This Gymnast Was Poised To Be A Superstar, But One Photo Changed It All

McKayla Maroney was one of the biggest names in gymnastics, especially when she made it onto the London Olympics gymnastics Team USA in 2012, also called the Fierce Five. It seemed like the world of gymnastics was hers to conquer, when one small photo changed everything. This photo stole all the headlines.

But was it what caused her to change her career path altogether? This is McKayla’s story.

A Star In The Making

From early on in her childhood, McKayla would shine during gymnastics practices and meets. Anyone who knew her was sure that her dream of reaching the Olympics was a realistic one, and that it was all just a matter of time.

One Photo

What kind of photo could completely change the way the world looks at an Olympic champion for good? As is the case for many stars, she experienced much scrutiny once she became a household name. Who knows what would have happened had this photo not been circulated.

On The Rise

The more MsKayla competed, the more medals she continued to collect, both domestically and internationally. Fans of gymnastics were getting quite excited about the prospect of having McKayla represent the US in the Olympics. It was clear that she was destined to become one of the big names in the sport.

Caught Off Guard

As McKayla’s talents continued to shine and her fame continued to rise, the photo that was snapped in 2012 took everyone by surprise. The picture had a lasting impact, and she had no idea how much it would affect her life.

A Household Name

She had no idea how this photo would become one of the most discussed and shared photos of that year. Regardless of how she felt about it, there’s no denying that this picture helped make McKayla Maroney a household name, even beyond the world of sports and the Olympics.

A New Career Path

Using her newfound fame, McKayla was able to make a pretty dramatic shift in her career path. Were there any signs that she wanted to make this pivot before the photo was taken? Anyone who followed her career would know that this seemingly came out of nowhere.

An Energetic Kid

Maroney told the Orange County Register: “When I was younger, I would be watching Tarzan and running around on all fours. My mom was [like], ‘I need to put this child in gymnastics. She’s crazy.’”

They Saw Her Potential

Although her parents originally enrolled her in gymnastics to get her energy out, she actually took to it quite quickly. However, it seems like the talent runs in the family: her father Michael played college football while he was at Purdue University.

Big Goals In Mind

Meanwhile, McKayla’s mom Erin was a high school figure skater. It seemed like her parents knew that their daughter had something special and that they had to continue supporting her talent. That’s why they decided to home school her.

Making Strides

After switching to home schooling, McKayla was able to focus a lot more of her time on gymnastics, especially after getting her early start in the sport. She shared: “I realized that I had a dream that I wanted to go to the Olympics, and I wanted to go as far as I could go. I thought I should probably move to a new gym and start thinking about the Olympics.”

International Fame

She first began competing in 2009, finishing third in the Dallas Visa Championships in the junior vaulting competition. In 2010’s CoverGirl Classic, she finished in second place and came in first place at that year’s Visa Championships. She also started competing and making a name for herself on the international stage.

Bringing Home Gold

In the 2010 Pan American Championships, McKayla won gold in both the individual floor and vault routines. It was clear that she would be a clear contender for the upcoming 2012 Olympic games.

Her Motivation

In the weeks that led up to the games in London, McKayla revealed what her motivation was in getting to the Olympics, what attracted her to gymnastics in the first place, as well as what propelled her to success.

Incredible Abilities

She told the Orange County Register: “I just loved doing stuff that most people can’t do with their body. I can flip in the air and just fly on certain things. And I just love that feeling of working so hard on something that you really, really want and reaching that goal. It’s the best feeling.”

London Olympics

That finally brings us to the 2012 games where everything changed for McKayla. What was the context behind the photo? Why did it become so popular? Here’s what led up to the event that ended up with this infamous picture.

A Win In Japan

Before the 2012 Olympics, McKayla won three international vault titles. Her greatest success came at the World Championships which were held in Japan. It was there where she finished in first place both in the vault and the team event. That was quite the incredible accomplishment.

