August 15, 2013
HARTFORD — Gymnastics, McKayla Maroney conceded, is confusing.
"You have to be so many different things in one," Maroney said Wednesday. "You have to be powerful and so tough. We're in the gym eight hours a day. Most of these girls here are competing with sprained ankles, something that's wrong. At the same time, we're smiling. We have our makeup on and our lip gloss. We look good. We're having fun. But, really, we're these tough, bad-ass girls working so hard to accomplish our dreams."
On the eve of the 2013 P&G Championships — our national championship — there is one thing that Maroney isn't confused about: She wants Rio. She wants another Olympics. How bad? Well, "2016" is the password on her cellphone. Call it a constant reminder.
"I've wanted to get into acting really bad," said Maroney, who appeared in three episodes of "Hart of Dixie" on The CW while rehabilitating from two surgeries. "At the  Olympics I was like, 'This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to be done with gymnastics.'"
"But the second I fell on my butt on the vault, I was like, 'Next Olympics it is.' Acting can wait."
Her feelings do not wait. Maroney is 17 going on 27 going on 17. She is no ordinary interview. Sassy, sarcastic, funny, Maroney is a hit on Twitter. She engages fans. She lives for Instagram. She uses Vine and Keek. You get the feeling she might send a "selfie" from high above the XL Center during one of her vaults this week.
"If I didn't have Instagram and Twitter on my phone, I would cry," Maroney said. "I get in trouble sometimes. I'm too real. I keep my personality, instead of being like [in a little girl voice], 'Hey, guys. Love you.'"
One of the great blessings of being mankind's most famous "not impressed" girl in 21st-century social media is that Maroney was able to turn a lasting pout into a lasting chuckle. Yes, her disappointment in not winning an individual gold medal in the vault was real. And it showed. It's interesting, really. If some guy messed up in the Super Bowl and he was smiling afterward, he'd be excoriated for not caring enough, for being a phony.
"It was definitely crazy," she said, "being an online kind of sensation, to mean different things to different people. I tried to turn it into something positive, because in the very beginning it was a negative thing. It was, 'You fell. You're not impressed with your silver medal.' It wasn't that. I was disappointed with falling in the Olympics on my last vault."
"But everything happens for a reason. That's why I'm back here today. I'm not done."
There are few less-forgiving things on this planet than women's Olympic gymnastics. Bodies change. Goals change. During a four-year interval, you often get one shot. One slip. Poof.
There were no Olympic returners in 2004, 2008 or 2012. The last to compete back-to-back were Dominque Dawes and Amy Chow in 1996 and 2000. And with the number of eligible gymnasts from each nation reduced through the years, the trend has been to take all-around performers and eschew specialists.
Make no mistake. Despite her fall in London, Maroney, who'll also compete in floor exercises in Hartford, is the best vaulter in the world. The height she reaches is mind-boggling. Her vault that helped lead the USA to its first team gold since 1996 was one of the best in the history of the sport.
Yet consider this: Until Sandra Izbasa of Romania, at 22, won because of Maroney's fall, nobody older than 19 had won the individual vault gold since 1972. Maroney will be 21 in 2016.
"I think I can do it, because I want to do it," she said. "I think for the other girls, it wasn't their goal. Alicia [Sacramone] was definitely very close. It's a hard thing to do. You have to drop everything. It's gymnastics only pretty much for four years. You have to give up your life for it. That's what I'm willing to do."
For Throwback Thursday, President Barack Obama recently tweeted his photo with Maroney making not-impressed faces. He wondered who wears it better. She tweeted back, split decision.
"He really likes that picture," Maroney said. "Meeting the president [last November with the Fierce Five], I didn't know where he was going with it. He said, 'I do the not-impressed face at least twice a day. I'm always not impressed with something.' He asked me if I could do it again. I said sure. Right away, I tweeted, 'Did I just do the not-impressed face with the president?' The picture didn't come out for like a week, so everybody thought I was saying I wasn't impressed with the president. I got blasted for that. The picture came out and it was all good."
People have put her face on the Great Wall of China, everywhere, with everyone.
"In the beginning, I was mad. I'm like this is not OK," Maroney said. "Stop putting me on the Mona Lisa. That one is a little offensive. Now I laugh about it. … I've always been an open person with fans. As a younger girl I was in love with different gymnasts. I was like, 'Nastia! Look at me! Talk to me!' But they couldn't because they always were in the gym. Now I can get to know people a little. I want them to know I'm a normal person. That's why I make videos."
Her little spats with her brother Kav, who does things like pose with her Olympic medals, are a comic mainstay.
"He drives me crazy," she said. "This morning, I could sleep until 10. He was knocking on the door of our hotel room at 6:30, asking for his phone charger. I was going to kill him. He's, like, we already got breakfast. I'm like, 'I hate you.' He's funny. He's annoying."
Maroney had two large screws inserted in her left tibia after she fell on the uneven bars during the post-Olympic tour. She had surgery on her right big toe a week later to repair a break that she had aggravated in London.
"You can't do anything for months," Maroney said. "It was really hard. It was depressing. Am I ever going to walk, let alone slip on a beam?"
"I was told with my toe if I competed in London, I would most likely not be able to do it again. I didn't believe it. It was somewhat of a miracle surgery."
In the meantime, Maroney made a music video with 30 Seconds From Mars. She was a judge in the Miss America Pageant. After being judged all her life, she called it weird to judge someone else. The TV appearances were shot from the waist up. She said her leg became infected after she had the screws taken out and didn't get back into the gym until January. She said she never worked harder on conditioning. In her first competition back last month, she won the vault title at the U.S. Classic. She hopes this week will put her in the world championships in Belgium. While in Hartford, she'll also be inducted into the Hall of Fame with the Fierce Five. She's psyched. She bought a new dress for the ceremony.
"[Hartford] is where I made the national team," said Maroney, who won the vault in the junior division in 2010. "I have a lot of family in Milford. I have tons of little cousins in gymnastics. You'll hear them screaming. Honestly, this is the best place I could be."
Young Simone Biles is a terrific vaulter, but Lexie Priessman [who withdrew Wednesday with an Achilles strain] is a great young all-around gymnast, too. And if Maroney's best friend, Kyla Ross, also returns in 2016, that will give Team USA more flexibility to take a specialist.
"I don't like being looked at as a specialist, it was my most un-favorite thing. But after the Olympics, it hit me, it's amazing to have one event that nobody can touch you on," Maroney said. "But the goal is to be all-around because people do look upon you as less."
This week she will do the vault she used in the Olympics. Maroney does the Amanar so well that it should be renamed in her honor. Still others are catching up.
"Hopefully, in the future, you'll see some vaults that haven't been done before," she said. "I want to do better than I've ever done before. That's why I came back."
The president stands to be impressed.
Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant