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Olympic gymnastics medals lead to whirlwind for McKayla Maroney

McKayla Maroney, left, and Jonathan Horton visit Tampa to promote a tour of U.S. Olympians that visits the city Sunday.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

McKayla Maroney, left, and Jonathan Horton visit Tampa to promote a tour of U.S. Olympians that visits the city Sunday.

TAMPA — Gabby Douglas may be the golden girl from the gold-medal-winning U.S. women's gymnastics team.

But McKayla Maroney is definitely the face of the "Fierce Five."

No matter how many unforgettable moments Maroney, 16, has experienced and stars she has met since the London Olympics, from presenting at the MTV Video Music Awards to guest-starring in the CW TV show Hart of Dixie, she can't escape the grimace seen around the world.

Maroney's disappointed expression while on the medal stand to receive a silver medal in the vault competition quickly became an Internet sensation with the meme "McKayla Maroney is not impressed." Talk-show hosts had fun with it and kids even are planning to wear "McKayla not impressed" costumes for Halloween.

"It's crazy. I get called out for being the 'unimpressed girl' all the time," Maroney said, smiling, while in Tampa this week to promote the Tour of Gymnastic Champions, which stops at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Sunday. "That has definitely changed my life a little bit. But I'm still the same girl."

At first, Maroney was a bit stung by the criticism. She said the look wasn't her being a poor sport, rather the shock of falling in an event she had been favored to win (she won the 2011 world championship) and the sadness of not hearing her country's national anthem.

But Maroney laughs about it now. She has gladly flashed her trademark expression on the Late Show with David Letterman and while posing for pictures with celebrities such as Patrick Dempsey and adoring fans along the 40-city gymnastics tour.

"I said, 'You need to embrace the face,' " said Jonathan Horton, one of the 2012 U.S. Olympic men on the tour. " 'You're a huge deal because of gymnastics and how incredible you are; now you're known for something kind of funny. I think people love that, they love the attitude.' "

Maroney would love to compete in Sunday's show, a mixture of gymnastics and dancing that features other members of the U.S. women's team as well as past and other 2012 Olympians. But she wears a walking boot on her right leg, the result of September surgery to repair a broken right toe. The injury had been aggravated during the Olympics, in which Maroney scored 16.233 on the vault during team competition to help lift the women to their first title since 1996.

She said she still hasn't watched the American broadcast of the events and they haven't completely hit her. "I don't think it'll ever sink in," she said.

Maroney also fractured her left fibia on an awkward landing rehearsing for a Sept. 9 tour show in Ontario, Calif. She decided to have both surgeries around the same time so she could heal and begin training for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But Maroney rejoined the tour as soon as she could fly on an airplane. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she said.

Maroney and her teammates have soaked in their newfound fame, appearing on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, CNN and Good Morning America, and even helping Al Roker do the weather on the Today show. She has met music stars such as Taylor Swift, Rihanna and her favorite, Miley Cyrus.

The Orange County, Calif., native said throwing out a ceremonial first pitch at a Dodgers game, a perfect strike, was "one of the coolest things I've ever done. I'll never forget that."

Maroney, who has always dreamed of acting, made a guest appearance on Hart of Dixie and is scheduled for another. She hopes to make acting a second career. "That was really special," she said.

Maroney has enjoyed the camaraderie and connection she has shared with teammates (her "best friends") and fans while on the road. There's barely any downtime in a schedule that includes going to four cities in four nights this weekend, but she gets a brief taste of each town.

In Tampa on Wednesday, Maroney petted animals at Busch Gardens, fed penguins at the Florida Aquarium and watched runners at sunrise along Bayshore Boulevard.

But what Maroney has been most impressed with is the impact she can have on young fans.

"It's really special when I see them come up to me or look at me in that way that I used to look at (Nastia Liukin, the 2008 all-around gold medalist) and (Horton, 25, a two-time 2008 medalist) when they went to the Olympics and I hadn't been yet," Maroney said. "And that was my one and only dream I wished for my whole entire life on every single birthday cake, on every single shooting star. It's amazing; it really is."

. Fast facts

Tour of Gymnastic Champions

What: Performance by men's and women's Olympic gymnasts, including 2012 all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas and other members of the gold-medal-winning U.S. women's team

When/where: 6 p.m. Sunday, Tampa Bay Times Forum

Tickets: $25-$200, available at Times Forum box office and via Ticketmaster (outlets, Ticketmaster.com, toll-free 1-800-745-3000)

Olympic gymnastics medals lead to whirlwind for McKayla Maroney 10/26/12 [Last modified: Friday, October 26, 2012 10:17pm]
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