Five-Ring Circus

Jordyn Wieber Cried. What a Baby. 

Jordyn Wieber, right, and Alexandra Raisman at the AT&T American Cup in New York in March

Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images.

Last night’s Olympic drama revolved around the fate of U.S. gymnast Jordyn Wieber, the reigning world champion. Wieber’s scores did not qualify her for the individual all-around finals. Instead, her teammates, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, both less celebrated, will advance. As she watched her scores come up, Wieber looked up with big brown eyes that instantly filled up with tears, and then she tried to turn away from the cameras long enough to regain her composure.

The New York Times described the moment this way:

When the 17-year-old Wieber—who has been described on different occasions as steady as a rock, as sure as a machine and as mentally tough as the great Nadia Comaneci—learned she was the odd woman out, she burst into tears.

There’s an alternate storyline forming here, aided by the announcers who described the Russian gymnasts as having “no shortage of diva moments—a lot of crying.” In the weeks leading up to the Olympics, we often discuss how tough these female athletes are: the trash-talking boxers, the pregnant Malaysian shooter. But then invariably one of them—usually a gymnast or an ice skater in winter—will shed a tear, and the commentators will wink and remind us all that deep down they are just little girls, or divas, or at least not quite as tough as they appear. 

In fact, what struck me most about Wieber’s reaction was how quickly she recovered, got it together for the cameras, and did the right thing, which was to congratulate her teammates and wish the team the best. Team gymnastics demands the impossible from these young girls. They have to strive for their own glory and at the same time suppress their egos on behalf of the team. Many less mentally tough gymnasts have fallen apart over that psychologically punishing demand. But Wieber could not have been more poised and generous. As famed coach Bela Karolyi said later, “I hope she is going to get the composure like she always does. But you know, [they] are human beings. You never know how they’re going to be.”*

Right, human beings, not little girls. Maybe Wieber’s great accomplishment last night was to normalize crying after a crushing result, so it won’t be something only divas do.

Correction: This post previously stated that Bela Karolyi was Wieber’s coach.