This week’s conversation is with Jordyn Wieber, a member of the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame and the “Fierce Five” United States gymnastics squad that won team gold at the 2012 Olympics.
Jordyn was a two-time U.S. all-around champion (2011 and 2012) and the 2011 World all-around champion.
Her illustrious Elite Career included three medals at the 2011 World Championships (all-around and team : gold, and a bronze on beam), and four U.S. senior national titles (all-around, bars and floor in 2011 and all-around in 2012).
She officially retired from competitive gymnastics in 2015.
In 2019, Jordyn was introduced as the head coach of the Arkansas Women’s Gymnastics program making her the youngest NCAA head-coach in history.
Jordan has been a vocal advocate for safe sport, has won several awards in the past year, including the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs, the Rising Star Award by the Los Angeles Business Journal, and the Giant Steps A Hero Among Us Award.
In this conversation we cover so much – the immense pressure she was under to succeed, the trauma she and her teammates experienced as members of USA gymnastics, and why she’s taken a stand to change the sport for the better.
In This Episode:
How she got her start in gymnastics
I went to gymnastics class and it’s classic, you hear every gymnasts say this, I was just hooked. From the very first time I stepped into a gym with the foam pad and the trampoline and the bouncing and all these really fun, exciting things, I just loved it from the get-go. And it wasn’t long before I was realizing I was pretty good at it. And I wasn’t really necessarily great at the skills at first, but I was really strong. And I could do any conditioning strength challenge that my coaches gave me.
Her parents approach to supporting her
I was self-motivated, I was self-driven. And I really appreciated the role my parents played in supporting me, but also reminding me. When I have really hard days, they would always remind me like, “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to be a gymnast, you don’t have to be at the elite level. It’s it really is your choice.” I don’t know if every parent is like that. I wish every parent was like that, I felt really blessed to have parents that just let me drive the bus a little bit.
Separating her athletic and home life
There were some days where my mom had to tell me, “You don’t have to do this. But let’s sleep on it, you always have a better day the next day.” And so I was really lucky to have parents like that, I had coaches that were really tough, and pushed me from a really young age. And so a lot of times I would leave practice whether it was the best practice ever or the worst practice in the world, I would go home and my mom always asked me, “How was practice today?” And every time no matter how good or bad I said, “Good.” That was it. And I think looking back, that was my way of keeping my home life and my gym life separate. And when I was home, I was just home. And it wasn’t about gymnastics, it wasn’t about the training. But I left that at the gym.
Her mindset as a gymnast
As an elite gymnast when you have to figure out how to compete at such a high level on a four inch piece of wood that is a balanced beam or at the bars or something like that, you have to figure out how to block out distractions and just be in the moment, be present, no matter what’s going on whether you’ve got an injury, whether you’ve got pressure from coaches or whatever it is, it could be a number of things.
What was her experience like at Karolyi Ranch?
The Karolyi Ranch is it’s in the middle of nowhere. Flying to the Houston airport, it takes about an hour and a half to drive there. And for the last 30 minutes to drive you’re in the woods. And so I’ll never forget the feeling in my stomach and the anxious feeling I would get when we’d get closer and would start to see the buildings and the markers that we were getting close. And it was just this sick, anxious feeling in my stomach because of the associations that I had with what it was like when I went there. And we trained twice a day, the training was really intense. Monica really had our eyes on everything that was going on, you’re constantly competing for a spot, for an opportunity to stay at the top. It’s like all day for five days you’re figuring out how to be as perfect as you possibly can so that you can impress this Márta Károlyi figure, so that you can fulfill your dream of going to the Olympics. And when I said that quote, it’s like USA Gymnastics was the only system that we had to go through to get to our dream of going to the Olympics, and we all dreamed of it. So we didn’t have really another option other than going to the ranch every month and figuring out a way to survive through this intense training. And don’t get me wrong, I think in order to get to that level, the training has to be intense, it has to be tough, you have to be perfectionistic, and you’ve got to work really hard. But where we had to go, we stayed in these motel rooms that had water that smelled like rotten eggs, and really uncomfortable beds. And just it wasn’t what you’d picture Olympic level athletes, where you’d picture them going and training. And not to mention, limited medical care and only the medical care we had was Dr. Larry Nassar who was abusing young girls. And so it was this whole mess of the system that USA Gymnastics set up that was working for a long time, it was creating champions and gold medals, but it was creating a lot of, I think trauma and a lot of athletes that finished gymnastics and end up with a lot of issues and a lot of mental health issues and injuries and things like that. So it was tough and at the time as a young gymnast, you feel like a robot, it’s like I felt like that from a young age, this is what I do. And I want to make it so bad. And I do love gymnastics. And this is what I have to do to get there. And so I liked working hard, they were intense conditions, it was exhausting physically and mentally. And now that I’m older, and I look back, a lot more things stick out to me in terms of that was not okay. And that was not okay, that was not okay. And adults should have made sure that that didn’t happen. And so I didn’t realize it at the time when I was a kid, but I realized it now.
