McKayla Maroney won both gold and silver medals in London, but her greatest gymnastic feat in London was flipping the world's perception of her.
The date: August 5, 2012. The scene: the North Greenwich Arena, site of the women's vault. Heading into the finals, Maroney, perhaps the greatest female vaulter of all time, needed only to land her final two vaults and the gold medal was hers. For a gymnast riding a 33-vault landing streak, this feat should have been about as demanding as a two-foot putt.
But gymnastics don't always go as expected, and while performing her final vault, the Mustafina, Maroney slipped and ended up sitting on the mat. The gold medal everyone expected her to win would soon be hung around the neck of Romania's Sandra Izbasa.
It was during that medal stand that Maroney went from famous to iconic, though not in the way she'd have wanted. When everyone expects you to win gold, anything less is, in some small sense, a failure. A moment of frustration, a moment of disappointment crept across her face.
"It was just a moment of complete shock," Maroney told Yahoo! Sports recently. "I can't even remember much of that day. I remember the day before watching other Americans on the medal stand and hearing the anthem. I remember wishing it had gone differently, and I had an expression on my face for two seconds."
That was all it took. Photographers captured the look on Maroney's face – which appears for all the world like she's displeased with her Christmas presents – and by the time the then-16-year-old made it back to her dorm, the Internet's knives were out: Disrespectful. Spoiled. Typical American.
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Thing is, in conversation Maroney couldn't be farther from the petulant diva she appeared to be from that one picture. "It was hard to accept," she explained. "I'm not a brat. There were people who really hurt my feelings, people who were saying things that just weren't true."
But within hours, the Internet pendulum swung, as it does, from mean-spirited pettiness to absurdist humor. And thus was born McKayla Is Not Impressed, a meme in which Maroney was spliced into every cultural situation imaginable, from the Mona Lisa to SpongeBob SquarePants. McKayla's unimpressed expression was the perfect embodiment of a 21st-century America still unsatisfied with all it had … either that, or it was just kind of ridiculous seeing McKayla scowling in the background of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
She may have missed the vault, but when it came to the "Not Impressed" gag, Maroney stuck the landing. She embraced the joke, tweeting out pictures of herself and her Fierce Five teammates in various "unimpressed" poses. And it culminated in the greatest "Not Impressed moment" possible: Maroney and President Barack Obama making the face together in the Oval Office.
"That was the coolest moment of my life," she recalled. “He was such a nice guy. Being in the Oval Office was an amazing experience."
It's all part of a larger story for Maroney. The Olympics have been over for four months now, but Maroney hasn't slowed down. She's appeared on television shows and awards ceremonies, visiting children's hospitals and gymnastics groups all across the country. The Fierce Five remain a draw long after we've forgotten almost every other Olympian who dominated our TV and computer screens this summer.
But every trend has its end, and "McKayla Is Not Impressed" is headed toward "Keyboard Cat" territory, to be trotted out in 2020 during decade retrospectives. Where does that leave Maroney? Older, wiser and training for 2016, of course.
"I've had to learn to deal with mean people, judgmental people," she said. "I'm not even 17 yet! [She turned 17 on Dec. 9.] But I've learned how to adapt, to turn everything to a positive."
Which, when you're riding atop the world, is easier than it might otherwise be. In January, she'll be a judge at the Miss America pageant in Las Vegas. And before long, she'll start training for the 2016 Games in Rio.
Once her gymnastics career is done, Maroney wants to go into acting. She's already done some stints on the TV show "Heart of Dixie," but she's got her eye on bigger, louder targets.
How big? How loud? Well, how does "McKayla Maroney, action hero" sound?
"I loved Angelina Jolie in 'Salt,' " Maroney said. "I'd love to do something like that. I've already got the gymnastic skill."
And she's already got the catchphrase, too: "I'm not impressed."
Admit it … it works.
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