Young Hurdler Was Destined For Olympic Glory – But A Video Of Her Warm-Up Changed Everything

Young Hurdler Was Destined For Olympic Glory – But A Video Of Her Warm-Up Changed Everything

Meet Michelle Jenneke. She’s a champion sprint hurdler, but that’s not the reason a video of her went viral. Before a race, the young Australian did something the crowd hadn’t seen before. And the whole episode led to a series of events that no one could have predicted…

Athletic rituals

Athletes showboating in front of spectators is nothing new. Sportspeople do it all the time to win over fans and pump up the crowds. But when she was filmed, Jenneke wasn’t trying to do that. She was simply trying to prepare herself for the race ahead. And neither she nor anyone else had any idea what would happen next.

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Caught on video

Jenneke had used that particular warm-up since 2009, but no one had noticed before. At the World Junior Championships in 2012, however, cameras were there, and they caught everything. Before she had time to catch her breath, Jenneke had gone viral around the globe. Countless people suddenly knew her name.

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Stuck in viral fame

And if a video of you goes viral, there’s not really an awful lot you can do. You can try and take it down, of course, but that generally results in more and more people becoming aware of it. That’s the situation in which Jenneke unexpectedly found herself.

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Not what she intended

Of course, there are some bonuses to having a video go viral. In Jenneke’s case, it made her famous. She even became a sex symbol – for a little while, at least! But was that really what she wanted for her career?

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It changed her career

Well, Jenneke’s written about the impact of her brief brush with internet fame. Her career has changed, too, since someone pointed that video camera at her back in 2012. And she’s explained exactly what she was intending to do with her famous warm-up moves.

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Hurdling since childhood

Jenneke may regret her moves now, as they’ve sort of overshadowed her athletics career. And she’d worked hard to make it to the top, too. She’d loved hurdling ever since she was a child. Sometimes, she would use her soft toys as makeshift hurdles and practice leaping over them.

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She started competing early on

Speaking to Stellar magazine in 2017, Jenneke reminisced, “I was always a very sporty kid. Pretty much any sport I could try, I would do. When I was nine years old, I signed up for Little Athletics. I didn’t train that year; I was just competing. Hurdles was always my favorite event, even though I wasn’t particularly good at it back then.” And, of course, back then she had no clue that she’d become famous!

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Professional athletics wasn’t always her goal

“I started training the next year. Only one day a week, but I was ten years old,” Jenneke added. “At that age, I still wasn’t anything special – I didn’t think so, anyway. I wasn’t thinking about a career in sport or representing my country.” When she got a little older, though, a path to international competition opened up to her.

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The Youth Olympic Games

“It wasn’t until I made my first Australian team in the Youth Olympic Games in 2010, at age 17, that I realized I could compete professionally,” Jenneke explained. “My family is incredibly supportive of my career… They come out to every international competition. I’m so lucky to have them; I love making them proud of me.” But were they so proud when they saw her viral video?

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Much to be proud of

Well, for a while, Jenneke’s loved ones were cheering her on. For two years running, she came in fourth at the National All Schools Championships in her home country. And at the later New South Wales All Schools Championships, she came second in the 100m hurdles, having achieved the incredible time of 13.07 seconds.

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Breaking records

Could Jenneke be on her way to Olympic glory? It sure looked like it. First, she helped break the Australian women’s sprint medley relay record at the Junior Championships. Then she followed that up by taking home a silver medal at the Summer Youth Olympics. For a while there, everything was going great.

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An excited sound bite

Jenneke was ecstatic about her achievements, too. In 2010 the Hills Shire Times newspaper interviewed her about her Youth Olympic Games win, and the star athlete said, “I’m so excited. I’m almost speechless, I’m so happy. I got away well with the other girls, and I felt like I kept gradually pulling away towards the end.”

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Bouncing before the blocks

The Hills Shire Times noticed that Jenneke was “bouncing and almost dancing behind the blocks before the start.” When asked about this, the young sportswoman said, “I wasn’t nervous. I was just excited, and I felt great warming up. It made a big difference having familiar faces in the crowd.” It was a taste of the fame she’d earn later on for her warm-up.

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She climbed further in the sport

And there was even more success to come. In 2011 Jenneke returned to the Australian Junior Championships and came first in the Under-20s category. Then a little later that year, she went to the 89th Australian Athletics Championships and finished third – not far behind world champ Sally Pearson. The stage was set, then, for her to try for the Olympics – and become famous.

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She was in it for one reason

Surely all athletes want to become known for what they do? Well, yes, and becoming rich and famous is an added bonus. But it appeared that Jenneke wasn’t really interested in the glitz and glamour of the sporting world. She just competed in the hurdles because she enjoyed doing it.

