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Gymnast Wieber, coach push each other to London Olympics

8:33 AM, Jul 29, 2012   |    comments
LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 26: Jordyn Wieber of United States on the Vault during training sessions for Artistic Gymnastics ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games at Greenwich Training Academy on July 26, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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By Joe Rexrode, USA TODAY

LONDON - John Geddert was sick of the pushing and the politics that came with coaching gymnasts who aspire to compete at the highest levels.

In gymnastics speak, this is called the elite program, and Geddert decided he was done with it in the late 1990s.

"Blame it on the entitlement generation if you want," Geddert said, "but I wanted it more than the kids did."

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Then he met his motivational match. Or his psychological clone. Just when Geddert thought he was out, a little girl named Jordyn Wieber pulled him back in.

Now look where they've pushed each other.

Wieber, the 17-year-old athlete from DeWitt, Mich., begins her quest for Olympic gold medals Sunday with the women's team qualifying. Geddert, the 54-year-old coach from Grand Ledge, Mich., will be there to guide her while serving as head coach of Team USA.

It's the ultimate stage of a sport that ranks high on the list of worldwide interests during the Summer Games. The individual pressure to be perfect results in extremes of elation and anguish, and compelling TV.

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However it turns out, Jordyn and John will have primary roles in the drama. That's been the plan for years, and their relationship has been key in its successful execution.

"Any time you spend 30 hours with a kid, 32 hours with a kid a week since the time they were 8 or 9, you're gonna develop a special bond," said Geddert, who opened Twistars USA Gymnastics Club in Dimondale, Mich. in 1996 and saw Jordyn for the first time two years later. "She is very dear to me. I think our relationship is very professional in that I'm her coach, I'm not her best friend. She's not my best friend. We have a very professional relationship. Do I love her like a daughter? Absolutely. But we have that special ... we can balance that."

They are nothing alike, of course, a teenage girl and a middle-aged man. Wieber looked perplexed, bordering on alarmed, when asked if she and Geddert have similar personalities.

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She acknowledged, though, that they share a certain fierceness, even if they express it in different ways.

"I think his coaching style really fits me, I really respond to it well," Wieber said. "Over the past couple years, I've gotten more mature and a little bit older, so I think things have worked out really well.

"He's a very intense person, and I think that's what makes him a good coach. He's pretty tough."

That was evident four weeks ago, after Wieber was chosen for Team USA but lost by a tenth of a point to Gabby Douglas for the automatic bid at the Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif.

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The next week of practice did not go well.

"She got her butt chewed right after trials," Geddert said. "Just came in a little bit down. And it was just, one day I'll give you. OK, I understand, you're a little bit worn out from trials. Two days, OK. Three days, I'm going 'OK, let's ...'"

"Four, it's 'Sorry honey, this is unacceptable. You're not getting anything done, go home.' I'd rather send them home than be unproductive. If their mind isn't on it, that's a big thing."

Wieber took the day off and returned with renewed focus.

"I got twice as much out of her the next day," Geddert said, "than whatever I (would have) got out of her that day."

It was the other way around after Wieber won the world championship in October in Tokyo. After they returned home, Geddert gave her one day off and then got right back into maximum training.

The motivation: None of the previous five American women to win the all-around gold at worlds followed up with the all-around gold at the Olympics.

"Hopefully I can change that stereotype," Wieber said of their discussion, then and now. "John kept me really grounded and down to earth after worlds."

EARLY DAYS

A standout gymnast at Alpena High and Central Michigan, Geddert coached at a club in Maryland for four years before taking over as head coach of Great Lakes Gymnastics Club in Lansing in 1984.

"Believe it or not, he's mellowed since then," said Kathie Klages, MSU's women's gymnastics coach and a coach at Great Lakes with Geddert back then. "He's always been very intense and very demanding, but it's his attention to detail that separates him. He can take a person to the max of their ability better than any coach I've ever seen."

Klages also said Geddert was very "experimental" in the 1980s.

"He'd see something on TV and he'd say, 'You, come over here, we're gonna try that,'" Klages said. "He was very, very creative with his gymnasts."

"Well, we didn't know what the hell we were doing," Geddert said. "So everything was trial and error. That's what experience is made out of."

The coaching developed and some Elite gymnasts followed. Geddert has coached eight of them, including Katie Teft, who took part in the Olympic Trials in 1996 and served as an alternate for that team.

At that point, Geddert wanted to be done with Elite gymnasts. USA Gymnastics was one of the reasons.

"I didn't like the politics of the program and the system back then," Geddert said of a program that has been overseen by Martha Karolyi since 2001. "And there was a lot of it. And I think the system has changed a lot now. It's perfect having Martha. The only thing Martha cares about is winning.

"She doesn't care who wins for her. She's just gonna put the best team on the floor, and she doesn't care who it is. And that's a perfect system. Everybody has a shot. Before it was ... well, I won't get into that."

Some of the gymnasts he was coaching added to the burnout.

"I got tired of just pushing kids," he said. "Pushing. I wanted someone to pull. I had two kids that came in and pulled me to the Elite Program. Jordyn and Kamerin Moore.

"I mean, cute little 8-year-olds that just said, 'Come on, I want to do this. Can I do it again? Can I stay after practice? Can I come in on my day off?" Those are the kids you dream about."

Hip and shoulder injuries hampered Moore, who made the U.S. junior national team in 2008.

Around 2009, Geddert knew Wieber could get to where she is today. This was a once-in-a-lifetime athlete with the drive to match.

"She's always been that way," Geddert said. "She couldn't get enough. Never misses a day unless I tell her to stay home. I can't remember a sick day. ... She's just a workaholic."

Geddert put together a "very specific plan" of training and events to help make this happen, said Rita Wieber, Jordyn's mother. So far, Jordyn and John have executed it to perfection.

"I can't imagine her ever wanting to train with someone else," Rita Wieber said. "They just clicked from the very beginning. The way he describes technical things to her, she gets. So it's worked. And I think that's key. I mean you can have a great athlete, but if the coach can't communicate effectively, it can't work."

Contributing: Joe Rexrode also writes for the Lansing State Journal.
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