Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY/US PresswireAfter the last two individual events in women's gymnastics—balance beam and floor exercise—I read on one of the news websites that Jordyn Wieber, the favorite to win all-around coming into the Games, "failed again" in her bid for an individual medal. The use of the word failed bothers me. Did Jordyn perform at her best during the Olympics? No. The level of talent, hard work, fearlessness, focus, strength and determination that lands a young girl in the Olympics is really incomprehensible for most of us. Jordyn Wieber didn't fail at these Olympics—she's part of the Gold medal winning team. But she didn't live up to her own standards. Because of that she gets to be a different kind of role model than the one she would have been had she nailed every routine.
Gymnastics is perhaps the most unforgiving sport. One-hundredth of a point can separate Gold and Silver medalists. One little bobble—a flexed foot, tiny wobble on the beam, small step on a landing—and the chance of any medal can be lost. Unlike most other sports, gymnastics is inherently highly dangerous. Gymnasts are subject to the usual injuries all athletes risk—sprains, muscles tears, blown ACLs, damaged rotator cuffs—plus a good deal more. An orthopedist who treats Berkeley's football and gymnastics teams told me gymnastics is far more dangerous than football.
As badly as I feel for Jordyn Wieber that these Games didn't work out the way she'd hoped and the rest of the world expected, I question whether she would have beat Gabby Douglas in the all-around had she been able to compete in it. Gabby beat Jordyn during the Olympic trials and was the only member of Team USA to compete in all four events during the team finals. She's better at vaulting, bars and beam than Jordyn and her equal on the floor. When Jordyn won last year's Worlds, beating Russia's Viktoria Komova by one-hundredth of a point, it seemed like a scoring injustice. Wieber had stepped out of bounds on one of her tumbling passes on the floor; Komova bobbled a turn. Wieber's misstep seemed to me the more egregious of the two.
News websites are now posting that Jordyn Wieber may have come into these Olympics with a stress fractured leg. In gymnastics routines, timing is everything. One-hundredth of a second is the difference between perfection and disaster. In the life of a gymnast performing a sport to which the world pays attention only for two weeks every four years, timing can be cruel. A 15 year-old is too young to compete; at 19 that same gymnast may be too old. An athlete may go three years without a significant injury only to sustain a stress fracture one month before the Olympics.
As much as I would have liked to see a healthy Jordyn Wieber compete at her best during these Olympics, I'm still thrilled Gabby Douglas won the individual all-around. First African American woman to accomplish this. The charismatic 16-year-old, lithe and tiny at 4'11", brought her best when it counted the most.
Note to Gabby and Jordyn: if you decide to retire and then decide to unretire, take lessons from Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin and other gymnasts who've attempted a comeback too late. Give yourself at least two years to get in shape for Brazil 2016. I'd really love to see both of you there.