McKayla Maroney once had the sporting world at her feet. Rising through the ranks of U.S. gymnastics, she had reached the pinnacle of her profession: a place on the American Olympic gymnastics team. But when she finally got to the London Games in 2012, a seemingly innocent photograph put her name in all the headlines. And from that moment on, she was propelled onto a very different path.
It must’ve been some photo to alter the course of a sportswoman’s entire career, right? And it’s especially surprising when you consider Maroney’s position within the gymnastics world at the time. As a rising star, followers of the sport had kept their eyes on her as the gymnast to watch. And she was proving them right.
And as Maroney showcased her talents on both the domestic and international stage, she scooped medals aplenty. It was no surprise, then, that American gymnastics fans were getting so excited about her prospects. In fact, it’s not an understatement to say that she was on course to become one of the sport’s biggest stars.
But as Maroney’s reputation continued to grow, a moment was coming that would change her life forever. Of course, we’re referring to the picture that was snapped in 2012. The lasting impact that this photo had can’t be overstated, yet the gymnast didn’t see it coming. At all.
Yes, Maroney had no inkling that the photograph would go on to become one of the most talked-about snaps of the year. Despite any feelings she may have had on the matter, though, it brought her name into the mainstream – making her famous beyond gymnastics and even beyond sports as a whole. That’s pretty incredible when you think about it.
The picture was also enough to take Maroney’s career in an entirely different direction. So, how could one photo completely alter someone’s life like that? And were there any signs that the gymnast was going to pursue a different path? Well, if you had followed her rise up the ranks, you wouldn’t have thought so.
Speaking to the Orange County Register in 2012, Maroney recalled, “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.’” That’s one way to deal with a hyperactive kid!
But here’s the thing: Maroney really took to gymnastics. And it didn’t go unnoticed by her folks – perhaps because they had been sporty types, too. Dad Mike had once been a former college football player who had lined up for Purdue University as their quarterback.
Mom Erin, on the other hand, had been a high-school figure skater. In any case, the pair saw something in their daughter that other parents may have missed. The girl had promise, for sure, and this led Mike and Erin to decide to home-school her.
That way, Maroney had a better chance of getting her foot in the door to compete at an early age. And the fledgling gymnast had belief in herself, too. She was aiming high, as she would explain during her conversation with the Orange County Register.
Maroney told the newspaper, “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.” How old was she at the time of that personal revelation? Nine. Yes, you read that right!
Then, after switching gyms, Maroney finally competed in her first official event in 2009 – just three years or so before that photo made her a household name. And in the Dallas, Texas, Visa Championships, she finished third in the junior division’s vaulting contest. Not bad, right?
Mind you, Maroney only went from strength to strength following that debut event. She came second in the vault at the CoverGirl Classic in 2010 and finished top of the pile in that year’s Visa Championships. The gymnast began to showcase her talents outside America, too, starting in Guadalajara, Mexico.
At 2010’s Pan American Championships, Maroney won both the individual vault and floor exercise disciplines as well as a gold medal with her team. And her rise showed little sign of stopping as the 2012 Olympics approached. Who’d have thought that an innocuous photo would’ve been the catalyst behind her global fame back then? She seemed to be well on her way without it!
Anyway, in the weeks leading up to the games in London, England, Maroney offered some insight into her gymnastic mindset. Speaking to the Orange County Register, she revealed what had attracted her to the sport and why she was so driven to succeed. Simply put, it was all about extending her physical abilities and fulfilling her personal ambitions.
Maroney explained, “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.”
So that brings us to the Games themselves – the stage where the life-changing photograph was snapped. What was the context behind it? And why did the picture blow up like it did across the world? Well, to better understand the situation, we should probably look at Maroney’s efforts in London that summer.
Prior to the games, Maroney had won three international vaulting titles in the preceding 18 months. Her biggest success arguably came at the World Championships in Japan, when she finished first in both the vault and the team event. To say that the gymnast was on form would be an understatement.
