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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by dwight normile    Monday, 20 January 2014 14:09    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Men's NCAA Gymnastics Needs the 10.0 More Than Ever
(14 votes, average 3.79 out of 5)

If the decision to drop the Temple men's gymnastics team after the 2014 season is not overturned, men's NCAA gymnastics will comprise a not-so-sweet 16 teams. And since only a handful of those programs have the maximum 6.3 scholarships, there are large talent gaps within a very short list. The result? Too many dual meets throughout the regular season are more predictable than San Diego weather.

But since the men's coaches voted several years ago to ditch the 10.0 in favor of FIG scoring, the margins of victory have created another problem. Unlike women's NCAA gymnastics, where upsets are an interesting part of the 10.0, watered-down formula, few men's dual meets are decided by tenths of a point.

Last weekend Oklahoma defeated Air Force, 440.700-412.200. Stanford downed Bay Area Rival Cal, 435.200-426.350. Penn State topped the West Point Open by more than 10 points. The only close result was Michigan's 437.500-436.050 victory over Illinois and Ohio State (tied for second) at the Windy City Invite. Granted, the Wolverines did not have Sam Mikulak in the lineup. Host Illinois-Chicago finished sixth, 42 points behind the winner. UIC will travel to Ann Arbor to face Michigan in a dual meet in March. Can the Flames, who probably train just as long and hard as any team, improve 42 points in two months and torch the Wolverines?

Men's NCAA coaches opted for the FIG rules to help the international effort of the U.S. But that decision actually applies to an extremely small percentage of the approximate 300 competitors among the 17 college teams. Throw in the bad public relations of the weaker teams getting clobbered by the fully-funded ones, and it becomes evident that the current NCAA men's rules are serving less than half of the remaining programs. For the bottom half of the ranking list, it's like playing against your older brother; you can never win.

The theory that Olympic-caliber collegiate gymnasts such as Mikulak would suffer under a simpler system is unfounded. But it certainly would limit the wear-and-tear throughout an exhausting January-to-April season. U.S. championships are in August, the worlds in October. Is that not long enough to train a harder version of each routine?

Men's NCAA gymnastics must redefine itself through inclusivity. Illinois coach Justin Spring tried to just that last season with a match-play dual meet against Minnesota. But he had a hard time convincing many of his coaching colleagues to rally behind it. If match play is not the answer, then a return to the 10.0—and easier routines—would level the playing field.

If every team had the ability to score the occasional 10.0, meets would inherently become more competitive and interesting. Maybe spectators would see an upset. Maybe gymnasts would see fewer injuries. Maybe the Air Force A.D. would form a different opinion of the Falcon gymnastics team if it lost to the Sooners by 2.85 instead of 28.50.

It is obvious that men's NCAA gymnastics needs to retain every program it can. And one way to ensure that is to give every team a fighting chance. Simpler routines and a return to the 10.0. That's the way to go with so few teams remaining.



Written by dwight normile    Tuesday, 31 December 2013 13:00    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Memorable Quotes from IG in 2013
(13 votes, average 3.54 out of 5)

The dawn of a new year also means the dusk of the current one, which for many people is a time to rewind and reflect. But instead of summarizing the obvious gymnastics highlights of the last 12 months, we've instead selected quotes from the previous 10 issues of International Gymnast. As a collection, they range from candid to controversial, pithy to proverbial, honest to humorous. So as Jan. 1, 2014, nears, we hereby present the following nuggets from the 528 IG pages of 2013.


McKayla Maroney: On not doing an easier second vault in the Olympic final

"[My coach] talked to me about that the day before. He was like, 'Do you want to do the half? You have a broken toe and a fractured shin, and you're going to win the gold medal if you just do the half, and do it the best you can.' I told him, 'No, I want to do the full, the vault that I can do.' That's the vault I was training for. I have no regrets over that. I'm not a watering-down kind of person. I do what I train for."

Donna Strauss: On Elizabeth Price, who had won World Cups in Stuttgart and Glasgow

"It took a while for her to really believe that she was as good as she is."