If you remove the sexual abuse pieces, was the environment in and of itself abusive?
I would say for some people. It’s hard for me to say yes or no for myself because at the time, I don’t think I really understood. But I think separate from the sexual abuse, certain athletes were often verbally abused, often just ignored and treated as invisible if they weren’t performing up to the level or doing as well as, as they were supposed to which you think about … At the time, I didn’t feel like a kid, I felt like an adult doing an adult job there. And now I look back and thinking about athletes from 11 to 16 and that’s how they are being treated and what that does to a young person, and how that affects their self-esteem and their confidence long term. I would say absolutely, there are other types of abuse going on there whether or not I’ve received it is it’s a little bit blurry for me, and I probably at the end of the day would say, “No, just …” And I say that because I was always doing well. And so when you’re doing well, you were paid attention to, you were praised and you were put on this pedestal. But when other athletes weren’t doing well, they got the opposite treatment. And I would say that that is that was definitely going on.
Did winning gold at the Olympics feel like a life or death situation?
It was a combination of all of it, but I’ve never thought of it in that term, life or death and that really resonated, it does feel that way because for me, especially I decided I wanted to be an Olympian when I was nine. And so all those years, it’s like that was the one Pinnacle moment I was striving for and working towards. And I don’t even know what existed after the Olympics. You would have thought that was the last thing I ever had to do my whole life. So it does feel like that it feels like and then post I think a lot of athletes will say this, a lot of Olympians post-Olympics, you have this feeling of like, “What do I do now? Who am I without my sport? I literally train eight hours a day in gymnastics. And so I would say yeah, it did feel like that because everything built up to that one moment. And then for that one moment to not be everything I dreamed it would be was really, really tough mentally for me.
How did she manage the pressure of the Olympic Games?
Anytime I competed, it was like I was constantly playing mind games with myself of convincing myself It wasn’t a competition, that it was just practice, it was just another routine and it is like muscle memory. And it was like that even at the Olympics and then I kind of did the opposite in practice. So in practice, I found ways to really build up that … I never used the word nervous. I didn’t even identify with having nerves or being nervous, I was always excited. And again, that was another mind game, I played with myself of convincing myself. I didn’t get nervous, I just got really excited. So at practice, I would figure out ways to simulate what it would feel like to compete or say, “I have to make this one or I have to do two more.” And build up the pressure so that when I got to the competition, I reversed it. And especially on an event like bars or beam, I just tried to feel as normal as possible. And that’s hard to do because when the pressure is on and there’s cameras, and there’s a giant crowd, and you’ve got Olympic rings everywhere, it’s hard to comb down the physical pieces of that, and the heartbeat and the shakiness and those types of things, but I had this mental dialogue of just one more time, you’ve done a million in practice, it’s just one more, just do normal is that I literally just cycled through those words, over and over again. And so I didn’t allow anything negative or anything unusual to get in or any sense of doubt to get in. And that’s what I did when I competed all the way up to the Olympic Games except for floor. The only thing I said to myself before floor was have fun. Because floor you got to let yourself go free. And so literally, when I watched my Olympic routine back again, and I’m seeing my face before and I salute, I knew at that moment I was saying have fun which is kind of cool. And so yeah, I was really fascinated by the power of the mind, growing up in gymnastics, and I would read books about it. And I even wanted to be a sports psychologist, I majored in psychology at UCLA.