No surprise, then, that Maroney was a hot favorite to pick up Olympic gold in the vault. And her chances of clinching that coveted medal only seemed more certain after she and her fellow U.S. gymnasts bagged golds in the team event. The stage was set for Maroney to emerge as a sporting hero.
What happened next? Well, all appeared to be going fine for Maroney at the start of the vault competition. But that soon changed on her second attempt. In what must have been an excruciating moment for the gymnast, she slipped – and opened the door for one of her competitors to surge ahead in the standings.
Sandra Izbasa of Romania capitalized on the mistake to clinch the gold medal herself. That meant Maroney had to settle for second place in the end. A silver medal at the Olympics doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Better than nothing. But Maroney apparently didn’t feel that way.
So, Maroney begrudgingly received her silver. The medal ceremony is obviously a moment that photographers and camera operators always focus on, and that meant all eyes were on the young gymnast at the time. And as the press pack snapped away, they captured how Maroney really felt about being runner up.
After the medal was placed around Maroney’s neck, she pulled a face that strongly hinted she wasn’t happy. And if there was ever a picture worth a thousand words, this was definitely it. No wonder that a photo of her unimpressed expression quickly went viral!
But Maroney had no idea that images of her face were spreading across the internet like wildfire. And, if truth be told, she didn’t think that her expression was anything out of the ordinary. That’s what the silver medalist claimed, anyway, when she sat down for a chat with the magazine Inside Gymnastics.
Speaking in June 2014, Maroney 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.”
Maroney 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.”
Apparently, Maroney only found out after a few words from her father that her face was taking the internet by storm. Then she caught a glimpse of the hottest new meme in town – otherwise known as “McKayla Maroney Is Not Impressed.” Given the ubiquity of image-editing software these days, it was inevitable that mischievous social media users had placed versions of her face into various unrelated shots.
So, in pictures of everything from Mozart to the NASA Mars rover, you’d find Maroney with her grimace as visual commentary. What did she think of all this, though? Was it funny to her, or did she take it badly? Well, the gymnast admitted that the craze had left her baffled at the start.
In the Inside Gymnastics interview, Maroney explained, “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.”
But Maroney eventually decided to take control of the situation by owning the expression. And she started by posting a shot of herself pulling the famous face when she and the Olympic team went to a swimming pool. After that, the star believed, folks on the internet had looked at her in a more “positive” light.
But at the same time, Maroney didn’t shy away from how she truly felt after coming second in London. The silver medalist said to Inside Gymnastics, “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!”
We know what you’re thinking, though. If Maroney finally came to terms with the photo, why did it cause her to pursue a different career? Well, it didn’t at first. Following the Olympics, she recovered by winning another three vault titles in 2013, including one at the World Championships.
It was only in 2016, in fact, that Maroney announced her retirement from athletics for medical reasons. And it’s believed that her online “fame” inspired her to then move into show business. That’s one hell of a jump! A figurative leap that may be equally as impressive as any of her medal-winning vaults.
Maroney has seen success on the small screen, too, after debuting in Hart of Dixie in 2012. The budding actress has also had brief spells on both Bones and Superstore and has appeared in a promo video for the Thirty Seconds to Mars track “Up in the Air” – where she showed off her gymnastic skills yet again.
But there’s a good reason why Maroney has swapped flying through the air for emoting in front of a camera, as she explained to 17 magazine in 2016. There, she said, “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.”
Maroney continued, “And you’re more expressive in a way when you’re working with people. In gymnastics, you’re so on your own and individual.” But the former athlete seemingly wasn’t content with sticking to acting. Oh, no – apparently she was angling for a career in music, too.
“For the last year, I was just figuring out my sound,” Maroney explained. “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.’”
Maroney then added, “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.”
Well, it wasn’t quite a “couple of months.” After that interview, Maroney’s fans actually had to wait nearly four years before she dropped her debut single. The aspiring musician shared the track, titled “Wake Up Call,” via Twitter in March 2020. It’s yet another example of Maroney’s versatile talents – and proves once again that she’s more than just a meme.