Mihai Brestyan: On why Aly Raisman did not do her usual punch front after her Arabian double front in the Olympic all-around final (she tied for third but was bumped to fourth in a tie-breaker)

"It's a tactical decision, and you look, 'How much do I get if I do it, how much do I lose if I don't?' And because you are under stress [competing] by yourself, you are under stress in the last event, you take into consideration not to take the risk. Because you can fall from second or third place to 20th place. And I decided not to do it to keep her more mentally calm to finish that routine in the best shape."


Larisa Iordache: On her performance at the Olympics, and if she was frustrated

"I was practically competing on one leg [from injury]. I also ripped my palm during warm-up, right before the competition. How do you think I felt? Frustration is not enough to describe it."

Octavian Bellu: On Iordache

"Larisa went through a maturation phase at the Olympic Games. Despite all of her injuries, she did not give up competing for the team, and individually, as well. From a psychologic point of view, I think this situation toughened her up and prepared her not only for upcoming competitions, but also for life."

Elvira Saadi: On Victoria Moors, after she won the Nadia Comaneci International

"After the Olympics she [took] time off, her back was sore, and now she's slowly coming back. I want to see her hungry again."


Simone Biles: On her planned floor tumbling for 2013

"I have to get my endurance up, but hopefully by worlds, my first pass will still be a double-double, and then a double lay full-out, a full and a half to full-in, and then a double piked Arabian."

Bruno Grandi: On the integrity of judging

"The individuals cheating have yet to grasp the fact that they are sabotaging their own sport. Theirs is a blatant lack of vision and the repercussions are enormous, especially with regard to public opinion. The public won't be taken for fools."

Eddie Van Hoof, (British men's national coach): On the success of the British men's program

"There could be no passengers on our journey. Complacency was not acceptable. We were now expecting results, not hoping for them."


Gene Wettstone: (former Penn State coach) During an IG interview at age 99

"I'm so glad to be able to talk to you, because this may be the last interview of my life [laughs softly]." (He died on July 30, 15 days after his 100th birthday.)

Randy Jepson, Penn State coach: On NCAA team finals

"It's the worst day to have your worst day ... And we did."

Rhonda Faehn, Florida coach: After Florida won its first NCAA team title

"It has been tough the last few years because there has been a lot of scrutiny in the media why ... we haven't won. This year we shut down everything, shut down Twitter and all the social media [so we could] just focus on what our goal is ... and just quiet the outside."

Bailie Key: On her Texas Dreams coaches

"Chris (Burdette) is really funny; he's a big jokester. Kim (Zmeskal-Burdette) is funny too, but she means business."


Lyubov Burda: In her International Gymnastics Hall of Fame acceptance speech

"Gymnastics was always an essential part of my life. For 50 years we have been walking hand-in-hand together through life."

Yuri Korolyov: On his expectations for the 1985 worlds after defending champion Dmitry Bilozerchev broke his leg prior to the competition

"Before he got injured he wasn't even on the team that would compete at the world championships. He was an alternate."

Brinn Bevan, British junior: In a "Shooting Star" profile

"Gymnastics is my life. I believe that is what I was born to do. I love it. It's a good party trick."


Sam Mikulak: On why he did not do the post-Olympic tour

"If we had won the team gold medal, it might have been worth it to take the money ... One of my goals here at Michigan [was] to win a team championship ... I would have felt badly if I left them before we reached that goal."

David Belyavsky: On his potential

"I think there is no limit to my possibilities. Time will tell!"

Ellie Black: On tumbling

"When I was younger I had trouble controlling my power ... Now I prefer to tumble from a hurdle rather than a big run. That is also why I have many combinations ... in my routines. But for vault, I like going fast!"


Simone Biles: On hearing from Marta Karolyi by phone her after her poor performance at the U.S. Classic

"I was freaking out at first and was so scared. I thought, Am I in trouble?"

