Alice Ronigk is a senior writer for ESPN whose assignments have taken her to six continents and led her to countless daring things. (Follow @alyroe on Twitter).
Prior to the beam rotation in the final home meet of the regular season, University of Arkansas head coach Jordyn Wieber gathers her gymnasts for a huddle competition. She asks them to take deep breaths together, calm their energy and focus on the beginning and end of each exercise. It reminds them to be prepared and resilient. When she speaks, the black mask hides everything but her dark, expressive eyes.
Although most of the 1,241 fans at the Women’s Empowerment Reunion in February at Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville probably don’t know what she goes through outside the gym, the exhibit shows Wieber’s quiet resilience.
Twenty-four hours earlier, former USA Gymnastics coach John Geddert, Wieber’s longtime personal trainer and head coach of the 2012 Olympic team of which she was a member, was charged with two dozen felonies. Geddert, as one of the lead coordinators of the USAG team Dr. Larry Nassar, who worked in Geddert’s gym, has long been accused of lying to a police officer about decades of sexual abuse by Nassar. He was also charged with sexual assault, human trafficking and forced labor, and extortion. While police were trying to arrest him, Geddert committed a crime on the 25th. February on a Michigan highway: suicide.
I immediately thought of Jordyn when I heard the news, said Katie Johnson Clark, a former Olympian who reports on gymnastics for SEC Network. I know what it’s like when a coach you loved so much and who was part of your success turns out to be someone who did so much damage.
Wieber showed no signs of emotional turmoil during the meet and trains with the same focus and energy she displays each week. Although she spoke openly about her experiences in elite gymnastics under Geddert, Wieber refused to speak publicly about her death.
In an effort to build on this younger, more athletic version of Jordyn, and what she needed from a coach she might not have had, Jordyn Wieber talks about her coaching style. Arkansas athletics
According to Johnson Clark, when she knows she has to practice the next day, she starts training like a top gymnast. She has the ability to share and do great things in extremely stressful situations.
In his second season at Arkansas, Wieber, 25, carries the past with him every step of his young coaching career. She continues to stand up for victims of sexual assault and speaks out against the lack of accountability of organizations like USAG for the abuse she and hundreds of gymnasts suffered under Nassar’s watch. Drawing on her experience in elite sport – and the traumas she suffered – Wieber strives to provide a compassionate and caring coaching style that is still rare in a sport plagued by emotional abuse and overtraining.
This kind of coaching is a longer process, Wieber says. The easiest way for coaches is to call their robot athletes and say: Do it and let them do it. Finding a way to encourage and motivate change rather than impose it is harder, but I’m confident you’ll get better results and your athletes will become stronger, more resilient individuals.
On this night in Fayetteville and for the second week in a row, Wieber leads his team to a season-high in the field and an impressive 197,000 points. The following week, against no. 12 Auburn, scored the no. 6 Razorbacks a record 197,425 points.
But that’s not the bill Wieber wants to talk about in three weeks in his office on campus. What strikes me about this meeting is the struggle, she says. It wasn’t a perfect meeting. But when we played Kentucky earlier this year and they got to the final bar and looked at the scoreboard and saw the possibility of a 197, they played hard. They didn’t do that at Auburn. This is progress.
When she flew from Los Angeles to Fayetteville for a job interview in the spring of 2019, she knew her name alone wouldn’t get her the job. The same goes for her credentials as world and Olympic champion. She was 23, barely older than the women she would lead, and her coaching resume included only her years as a volunteer assistant at UCLA under head coach Valorie Condos Field.
During the meeting, Wieber explained that she had decided to stay with the Bruins as an unpaid volunteer rather than seek a job as an assistant coach elsewhere. She wanted to learn from Kondos Field, one of the most successful coaches in the NCAA, known for his positive and encouraging style. She also explained her long-term vision to make the Razorbacks a contender for the national championship while creating a program where hard work, communication, openness and joy reign supreme.
Jordyn Wieber, background left, is a member of the U.S. national gymnastics team, which won a gold medal in the team event at the 2012 London Olympics. AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File
The culture we grew up in says you do what you’re told when you’re told, and you don’t argue, says Wieber. The culture we are trying to develop is open, vulnerable and communicative. The way we get our athletes to do this is by modeling communication and vulnerability. It also requires our team leaders to be willing to say uncomfortable things and talk about them. If one person does it, they give others permission to do the same.
Wieber knows that cultural change will take time. Their style requires coaches to get to know their athletes on a personal level, set goals and give them control over their careers. It also requires the trust and support of the athletes, who may feel uncomfortable or even bullied by a coach who lets them make decisions and doesn’t yell and scream when something goes wrong.
In difficult times, when Wieber sees one of her gymnasts struggling, she thinks back to her time in the gym. I’m trying to use that younger, more athletic version of Jordyn and what she needed from a coach that she may not have gotten, Wieber said.
After Wieber took the job at Arkansas and became one of the youngest head coaches in NCAA history, he hired two-time Olympic champion Chris Brooks, then an assistant at Oklahoma, as one of his top assistants. They had been in a long-distance relationship for two years and hoped to train together someday. (They revealed their relationship with the university, and Brooks reports to the top administrator, not Wieber.)
