get our athletes to do that is by modeling communication and vulnerability. It also takes our team leaders being willing to speak up and say things that are uncomfortable. When one person does that, they give permission to others to do the same."

Wieber knows a cultural shift will take time. Her style requires coaches to get to know their athletes on a personal level, set goals and empower them to have agency over their careers. It also requires trust and buy-in from athletes who might be unaccustomed to or even uncomfortable with a coach who enables them to make decisions and doesn't scream or yell when something goes wrong.

In tough moments, when Wieber sees one of her gymnasts struggling, she thinks back to her own days in the gym. "I try to draw on that younger, athlete version of Jordyn and what she needed from a coach that maybe she didn't get," Wieber says.

After accepting the job at Arkansas and becoming one of the youngest head coaches in NCAA history, Wieber hired two-time Olympian Chris Brooks, an assistant at Oklahoma at the time, as one of her top assistants. The two had been in a long-distance relationship for two years, and they'd hoped to coach together one day. (They disclosed their relationship to the university and Brooks reports to a senior administrator rather than to Wieber.)

"When this opportunity came up, I asked him, 'If I get this job, do you want to come with me and do this together?'" Wieber says. She also brought in Catelyn Orel, a 2019 Nebraska graduate, to choreograph floor and coach beam.

"We're all very young, but I really do think we have the best coaching staff in the country," Wieber says. She and her staff can call on their gymnastics experiences more viscerally. They remember what it was like to be young gymnasts seeking compassion and college students struggling to manage classes and athletics.

Wieber set modest goals for their first season: Make super regionals, improve fan interaction on social media and grow crowd size by 25%. During the 2019-2020 regular season, the Gymbacks not only improved home attendance, they set a program record of 5,415 fans per meet, nearly doubling their 2019 numbers. With the SECs approaching, Wieber felt her team was tracking toward accomplishing their postseason goal as well.

Then, on March 12, 2020, she faced her first major challenge as a head coach: navigating the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The timeline of that day was crazy," Wieber says. "We started the day trying to figure out if our senior night meet was going to happen the next day. By the end of the day, the national championship was canceled and our season was done."

On frequent Zoom calls, the coaches and athletes spoke openly about the unique challenges of coming together as a team while being forced to remain apart. "This year is going to prepare them for life. That's what I learned from my career and shared with them," Wieber says. "Some of the injuries and setbacks and abuse that I had to go through made me a stronger person and this pandemic is going to make our gymnasts stronger human beings."

Her gymnasts are buying in, believing they are as good as Wieber tells them they are, and the results are reflecting that belief. "I'm very performance-driven and like to be the best I can be," says senior Sophia Carter, who recently earned All-SEC honors. "Whenever I'm not having my best day, she always encourages me to remember, 'You don't have to be perfect. Just relax and do what you know how to do,' and that helps me."

At the SEC championships in Huntsville, Alabama, in March, the Razorbacks suffered uncharacteristic mistakes on bars and beam, scored a season-low 195.600 and finished last of seven teams. After every meet, Wieber gathers her squad and asks each gymnast and coach what the team did well, what they didn't, and what they can improve or do differently. In Huntsville, Wieber says her athletes admitted to having moments of self-doubt. She reminded them to focus on the small details and trust their preparation.

"I explain it as we're climbing a mountain and every meet, we take one more step," Wieber says. "Sometimes we slide back a little bit. I tell them, 'We don't have to be at the peak of the mountain this weekend. We just have to take one more step."

Heading into regionals on Friday (2 p.m. ET; ESPN3), the Razorbacks -- who were ranked 20th in 2019 -- are now 10th in the nation and third on floor exercise, a remarkable improvement in just two seasons. "I call Jordyn the floor whisperer," says Johnson Clarke. "She's fully transformed that floor team. The amplitude of their skills, their tumbling, their shapes in the air and of course their landings. Even those who were already exceptional are even more so. Her athletes trust her."

THROUGHOUT THE WOMEN'S Empowerment Meet in February, Wieber glances into the stands to see Kondos Field -- who retired from UCLA in 2019 -- typing notes on her phone. Flanked by her husband, former UCLA football coach and athletic director Bobby Field, and Mark Cook -- Wieber's predecessor at Arkansas and Kondos Field's former assistant at UCLA -- Kondos Field has been a supportive staple at every home meet this season. "It's so great to have them here," Wieber says. "Miss Val used to be a phone call away, and now we can just pop over to her house."

After Kondos Field retired in 2019, she and Bobby began discussing relocating out of Los Angeles. Field played strong safety at Arkansas, so the return to Fayetteville, 50 years later, is a full-circle move for the couple. "Now that we're all retired, we're having a ball," Kondos Field says. "It's not just me mentoring her, but this family unit helping her figure this out together."

Although she purposefully stays away from the practice gym, Kondos Field offers frequent advice and an ear. "One thing I love about her mentorship is she never gives me the answers or tells me what I should do," Wieber says. "She always asks, 'What do you think?' And then she pushes me in the direction of what's true and authentic to me."

Kondos Field also brings the fan's perspective to meets. "One of the things Miss Val did really well at UCLA was produce the show," Wieber says. "Having her in the stands gives me a great perspective of what our show is like and how we can make it better."

After attending her first meet, Kondos Field suggested placing spotlights on the coaches when their names are announced. She encouraged Wieber to address and thank the fans on the microphone after each competition. She also impressed upon her former volunteer assistant the importance of making sure she and her assistant coaches don't show up dressed alike. "All of those details matter," Kondos Field says.

Wieber has taken her advice on nearly every point. What stands out most to Kondos Field, though, is Wieber's quiet confidence in herself and her team.

When she recently asked Wieber what she planned to wear to the NCAA championships, which will require the 10th-ranked Razorbacks to knock out either No. 7 Alabama or No. 1 Oklahoma at regionals, Kondos Field says Wieber didn't flinch. "She didn't say, 'Well, let's see if we make NCAAs first.' She just said, 'Well, what do you think about white pants and a red top?'"