Her thoughts on culture
I personally believe that culture is such a broad word. It’s like how do you even define culture? And I think it’s really hard to define a culture. And I think culture is it’s actions every single day, and it’s constantly evolving and forming and it’s never perfect. And so I think that’s where we’re at as a program because I took over the program two years ago where there already was an existing culture from a different coaching staff. And so as much as I would like to just come in overnight, and change the mindset of 16 athletes and how they’re used to doing things, I knew that wasn’t realistic. And so I had a leadership coach my first year and whenever I was frustrated that they weren’t buying into my ideas or getting it, he would say, “As long as you have 51%. You don’t even have a whole 100% of them, but you just got to have 51%.” And that really helped me and we’re working hard at culture and it’s tricky to revamp a culture that already existed with athletes that are staying and but it’s fun, it’s a challenge every single day and I love the mentorship side of it.
What she knows to be true
This is one piece that I tried to transfer to my athletes every day and that is, “Yes, I’m young and when I got this job I was inexperienced in comparison to every other coach, but I truly believe that you can do anything you want as long as you work hard and you develop confidence. And I think like that’s how I’ve approached this new job is that I didn’t know most things about being a head coach, I didn’t know how to manage a budget I didn’t know like some of the behind the scenes things. I didn’t even know what I was going to do my first day on the job, but I knew that if I could have the confidence to figure it out, then I could figure it out.” And so translating that now to how I coach is that we could have an athlete who may not be an Olympian, they may not be the best athlete in the whole world, but if I can help build their confidence and they believe that they’re one of the best in the world then the gymnastics will follow and so I really try to build up those the athletes to just be more confident human beings, not just competent gymnasts, but confident human beings because that translates into their whole life.
How does she help her athletes with confidence
A lot of my coaching philosophy comes from what I learned from Ms. Val although Ms. Val and I are very different personalities. My foundation is very similar and that is I try to coach the whole person that is our athletes because they are yes, gymnasts, but they are human beings and they’re people and they have other parts of their lives that are important to them, their academics, their relationships, all these other things, what they aspire to be, and so on and so forth. And so we talk about relationships, that really connected with me because one of the things that I do to try to motivate my athletes is to get to know them individually. We have them take the enneagram test, I often take them to coffee and just get to know them and talk about anything, but gymnastics to get to know them. So we have at least a relationship. And then when I’m trying to push them to reach their potential or get them to work a little bit harder, or hold themselves to a higher standard, we have this relationship and understanding of each other. And that’s really important to me and I think that’s the best foundation for how we start to build confidence is just belief in themselves, and then knowing that I believe in them.
Why she loves coaching
The reason why I coach and the reason why I chose this profession was because I knew I wanted to do something where I was able to impact people’s lives. And me and one of my assistant coaches, we always say this, but we love helping people and gymnastics is our best tool able to do that. And so that’s why I coach, it’s not about winning national championships, although I think winning is really fun. And that’s our goal is to strive towards winning an SEC national championship. I know that the way to get there is by impacting as many people’s lives as I possibly can. So that’s to me the future is just helping develop my student athletes as humans and help them reach their potential as athletes. And in addition to that, I still do a lot of speaking and telling my story about whether it be my sexual abuse story or my story of just resilience in things that I’ve overcome in my life because I feel like that’s a universal theme for everybody, especially with COVID. It’s we’ve all had to flex our resilience muscle over and over and over again this past year, figure out how to keep putting one foot in front of the other. So I feel like that’s a story that I want to keep telling and sharing with people because it resonates with everybody of how do you experience something in life whether it be a little fender bender, or a death of a loved one, or anywhere in between and how do you pick yourself back up and keep going? So I really enjoy doing that.
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