A Sure Thing

It was no surprise that Maroney was the name on everyone’s lips when it came to figuring out who would be bringing the gold medal in the upcoming Olympics. It seemed more and more likely that she would be the one to win the top prize and bring home the gold for Team USA. Everything was all set for her to become a sporting hero.

A Slip Up

Nobody could have predicted what would happen next. Everything seemed great for McKayla at the start of the vault routine. However, on her second attempt, she slipped, leaving spectators stunned and opening the door for other gymnasts to surpass her.

Taking Second Place

Sandra Izbasa from Romania was able to capitalize on McKayla’s fall and took the top spot and the gold medal. McKayla had to settle for silver, which to most people is still an incredible accomplishment. After all, a silver medal from the Olympics is a feat most humans will never accomplish. However, that’s not how McKayla felt.

Not Happy

McKayla, who had been the favorite to win the gold, begrudgingly took her silver medal. As is the case with every final trio, the medal ceremony is a highly photographed event, with everyone’s eyes on the winners of the gold, silver, and bronze. This is when photographers captured what McKayla was truly feeling at that moment.

The Face Says It All

Once the silver medal was placed around McKayla’s neck, she pulled a face that was quickly captured by photographers to be immortalized forever. Her sour face really projected how she was feeling, even though she had just won a silver medal. As they say, a picture is truly worth 1000 words. The photo quickly went viral.

A Sore Loser?

She had absolutely no idea that this moment would change her life forever. She had no idea that this photo was going to spread like wildfire online. She also didn’t think that the face she pulled was such a big deal. That is what she shared with Inside Magazine.

A Fleeting Moment

When speaking to Inside Magazine in June 2014, McKayla said: “I remember doing the face for literally two seconds. Like, if you watch the video, it’s two seconds. And I remember thinking, did I just make a face? Because it’s natural. I do it all the time. I have pictures of me when I’m little doing it. I have it on my Mac computer when I’m, like, 13.”

A Natural Expression

She continued: “It’s just something I make. My friends were watching the Olympics, [and] they even said, ‘Oh, I didn’t even notice. You make that face so much all the time.’ Because they’re just used to seeing me do that face. But the world wasn’t! So it definitely blew up.”

A Meme Is Born

McKayla had no idea about what was going on online with her photo until her father let her know. She then saw the meme that had taken the internet by storm: “McKayla Is Not Impressed.” It was simply inevitable that this would go completely viral.

Going Viral

It didn’t matter what the topic was, and whether a photo of Mozart, the Mars Rover, or anything else, people would photoshop Kayla’s unimpressed face to give some visual commentary. So what did McKayla think of the whole situation? Well, for starters, she really didn’t understand what the big deal was.

Not Understanding

Maroney told Inside Gymnastics: “At the time I was like, I just didn’t get [the meme]. I was like, ‘What does this even mean? I don’t understand.’ Then, a couple of weeks later, it just kept getting more and more, and people were tweeting me about it. I was just like, ‘Let it go, let it go!’ And it just wasn’t going away.”

Owning It

After a certain amount of time, McKayla decided to just embrace the meme instead of fighting it. She actually went a step further and decided to own it. She even started pulling the face on purpose. She would pose with the face in good humor, and people thought that she was being a great sport (no pun intended).

Reflecting On It

She later shared with Inside Gymnastics that she was not apologetic about the whole ordeal. She was being honest in showing how disappointed she was in coming in second after she expected to win the gold. She said: “If you really want to think that I’m a bad sport, then go ahead. At the end of the day, I was sad, I was upset and I was not impressed!”

What Happened?

A lot of people were left wondering, if McKayla was okay with the photo, then why did she end up switching careers? Well, she didn’t immediately leave the sport. After the 2012 Olympics, she went on to win three more titles for vault in 2013, including the win at the World Championships.

Retiring From Gymnastics

In 2016, McKayla announced that she was officially retiring from gymnastics, citing medical reasons. It is said that her online presence allowed her to make the move into show business instead. Of course, McKayla was already used to making big leaps, so this was certainly something she could accomplish.

