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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by Dwight Normile    Monday, 09 June 2008 07:24    PDF Print
10 Thoughts on the U.S. Championships

Women's National Championships, Boston

Dead heat: Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin could go 1-2 or 2-1 at the Olympics. Their A Scores across four events on Day 2 were 26.20 (Johnson) and 26.10 (Liukin). Liukin actually beat Johnson on the second day, 64.20-64.05, but her fall and out-of-bounds deduction in prelims proved to be the difference in the end. If both hit in Beijing, I honestly couldn't pick a winner — they're that close.

Depth: When was the last time the top three finishers were all-around world champions? (And I'm still giving that title to Liukin, who tied Memmel for the 2005 gold in Melbourne, and then was bumped to second when the scores were truncated via a senseless rule.)

Samantha Peszek: Peszek's ambitious floor dismount of 1 1/2 twist through to double pike backfired on day two, when she put her hands down on the double pike. It's always difficult to maintain your horizontal momentum while stepping out of a 1 1/2 twist, because the roundoff becomes shorter than when it's performed after a normal hurdle (especially at the end of a routine). If she struggles with that pass at trials, too, it should be replaced.

Chellsie Memmel: After missing the 2004 Olympic team because of a fluke injury at the wrong time, Memmel has to be considered a sentimental favorite to make the team. And if she performs at trials the way she did in Boston, I'd put her on and name her team captain, too. Her routines looked solid, especially on bars, where I don't think she really needs to cowboy her double front dismount. But I guess she — and everyone else who cowboys this skill — doesn't want to risk sitting down on the landing.

U.S. Olympic team: Marta Karolyi has a much easier task of choosing a team than the U.S. Men's Selection Committee. She simply has fewer slots and events to fill. Barring injury, Johnson, Liukin and Alicia Sacramone are locks, and I'd add Memmel and Peszek too. That leaves one spot open. Ivana Hong, Jana Bieger, Shayla Worley or Bridget Sloan? It's too early to tell, but the trials in Philadelphia should help to clear up that fuzzy picture.

Men's National Championships, Houston

Houston, we have a problem: I'm not sure the results at the U.S. Championships did much to help the Selection Committee. In fact, the two-day meet might have made things a bit more confusing, since so many contenders kept falling off their best events. If that trend continues in Philadelphia, the selection committee should choose the highest-scoring team under the assumption that everyone will hit. No reason to compete for fourth or fifth at this point.

Blaine Wilson: Three-time Olympian Wilson bowed out after two routines, and I liked the quiet grace with which he exited the sport. He really had nothing more to prove, anyway.

Specialists: If you are good at both pommel horse and rings, an unlikely combination, you really help this team. Rings champion Kevin Tan comes closest. Under the "points system" he earned the maximum 22 (11 each day) for rings and amassed 11 on pommels. Add his 15 for parallel bars and six for high bar and he has 54. Working only four events (no floor or vault), Tan sits third in the points race, behind all-around champion David Sender (66) and runner-up Jonathan Horton (55).

Philadelphia: With the Olympic trials counting 60 percent toward the final results, the pressure will be that much greater than it was in Houston, which counted 40 percent. The meet is sure to bring some guys to tears, and I'm not saying which kind.

U.S. Olympic team: Paul Hamm, Kevin Tan... sorry, can't name the rest. There are too many viable choices, and no matter which combination you select, one event gets shortchanged. Better to wait and see how the U.S. Olympic Trials play out, because that's when the final four will really earn their berths to Beijing. See you in Philadelphia.

Written by Dwight Normile    Tuesday, 27 May 2008 09:30    PDF Print
U.S. Men's Olympic Team? Very simple: Paul Hamm and five others

It can be fun to be an armchair Men's Selection Committee member, but I certainly would want no part of it this year. Here's how I see the U.S. men's Olympic team shaking out: Paul Hamm is a lock, assuming his broken hand heals in time, and more than a dozen other guys are in a dogfight to survive the next few weeks.

No matter what team is eventually chosen, one event or another will get short-changed a little, at least in preliminaries. But if Paul Hamm is healthy for Beijing, I don't think the U.S. should sacrifice any big individual scores just to ensure a top-eight finish in preliminaries. The selection committee should pick a team that could potentially challenge for the gold. Forget the bronze. (Easy for me to say, I know.)

If Hamm returns but is not in peak form because of a weak right hand, the U.S. could be in trouble. And that scenario won’t reveal itself until after the trials conclude.

It appears unlikely that the trials will lock in one (let alone both) of the top two all-arounders, who must also place in the top three on three apparatus to gain that distinction. So the selection committee will have a heck of a time forming the team. More deciding factors will surely emerge in June at the trials in Philadelphia, where the pressure will be far greater than it was in Houston for the U.S. Championships. The selection process already claimed the defending Olympic champion. Who knows if anyone else will go down?