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Her top tip for fellow athletes

Whenever Jenneke raced, she always seemed to bring up her love of sport rather than any desire to be a world champion. On her profile page on the 2010 Youth Olympics website, she answered the “Tips on how to become a top athlete” section with just two words: “Enjoy yourself.”

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The World Junior Championships

Jenneke’s talent for the sport she loved was what got her to the World Junior Championships. It was a big event, and plenty of journalists had come to Barcelona to cover it. And as she waited for the 100m hurdles event to start, a camera happened to film her doing what she’d always done: enjoy herself.

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Hype dance

Jenneke did a little dance as part of her warm-up routine. As the cameras watched, she jiggled her hips and gyrated, a massive happy smile on her face. Though it wasn’t her intention, it was very attention-grabbing. And guess what? Yep, many onlookers – especially the folks online – thought it was also pretty sexy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppXDaggCb_0

Caught headlines for reasons she didn’t expect

Unfortunately Jenneke failed to win big at the championships, and she didn’t earn a place at the 2012 Olympic Games. Instead, she suddenly found herself a viral superstar. It hadn’t taken long for the dance warm-up footage to work its way around the internet, and people seemed to like what they saw.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppXDaggCb_0

People got carried away

Some folks immediately sexualized the footage of Jenneke, putting it in slow motion and playing music over it. But USA Today focused on Jenneke’s winning smile instead, saying, “You have to appreciate anyone who enjoys themselves this much.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppXDaggCb_0

Jenneke’s reaction

This all came as a big shock to Jenneke herself. In 2016 she told the YouTube web channel Beyond the Game, “I got a few Facebook notifications and I was like, ‘This is odd, I’m not generally this popular.’ So I was looking through that, and there’s, like, links to this video… That’s me! What’s going on here?”

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Seen by millions

Things took off for Jenneke – and fast. Before long, millions of people had watched her video. It even featured on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno! Then, at the end of August, the viral star was reported to have signed with the high-profile company Six Sides Management. Whether she liked the video or not, she was on her way to making bank off it.

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She offered a response

The Australian news website news.com.au tracked down Jenneke to see what she had to say, and it turns out she was pretty chill about it all. She told them, “My friends have been teasing me a bit more, that’s about it. I never thought my little warm-up would receive so much attention.” Her manager Damian Triffitt seemed to think differently, though.

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Brands wanted to work with her

Triffitt told news.com.au, “In the last three days, we’ve already had a lot of big companies come to us and say, ‘What do we have to do to get Michelle?’ Given the profile of the companies we’re talking to already, it’s obvious she’s exactly what a lot of them are looking for.” And there was another viral video to come.

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She poked fun at herself

Yep, Jenneke appeared in another popular clip – but this time, it was on purpose. She teamed up with Mac Faulkner, also known as Forever Alone, in a video that cast her as the ideal woman. And yes, there were plenty of comments in there about her “bouncy” dance.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_9J2oJjjd4

Opened new doors

This opened up a new door for Jenneke. She became a model! In 2013 she appeared in Sports Illustrated magazine’s famous Swimsuit Issue. And in the behind-the-scenes video of the shoot, she comments, “I looked at the pictures, and I think, ‘Wow, is that really me?’” Things were going really well for Jenneke for a while.

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Olympic qualifier

In 2014 the athletics star-turned-model turned out for her country at the Commonwealth Games, and two years later she qualified for the Rio Olympics. When she arrived in Brazil, her image shone down from advertising billboards thanks to a commercial tie-in with Coca-Cola. But then it all took a turn for the worse.

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The dance wasn’t as well received

Jenneke finished sixth in the 100m hurdles – a disappointing result for her fans. And even though she hadn’t come close to winning, a reporter cornered her after the race and asked her to do the famous warm-up dance for him. She duly obliged. Jenneke looked like she was being seen as a gimmick rather than a serious sportswoman.

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Her coach called out her performance

Head coach Craig Hilliard slammed Jenneke as well. He said, “She was certainly one of the athletes that under-performed here. It would be easy to suggest that [outside distractions] was possibly a scenario. It’s something that I need to discuss with her and go through with her… She certainly didn’t arrive here in the shape she should have arrived in.” Ouch.

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People questioned her commitment

Hilliard also questioned Jenneke’s overall commitment to her sport, saying, “If you are going to be half-baked at doing something, why are we investing in you? I can’t justify that.” Not long after that, Jenneke’s funding was slashed.

