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U.S. gymnast Wieber going for gold while trying to strike balance

Published June 28, 2012 1:43 pm

Olympic Trials • She's the female gymnast to beat when U.S. trials start Thursday.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

San Jose, Calif. • If Rita and Dave Wieber have learned anything about their daughter and gymnastics, it is this: Don't cross Jordyn.

Eight years ago they tried to get her to quit because the sport interfered with family ski weekends. But she pitched a fit any time the parents suggested scaling back.

Finally the Wiebers decided they had to make it work. As Jordyn, 16, headlines the U.S. Olympic trials that begin Thursday at HP Pavilion, she and her family hope they have struck the fine balance between gymnastics stardom and a future beyond the beam and high bars.

"Gymnastics is not Jordyn's entire life," Rita Wieber said. "At some point it will be over. I don't want her to feel she has nothing left."

Rita, an emergency room nurse, college lecturer and author of a new book about the experience of being a Gym Mom, has tried to manage expectations as her daughter has leapt into the Olympic spotlight a month before the London Games.

Eight years ago, the parents weren't thinking about such possibilities. Rita just wanted more snow time at the family's weekend cottage.

But she also understands how parents can lose perspective. Rita has written about her experience in Gym Mom, Surviving Your Daughter's Gymnastics Career. It is timed to launch for the start of the trials that opens Thursday with the first day of the men's competition.

"It's the book I wish someone would have handed me when Jordyn started at age 4," she said. "I had no idea what the world of gymnastics consisted of."

Everything accelerated last fall when Jordyn, a high school junior from DeWitt, Mich., won the prestigious all-around title at the World Championships in Japan. The performance led to appearances on "Today" and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," and the signing of a professional contact.

Three weeks ago Jordyn won her second consecutive national title by edging principal rival Gabby Douglas of Virginia Beach, Va. She will be one of the most talked about athletes at the four-day event in San Jose as U.S. gymnastics officials pick the men's and women's teams they will send to the London Games.

It's not what the Wiebers had planned when enrolling their daughter at a central Michigan club called the Twisters. By age 10, Jordyn had jumped to the elite level, where the risks are greater because of the difficulty of the routines.

"I honestly was scared to death," Rita said of the possibility of injury.

By then Jordyn already had finished second at the Junior Olympics and was ready for a bigger challenge.

"I always learned skills really fast," the gymnast said. "I've been given this great talent that not very many people are blessed with, so I am supposed to use it."

Mom has never stopped worrying, though. It didn't help when Michigan State gymnast Kathryn Mahoney became a paraplegic two years ago after fracturing the C6 vertebra in a practice accident.

The Wiebers closely monitor their daughter to ensure she hasn't suffered the kind of back injury that could lead to chronic pain.

"They can't make the best decisions for themselves," Rita said of teenage gymnasts. "No matter what they do, this is probably over by the time they're 22 and they have maybe 80 more years to live."

The parents want their daughter to develop a sound intellect to prepare for life after tumbling.

While many elite gymnasts are homeschooled because they train six hours a day, Wieber attends a local public school like almost all the kids in her neighborhood.

She attended morning classes and ate lunch with friends on campus before heading to the gym for training. Wieber also took two online courses last school year.

"School is not a place where I want to think about gymnastics," she said. "It's a place where I want to get my mind off of everything that happened at the gym that day."

Jordyn didn't have to worry about drawing too much attention on campus this past year, where her brother Ryan was the school's starting quarterback. Same is true around the house with Lindsay, 24, a third-year medical student and Kyra, 12, playing soccer.

For the parents, it's not a matter of their daughter enjoying a "normal" childhood.

"I want her to be exposed to as much as she can in the world so she can figure out who she is and identify with herself," Rita said.

The parent shakes her head when broaching the subject of the stage moms she has met in gymnastics.

"You've got your nutty moms," Rita said. "You've got your moms who will bribe your kids to stay in the sport. Mom who will punish her kids."

The Wiebers can only hope they've done it right as their daughter stretches her athletic boundaries on the cusp of celebrity.

It's not easy being a Gym Mom, Rita likes to say.

"But I'm a Soccer Mom too," she added.

ealmond@mercurynews.com