Since her impressive performance at the recent Summer Olympics in London earned her gold and silver medals — her vault during the team all-around finals literally made a judge’s jaw drop — and her signature unimpressed scowl earned her American celebrity status, Maroney has grown accustomed to the adoring attention. For a 16-year-old the vast majority of humanity hadn’t heard of four months ago, Maroney is inspiring some devoted fandom.
There are boys who burst out, “McKayla, will you marry me?” and boys who give her baseball caps from their home towns, phone numbers scrawled on the side. Once, a group of guys dressed in suits and ties like Barney Stinson, Neil Patrick Harris’s character from one of Maroney’s favorite TV shows, “How I Met Your Mother,” told her: “We suited up for you! Will you go to prom with us?”
Maroney was touched but unavailable. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I would, but I’m on tour right now! Also, I don’t live here.’ ”
This is how small talk with Maroney seems to go. At first glance, everything about her, from her helium-high voice to her leopard-print leggings, is textbook teenager. But keep going, and you strike the elite behind the everygirl.
She’d love to go to the prom! But she’s touring the nation with the rest of the Fierce Five (fellow gymnasts Kyla Ross, Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber and Olympic all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas) and making cameos at the MTV Video Music Awards, and on “The Colbert Report” and “Late Show With David Letterman,” among other programs.
She loves to watch “Hart of Dixie” on the CW! And she just wrapped up a guest spot on the series.
She wants to go shopping later! Because she’s meeting the president and, presumably, doesn’t want to rock the leopard-print leggings at the White House.
Finally free of crutches after a six-week stint hobbling around on a broken toe (the beam injury is still keeping her left foot in a brace), Maroney says she didn’t give any of this much thought 14 years ago, when she started doing gymnastics back home in Long Beach, Calif.
“You’re so young. You’re just put in the sport,” she says. “You don’t even think about how, ‘This is going to be the rest of my life.’ ”
Maroney was sold on gymnastics by second grade, when she realized her ability to do back flips astounded her classmates. “That was definitely when it hit me: Gymnasts are pretty cool.”
For Karaline Gillespie, 10, Maroney is her second Fierce Five encounter. Her dad drove her and her sister from their home in Dover, Del., to Pennsylvania’s King of Prussia Mall last week to see Raisman.
Maroney “proved to the world that anything can happen,” Karaline says. “She’s only 16, and she made history.”
No boy at the D.C. event is bold enough to pop the big question, but there are a few male fans eager for some face time with Maroney.
“We tried to dress up like her” for Halloween, says Peter Brough, 15. “But we couldn’t find the medal jackets from the picture.” What about leotards? “We were thinking of that, but we couldn’t find them.”
“I was going with my other guy friends,” says Hugo Moss, 14. “So I didn’t want to be, like, leotard.”
Although Maroney’s “I can’t believe I’m getting silver right now” snarl is arguably what’s keeping her so famous, it’s also a reminder of one of her most public failures: landing on her butt during the women’s vault final in London. She’s remarkably good-natured about the constant reminders. Multiple fans request their photos be taken while “making the unimpressed face,” and Maroney happily obliges. “It’s okay! Actually, it makes me different, so it’s good.”
Coming up, the gymnast says, is the 2013 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, which will be held in Belgium next fall. She’s also hoping for more acting gigs and, of course, to make the team for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
As Maroney finishes her meet-and-greet (which was bustling but nothing compared to her busiest day, when she says she signed 1,200 autographs), fan Laura Keehn tries to put her finger on what it is about Maroney that makes her stand out from the pack.
“It’s just the spark,” Keehn says. “She has this attitude, and it makes everybody love her.”