Kurt Golder, Michigan coach: On Sam Mikulak in practice

"He has the perfect balance. He has the right level of intensity; he knows when to turn it on and how to turn it on. But he's just what you see out in competition, where he's having fun."

Naoya Tsukahara: On advice from his parents as he competes for Australia at age 36

"The main advice I continue to receive from my mother and father is to have fun!"


Kyle Shewfelt: On his role at the new gym he opened in Calgary

"I will be owner, manager and chief high-fiver!"

Maggie Haney: On her gymnasts' excellent presentation on floor exercise

"A floor routine is supposed to be entertainment. Gymnasts are not allowed to relax in the middle of their bar routines or beam routines, so they shouldn't be able to relax in the middle of their floor routines, either."

Lauren Hernandez: On whether her strong dance is natural or trained

"I think it's natural, but I'm Puerto Rican, so I love to dance! Which doesn't mean anybody else doesn't want to dance, but c'mon, guys [giggles]."


Aimee Boorman: On coaching Simone Biles

"It has really taken some nurturing of her emotionally to get her to realize that she is great."

Fabian Hambüchen: On placing second on high bar to Epke Zonderland at worlds

"I think the difficulty and the spectacular style is always very impressive for the judges. I think this is the big problem in gymnastics, or in sports in general. They want you to take more risk ... but how you do it is not that important ... I was very happy when Epke said that they should have put both of us in first place!"


Vanessa Ferrari: On the balance beam final at worlds

"I think that the D-scores were a little bit strict for all the gymnasts; I had 0.3 lower than expected, for example. After the inquiries of the U.S. gymnasts were accepted, I think that my D-score should also have been re-evaluated if we wanted to be correct."

Steve Hug, 1968 and ’72 U.S. Olympian: On competing

"It wasn't about beating the other guy; it was about a great performance."

Fred Turoff: On what he's most proud of coaching at Temple University

"Countering the attempt to drop our program [in 1994] is certainly a source of pride, but more so it's having success team-wise plus graduating the great majority of gymnasts who joined my program. Seeing them become successful tells me we did well by them here. I'm fortunate that I've been able to work at something I greatly enjoy, and have never felt I didn't want to go into the gym." (Shortly after this interview, Turoff learned that men's gymnastics and six other Temple sports would be dropped after the 2014 season.)

Written by dwight normile    Friday, 25 October 2013 12:50    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Is It Time to Drop the 2-Per-Country Rule?
(17 votes, average 3.53 out of 5)

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Japanese trio of Sawao Kato, Eizo Kenmotsu and Akinori Nakayama swept the all-around medals (pictured here), and their teammates Shigeru Kasamatsu, Mitsuo Tsukahara and Teruichi Okamura placed fifth, eighth and 11th, respectively.

Japan also swept the medals on parallel bars and high bar. On the latter, Japan occupied places 1 through 5, with Nikolai Andrianov of the USSR placing sixth. (Six gymnasts made finals back then.) Yes, Japan was that good. Since 1972 was the last Olympics to feature the highest-scoring gymnasts in the finals, its medalists really earned their hardware.

The current finals rule of two-per-country was implemented incrementally. The 1974 Varna worlds had no limit for the all-around, but only two gymnasts per country could compete in event finals. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the limits were three for the all-around and two for events. When the all-around field was trimmed to 24 at the 2003 Anaheim worlds (it used to be 36, then 32 in 2001), the limit decreased to two gymnasts per country. Ouch!

Even if I don't agree, I can understand the limit of two for apparatus finals. But two per country in the all-around is too severe, especially at a time when all-arounders are a shrinking population. At the London Olympics, for example, only three men's teams had more than two all-arounders. Two-time world all-around silver medalist Philipp Boy was among those who got bumped. Of the 12 women's teams, six had three all-arounders, and six had two. 2011 world champion Jordyn Wieber was eliminated.