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Jenneke countered

Despite everything, though, Jenneke kept the same upbeat energy that’d made her famous in the first place. She gave an interview to news.com.au once the dust had cleared, and she explained one reason for her poor performance. Basically, the competitors had been stopped from doing on-track warm-ups.

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She’s more than just an athlete

In the interview, Jenneke also pointed out, “I’m still young. I still live at home, [and] I’m still very comfortable there, I’m still at university, so at the moment athletics isn’t my only plan.” She was in fact studying engineering at the University of Sydney. So, what would the future hold for the once-promising young hurdler?

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How she feels about her dancing fame

Well, a revealing interview, for a start! In 2017 Jenneke told her story in her own words to Stellar magazine. And she pretty much brushed off the reaction to that viral warm-up video. “I can’t explain why it became so popular. I found it funny people were interested in what I was doing,” she said.

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Will she dance again?

Jenneke went on, “I still get asked to do the dance, but I generally like to leave it to when I’m on the track. It’s not something I feel any pressure to do when I’m out there… that’s just what I like to do. It gets me into a good physical and mental space.”

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She’s not going to change

But Jenneke pointedly concluded, “People think that by doing my dance, I’m trying to draw attention to myself. I’m not. It’s just what I do when I’m on the start line. I’m not going to change who I am or what I’m doing because people view it one way or another.” Surely no one could argue with that?

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Much more than one viral moment

And Jenneke is much more than a girl who did a sexy dance. Since that one episode in her life went viral, she spent six and a half years studying and simultaneously competing in athletics. In November 2019 all that hard work paid off when she graduated from the University of Sydney with a degree in engineering.

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She’s keeping one top priority

Jenneke doesn’t appear to be too devastated by her underwhelming results, either. No matter what, she seems determined that enjoyment will always come first in her sporting career. That’s clear from an interview she gave to the Australian magazine The Beast in 2018.

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Making it to the Olympics was a major feat

Jenneke said that although the Rio Olympics had been bad for her, “just getting on that start line” had been “a really big deal.” She added, “But I was injured in my preparation leading up to it. I did the best that I could, and some days it just doesn’t work for you.” She had undergone physiotherapy, but it just hadn’t paid off in time.

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Advice for younger athletes

Then The Beast asked Jenneke if she had any advice for younger athletes. And what she said summed up her whole career so far. “I think the best advice I could give them is just to have fun and enjoy your sport,” she said. “That’s really all I did. That’s the reason I’m still in the sport, just because I love it.”

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A very different path

That’s a great reason to do anything. It may just have kept McKayla Maroney going, too. Remember her? She once had the sporting world at her feet. But when she finally got to the Olympic Games in 2012, a seemingly innocent photograph put her name in the headlines. And from that moment on, she was propelled onto a very different path.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Just one little photo

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.

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A rising star

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.

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Caught off guard

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.

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Going mainstream

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.

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Changing careers

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.

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One crazy kid

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!

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Gymnast-in-training

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.

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Seeing her potential

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.

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Aiming high

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.

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Seriously lofty goals

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!

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Getting her start

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?

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International acclaim

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.

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Bringing home the gold

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!

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What drives her

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.

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Superhuman abilities

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.”

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The London Games

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.

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Winning in Japan

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.

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A safe bet

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.

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Worth a thousand words

Maroney would have a medal placed around her neck – but 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!

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Slipping up

So, what happened? 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.

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Second place

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.

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Her true feelings

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.

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Sour grapes

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.

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Nothing out of the ordinary

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.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_q3CyUKvHL4#t=14m35s

Just her face

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.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_q3CyUKvHL4#t=14m35s

There’s a new meme in town

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.

The White House / Getty Images

Spreading like wildfire

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_q3CyUKvHL4#t=14m35s

Let it go!

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.”

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Taking ownership

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.

https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/gabby-douglas-adrienne-warren-mckayla-maroney-aly-raisman-news-photo/156785027?adppopup=true

Her true feelings

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!”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_q3CyUKvHL4#t=14m35s

So, what happened?

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.

https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/mckayla-maroney-competes-on-the-balance-beam-during-day-4-news-photo/148345791?adppopup=true

Early retirement

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.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BHvfMSKjnDl/

Small-screen success

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.

A nice change of pace

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.”

https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/mckayla-maroney-visits-extra-at-the-grove-on-august-27-2012-news-photo/150846527

Expressing herself

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.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CHv1BjbBgTY/

Singer-songwriter

“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.’”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BT_PtOUBr2U/

Her first single

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.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BUFk4JAhqHF/

Showing her versatility

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.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CJPKu6ehQ7O/