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Resilient Maroney already pointing to Rio

August 14, 2013

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — McKayla Maroney is not doing this to impress you.

Sorry, that was so 2012.

She gets it, really, she does. Even a year removed from the look that launched a thousand Internet memes, the two-time Olympic medalist gets bombarded with near daily requests to make the face that launched her from disappointed runner up to budding star.

And most times she obliges. Hey, it was funny, even if it was misunderstood.

Standing on the podium in the O2 Arena, lips pursed to the side after a stunning fall on her second vault cost Maroney the prize she spent nearly her entire life chasing, she looked like the unhappiest person to ever have an Olympic medal draped around her neck.

Only, that wasn’t it. Yeah, she wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of standing a step below the spot she envisioned in her dreams. If she’s being honest, at that moment Maroney’s mind was thousands of miles away as the Romanian national anthem blared for gold medalist Sandra Izbasa.

“I’m standing there thinking, ’Man, now I’ve got to go to Rio,” Maroney said. “I was already thinking about what I had to do for 2016.”

That included getting back into the gym as soon as possible. A dozen months removed from the best — and in a very public way, the worst— meet of her life, Maroney is at the US gymnastics championships ready to take the first major step on a journey that she believes will end with “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing in Rio de Janeiro three summers from now.

Maroney captured the vault title at the 2011 US championships, a victory that propelled her to a world title later in the year. Looking back, she had no real idea what was going on at the time.

“I came home and people were like, ‘How’d you do?’ and I was like ‘Oh yeah, I won gold,’ and that was kind of it,” she said. “I didn’t think ‘man, I’m a world champion.’”

It wasn’t until one of the best vaulters in the history of the sport stumbled on the biggest stage that she realized just how deeply the fire burned. While she returned from the games to a hero’s welcome — even doing the “not impressed face” with President Barack Obama during a visit to the White House with her “Fierce Five” teammates — Maroney began plotting her comeback.

Her body had other ideas. Maroney stumbled during a dismount during a post-Olympic tour and endured three surgeries in as many months to fix a bone in her left leg. Doctors initially told her they doubted she would be able to compete again at the highest level.

All it did, however, was make her mad.

Not that you could tell. She cashed in on her newfound came by making three guest appearances on the TV primetime soap “The Hart of Dixie.” She did the talk show route, often becoming the star of the show. Her Twitter and Instagram feed became an endless array of “selfie” shots and short videos that featured her hamming it up.

It was fun, sure. It was also kind of an act. In between the steady stream of “OMG” social media posts, Maroney quietly returned to the gym in January and went back to work.

“That’s what people don’t see,” she said. “They see the actress McKayla. In the gym I’m an entirely different person.”

One that is dead set on putting together a plan that keeps her competitive throughout the next quadrennium. While Olympic all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas and 2011 world all-around champion Jordyn Wieber slowly rebuild and Aly Raisman ponders whether to even explore a return, Maroney is ready to send a message to the next generation that she’s not quite ready to cede the stage just yet.

Though she insists she’s “excited” to see the steady progress of youngsters like Simone Biles, Maroney also leaves no doubt as to who’s the boss when she’s standing at the top of the vault runway. Training for the Secret Classic in Chicago last month — her first meet since the Olympics — Maroney put to rest any lingering doubt to whether she’s back.

Exploding down the runway, Maroney launched into an Amanar, the most difficult vault currently being used in competition. It packs a roundoff, a back handspring and 2½ twists into about two seconds. Soaring high above the mat, she stuck it with such force the sound echoed through the empty arena.

The next day she easily won her signature event. Barring catastrophe she’ll do it again this weekend, atoning for the national championship she lost last year when she sustained a mild concussion while warming up on the final day of competition.

Maroney plans to limit herself floor and vault for now. She may one day try to take a shot at the all-around. Yet she’s also well-versed in the pitfalls that await when elite female gymnasts enter their late-teens and early 20s. If she stays within her comfort zone and out of the trainer’s room, Maroney can easily see herself doing this into 2016 and maybe beyond.

“All I know is I love to do this,” Maroney said. “I’m going to do it for as long as I can.”

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