Wieber grew up in Michigan, a state with two Big Ten Conference programs. She watched NCAA competitions, noticing an energy that feels different than at the club level. Coaches wore their team apparel when visiting her gym, filled with college prospects, and she was excited when her turn to go through the recruiting process arrived. Before Wieber reached high school, she emerged as a rising star in U.S. elite gymnastics, and she was on the path to make the 2012 Olympic team. Any college program would have loved to have her, and Wieber gravitated toward UCLA.
Wieber then won the all-around title at the 2011 world championships. She received calls from agents and potential sponsors. As the world’s best gymnast, numerous opportunities arose — more than she realized a gymnast could receive before becoming an Olympian. So, at 16, she had to choose.
Because of the NCAA’s long-standing amateurism principle, which the governing body finally loosened this month, Wieber couldn’t accept money and maintain her eligibility. There was no perfect answer. No option allowed her to pursue both the professional opportunities and a college career — an excruciating dilemma that future gymnasts won’t have to endure now that the NCAA allows prospective and current college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness. Wieber didn’t have that flexibility, and she decided to forgo her eligibility.
“It’s just not monetary,” said Valorie Kondos Field, who coached at UCLA until 2019. “It’s not just about the fame and the fortune. It’s about that heart of an athlete, that heart of a champion that was cut off — in her prime.”
Wieber badly wanted to be part of a college team — so much that she still attended UCLA after winning a gold medal at the 2012 Games and served as a team manager, moving mats and chalking bars as the others competed. She embraced that role, and it led to a volunteer assistant coaching position. But she could never participate in that second act of her gymnastics career.
“I always said when I got to college, ‘I wish I could have done both,’ ” said Wieber, now the coach at Arkansas. “I don’t have any regrets with my decision, but now I’m so glad that, especially the athletes that we’re recruiting, they don’t have to make that decision anymore.”
If not for the NCAA’s recent rule change, the U.S. gymnasts in Tokyo could have been navigating similar circumstances. Four of the six team members are heading to college programs in time for the 2022 season, which begins in January. Under the previous rules, these college-bound Olympians could have only profited through endorsements and appearances if they waited until after their NCAA careers. By then, they would be four years removed from their Tokyo accomplishments, and a new group of U.S. Olympians would have already competed in Paris.
Pay-for-play agreements are still not permitted, but many of the opportunities available to gymnasts — and other Olympic athletes — are deals allowed through the new NIL interim policy.
The average age of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team has trended up since Wieber competed in 2012, but compared with their peers in other sports, these athletes are still young when they reach their peak popularity. American gymnasts usually pursue their elite careers first, aiming for a spot on the Olympic team, then go to college programs afterward. MyKayla Skinner reversed that norm, making the team for Tokyo after competing at Utah for three seasons.
But Wieber, who competed in London just after turning 17, had to weigh her options, calculating whether she could make enough money to pay for a college education, which would have been covered by a gymnastics scholarship. She knew the professional route had risk. She could have gotten injured the next day. American gymnasts have won every Olympic all-around title since 2004 — Patterson, Nastia Liukin (2008), Gabby Douglas (2012) and Simone Biles (2016) — and they all exchanged their college eligibility for the ability to make money through endorsements and other deals.
When college coaches recruited top gymnasts, this possibility — that they would decide to give up their college careers before arriving on campus — “had to be” kept in mind, said Utah Coach Tom Farden, whose 2021 signing class includes Tokyo team member Grace McCallum and alternate Kara Eaker.
Farden would wonder: “Is this going to get to a point where what they potentially could make monetizing their sport and their talents, is that going to [reach] the point where it far outweighs what a college scholarship is worth?”
That worry never deterred coaches from recruiting these elite gymnasts, said Jenny Rowland, the coach at Florida. The decision past elites had to make has “got to be challenging and it’s got to be difficult,” Rowland said. Laurie Hernandez, a 2016 Olympian, was committed to Florida before she turned professional. Before forgoing their eligibility, Biles committed to UCLA and two-time Olympian Aly Raisman planned to go to Florida.
“When you watch an NCAA gymnastics meet on TV, just the ability to see the excitement, see the joy, see the passion, see the emotion — it would have been so fun to see some of those athletes in this environment,” Rowland said.
Without those athletes competing in college, “we’re cutting off visibility for our sport,” Kondos Field said. She believes Wieber would have been “one of the greatest collegiate gymnasts of all time, and she would have been the greatest leader of all time.”
Only a small group of gymnasts had to navigate this decision. Skinner, an alternate in 2016, talked with agents before enrolling at Utah, but she remembers them saying, “For you, obviously, going to college is worth way more than going pro at this point.” Samantha Peszek, a 2008 Olympian who became an NCAA all-around champion at UCLA, had a similar outlook. But she still thought about the opportunities she gave up, particularly when “my teammates were doing ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and really cool deals, and I was in math class,” she said.
For gymnasts, college is more than a four-year extension of their career. Wieber describes it as a “celebration of hard work.” The team-oriented competitions signal a drastic shift from club gymnastics. Rowland notices athletes finding a “newfound love” of the sport. That’s the experience Wieber and others have missed. But Wieber has thought about the flip side, too — how Kyla Ross, a 2012 Olympian who shined at UCLA, couldn’t take advantage of professional agreements.
“Now athletes get the opportunity to have the best of both worlds, as they should,” Wieber said.
Before 2000, U.S. Olympians didn’t often compete in college because “it didn’t have that excitement and that allure,” 1992 Olympian Betty Okino said. Now some schools sell out arenas, and meets are regularly broadcast by major television networks. Still, only one athlete from each of the past two Olympic teams went on to compete in the NCAA. The four U.S. Olympians set to begin college gymnastics — Jordan Chiles (UCLA), Jade Carey (Oregon State), Sunisa Lee (Auburn) and McCallum (Utah) — will increase the spotlight on the sport. With NIL flexibility helping to remove these difficult decisions, coaches and former gymnasts expect a similarly high number of future Olympians to pursue college careers.
“Everyone wants to do both,” Peszek said, referring to elite and college gymnastics.
Now they won’t have to sit down with their families as teenagers, making lists of pros and cons, as Wieber did. They won’t have to choose between the opportunities presented to them before college and the experience of competing for an NCAA program.
That freedom, Wieber said, is “the best thing that could happen to gymnastics.”