There are moments in all of our lives that we recognize as Big Moments things we only could have imagined in our fantasies beforehand, things that afterward are etched into the part of our brains that hold onto our happiest memories.
For Nastia Liukin, it was winning a gold medal in gymnastics at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
For Morgan Fijalkowski of Huntersville, it was simply giving Liukin a hug.
Shes a famous gymnast, and Im probably, like, never gonna see her again, said Morgan, 9, after Liukin posed with, spoke to, and signed autographs for nearly 100 wide-eyed, star-struck, restless-legged girls Tuesday at Everest Gymnastics Training Center in Huntersville.
More of those big moments are on tap for thousands of aspiring young gymnasts who will fill Time Warner Cable Arena on Friday night, when the Kelloggs Tour of Gymnastics Champions showcases Liukin and 2012 gold medalists including Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber.
In the 21/2 months since the London Summer Olympics, the Fierce Five Douglas, Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman and Kyla Ross have emerged as the Games biggest stars.
Theyve appeared on talk shows, thrown out first pitches at Major League Baseball games, and presented Video Music Awards on MTV. They can hardly go anywhere without Sharpies being shoved in their faces, without cellphone cameras snapping photos that will set off Like-fests on Instagram. The soundtrack to their lives is now the screaming of little girls.
When were walking around in the airport, we have to have security with us because people will just try to grab us, Raisman said during an appearance in Charlotte on Sept. 5. Its really amazing, but Im definitely not used to that.
From dream to reality
Part of the gymnastics stars appeal is their youth. Douglas, Maroney and Ross are just 16; Wieber is 17, with Raisman the senior 2012 team member at 18. Adults view them as innocents, not jaded or burdened by grown-up problems, while girls view them as relatable and approachable.
The Fierce Fives personalities are so great, and theyre just really warm and welcoming to kids, said Liukin, who turns 23 Tuesday and is retired from competition. They feel like they could really be Jordyn Wiebers best friend, or Gabbys best friend.
And basically if you take away the fact that the Olympians have been training and competing at an incredibly high level for years todays stars were yesterdays wide-eyed, star-struck, restless-legged fans.
Just four years ago, a sprightly young California girl named McKayla Maroney attended the previous incarnation of the gymnastics tour, sitting in the stands as Liukin and teammates Shawn Johnson and Alicia Sacramone performed.
I would just stare at them. I just wanted to be them. I would think, How can I possibly be like them so I can make it to the Olympics, too? So its crazy to know that Im one of them now, said Maroney, the 2012 vault silver medalist.
For Maroney and her teammates, fame begets more fame. Maroney, who is an aspiring actress, will make her TV debut on The CW series Hart of Dixie this fall. Douglas is publishing a memoir, Grace, Gold and Glory: My Leap of Faith, that is due out by Christmas. These opportunities would never have been available before London.
But gold opens doors. Look at Shawn Johnson. A 2008 gold medalist herself, she won ABCs Dancing With the Stars in 2009, and was so popular she got invited back for the current all-star edition.
To virtually no ones surprise, many gymnastics programs see a bump in enrollment during an Olympic year, and a sharp spike during a highly successful year, as this one was. (At the Lake Norman YMCA, for instance, gymnastics coordinator Erik Walsingham said August registration almost doubled, from about 150 in 2011 to 270.)
But gymnastics is like a pyramid: There are scores of kids at introductory levels, and then as commitments on time, finances, bodies and minds get more demanding the dropout rate increases. A typical club might have only a handful of kids competing at the top.
Within an individual club, those top gymnasts are held in enormously high regard. So being in the presence of an Olympic champion is mind-blowing.
Samantha Wolchesky, 12, who trains at Cabarrus County Gymnastics in Concord, is recovering from a broken ankle but was cleared to participate in the opening ceremony of the Kelloggs Tour on Friday along with dozens of other local gymnasts. Shes already calling it the highlight of her gymnastics career.
Shes very excited and very happy right now, said Samanthas mom, Heather Nance, who organized the group ticket purchase for the team. All the girls have said this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The chance of these girls making it to an elite level is pretty rare, so the opportunity to be close to these (Olympians) I mean, they get it. The girls are super-excited.
Too excited to speak? Liukin said it happens.
We have formal meet-and-greets after our shows, and theyre just mesmerized. You can see in their eyes, Liukin said. A lot of them come up and they dont even say anything, and the parents are like, Youve been waiting for this for so many months! Say something!