This Young Gymnast Was Set To Be A Star – But One Innocent Photo Set Her On A Totally New Path

In the early part of McKayla Maroney’s promising gymnastics career, she had the sporting world at her feet. But everything changed back in 2012 thanks to a seemingly innocuous photograph. From there, Maroney’s personal ambitions shifted, which eventually led her down a very different path over the next few years.

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 growing reputation within gymnastics at that time. After all, like we just suggested, she had bags of potential as a youngster. Plus, the athlete backed that promise up by scooping several competitive accolades.

Yes, Maroney showcased her talents on both the domestic and international stage, earning success in countries including Japan and Italy. Indeed, it was no surprise that American gymnastics fans were getting so excited about her prospects. 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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But as Maroney’s reputation continued to grow, a significant moment was fast approaching – one 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.

In fact, Maroney had no inkling that the photograph would go on to become one of the most talked-about snaps of the year. Despite her feelings, though, the athlete’s association with the picture brought her name into the mainstream, transcending the world of gymnastics and sport. That’s pretty incredible!

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Anyway, after that pivotal moment in 2012, Maroney’s career veered off in a surprising direction. How could one photo completely alter someone’s life like that? Were there any signs beforehand that the gymnast might’ve pursued a different path? Well, if you had followed her rise up the ranks, you wouldn’t have thought so.

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Maroney’s enthusiasm for athletics can actually be traced back to her early years. Yes, following her birth in December 1995, the future star was a bundle of energy at her California home. And as a result of that, her mother went on to make a significant decision that shaped the whole family’s lives for the next several years.

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To explain further, Maroney sat down to speak with the Orange County Register newspaper in June 2012. She 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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But here’s the thing – Maroney really took to gymnastics at that point, and it didn’t go unnoticed by her folks. You see, her parents had experience in different sports when they were younger, too. For instance, Dad Mike was a former college football player, lining up for Purdue University as their quarterback.

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And as for mom Erin, well she was a high-school figure skater. Those are some good genes, right? So the pair saw something in their daughter that other parents might’ve missed, prompting them to make their next big decision. Due to her growing skills in the sport, they opted to home-school the youngster.

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That way, Maroney had a better chance of getting her foot in the door to compete at an early age. And it seemed to pay off, as she harbored some pretty lofty goals as a child. Indeed, the starlet went into a bit more detail on that subject during her conversation with the Orange County Register.

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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’re reading that correctly!

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So after switching gyms, Maroney eventually competed in her first official event in 2009 – some three years before the photo made her a household name. The competition in question was the Visa Championships, held in Dallas, Texas. On that occasion, she finished third in the junior division’s vaulting contest. Not bad, right?

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Mind you, Maroney only went from strength to strength following that debut event. Yes, she came second in the vault at the CoverGirl Classic in 2010, while also finishing top of the pile in that year’s Visa Championships. Plus, the gymnast began to showcase her talents outside America too, starting in Guadalajara, Mexico.

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At that stage, Maroney competed in 2010’s Pan American Championships. She won both the individual vault and floor exercise disciplines there, alongside a team victory. And her rise showed little sign of stopping after that, with the 2012 Olympics soon hoving into view. 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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Anyway, in the weeks leading up to the games in London, England, Maroney offered some insight into her gymnastic mindset to the Orange County Register. She revealed what 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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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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So that brings us to the event itself: it’s also the stage where the life-changing photograph was snapped. What was the context behind it? Why did the picture blow up like it did across the world? Well, to better understand the situation, let’s focus on Maroney’s efforts in London that summer.

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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 the aforementioned event and in the team event, too. To say that the gymnast was in good form would be an understatement!

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With that in mind, Maroney was the frontrunner to pick up the gold medal in London for the vault. It’d be hard to bet against her, right? Away from her favored event, the teenager had already tasted success with her American colleagues at the games, as they bagged the top prize in the team contest.

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And when it came to the vault, all appeared to be going well for Maroney at the start. But that soon changed as she took on her second attempt. Unfortunately, the in-form athlete suffered a slip, which opened the door for one of her competitors to surge ahead in the standings.

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Yes, Sandra Izbasa of Romania capitalized on the mistake to clinch the gold medal herself. As for Maroney, she 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, right? Well, she didn’t feel that way.

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Despite Maroney’s disappointment, though, she begrudgingly received her silver during the medal ceremony. It’s a moment that photographers and camera operators always focus on, so all eyes were on her at the time. Yet not even the young gymnast could’ve predicted what happened next. As it turned out, one aspect of the resulting snaps caught everyone’s attention.

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You see, after the medal was placed around Maroney’s neck, she pulled a face that strongly hinted she wasn’t happy. Specifically, the teenager pushed her mouth towards her left-hand side. If there was ever a picture that said a thousand words, this was one of them! From there, her expression quickly went viral.

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But here’s the thing – Maroney had no idea that images of her face were spreading across the internet like wildfire following the ceremony. Truth be told, she didn’t think that her expression was anything out of the ordinary. To explain more, the silver medalist sat down for a chat in a YouTube video on the Inside Gymnastics Magazine channel.

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Speaking in June 2014, Maroney says, “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.”

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Maroney continues, “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.”

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As for the moment when Maroney found out that her face was taking the online world by storm, she heard about it from her father. After that, 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 integrated pictures of her face into various unrelated shots.

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So from pictures of Mozart to the NASA Mars rover, you’d find Maroney standing alongside 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 left her baffled at the start.

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In the YouTube interview Maroney says, “At the time I was like, I just didn’t get it. I was like, ‘What does this even mean? I don’t understand.’ And 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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Coming to terms with the phenomenon, Maroney eventually decided to take control of the situation by owning the expression. Yes, 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 that online users looked at her in a more “positive” light.

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But at the same time, Maroney didn’t shy away from how she truly felt after coming second in London. The silver medalist tells the Inside Gymnastics Magazine YouTube video, “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!”

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Off the back of that, we know what you’re thinking. “Why did the photo cause Maroney 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. But some three years on from that, the U.S. athlete shocked the sporting world.

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At that point, Maroney announced her retirement from athletics for medical reasons in 2016. Yet she had begun to transition away from sport a bit before then. You see, it’s believed that her online “fame” inspired her to move into the television and music business. That’s one hell of a jump! A figurative leap, you might even say, equally as impressive as any of her medal-winning vaults.

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Anyway, Maroney made her small-screen debut back in 2012 in the show Hart of Dixie. She appeared in six episodes over the next three years. Alongside that, the budding actress had brief spells on both Bones and Superstore in 2013 and 2016 respectively. The latter was her most recent TV job.

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On the subject of acting, Maroney sat down for an interview with 17 magazine in July 2016, sharing her thoughts. 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.”

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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.” On top of that, the publication asked her about her music plans as well, which prompted a pretty intriguing response. Apparently, the former gymnast wasn’t a stranger to jotting down song ideas.

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“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.’”

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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.”

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Well, it wasn’t quite a “couple of months.” In fact, after that interview, Maroney’s fans had to wait for 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 was another example of her versatile talents, and again proved that she’s more than just a meme.

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