Jordyn Wieber Is Countering An Abusive Gymnastics Culture By Coaching — EXCLUSIVE
It has been a remarkable year for Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Wieber, who was part of the 2012 "Fierce Five" women's gymnastics team. In January, Wieber joined over 250 women accusing former athletic doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse when she delivered a victim impact statement in court in Michigan. Immediately afterwards, she flew to Arizona to support the UCLA women's gymnastics team, where she has been serving as volunteer assistant coach since her senior year at the school, in competition. In between making speeches about abuse, Wieber has been working to change gymnastics' culture from the ground up — literally — as a coach.
The number one thing I’ve learned as a coach is to always think of them as a person before an athlete.
After competing in the 2012 London Olympics, Wieber started college at the University of California-Los Angeles. As she had taken paid endorsements and gone professional, she wasn't allowed to compete with UCLA under NCAA rules, but, she tells me in an interview for Elite Daily, "I just knew I wanted to be in the gym; I knew that I loved the sport so much, I had a passion for it, and I couldn’t see myself not in the gym." So she joined the gymnasts as a team manager, chalking bars, moving mats, and checking gear — not exactly gold medalist activities.
Still, after years of intense training, Wieber found the work enlightening. "It fueled me, it made me happier, and of course, I got to be in the gym," she says. So when head coach Valorie Kondos Field asked her to be the volunteer assistant coach, specializing in floor routines, in her senior year, Wieber jumped at the opportunity. Since graduating in 2017, Wieber has stayed with the team, and was part of the team for their victory at the national championships in April.
"I feel like an entirely different person from when I stepped foot on campus my freshman year [compared to] now," Wieber says, noting that there's "so much more joy" in college gymnastics than in elite training. "I’ve just come out of my shell and I feel like I’ve loosened up a lot just being a part of that family and that environment that’s so inclusive."
The team has been there for Wieber through this tumultuous year. She told me in a previous interview that she sat the team down to tell them about Nassar before she delivered her victim impact statement in January, and that "they really just stood by me, and it was great to have that support system while I was going through that." As a coach, she made a point "to have these open conversations and talk about [the abuse and trial], and not pretend like it's this awkward thing that no one wants to [address]." By talking about it, Wieber said, addressing abuse transformed from something uncomfortable to something empowering, "because I think they saw how when you use your voice and those voices come together, it can really create positive changes."
The trajectory of abuse in gymnastics hopefully will completely change, and people won’t be able to get away with things like this anymore.
Since delivering her statement, Wieber has been addressing abuse in gymnastics and beyond all around the country, including to the Senate, and, she tells me, she's been outraged to learn about the lapses in laws that allow the abuse of children to go unreported. But while she's countering abuse on that larger scale, she's also doing so in more personal, immediate ways with the UCLA team.
"The number one thing I’ve learned as a coach is to always think of [the woman] as a person before an athlete; caring about them as a person and a human being that has feelings and thoughts and emotions before a gymnast," Wieber says, noting that some women grew up in "abusive environments" where "their coaches yelled at them and called them ‘fat,’" and so on. "If you treat them as a gymnast first, then they start to feel like robots and like we’re dictators, and that’s not the kind of coach that I want to be."
With that in mind, Wieber starts sessions by having a conversation about how the person is feeling physically and mentally inside and outside of the gym — "not just assuming they’re feeling great all the time, because when you’re not feeling great or haven’t gotten enough sleep, that’s when injuries happen." Then, when they're practicing routines, Wieber talks them through how it's going, "just trying to include them in the conversation and let them have control over their gymnastics, their workout, and, essentially, their life."
We don’t do gymnastics to serve our coaches, we don’t do it just for our coaches; we do it because we love it, and because we’re passionate about it.
Wieber understands younger gymnasts need more structured guidance as they're still learning, but she believes that coaches of younger gymnasts can do more to treat them as humans and include them in the conversation — which would also help them develop opinions, decision making, and leadership.
"Care about them and understand that they’re people," Wieber says as advice to coaches of younger gymnasts. "We don’t do gymnastics to serve our coaches, we don’t do it just for our coaches; we do it because we love it, and because we’re passionate about it. The coaches’ main job, I think, is to protect their athletes and to care about them."
In this way, Wieber was failed by her coaches and the leadership at USA Gymnastics (USAG), which allowed Nassar to abuse her and other women and girls for years. USAG, the United States Olympic Committee, and Michigan State University (which also employed Nassar) have been taking steps to change their operations, including changing their leadership. In April, Wieber sued the three organizations over Nassar's abuse.
"USA Gymnastics recognizes the courage displayed by Jordyn Wieber and others who have shared their experiences with abuse. We are very sorry that any athlete has been hurt by the horrific actions of Larry Nassar," the organization said, per The Washington Post.
When I’m on camera and I’m speaking in front of senators and on TV and things like that, I’m very put together and I’m able to talk about it, but behind the scenes, I struggle a lot.
"We do so much, we put in so much hard work and sacrifice so many things. We deserve to be treated in a good way. We deserve to be protected from people like Larry Nassar coming in and thriving in that environment," Wieber tells me. "I think the leadership needs to make sure that the athletes come first. I think they sort of had the wrong people in those positions. I think that this all coming out and this all being the topic of conversation in our sport right now is obviously very sad, but I think it’s very important, because this is going to be a shift in the sport. The trajectory of abuse in gymnastics hopefully will completely change, and people won’t be able to get away with things like this anymore."
"I feel like it’s sort of my responsibility and obligation now to stand up for the future gymnasts and the future children and make sure that they are protected, because we weren’t," Wieber says. "I want to speak; I want to make sure that I can share my experience so they can make sure that nobody else has that experience from this point forward."
But this responsibility has been "a very mixed feeling" for Wieber.
"On one hand, it’s very empowering for me to be able to take this experience of something horrible that happened to me and put meaning to it," she says. "The other side of it is having to talk about abuse and my experience constantly. It’s exhausting. You know, I’m still in my healing process. Obviously when I’m on camera and I’m speaking in front of senators and on TV and things like that, I’m very put together and I’m able to talk about it, but behind the scenes, I struggle a lot."
Through her own personal journey to process the abuse she faced, through addressing abuse on a systemic scale, and through working out who she wants to be as a coach, Wieber has been supported and uplifted by the UCLA team, from the training staff to the students, and she hopes to one day become a head coach.
"Through everything that’s been happening, especially this year, [the] best part of [my] day is when I’m in the gym with those girls. They just put a smile on my face every single day. It’s not necessarily gymnastics, I guess, it’s the people that I get to surround myself with. I’ve been so lucky here at UCLA to have this experience," she says. "Coaching the skills and even winning championships has not compared to how amazing I feel the relationships I’ve made have been. That’s what keeps me in it, is just the people."