A Guest Appearance

Maroney decided to branch out of the sports world and make her way into the entertainment business instead. She made her onscreen debut in the TV show Hart of Dixie in 2012. She continued to make some other appearances in other shows, as well as the promo video for 30 Seconds To Mars’ song “Up In The Air.” She also decided to pursue a solo career in music.

Enjoying Life

McKayla was able to finally pursue something that was enjoyable and less stressful than gymnastics. She decided to trade gymnastics for acting, explaining in Seventeen magazine in 2016: “Gymnastics, you get one shot. Acting, it’s like, do it again, do it again, do it again. So that was the one thing that I found very different. You’re allowed to get different tries.”

Finally Expressing Herself

She continued to explain: “And you’re more expressive in a way when you’re working with people. In gymnastics, you’re so on your own and individual.” However, the former athlete did not settle for just acting, which is why she decided to go for it and try her hand at music as well.

Pursuing Music

She explained: “For the last year, I was just figuring out my sound. I’ve loved writing songs since I was really young. I thought I was going to be like Sia and sell my songs to people. But after they were done, I was like, ‘I’m not going to sell these to anybody! I want to sing them.’”

Her First Single

McKayla continued to explain: “I have some demos done, and I’m going to be showing them to some bigger people in the industry. And we’ll see where that takes me. In the next couple of months, I think I’ll have a single out, and I’m excited for people to hop on this new journey of mine.”

Her Versatility

Unfortunately, “a few months” turned into four years. That’s how long it took for her to release her first single. Her first single, called “Wake Up Call” was released in March 2020 on Twitter. This showed that she was much more than just a meme, and not only a decorated gymnast.

Second Single

In April 2020, she released a single called “COVID Lockdown,” appropriately in the middle of the COVID pandemic. She posted a tweet about it: “tbh i wrote covid lockdown as a joke, but everytime i listen to it, it makes me laugh, and i think we could all use a laugh right now … i love u guys sm!! wish i had words to make things better. hopefully music helps a little !!”

Another TV Spot

In December 2013, McKayla appeared in an episode of TV show Bones. She appeared in a season 9 episode called “The Spark in the Park” as (appropriately) a gymnast called Ellie, who is suspected of murdering another gymnast.

Superstore Episode

In August 2016, she appeared in an episode of NBC comedy show Superstore, where she played herself alongside fellow Olympians Apolo Ohno and Tara Lipinski. She even sported her classic “unimpressed” face! She also starred in GEICO commercials in 2021.

Tough Times

Recently, the retired Olympian has opened up about how difficult the 2012 Olympics were for her to get through. She said that she had to employ a “fake it ’till you make it” mindset in order to make it through. She was one of the many gymnasts who suffered abuse under Larry Nassar, the team doctor who took advantage of his position, and she is speaking out about her experience.

Speaking Out

Maroney shared on her Instagram: “From my experience speaking up about abuse is extremely exhausting physically, mentally, and emotionally. From a young age I was taught to work hard, and persevere. Gymnastics taught me to be tough, resilient, and to overcome all obstacles.”

Just Like Britney

She even compared her situation to Britney Spears’, who has been trapped in a controlling conservatorship for years. Maroney said: “Just like Britney, I also had to ‘fake it till you make it’ to survive my 2012 Olympics. I was just trying to accomplish my dream, but I had abuse coming at me from many angles that I didn’t understand how to process at 15. I had to suppress it, and I had to minimize it, just to get through the day.”

Supporting One Another

Maroney continued by saying: “I’m so proud of Britney for speaking out. She deserves to spend the rest of her life healing in peace, or doing whatever she wants. The people who control her are criminals, and abusers, just like USA gymnastics, and the USOC used me and their athletes for money, but didn’t care to protect us.”

Being Used

She told NBC news that she felt that the USA gymnastics organization did not do enough to protect her and that they cared more about succeeding than their gymnasts’ well-being. She said: “All they cared about was money and medals. It didn’t seem they cared about anything else.”