Team selection was much simpler under the old rules of 6-5-4. All-around rankings really meant something. But now, with the 6-3-3, it's a game of chance. The Men’s Selection Procedure document is 20 pages long, with all sorts of criteria to guide the committee members. Then there's the point system, which rewards event placement from first through 10th: 11 points for first; 10 for second; 9 for third; 7 (not 8) for fourth; and on down to 1 for 10th.

U.S. champion David Sender led the field with 66 points, followed by Jonathan Horton with 55. Kevin Tan, who really isn't just a rings specialist, sits third with 54. But even these points could be irrelevant if most of them are accumulated on the 'wrong' events. Oklahoma's Steve Legendre, for example, amassed 31 points on only two events — floor and vault — yet was passed over for a national team berth in favor of Tim McNeill (22), Yewki Tomita (21) and Guillermo Alvarez (19). Legendre is excellent on the events where the U.S. team is generally already deep, even though that team hasn't been officially announced.

Confusing, I know, but that's the nature of the beast. All the coaches I've spoken with agree that the highest-scoring team needs to be selected, and each has a convincing argument as to why his gymnast should be picked.

"There's nothing necessarily wrong with the process, as long as the best team is chosen," said Thom Glielmi, who coaches Sender at Stanford. "But there's always speculation as far as How would this team have done? or [How would] this athlete [have done]? ... There's no guarantee."

So who should join Paul Hamm in Beijing? You could place the names of all the others in a hat and pick a pretty good team. That's how deep the U.S. program is right now. But just as in 2004, you can count on this: When the U.S. men’s Olympic team is announced for Beijing, some very talented gymnasts will not be on it.

Written by Dwight Normile    Tuesday, 29 April 2008 08:53    PDF Print
'Chalked Up' reveals the need for a balanced coach-gymnast-parent triangle
The backlash has begun now that Jennifer Sey's "Chalked Up" is out. It's a detailed account of her gymnastics life, and it's not always pretty.

Before I reviewed an advance copy of the book in IG, I communicated at length with Sey, the 1986 U.S. national champion who retired less than two years later. Still troubled by "a lot of the stuff that happened in gymnastics," she felt the need to do something about it.

"As an avid reader, I was in a heavy memoir-reading stage," she told me. "And I thought, 'I could do this.' So I did."

Having been a gymnast and coach myself, I read the book from inside the circle, so to speak. I could read between the lines, because I had been on both sides. And now, as a parent of two teenagers, I am experiencing the third point in the coach-athlete-parent triangle.

I had never fully understood the parents' involvement before. While writing a story on Vanessa Atler years ago, I remember asking her father about the best and worst parts of having a daughter in high-level gymnastics. He told me the worst part was seeing Vanessa emerge from a workout looking depressed. It seemed a trivial answer to me at the time. I couldn't grasp how that could be so terrible. We all have good days and bad days, right?

A few years later I understood completely when my son took up taekwondo. His strict Korean instructor could be pretty intimidating, especially to a 7-year-old. Some of the lessons were fun, but others bordered on traumatic. I absolutely dreaded seeing my kid emerge from the latter, guilty for even submitting him to such treatment. Another part of me said that the discipline would be good for him.

Parents are extremely vulnerable when it comes to their kids' endeavors. When the taekwondo instructor told me one day that my son had potential, I was ready to do anything to fuel that path. But when my son asked if he could quit after 15 months of roundhouses and belt tests, I let him. I could hear the unhappiness in his voice. If instead he had asked to move to a mega-gym three states away to pursue his taekwondo Olympic dream, I probably would have considered that option, too. It was all uncharted territory.

So here's the point: Parents will do almost anything to ensure enjoyable experiences for their kids, because that makes them happy too. (And some kids are better than others at getting what they want from their parents.) Conversely, when my kid hurts, I hurt even more. It's a helpless, horrible feeling I avoid.

When I coached gymnastics, I had little insight into the parents' feelings. I figured their joy was directly proportional to their kids' success in the sport. (Not always.) I did what I thought was right in the gym, even if it meant a little yelling.

What many people don't realize is that kids are not always perfect, innocent pupils during practices in any sport. Sometimes, through disrespectful behavior or poor attitudes, they can push a coach's buttons. Coaches are not parents to their gymnasts, but they are in a role of authority that often gets challenged. I'm sure CNN or ESPN could have made me look like an ogre with some selective video editing.

In Sey's situation, her parents allowed her the freedom to pursue her gymnastics goals. She moved away from home, which drastically altered the angles of her coach-gymnast-parent triangle. At 16, Sey was left to make far too many tough decisions on her own, in my opinion.

Is Sey's book damaging to gymnastics? I think so, only because the general public will rarely get past the subtitle, "Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams." But I do think it can help enlighten parents who think going to the Olympics is worth any sacrifice.

At some point, all parents need to know that giving your children what they want will not always make them happy.
Written by Dwight Normile    Wednesday, 16 April 2008 11:02    PDF Print
ESPN Takes Swing at Gymnastics

I watched "E:60 Roundtable: Violated" on ESPN this week. Compelling stuff. Male coach touches young girl in wrong places. Girl comes forth, coach goes to prison. Another coach does same, gets hired at another gym while awaiting trial for felonies.

USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny was in a no-win situation as he answered questions, on camera, from an ESPN journalist. How could USA Gymnastics allow its banner to hang in these gyms? Why does USAG's background check only screen for felonies? Why can't USA Gymnastics ensure purity in every last coach at the thousands of gyms across 50 states and also make sure they all show up for work on time and never say a cross word to their budding gymnasts?

That USA Gymnastics is responsible for the individual hiring practices of every member club is ludicrous. I'm not questioning the veracity of the cases brought to light here. The alleged actions of these gymnastics instructors make my stomach turn. But to report that this behavior is exclusive to gymnastics is off the mark.

This ESPN piece was really about life. You could replace the word gymnastics with any youth activity — softball, swimming, church youth group, Boy Scouts — and produce the same story. Heck, right before I had switched channels to ESPN, I watched Pope Benedict decry pedofile priests.

That said, if gymnastics is generally perceived as a breeding ground for inappropriate behavior between adults and minors, all the hugging that goes on during competitions isn't helping. If you watch any women's meet on TV in the U.S. you will see more hugs than actual routines. After every dismount, a female gymnast must endure a receiving line of hugs from coaches and teammates before she can finally sit down and relax. And the majority of these hugs rarely celebrate anything extraordinary, as they should. What's difficult to watch is that a young girl rarely hugs back when it's her male coach's embrace.

These superficial hugs might be a coach's way of trying to show he's a nice guy, or that the coach-gymnast relationship is healthy, or a way to get on camera. Or the coach might really love his gymnast, but in a platonic way. But these excessive, emotionless embraces really should be replaced with high-fives or a simple pat on the back. Something sincere. Save the hug for winning the Olympics, or something. Hugs in gymnastics (or in any sport) should be spontaneous.

Gymnastics is not perfect, but it is good in many ways. Bad things simply happen in all areas of life. After I watched ESPN's show, I too felt violated.

Written by Dwight Normile    Thursday, 10 April 2008 06:11    PDF Print
Random thoughts on the gymnastics world
European Championships: Romania proved its superiority within European borders last week, but its winning total of 181.525 is still well shy of challenging for anything brighter than bronze at the Beijing Olympics. The U.S. won the 2007 World Championships with 184.400, with China second at 183.450.

Still, Romanian gymnasts should be highly motivated in August, since any Romanian Olympic champion will earn a bonus of 100,000 euros, plus a car. And if that’s not incentive enough, the women’s gymnastics team was recently proclaimed “our great hope for Olympic Games” by Traian Basescu, president of Romania.

Though a Romanian team victory in Beijing seems unlikely, we shouldn’t forget that this relatively small nation found a way to win the women’s team title at Athens 2004 over the U.S., which was world champion at the time.

United States: How deep is the U.S. women’s team right now? When the final six are chosen to compete in Beijing, the Olympic team could include four world champions who combined have won eight individual world titles: Nastia Liukin (3); Shawn Johnson (2); Chellsie Memmel (2); and Alicia Sacramone (1).

Olympic Wild Cards: The Olympic Creed states that “the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part,” which is a noble thought. And I agree. So when Nashwan Al-Hazari (Yemen) and Di Thi Ngan Thuong (Vietnam) received the final two berths to the Beijing Olympics, I understood that certain criteria factored into the selection process (geographical representation being one of them).

That said, I can only wonder how Greece’s Dimosthenis Tambakos received the men’s wild card to the 2004 Athens Olympics, since Greece already was represented by two-time high bar world champion Vlasios Maras.

When FIG Men’s Technical Committee President Adrian Stoica was asked in 2004 about a perceived home advantage for Tambakos, who won the Olympic gold on rings, he told IG, “Maybe the home advantage was set in the moment of the allocation of the wild cards!”

For the record, the women’s wild card in 2004 went to Bolivia’s Maria Jose de la Fuente, who placed 61st in Athens. That was special, because Bolivia isn’t exactly a hotbed for any sport other than soccer.

Gymnastics crowd at Utah
Is this seat taken? The University of Utah drew 15,447 spectators for its March 28 dual meet in Salt Lake City. It was the largest crowd in NCAA gymnastics history, and all the more impressive because it was not against a top team. The seats were overflowing (official seating capacity is 15,000 at the Huntsman Center) because of Senior Night, and the frenzied fans watched their beloved Utes defeat 29th-ranked BYU, 197.100-193.850.

Utah senior Ashley Postell, who has placed second all-around to Georgia’s Courtney Kupets at the NCAAs the last two years, is the top-ranked all-arounder for 2008. With Kupets out with a torn Achilles’ tendon, the title is Postell’s to win or lose. “I do think she’s the best all-around gymnast in college this year,” says Utes coach Greg Marsden of Postell, who is also ranked first on vault and beam. “But she has to have a great meet, because there are many good [gymnasts]. Anything can happen.”

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