The individual all-around used to be the centerpiece of a major championship. Eliminating potential gold medalists, such as Boy and Wieber, tarnishes that title. Giving Wieber's spot to the 25th-ranked gymnast doesn't make much sense, unless that person has a legitimate shot at winning. So the question is, Should the worlds and Olympics be real championships, or are they merely participation sports? (Think kids' T-ball, where everyone gets a trophy.)

After the conclusion of the Antwerp world championships, I asked FIG Women's Technical Committee President Nellie Kim if it was time to abolish the two-gymnasts-per-country limit for individual finals at worlds and Olympics. She said she would like to see it go, but that it was up to the FIG Executive Committee. Her hands are tied.

I applaud the FIG's mission to globalize the sport. I appreciate that if a gymnast from the Dominican Republic qualifies for an event final, gymnastics might grow in that Caribbean nation. I understand that the FIG wants to increase its membership and provide competitive opportunities.

The FIG Executive Committee can keep the two-gymnast limit for event finals, but it should return to three gymnasts per country in the all-around faster than a Kenzo Shirai quad. Do it for the fans, do it for the integrity of the competition, and do it for the gymnasts who deserve the opportunity to realize their dreams.

Written by dwight normile    Saturday, 17 August 2013 07:28    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Ross and Biles, Tortoise and Hare
(7 votes, average 3.71 out of 5)

While the P&G Championships in Hartford, Conn., may not be a fable, the senior women's all-around race could certainly end like one tonight. Sprinting to the first-day lead was Simone Biles, the energized first-year senior from Bannon's Gymnastix. She's so gifted that the job of her coaches, Aimee Boorman and Luis Brasesco, is to figure out which amazing tricks not to do. Sitting calmly in second is the even-keeled Kyla Ross, whose Gym-Max coaches Howie Liang and Jenny Zhang have always been cautious when choosing routines for their star. Biles watered down on Thursday, while Ross treaded water with virtually the same difficulty from a year ago. A Biles-Ross duel is the jitterbug versus the waltz.

Biles, 16, carries a .75 advantage over Ross heading into tonight's final. It's a considerable margin, yes, but also less than a fall. On Thursday, she carried a 24.30-23.70 edge in D-score. That is likely to remain close to the same. The meet will  be determined by the E-scores, and that's where Ross, also 16, coughed up points Thursday.

The most critical intangible between the two is experience, not to mention the respective amounts of sleep each got the past two nights. Ross, a two-time junior champion and Olympic gold medalist, probably slept like a baby. And Biles? She placed third in the juniors in 2012 and has had two full days to wonder if she'll be the new senior national champion. With pressure like that, her difficult routines become even harder.

Still, you have to like Biles' chances because she does so many things well: a booming Amanar vault that outscored McKayla Maroney's the other night; a tucked full-in off beam that doesn't barely get around (she drops out of it); and her tumbling on floor is impressive for its difficulty and also for the fact that she takes only a few steps into her hurdles. Smart coaching. And if you're looking for a weak event, her 14.75 on bars was third-best of the field. She's an all-arounder, all right, and could be a factor at the upcoming worlds in Antwerp.

It wouldn't surprise if Ross comes out on top either. Have you ever seen her panic? Have you ever seen her fall? She definitely has less risk than Biles in going four-for-four. And though her routines may lack that did-you-see-what-she-just-did!? moment, she executes them with a calm, methodical confidence that usually yields impressive E-scores.

Tonight should be interesting. Ross may be trailing Biles at the midway point, but the race is far from finished. And when it's over, we will learn which prevailed: experience or potential. The tortoise or the hare.

Written by dwight normile    Tuesday, 29 January 2013 09:12    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Alicia Sacramone's Wonderful, Wild Ride
(25 votes, average 4.00 out of 5)

I still remember the scene in Nashville, Tenn., in June 2004. The U.S. championships had just concluded, and a few reporters were interviewing a deflated Mihai and Silvia Brestyan in the mixed zone, just outside the main arena. Parkettes coach Donna Strauss walked by, patted Mihai on the shoulder and said with an empathetic smile, "Don't worry, she's a good kid."

