This Is What It’s Really Like To Go To College After Winning Gold At The Olympics
Jordyn Wieber was a member of the "Fierce Five" U.S. Olympic gymnastics team that won gold in 2012. After the Olympics, she went to the University of California-Los Angeles and completed a degree in psychology, all while working with the school’s gymnastics team. Since graduating in 2017, Wieber has stayed with the college as a volunteer assistant coach. In January 2018, she came forward as a victim of abusive gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar with an emotional statement given in court — with the support of her UCLA team. This is her college story, as told to Alexandra Svokos as part of Elite Daily’s Summer Scaries series.
Growing up, I had two dreams: to go to the Olympics and to be a college gymnast. Like a lot of elite gymnasts, I didn’t have a normal childhood at all. I was always missing school and traveling for gymnastics. Unlike a lot of elite gymnasts, however, I was allowed to stay in public school all the way through high school. Of course, I wasn’t there the whole day — I did half of a day at school and made up classes with online courses — but I loved that tiny shred of normalcy in a childhood that was… not so normal.
That’s why I decided to go to college and live in the dorms and just be a normal student on campus… even though I went to the Olympics. A lot of people probably think that’s weird, but it just felt so nice to be treated like everybody else. Colleges had been trying to recruit me for gymnastics since I was 14 or 15. My top three schools were always UCLA, Alabama, and Florida.
But after I became world champion [in 2011], I had to choose between either going professional or keeping my eligibility to compete in college [NCAA rules require college athletes to be amateurs]. I ended up going professional so I could take advantage of opportunities, like sponsors and commercials, but doing so meant I couldn’t compete in college gymnastics.
I knew UCLA had one of the best academics of all the public schools in the country, and I had a lot of friends who went there, so, I decided that even though I couldn’t compete in gymnastics, I still wanted to go to school there. I followed what felt right to me, and took, just kind of, a leap of faith, and decided to go to UCLA.
I worked with the UCLA gymnastics team for my first three years in college as a team manager because I just wanted to be in the gym. I wanted to be a part of the team, whether I could compete or not. As a manager, I was moving mats and chalking bars and doing all these things gold medalists usually don’t do, but I wanted to serve the team; I wanted to help them be successful any way that I could, and if that was the role I had to take, then I was going to do that.
But definitely, for the first year especially, being in the arena and watching the girls compete, especially when the team wasn’t doing well… I just wanted to help, and I wish I could have been a college gymnast to this day. But I’ve had so many great experiences going professional, being able to [give] speeches and [go to] camps and clinics and get paid for those. It’s not even about the money for me, it’s more about inspiring the next generation of gymnasts, and using my voice to tell my story.
So, it’s kind of like, I wish I could have done it, but also I wouldn’t have given up the opportunities I got to have because I gave up college gymnastics. So it was really tricky at first, but I got used to it.
I went into college thinking I’d do one year at UCLA then move back to Michigan and train for the 2016 Olympics. I still had years of competition inside me, and I had this fire to go back and win the all-arounds. So, I trained my freshman year, but they have NCAA restrictions where I wasn’t allowed to train with the UCLA team. They started at 8 a.m., so I started practice at 6 a.m. every day, and it just got to be really exhausting. I was just sort of mentally checked out and [was] done. You go through so many things being an elite gymnast, and I was dealing with a lot of stress and injuries. It was just time for me to close that chapter of my life and be done. But it also gave me opportunity to be a fully immersed, real-life college student, and that was really cool for me.
I knew I wanted to be a psych major since junior year of high school, and I think it’s because of gymnastics, which, I always say, is 30 percent physical and 70 percent mental. It’s all about the power of the mind and understanding how you can use your mind to perform under great amounts of pressure. That was always something I had to utilize when I competed, but it just fascinated me. I didn’t know exactly what career I wanted, but I knew that was something interesting to me, and I just followed that path. I think if you choose a major that interests you, like I did, that helps you figure out what career you want.
After my freshman year, we had a leadership coach working with the gymnastics team. I did an internship in [leadership coaching] and thought, "This is for sure what I want to do." I thought I was pretty set on that, and then my senior year, our head coach asked if I wanted to be the volunteer assistant coach for the team. And if you would have asked me five years ago if I wanted to be a coach, I would have been like, "Heck, no. I spent my whole life in the gym. I don’t want to be in the gym every day of my life from here on out."
But I tried coaching, and I ended up loving it. That was the biggest shocker for me. Now, I’ve decided that I want to pursue NCAA coaching. So it always changes. You think you know what you want to do, and then you try new things and something might surprise you, because that’s what happened with me. You just have to go with what feels right. I’m still a volunteer coach [for UCLA], so I don’t even have a real paid position yet, because I’m waiting for one to open up. But it just felt right. It felt like that was the place for me. I have so much passion for helping girls and coaching, so it was like I didn’t really have a choice at that point.
All of the girls on the UCLA team were my best friends, and we were like family. Those girls mean everything to me. When I decided I was going to read my victim impact statement [in the Larry Nassar sentencing trial in January], I sat the team down and explained what I was going to be doing, why I was doing it, and why it was important for me. And then as soon as I finished reading my statement [in Michigan], I got on a plane and flew to Arizona for our competition against the University of Arizona. I think they were really empowered by not just me, but the whole army of survivors that read their statements; that was really empowering for our team. Because I think they saw how when you use your voice and those voices come together, it can really create positive changes. Not only that, but they were just so supportive of me, and they really just stood by me, and it was great to have that support system while I was going through that.
A lot of them come from abusive environments, unfortunately, whether that be sexual, physical, emotional, or even not, club gymnastics and growing up in the sport in general is very intense. We start gymnastics so young, our identity becomes wrapped up entirely in gymnastics. That’s how people see you, that’s how you identify yourself. So when they come to college and we coach them, we try to retrain that mindset where we treat them as people first, and then gymnasts, which is something a lot of them have never experienced before. A lot of the club coaches treat us like robots. I think it’s really important for them to understand that we care about them as people first. We want to make sure that their lives are OK and they’re growing as people. And then the gymnastics will come once that is all in place.
I love this sport so much. After everything I’ve been through, it’s still my passion. And I think this is a way I can give back and make it a better sport, and make it have a more positive impact for gymnasts. I think college is the perfect place to do that. [These gymnasts are] really trying to figure out who they are, and they’re trying to grow into the best versions of themselves — that’s why I love coaching college.
We have this idea of what our path is going to be, and it doesn’t always work out. You might not get into the college of your dreams. You might not get into your major. But I’m a strong believer that everything happens for a reason, and I think just taking it one step at a time and doing what feels right in the moment is really important, and that will lead you to what you’re meant to do. We all have this idea of who we want to be and what we’re going to do of our lives, but 95 percent of the time that changes for people while they’re in college. So I think trying new things and taking advantage of all the opportunities, but also doing what feels right and what you’re passionate about, is going to lead you to where you’re going to be.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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