ON A winter morning at Twistars Gymnastics Club in Dimondale, Mich., a procession of pixies in pigtails moves in lockstep behind Jordyn Wieber. The attentiveness is unmistakable. She skips; they skip. She windmills her right arm; an air current trails behind her. Imitation is the sincerest form of self-improvement.
These days gymnasts from Moscow to Beijing are also playing follow the leader, behind Wieber and her four Olympic teammates. The U.S. heads to London with its strongest women's squad ever, led by world all-around champion Wieber, 17, and Gabby Douglas, 16, who edged her at this month's trials. While the two stars will vie with Russians Viktoria Komova and Aliya Mustafina for all-around gold, the team's best chance for titles in individual apparatuses may actually come from McKayla Maroney on vault and Aly Raisman on floor. "It's an embarrassment of riches," says Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator, "except we're not embarrassed; we're ready for battle."
On July 31, as the U.S. women try for their first team gold since Kerri Strug and the Magnificent Seven in 1996, Wieber's exacting precision and Douglas's infectious exuberance should prove a dynamic combination. Two nights later, in the all-around final, those same qualities will make for one of the Games' most intriguing duels.
IN THE past 40 years only one female world all-around champion, Ukraine's Liliya Podkopayeva in 1995, has won the Olympic all-around the next year. The favorite's mantle has been more like a banana peel on the balance beam. So onto the four-inch-wide plank Wieber goes at her home gym. Back tuck with full twist? Nope, didn't like it. Try again. Another imperfection? Another leap. Her scowl suggests that she just air-balled a free throw, although the errors are imperceptible to the unseasoned observer. "I've seen other kids with her talent," says John Geddert, who has coached Wieber for 14 years, "but Jordyn's hunger to work separates her."
At age one, Wieber startled her father, David, one morning at their home in DeWitt, Mich., by standing on one foot and trying to dress herself. "Like a pelican," recalls David, a health-care executive. "Normally kids need to lean on you or on something. She still couldn't walk." That day he said to his wife, Rita, "She has really good balance, so do you think she'd like gymnastics?"
Jordyn soon caught the eye of Geddert's wife and fellow coach, Kathy, in a class at Twistars. "Jordyn was a three-year-old with muscles," Kathy recalls. "Most kids that age can't focus; she'd stare at you waiting for directions." Jordyn understood structure as early as five, when her parents put her in zone soccer. "She wouldn't leave her zone even if the ball was a step away and nobody was near it," says David. Today her room is impeccably orderly, and she fidgets if a carpooler is five minutes late. "I'm not OCD about stuff," she says. "I just like being on time."
By age 12, Wieber was routinely nailing double-twisting round-off vaults that were beyond Mary Lou Retton's repertoire when she earned gold in 1984. She won the first of two American Cup titles in 2009, but it was at the second Cup, in March '11, that John Geddert really sensed her emergence. Mustafina, who had won the world all-around title the year before (in the absence of Wieber, who at 15 was too young to compete), was tracking Wieber's every warmup stretch and twist with a stare straight out of northern Siberia. "Wouldn't take her eyes off her," Geddert says. "She knew: This is who I have to look out for."
Wieber beat Mustafina by .068 of a point. Last October, with Mustafina out with a knee injury, Wieber won the world all-around in Tokyo, topping Komova by just .033.
Wieber is explosive and purposeful rather than balletic—more Shawn Johnson and less Nastia Liukin—but she has added 90 minutes of dance a week to try to become more limber and expressive. She is still just a high school senior, learning how to be a star. In New York City this spring for the Today show and the Sullivan Awards, she declined a free $1,500 dress from Bergdorf Goodman because she might never wear it again. She's head-over-heels-over-head-over-heels (it's a gymnast thing) about Justin Bieber, and the thought of the T-shirt they could sell if they someday married—WIEBER-BIEBER FEVER—leaves her stuck on auto-giggle.
Wieber often employs the prevent defense with the media: Say nothing to offend or embarrass. Only when she appeared in January on The Ellen DeGeneres Show did she momentarily lift the sport's veil of cozy camaraderie. "We're pretty much best friends," Wieber said of her U.S. teammates. "When it gets out in the competition, we don't think about beating each other; we just think about doing our own thing."