The Brestyans' kid was a 16-year-old Alicia Sacramone, whose 19th-place finish meant no invite to the Olympic trials. Her scores, like her personality, had been all over the place: 9.525 on vault, 7.25 on bars, 8.55 on beam (followed by a 9.425 on day two), an 8.875 on floor (with a 9.60 on day two!).

Impossibly gifted, Sacramone still had been a long shot to make the 2004 Olympic team. But by December of that year, she had uncovered a ruthless competitive instinct.

Sacramone (shown here with her gold on vault at the 2010 worlds) had earned a wild-card spot to the 2004 World Cup Final in Birmingham, England. Having just turned 17 on Dec. 3, this wild gymnast from Boston won the gold medal on vault. Standing below her on the medal podium was gymnastics royalty: Monica Rosu of Romania and Anna Pavlova of Russia, the 2004 Olympic gold and bronze medalists on vault; Russia's Yelena Zamolodchikova, the 2000 Olympic vault champion; and China's Cheng Fei, who would win the event at the next two worlds!

In 2004, I asked her if she had been intimidated while competing among such company.

"The first day I was a little freaked out," she said. "But I pulled myself together and calmed down. But yeah, it was a little intimidating."

Yesterday I spoke with Marta Karolyi, U.S. national team coordinator, who remembers that World Cup.

"That was the moment when I saw a turnaround in her ability to compete well," she said. "Her confidence level just grew."

Sacramone achieved her goal of making the 2005 world championships in Melbourne, Australia, where she won the gold on floor exercise and bronze on vault. She became a mainstay on U.S. world teams in the following years, missing only 2009 because of temporary retirement. Her medal tally kept growing.

At the Tokyo worlds in 2011, she won her 10th world medal, a record for USA Gymnastics. Ironically, Sacramone wasn't actually in Tokyo for the medal ceremony, nor did she compete. She had ruptured an Achilles' tendon on the eve of the competition and flown home to have surgery. Her name, however, remained on the official roster.

"Alicia showed all the dedication, so we all said that she deserves her name to be kept on the team," Karolyi said. "She served many years and fought for the results for USA, so everybody was in agreement."


While Sacramone's retirement announcement today is not surprising, it is at least a prerequisite to another comeback; you can't have one without the other. And though my prediction record in such cases is awful, I have to believe this one's for keeps. I saw it in her cautious eyes last year in both St. Louis (Visas) and San Jose (trials), where she nailed her vaults and balance beam routines and aced her interviews afterward.

Clinging to slim hopes of making her second Olympic team, Sacramone, 24, was all business before the selection committee, a model of professionalism in front of the media. I think part of her knew her career was coming to an end, even though her physical comeback had been remarkably complete. She had successfully rehabbed her torn Achilles' tendon in less than a year.

But while Sacramone regained the fitness that had won her the 2010 world title on vault, the rest of the senior team had zoomed past her on that event. Everybody was doing Amanars, it seemed, and uneven bars, the event from which Sacramone had long retired, was where the team would need reserves. With Sacramone's strengths no longer needed, she was not named an alternate to the 2012 Olympic team.

"We had so many good vaulters on the team that that wasn't the component that we felt that the team will need, so that was really the reason why we chose the alternates [that we did]," Karolyi said. "If anything happened to the team, we would need somebody who could jump in on bars and beam."

Given Sacramone's trouble on beam at the Beijing Olympics, it's probably better she wasn't put in that pressure situation again in London. Now she can at least retire knowing she hit her final four routines on that precarious apparatus.

"Certainly in 2008 at the Olympics, she had a little relapse of her consistency level, but she still kept her ambition and came back and proved herself in the following years," Karolyi said.

Asked how she will remember Sacramone years from now, Karolyi laughed softly: "I just loved her from the beginning. As a little girl, she was just so much fun. I will remember her as a fighter, as a person who loved the sport and as a person who always wanted to raise the level of U.S. gymnastics. Even with the little mishaps she had through her career, I will always remember her as one of our toughest gymnasts and one person who was very fun to work with."


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