|Kyla Ross competes on floor exercise at the 2013 P&G Gymnastics
Championships on Aug. 17, 2013 in Hartford. Conn.
After winning the team gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games, Kyla Ross and her “Fierce Five” became overnight A-list celebrities, making appearances at the MTV Video Music Awards, meeting President Obama at the White House, throwing out first pitches at baseball games and appearing on TV shows up and down the dial.
There was one important distinction, though: Ross was the only one who wasn’t able to cash in on the success.
Ross, who at 15 last summer was the youngest member of the “Fierce Five,” looked at the numbers. She could have gone professional, she found, but she calculated her potential earnings would have equaled about the same amount as a college scholarship. So with all things being equal, she decided she would rather go to college as an amateur. That way she could compete in college gymnastics, too.
“I know that college is really expensive, so sometimes going pro and then going to college you don’t really gain very much,” said Ross, who will compete in the FIG World Artistic Gymnastics Championships this week in Antwerp, Belgium. “So I wanted to keep that. And everyone says competing in college gymnastics is a lot of fun, so I’m looking forward to that, too.”
Ross was always subtly different from her “Fierce Five” teammates. In boy band terms, she was “the quiet one,” always appearing happily in the background as Gabrielle Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber took turns in the spotlight.
That showed in the widely distributed first photo of the “Fierce Five,” having just been introduced as the 2012 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Team at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, which captured four sobbing teenage faces. And then there was Ross, smiling politely.
After the Games, the U.S. gymnasts embarked on a 40-city celebration tour. Most of the Olympians took part in all or most of the tour; Ross stuck to the West Coast stops only so as to minimize disruption to her sophomore year at Aliso Niguel High.
When asked about a post-Olympic break from gymnastics, Ross giggled, almost embarrassed, as she admitted it was no more than two or three weeks.
“I was really anxious to be able to get back into the gym,” she said.
The quiet approach has paid off. Ross and her childhood friend Maroney were the only “Fierce Five” members to return to competition in 2013, so by default they were the star attractions at the P&G Gymnastics Championships in August in Hartford, Conn.
The duo also by default leads the U.S. contingent into the world championships, which begin Monday and run through Oct. 6 in Antwerp, Belgium, although newcomer Simone Biles edged Ross for the U.S. all-around title in Hartford and Maroney was limited to two events due to injury.
Expectations on the outside tend for the U.S. women. A U.S. gymnast has won the world all-around title after the past two Olympic Games (Chellsie Memmel in 2005 and Bridget Sloan in 2009). Ross, Biles and Maroney are all entered in the all-around competition in Antwerp. (There is no team competition and only two gymnasts per country can compete in the all-around final.)
For Ross, who turns 17 on Oct. 24, her expectations for her first world championships are typically measured. Her stated goals are simply to make the finals for the all-around and uneven bars.
“Going into any meet I don’t really like saying I want to win gold, but I really do want to be able to compete at world championships for the individual all-around and also the bars,” she said.
In addition to growing from her Olympic experience, Ross also has grown in the past year — literally: She added two inches since London.
She’s also visibly more confident in her second year as a senior: No longer in the background, she has a newfound presence with her improved artistry and long lines.
“Kyla Ross is a very classic gymnast,” said Martha Karolyi, the U.S. national team coordinator. “She is an extremely good technician, has excellent lines and is a beautiful girl.”
The question going into world championships is how aggressive Ross will be. For example, she has done the Amanar vault — the famously difficult 2.5 twisting Yurchenko that helped propel Team USA to victory in London — but elected to go more conservative at the P&G Championships.
“She is a four-event gymnast,” Karolyi said. “She doesn’t have any event which is weak, and … she is a little perfectionist, so she doesn’t include anything in her routine that she cannot handle.”
That approach has helped Ross earn a reputation for consistency. To take the next step in Antwerp, however, she will likely have to ramp up her routines, something Karolyi expected after the P&G Championships.
“She has some extra skills that she doesn’t feel yet confident in them,” Karolyi said in Hartford.
Ross’ best gymnastics years still might be ahead of her. And like her “Fierce Five” teammates, Ross said she hopes to compete through the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
Making a second Olympic team in women’s gymnastics is no easy task, though, as all six members of the 2008 U.S. Olympic squad found out in 2012. At the P&G Championships, Ross proved to be candidly aware.
After the competition, which to some extent was framed as the start of the next generation, Ross was asked about a potential rivalry with Biles in 2016.
“Maybe. I’m not sure,” she said. “Three years is a really long time, and you never know what can happen, and a lot can change with gymnastics. Everyone keeps on improving.”
Importantly, so does Ross.