It’s hard not to be impressed by McKayla Maroney. The 16-year-old wowed the world at the Olympics with her Amanar vault, a back handspring that launched into 2½ twists showcasing her power, precision and ability to stick a near-perfect landing. Her performance helped the U.S. women’s gymnastics team score gold at the London Games this summer.
Even when a fall during the vault event final forced her into second place, Maroney still won the night. The lovable grimace on her face while accepting her silver medal spawned the meme, “McKayla Maroney is not impressed.” Her image has traveled all over the Internet expressing distaste for just about everything, including the iPhone 5, Machu Picchu and the “Jersey Shore” cast.
“People have gotten so into it. I think it’s hilarious,” says Maroney, who’s now getting around quite a bit in person as part of Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, which lands in Washington on Thursday at the Verizon Center (see below).
But Washingtonians won’t get to see her soar — just sore. In September, at an early stop on the tour in Ontario, Calif., Maroney had an accident on the uneven bars. The resulting leg injury required surgery and then a knee brace.
So her role in recent tour performances has been cut back to smiling, waving and signing autographs. Not that Maroney is just hanging out backstage. She’s launched into a demanding physical therapy routine to get her body back on track.
“Although I have to be careful,” Maroney says. “Too much isn’t too good.”
And she’s not ignoring the rest of her training. Even though she can’t put excess weight on her leg, working her abs is fair game. Nothing can stop her from doing her two favorite exercises: handstands and press handstands. Not familiar with the latter? Start by sitting on the floor with your legs in a straddle. Then put your hands down and lift your entire body up into a handstand.
Her other obsession is stretching: “It’s the most important thing. If you stay loose, you recover faster.”
That’s why she’s done the splits in just about every setting imaginable. When Maroney and her teammates are traveling — which they do a lot of these days — they’ll even meet up in the back of airplanes to do splits together. Back in their seats, they do ankle and wrist stretches, and limber up with a stick massager.
Maroney’s plan is to get back into shape for her regular regimen. But she swears there’s no secret trick to building up her bounce.
“It’s a lot of hard work. You can’t ask Usain Bolt how he runs fast,” she says.
Possibly the only people who can jump higher than Maroney are basketball players. So she looked at ease posing recently with Indiana Pacers star — and former Georgetown Hoya — Roy Hibbert. (He’s two feet taller than the gymnast, and does a decent impression of her famous expression.)
“I can spin a ball on my finger, but I’d never call myself a professional basketball player,” says Maroney, whose real aspiration is to work as an actress. She recently filmed an episode of “The Hart of Dixie” that’s set to air on the CW Nov. 20.
Playing a high school student for the camera wasn’t so different than flipping around on a mat. “You have to work hard with both,” Maroney says. “It feels good getting lines right.”
Maroney, however, isn’t ready to give up on being an athlete just yet. Whether she sticks around for another Olympics is still up in the air, but there’s no question she wants to bolster her credentials as an all-around gymnast and add another twist to that vault — or at least a half.
“I want to try to do a triple,” Maroney says.
That would be very impressive.
See for yourself why the U.S. women’s gymnastics team earned the nickname the “Fierce Five” when the ladies from the London Games perform Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Verizon Center. It’s one of the final stops on Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, which also features 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin, two-time Olympian Jonathan Horton and other accomplished athletes. Tickets are $25-$75. Visit Kelloggstour.com for more information.