The end of her gymnastics career hit Jordyn Wieber suddenly. Too far removed from high-intensity training and ineligible to compete in college because she turned pro in high school, the 2011 world champion and 2012 Olympic gold medalist needed a place to vent.
So Wieber — at the time a student manager for the UCLA women’s program — made her way to the office of Bruins’ coach Valorie Kondos Field and wept.
“She kept asking, ‘Is there a way to give the money back?'” Kondos Field said.
Wieber insists the reaction was the byproduct of the emotional decision to formally retire nearly three years after helping her “Fierce Five” teammates overwhelm the field in London. Though she understood what she was giving up when she opted to turn professional at 17, that doesn’t necessarily mean she believes it’s fair.
“It’s kind of a bummer,” said Wieber, now a 21-year-old volunteer assistant coach with the Bruins. “Gymnastics should be the exception. It’s too bad girls can’t do both because gymnastics is so unique.”
The dilemma Wieber faced five years ago — one current U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team members Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian also face as they prepare for Rio de Janeiro next month — is different than the one other young athletes wrestle with when deciding whether to sign away their amateur status.
For top football and basketball players, turning pro means a chance at a signing a lucrative contract and competing at the highest level. Many aren’t finished products but are drafted based on raw ability that can be molded as they mature.
It’s not the same for elite female gymnasts like Wieber, who typically reach their prime in their late teens and who view the team-oriented nature of college gymnastics as a fun escape after years of trying to survive the sometimes lonely grind of training for the national team. Their biggest paydays as professionals don’t come from player contracts or performance bonuses, but endorsements.
There’s money to be made if you end up standing atop the podium at the Olympics with “The Star Spangled Banner” playing and your sport’s most coveted prize draped over your neck. The key is figuring out whether it’s worth sacrificing a college scholarship.
It’s a leap three-time world champion and heavy Olympic favorite Simone Biles opted to make last year when she pulled out of an offer from UCLA to sign with an agent. Biles was committed to joining the Bruins — there was even a plaque in the gym her family owns that featured Biles wearing a blue UCLA-inscribed polo — before the math became blatantly one-sided. The coach pleaded her case to the Biles family, but figured it’s akin to a college basketball coach asking LeBron James to do the same back in 2003.
“I had to try,” Kondos Field said. “With what she’s looking at, though, you can’t blame her.”
Biles is already pitching everything from Nike to United Airlines as part of a pre-Olympic rollout that could make her one of the faces of the 2016 Games if she heads back home in August with her backpack stuffed with gold.
The choice also was easy for reigning Olympic champion Gabby Douglas and three-time medalist Aly Raisman, who both turned pro before the 2012 Games and have created a healthy living for themselves since London while also carving out return trips to the Olympics.
For their less heralded teammates, things are dicier. The window to cash in is short. For those that turn pro but don’t have a breakthrough moment at the games, any potential windfall can be meager by comparison to those who repeatedly have their triumphs broadcast into living rooms across the world. How much? At least $1 million in the first year after the games.
“When you’re No. 1 or No. 2 it’s absolutely something you should do,” said agent Sheryl Shade, who has spent more than 20 years representing high-profile Olympic athletes, including 2008 all-around champion Nastia Liukin and four-time medalist Shawn Johnson. “When you’re No. 5, the opportunity might not be there.”
Liukin and Johnson became household names after they combined for eight medals in Beijing in 2008, each appearing on “Dancing With The Stars” and carving out comfortable post-Olympic lifestyles while also saving enough money to pay for college. Liukin just completed her degree at NYU; Johnson is working toward one of her own.
Yet the risk/reward balance is better measured by the path of one of their Olympic teammates.
Bridget Sloan earned a team silver in Beijing as 16-year-old then captured the all-around title at the 2009 world championships — a big accomplishment, but not one that’s going to have agents trying to friend her on Facebook in a non-Olympic year. Her parents told her she could explore her options. She just needed to be sure she was going to earn enough to pay for college … twice.
“I mean, I was never a superstar. I was good but I’d gone to the Olympics just once,” Sloan said. “In the real world, I was still a 17-year-old. You have to look at the big picture. At 17 that’s really hard to do.”
So she remained an amateur, and the only “payment” she ever received was the 2008 Jeep Patriot her parents paid for as a reward for a world title. Her bid to make the 2012 Olympic team ended due to a hand injury at Olympic Trials, though she hardly pouted. Sloan practically sprinted to Gainesville, Florida, where she led the Gators to three NCAA titles while earning two all-around crowns for herself before graduating this spring.
Looking back, Sloan believes turning pro would have been “the biggest mistake of my life” even though she understands not accepting money put her parents on the hook for a large portion of the financial burden it takes to train at the elite level, a bill that can soar into the tens of thousands a year in coaching fees and travel costs. Then again, it can look like wise investment considering the value of a college gymnastics scholarship can reach well into six figures.
The futures for this year’s team are still forming. Kocian, an 18-year-old Texan, says she has no plans to change her mind on joining UCLA, no matter how high she flies in Rio. Hernandez, a 16-year-old from New Jersey, verbally committed to Florida but has several years before she’ll be heading to college and is in no hurry to figure out her path until after the Olympics.
“I’m sure maybe we’ll talk about it soon but I haven’t given any thought into the future,” Hernandez said after Olympic Trials.
Smart move. The vast majority of the pre-Olympic marketing money has already been spent. The coffers may open, however, if Hernandez makes the podium multiple times in Rio. If that happens, the crossroads await.