Here is a strong defense of McKayla Maroney.
After Maroney blew her all-but-in-the-bag shot at the gold, she did not even try to look happy about her silver. Instead, she stiffly accepted a hug from the victor, Sandra Izbasa of Romania, and appeared to flat-out rebuff the affections of the bronze medalist, Maria Paseka of Russia. Later, at the medal ceremony, she looked like she was winning the prize for Person Whose Dog Just Died, twitching her lips grimly and shifting her gaze.
That face, that tough, steely look, has been a wide-open opportunity for would-be comics to poke fun at Maroney’s “Oh, hell no” countenance, and to riff on her “mean girl” persona. She’s had entire galleries devoted to her “bitch face,” which also serves as her unofficial nickname. She’s been a “fool” and a “brat” and a “baby,” a “snobby,” “pissy” “diva.” Well, what do you expect from the same civilization that also brought you theendless ragging on Gabby Douglas’ hair?
Maroney isn’t the naturally smiling, ebullient Olympian. She doesn’t exude the warmth of Sanya Richards-Ross or outdoorsy ease of Kerri Walsh. Nothing about her serious, controlled persona says, “Hey world, love me!” That’s a difficult thing for a lot of people in the world to accept in a female. It’s even more difficult for fans to grasp that an Olympic gymnast, a girl in the sport that’s historically given us sweethearts like Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug and Shawn Johnson, could be so flinty.
So when I wrote Monday of Maroney’s grace in defeat, it was not because, as one reader suggested, I was “high” when I was watching the women’s finals. It was because I saw something different. Yeah, I saw a girl who looked furious, too. But I also saw one who, to quote “Moonrise Kingdom’s” Suzy Bishop, was losing her temper with herself. Was she really snubbing her Russian competitor? Maybe, but did you notice how she barely let her own coach touch her? The girl who just a few days ago could confidently refer to her vault routine as “like, autopilot” had become, in a split second, the girl who fell on her ass. This was a move she’d executed perfectly 33 times in a row. And the one time it counted, she fell. She looked utterly stunned. As she said frankly afterward, “I didn’t deserve to win gold if I landed on my butt. I’m not disappointed about the silver; I’m disappointed about my performance.”
That’s the face I saw Sunday – the face of a fierce, tough girl whose fiercest, toughest competitor is herself. A girl who lost to herself and was tremendously disappointed. A girl who was mad, not at her medal or her competitors, but with McKayla Maroney. On Monday, no doubt in response to all the “bitch face” criticism out there, Maroney said on Twitter that “For anyone who thought I didn’t want to hug Maria and Sandra that’s not the case (: They are my friends, and I’m proud of them both! I wasn’t thinking straight and I totally forgot what to do, but don’t worry. I gave them both hugs after!! <3 Sportsmanship is so important to me and I hope you know i would never do that intentionally!! Please forgive me!!” She’s a 16-year-old who got up from the kind of shocking, public, humiliating disappointment that few of us can even imagine, and, with every camera in the world trained on her face, couldn’t plaster on a fake smile. That doesn’t make her a sore loser. It makes her real and human. No forgiveness required.
I am reminded of the Forty-Niner/Lions game last year, when the Niners won the game in the last minute, breaking Detroit's undefeated streak. Niners coach Jim Harbaugh was jumping up and down. He pulled his shirt out of his pants, ran onto the field, gladhanding and hugging his players. When he came up Jim Schwartz, the Lions' coach, he gave him a hearty slap on the back. Schwartz had to be restrained from throwing down with Harbaugh, who had gone off hopping gleefully towards the exits.
Let's face it. After losing the big one, sometimes the very competitive among us cannot immediately find grace in defeat. To expect a kid to be able to do so is asking a lot.