When the opportunity arose, I asked him: If I get this job, will you come with me and do it together? Viber says. She also brought in Katelyn Eagle, a 2019 graduate of Nebraska, to choreograph floor and coach beam.
Led by Jordyn Wieber, the Razorbacks have been in the top 10 in every event this season. Arkansas athletics
We are all very young, but I truly believe we have the best coaching staff in the country, Wieber said. She and her colleagues better get to their gym experience. They remember what it was like to be young gymnasts looking for compassion and students struggling with academic subjects and sports.
Wieber has set modest goals for his first season: Make it super regional, improve fan interaction on social media and increase traffic by 25%. The Gymbacks not only improved their home attendance in the 2019-2020 regular season, but also set a program record of 5,415 fans per game and nearly doubled that number in 2019. As the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) approached, Wieber also had his team’s postseason goal in mind.
Then, on the 12th. In March 2020, she faced her first major challenge as head coach: managing the KOVID-19 pandemic attack.
The schedule was insane that day, Wieber said. We started the day to find out if our appointment would be the next day. At the end of the day, the national championship was cancelled and our season was over.
During the frequent conversations on Zoom, coaches and athletes spoke candidly about the unique challenges of coming together as a team while having to stand on the sidelines. This year will prepare them for life. That’s something I’ve learned and shared throughout my career, Wieber says. Some injuries, setbacks and beatings have made me stronger, and this pandemic will make our gymnasts stronger as people.
Their gymnasts believe they are as good as Wieber tells them they are, and the results reflect that belief. I have high expectations for my performance and I want to be the best I can be, said Sophia Carter, who was recently named All-SEC. If I’m having a bad day, she always encourages me to remember: You don’t have to be perfect. Just relax and do what you can. It will help me.
Arkansas enters the postseason with four or more 197 points, following the most productive season in program history. Arkansas athletics
At the SEC Championships in Huntsville, Alabama, in March, the Razorbacks made some unusual errors on beam and bar, finishing last out of seven teams with a score of 195.600. After each competition, Wieber brings his team together and asks each gymnast and coach what the team did well, what they didn’t, and what they can improve or do differently. In Huntsville, Wieber said his athletes admitted they had doubts. She reminded them to focus on the small details and trust their preparation.
I explain as we go up the mountain, and with each encounter we take another step forward, Wieber says. Sometimes we pull back a little. I’ll tell them: We shouldn’t be in the mountains this weekend. We just need to take it a step further.
Looking ahead to Friday’s regional games (2 p.m. ET; ESPN3), the Razorbacks, who were 20th nationally in 2019, are now 10th nationally and third in floor exercises – a remarkable improvement in just two years. I’ll call Jordyn and tell her it’s Johnson Clark. She has completely changed this team. The range of their abilities, their falls, their shapes in the air and of course their landings. Even those who were already exceptional, even more so. His athletes trust him.
In February, after a session on women’s advancement, Wieber glanced at the gallery and saw Condos Field – who will retire from UCLA in 2019 – typing notes on her phone. Former UCLA football coach and athletic director Bobby Field and Mark Cook – Wieber’s predecessor at Arkansas and former UCLA assistant at Condos Field – have been at every home game at Condos Field this season. It’s great to have them here, Wieber said. Miss Val was always just a phone call away, but now we can visit her.
After retiring from Condos Field in 2019, he and Bobby began talking about a move away from Los Angeles. Field played strong safety in Arkansas, so returning to Fayetteville 50 years later is quite an adjustment for them. Now that we are all retired, we have the ball. It’s not just about me mentoring him, it’s about this family helping him through it together.
UC Arkansas head gymnastics coach Valorie Condos Field (center), her husband Bobby Field (right) and Mark Cook, her former assistant and Jordyn Wieber’s predecessor at Arkansas, attend home meets and give Wieber support and feedback. Arkansas athletics
Although she intentionally stays away from the training room, Kondos Field always has advice and a listening ear. What I like about her mentorship is that she never gives me answers or tells me what to do, Wieber says. She always asks: What’s your opinion? And then it pushes me toward what is true and authentic for me.
Condos Field also brings a fan perspective to the meetings. One of the things Val did very well at UCLA was produce the show, Wieber says. With them in the stands, I have a good idea of what our show looks like and how we can improve it.
After the first meeting on the field, Condos offered to spotlight the coaches when their names were announced. She encouraged Wieber to thank his fans through the microphone after every game. She also spoke to her former volunteer assistant about the importance of her and her assistants not appearing in the same clothes. All of these details are important, says Kondos Field.
Viber followed their advice on almost every point. But what stands out most about Kondo’s Field is Wieber’s quiet confidence in himself and his team.
When she recently asked Wieber what she planned to wear to the NCAA Championships, for which the 10th-ranked Razorbacks are either No. 1 or No. 2. 7 Alabama or no. 1 Oklahoma should beat in regionals, Condos Field said Wieber did not flinch. She didn’t say that: Let’s see if we can get to the NCAA first. She just said: So, what do you think of the white pants and red top?
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