Lying About Her Health

In a bombshell confession, McKayla shared that during the 2012 Olympics, she broke her foot and nose, but was forced to continue after Larry Nassar lied about the injuries to McKayla’s coach.

A Huge Risk

Maroney opened up about this on Instagram and said: “Me competing at the Olympics was literally risking the rest of my gymnastics career.” She also said that gymnasts go through an incredible amount of pressure and “how terrible it’s set up” for the athletes that are competing in the Olympic finals.

On The Injuries

McKayla shared that she suffered from an “exploded” bone in her nose as well as a “really bad concussion” just two weeks before the 2012 Olympics. She was still recovering when she arrived, but her coach Márta Károlyi told her she would still have to practice and begin immediately.

What Happened Next

She said: “That’s when I broke my foot because I was dizzy as hell. I felt terrible. I looked at my coach and was like, ‘Really, you’re going to make me get on this thing? Right now? I feel like s–t.’”

The Doctor’s Advice

This second injury would not help McKayla be able to sit out. When asked, Dr. Larry Nassar downplayed the seriousness of her injury and called it “an old break” when speaking with Károlyi. Maroney was just 16 at the time.

What The Coach Said

McKayla shared: “Larry Nassar lied to Márta, told her it was an old break, then she yelled at me and she was like, ‘Why are you being so dramatic? This is an old break’.” She continued: “It was not an old break. It was a fresh, new, dislocated, shattered sesamoid bone that is her fault, completely.”

Competing With Injury

Despite this all, Maroney competed, and she went on to win a gold medal with her team and a silver medal individually on the vault. However, she denies that she was forced to compete. She insisted that despite Nassar’s lies, she chose to compete.

She Had No Idea

McKayla shared on Twitter: “USOC was so hands off I didn’t even know I was under their care — Or that the Karolyi camp I trained at every month was an Olympic facility managed by them!!? To me It felt more like a gym in the middle of a forest, with limited food supply, and a doctor [abusing] me twice a day.”

Why She Opened Up

Even though everything she went through was so difficult, she is glad that she if finally opening up after repressing everything for so long. She feels that she can finally move on and focus on being happy, which includes her new music career.

Still In The Spotlight

Despite everything she’s been through, McKayla still has to deal with unwanted media attention. She constantly has to deal with people questioning whether or not she has had plastic surgery to alter her look. She vehemently denies all of these rumors.

What She Said

In a 2012 post, she shared: “I totally understand why people are upset about me ‘changing,’ i get it.. but if I can promise you one thing, it’s that I will never stop changing. life is all about growing, evolving, and becoming more and more yourself.”

Being Herself

She continued in a 2016 interview with Seventeen: “First of all, that I haven’t. And I’ve posted a picture on Instagram last night that was like, how do I make my face look like I didn’t do anything to my face when I literally have not done anything to my face? Growing up in the social media world, it’s tough. Your face changes, you get older, your face fills out, and you fall into liking makeup and different stuff like that. And for people saying that, for the most part — it would kind of hurt my feelings when you haven’t done anything.”

In Her Words

McKayla has said she will always stay true to herself. She shared: “And these last couple years i’ve done nothing but that! i’ve finally gotten myself to the point where I know who I am and what I want out life, and you can either love me or hate me for that. either way, I love you, and wish you the best, because to be a real role model is someone who has the courage to be exactly who they are no matter what anyone else thinks.. and if I can inspire one person to live like that, then i’ve done my job on this planet.#KeepSmiling.”

Capitalizing On “Not Impressed”

Taking on the latest in internet frontiers, McKayla has launched the McKayla Collection on NFT marketplace OpenSea. She started at 15 Ethereum, which is worth almost $50,000. She believes that her auction will go for over $1 million.

What The Listing Includes

Of course, McKayla’s “Not Impressed” digital art meme will be part of the listing, as well as a Twitter follow, a private gymnastics lesson, a meet and greet, and a signed copy of her upcoming book.