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April 17, 2014

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After winning gold, America’s Fierce Five facing uncertain future

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Matt Dunham / AP

U.S. gymnasts McKayla Maroney, Kyla Ross, Alexandra Raisman, Gabrielle Douglas and Jordyn Wieber bite their gold medals at the Artistic Gymnastics women’s team final at the 2012 Summer Olympics, July 31, 2012, in London.

They stood together, arms locked, Olympic gold medals around their necks and — for just a moment — between their teeth.

The cameras flashed. The exhausted Fierce Five smiled and just like that, it was over.

The best women's gymnastics team in the world — Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber, Kyla Ross and McKayla Maroney — then walked in single file toward the exit and into a busy but uncertain future.

Sure, they'll be together again when they return to the U.S. next week as part of the media blitz that comes when you storm to Olympic glory. And there will be the cross-country exhibition tour through the fall.

After that, who knows?

While women's team coordinator Martha Karolyi believes the group could "physically and gymnastically go on for another quadrennium," reality might not let them.

They left home a month ago hoping to become the first American team to reach the top of the podium in 16 years. They'll leave the games famous.

All teenagers, there's a chance they could have a reunion in Rio de Janeiro in four years. That is, if life doesn't get in the way.

"Things are going to change for us," said Maroney, who added a silver on vault.

None of them more than Douglas, who won the all-around title and has suddenly become an A-lister. She's going to hit the late-night TV circuit over the next few weeks and as the new face of her sport will be in high demand for advertisers eager to have her flashy smile hawking their product.

Finding a balance between the gym and newfound celebrity is going to be difficult. Throw in the burnout of a yearlong buildup to the games and a series of nagging injuries and the prospect of gunning for a second straight gold in Brazil sounds exhausting.

"We just finished the Olympics yesterday," Wieber said. "It's kind of hard to think about."

Maroney is in. At least for now. The feisty 16-year-old — who came up with the moniker "Fierce Five" during a brainstorming session — believes her stunning loss in the vault finals will be enough fuel to keep her primed.

Ross is ready to go too. The youngest member of the team at 15 is also the group's only amateur. She'll do a handful of tour stops then return to high school and focus on the world championships next year in Belgium.

Three-time medalist Raisman — who became the first American to grab gold on the floor exercise — isn't ruling out three Olympics.

Wieber's plan is to nurse an achy right leg, do the tour and then see where she's at. The games were a disappointment for the world champion, who failed to get out of all-around qualifying and finished seventh in the floor exercise finals.

Though she's contemplated college, she's still got a year of high school remaining. And because she turned pro, she won't be able to compete on the college level. Besides, she can't imagine working under anyone other than lifelong coach John Geddert.

The same goes for Douglas, who Liang Chow molded from raw talent into champion in less than two years. Chow thinks Douglas is only halfway to her potential and thinks her lean frame lends itself to a lengthy career.

That is, if she can find the time.

"Gabby has captured people," said USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny. "We are looking to do what we can to grow our sport a little bit with her help into hopefully a new and talented audience."

It's a role the first African-American to win an Olympic all-around title is eager to embrace.

"I wanted to inspire a nation," she said. "The quote here is 'Inspire a Generation' and I'm so happy I got to inspire other athletes."

Just — hopefully — not at the expense of her career.

No Olympic all-around champion has repeated at the next games in over 50 years. And all the practice in the world can't stop the power of biology.

"It's a little girls' sport," Geddert said. "Once they become women, it's very, very tough to handle the training load it takes to be at this level."

Contrast that with the guys. John Orozco, who turns 20 in December, is the youngest member of the five-man team that finished a disappointing fifth and came away with just one medal _ a bronze by Danell Leyva in the all-around.

All five members are already talking about Rio, even 26-year-old Jonathan Horton.

"Right now in my head, 100 percent I'll be training for the next four years," he said. "I've got too much gas in the tank to be done now. I feel good right now, I'm injury free."

So is Leyva, who has his sights set on tracking down Olympic champ Kohei Uchimura of Japan. And he's not planning on waiting until 2016.

"Trying to take Uchimura's spot is going to be hard, but that's what I like about it," he said. "I need to try to do it as early as possible, but that means 2013 worlds."

Male gymnasts don't peak until their mid-20s, meaning there's little doubt Leyva, Orozco, Jake Dalton and Sam Mikulak will be in the mix four years down the road.

It's a nice thought for the Fierce Five. They'll have the next few months to hang out on the barnstorming tour and relax outside the airtight bubble the Olympics provide.

Will they ever take the stage again in competition? It's too soon to tell. For all their talent, there's another wave at the ready.

Elizabeth Price, 16, and 15-year-old Sarah Finnegan served as Olympic alternates and getting so close to the sport's biggest stage will only make them hungrier. Chow is already talking about a pair of talented juniors who could be the next breakout stars.

If London is their defining moment, they can live with that. They're going to try and enjoy the spoils of their hard work. The future will take care of itself.

"We're going to be bonded together for the rest of our lives, and that's truly amazing," Wieber said. "I think we're going to be lifelong friends."

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