Former Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney has changed a lot since the 2012 London Olympics. For one, she’s not 16 anymore, and she’s not letting her fans’ stagnant expectations keep her from moving forward. “My fans grew up knowing me as the girl who went to the Olympics, and obviously for me to be like, ‘Nope, that’s not what I’m doing anymore,’ I definitely understand,” says Maroney. “I get that you guys are feeling upset with me getting older and growing up.”
The 20-year-old walked away from the London Games with gold and silver medals, as well as a series of injuries and three major surgeries. Earlier this year, she announced that she would no longer compete after being told by doctors that she will probably never wear heels again, let alone do gymnastics. But Maroney views her injuries as a blessing and a curse, revealing that she was beginning to fall out of love with her sport.
“Gymnastics was the first love of my life. It was like breaking up with a boyfriend in the end that I’ve been with since I was 2 years old. I did it until I was almost 19, so for me to let go of it, obviously my identity was totally caught up in gymnastics, and it was really hard for me to kind of let go,” she says. “But the cool thing about moving forward is now I’m getting into music and I’ve kind of fell in love with a new thing.”
Now devoting her energy to music and acting, Maroney has set the bar pretty high for her next career move. “It’s almost like, since I won a gold medal, anything that’s next that I do has to be up to that caliber, or else I’m like, ‘You’re a failure!’” says Maroney. “People are like, ‘She’s hit her peak, she’s done.’ … They just don’t expect anything greater than a gold medal from me. And it’s hard to top that if you think about it.”
But dedication and thoroughness are precursors to making it to the Olympics, and Maroney has already appeared on Bones and Hart of Dixie and is working with producers to release music in the near future. “You can’t just put a song out; it has to be perfect,” she says. Still, transitioning from 50 hours in the gym per week has proved difficult. “You need to [maintain your image], but you need to stay authentic to yourself at the same time … some of it is shallow stuff and you really just have to have good people around you,” she says about maintaining her million Instagram fans. “If you don’t, you’ll get lost in it.”
Experimenting with makeup and fashion, Maroney is having fun growing and shifting her image. “When I was competing at the Olympics, the last thing I was worried about was what I looked like, what my hair was doing. I didn’t even really wear makeup. It was not something I cared about,” she says. “I think it was really good for me to have that piece of my life where I wasn’t that obsessed with all those things because that really showed me that those things don’t matter. They’re fun if you can use them for good and for your self-love, but at the end of the day … I’m me without anything.” She’s working on staying grounded in an industry that is anything but.
Fans speculated that she had work done on her lips, cheeks, and nose, and Maroney denied the rumors. “You look at pictures, I’ve looked like this for a while,” she says. “I just got eyelash extensions and it’s like, ‘Whoa, what’d she do to her face?’ That totally can change the way you look, but I was very confused and hurt.”
The world has been watching her since she was 16, and celebrities we’ve grown up with tend to get picked apart. “I didn’t know if I was going to say anything or just leave it at that, but it just kept getting bigger and bigger and I wanted to say something for all my fans, mainly just that I’m going to keep changing and growing, and these rumors are going to keep coming up for the rest of my life if I’m in this business. And I’m just going to be like, ‘You know, I have not done anything [to my face] but I’m going to stay a loyal, honest person to you guys and I hope you can respect that at the end of the day,” she says. “I guess a lot of people enjoyed that I spoke up for myself, so that was cool … I definitely really liked posting that.”
Maroney says she wouldn’t consider cosmetic enhancements in the future. “When I look in the mirror, it’s never something like, ‘I want to change this about my face,’” she explains. “I think it’s very important to love who you are and how God made you. But at the same time, I’m not going to hate on anybody who does anything.” Maroney thinks that plastic surgery can help people to feel like their best selves. “If you need to do something to your face to make you feel more comfortable and more confident, I can’t put that down for anybody,” she says. “I know that things like that can change somebody’s life sometimes … so I don’t really have a black-and-white perspective on anything in this world.”
Even with her strong conviction, Maroney experienced a lapse in confidence after her surgeries and was unhappy with her body. “That was actually one of the hardest things for me [after the Olympics],” she says. “When I wasn’t working out eight hours a day, I gained weight, and my coaches weren’t happy about that.” The pressure was on for her to get back into shape before she learned that she was no longer able to compete. “So I really didn’t like my body for a while after I couldn’t really work out.”
Maroney tributes her now positive body image to a shift in perspective and new focus on eating for her body type. “I wasn’t eating that healthy when I was competing. I would drink 24-ounce Cokes and my parents weren’t really health freaks,” she says. “But [my perspective] totally changed. When I couldn’t work out, I was feeling sick; my body kind of freaked out like, ‘We can’t lay in bed all day!’ Now I’m a vegan and I’m into Pilates and yoga. I do this diet called ayurveda.”
The ayurvedic diet is often practiced by yogis and consists of three different body types: vata, pitta, and kapha. As a kapha, Maroney practices regular cardio exercise to keep her body balanced. “I try to do cardio every day since that’s what my body is used to from gymnastics, but I don’t actually go to the gym that much,” she says about her post-Olympics fitness plan. “It’s really important to get outside and switch it up. Two days a week I try to work with a personal trainer. That’s what I did today; we did stairs at the beach and I was dying after an hour, but now I have so much energy.” For other people struggling with body image after injury or weight gain, Maroney says to listen to your body for what feels right.
Maroney may be moving in a different direction than we all expected, but we’re impressed.