Jordyn Wieber: Dreams of Individual Gold Deflate After a Lifetime of Focus

Olympic athletes train for a lifetime, but can face failure in an instant.

July 30, 2012, 12:26 PM

July 30, 2012— -- Gymnast Jordyn Wieber disintegrated into tears as she failed to advance to the all-around final Sunday in London--an individual Olympic gold medal now out of reach in the sport's premiere event that takes place only once every four years.

The 5-foot 2-inch superstar was ousted by teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, despite predictions that she would attain the star status of past athletes like Mary Lou Retton or Nastia Liukin.

Each country is limited to two gymnasts in the all-around and event finals and so Wieber got knocked out at the qualifying round.

The 17-year-old is not the first to have their Olympic dreams deflated in a single moment in time after years of sacrifice and expectations. They train for competition, not for disappointment.

Psychologists say that these defeats can be agonizing, especially when the hype is so high. The New York Times had called the Michigan-born, "pint-sized pixie," this summer's Olympic "sweetheart."

"It's very sad," said Roni Cohen-Sandler, a clinical psychologist from Weston, Conn., who specializes in adolescent stress.

"I do worry about kids -- and they are kids at 17 -- who feel as if winning a gold medal will completely change their life and make or break them as people," she said. "That's very dangerous."

But, as trained competitors, these Olympic athletes have already had their share of disappointments.

"Hopefully, their coaches and parents are supportive and not focused only on their successes and failures," she said.

When parents live vicariously through their athlete children, losing can feel like "double failure," said Cohen-Sandler, who is author of the 2005 book, "Stressed Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure."

"That perception is often what causes them to burn out," she said. "They can't take that kind of pressure and it takes away a lot of enjoyment of the sport -- and really interferes with their performance."

Wieber reached the top of her game when she was only 10. As an eighth grader in 2009, she won the all-around at the American Cup. Since then, Wieber has only ever lost twice in competition and only to Americans.

Thus far, she has no Olympic laurels to rest on like 14-time gold medalist Michael Phelps, who also got knocked off his pedestal. For the first time in 12 years, he didn't grab swimming gold as Ryan Lochte took that medal instead for the 400 IM.

But others, like skier Lindsey Vonn, know what it is to suffer the agony of defeat against high expectations. With 31 World Cup victories, she was hyped as the "Michael Phelps of the Winter Games" in Vancouver in 2010.

Vonn injured her shin just prior to the Canadian games and although she won the gold medal in downhill, she crashed in the slalom portion of the super-combined race, giving up a medal. She finished third in the super-G, but in her fourth event, the giant slalom, she lost control, skirting a gate and was disqualified.

Wieber didn't make the individual finals but may be able to regroup and help her team capture a gold -- its first title since the "Magnificent Seven" in 1996 in Atlanta.

Wieber 'Wobbles,' But Two Teammates Move Up

"It's really hard," said her friend and teammate Raisman, according to ESPN. "That was kind of like my first thought. I was really happy but then at the same time I feel bad just because I know how bad (Wieber) wanted it."

National coach Martha Karolyi added: "I'm very sad, but I'm very happy about the other girls ... Hard work pays off ... we support Jordyn, but things happen."

Florida sports psychologist Andrea Corn said Americans can be too critical, making these Olympic defeats "so black and white." She worries that such pressures will discourage young athletes from trying for "fear of failure."

She is writing a book about how to make athletics enjoyable for children and teach them how to deal with inevitable failure.

"If you put all your eggs in one basket and spend your life doing something, your whole identity is wrapped up in being an Olympic athlete, then there is a misstep and you lose out and don't get to make your dream," she said.

But Wieber, with all her years of training, must be "strong mentally," added Corn.

"She had to be disappointed, but crying is cathartic and healthy," she said. "She didn't fail -- she did extraordinarily well ... she was a victim of circumstances."

"Our society has a way of making failures," said Corn. "[Wieber] gave it her all and came up a wobble short -- a step and a wobble. It shouldn't be looked on as a young girl who failed. She gave it her all."

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