Olympian Ross undaunted

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Fifteen-year-old Kyla Ross will be the youngest member of the five-person U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team, one that has its sights set on team gold later this summer in London.

By Will Graves
AP Sports Writer

SAN JOSE, Calif.

The cramped room inside H.P. Pavilion turned into a sobbing, mascara-running free-for-all moments after the U.S. women’s gymnastics team was announced Sunday night.

World champion Jordyn Wieber wept. So did Olympic trials winner Gabby Douglas. Ditto McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman.

Not Kyla Ross. No, the youngest member of the five-person team the U.S. will send to London in three weeks smiled. She hugged. She shook with excitement.

Her cheeks, however, remained tear-free.

“They were trying to get me to,” the 15-year-old said with a laugh Monday. “They were all like, `Come on, Kyla.”’

Maroney, whom Ross has known for a decade while growing up in Aliso Viejo, Calif., knew it was useless.

“She’s just not a crier,” Maroney said. “She’s just not as emotional as everybody else. She kind of keeps things inside.”

It’s no surprise to her parents, Jason and Kiana, who have watched the oldest of their three children become almost unflappable thanks to a poise that belies her age.

“She’s just so competitive,” said Jason Ross, a former minor league baseball player. “It doesn’t matter if it’s gymnastics or if it’s school. She would come home from school and say, ‘This girl got a better grade than me’ and Kyla got a 98. She just always wants to win.”

Maybe it’s because she’s gotten so used to it. The two-time U.S. junior champion has spent most of the last 10 years walking to the top of the podium at the end of most meets, where she dutifully accepts the medal and immediately begins focusing on the next one.

She’s a vital part of a U.S. team with its sights firmly set on winning gold at the O2 Arena at the end of the month. The U.S. will need her graceful routines – and the high scores they produce – on uneven bars and beam to hold off the expected push from China and Russia.

Though she lacks Wieber’s power and Douglas’ sass, the elegant Ross performs with a fluidity that makes it appear she floats between the bars and glides over the four-inch wide beam. The 15.650 Ross put together on bars during the finals Sunday night was second only to the 15.900 posted by the otherworldly Douglas.

Yet Douglas’ routines seem to be packed with drama. A hand-slip there, a daring flip over the bars there. There are no such theatrics for Ross. She’s smooth – every hand placement perfect, her body a study in kinetic energy and efficient movement.

“She almost makes it look too easy,” Kiana Ross said.

It wasn’t always that way.

Her parents, who say their daughter was “born with muscles,” put Ross in the gym at age 3 to help calm her down. Yet she found more than an outlet, she found a home. She loved the challenge of mastering a new trick and advanced so quickly she was thrust onto a competitive team at age 5 even though she was much more diminutive than most of the other gymnasts.

Kiana Ross signed a “fat” stack of papers to give the coaches clearance to let her go and do her thing even though mom admits “I had no idea what we were getting into.”

The early meets were a struggle as tiny Kyla tried to find her footing. The nerves didn’t last. She was top three in her age group by the end of that first season and hasn’t looked back.

She won the junior championship in 2009-10 and finished second last summer but was ineligible to compete for the world championship team in Tokyo last fall because she was too young. With the entire team that won gold at worlds trying to make a run for London, Ross knew she’d have to elbow her way into the picture.

It didn’t take long. She was second to Wieber at the Pac-Rim championships in her first meet as a senior. Her stock continued to climb at the U.S. championships in St. Louis last month, as she finished second on bars and grabbed fourth in the all-around and balance beam.

Still, she wouldn’t mention London. At least, not to her parents.

“We’d bring it up and she’d say, ‘Stop talking about it,’” Kiana Ross said. “She was only interested in what was the next thing.”

At least, that’s what she told her parents.

Maroney remembers a vivid talk the two had when they were still in elementary school, where they made a pact to make the Olympics one day. The memory flooded back to Maroney over the weekend, and Sunday night she tweeted a picture of the two of them standing side-by-side as kids.

“Cutest picture ever,” Maroney said with a laugh.

On Monday they took a very different picture, one with them wearing red leotards with “USA” stitched on them. It’s a long way from the cramped gym in southern California when the Olympics were something you watched on TV.

Now it’s real, but Ross hardly is intimidated by the stage. She sent her parents a text just before taking the floor Sunday night telling them how excited she was to compete.

She certainly looked ready, giving U.S. women’s team coordinator Martha Karolyi no reason to scratch Ross’ name off the list.

When she was done there was joy, sure. Just no tears. Will they come in London if the U.S. wins team gold for the first time in 16 years? Maybe.

But she doubts it.

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