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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

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."

Written by dwight normile    Monday, 31 December 2012 14:08    PDF Print
Stretching Out: The Year In Review, From A to Z
(17 votes, average 3.71 out of 5)

As 2012 comes to a close, it's time to reflect on the past 12 months in gymnastics. It's definitely been filled with inspiration, weirdness and heartbreak. Following is a summary of the year, from A to Z.

A - Alexander & Aliya: Created by circumstance, Alexandrov's dual role as Russian head coach and personal trainer to Mustafina resulted in the Olympic team silver and three medals for Aliya (bars gold, bronze in all-around and on floor), and later a reduction of duties. So much for success.

B - Butcher: Always upbeat, Steve Butcher ran away with the MTC President election over incumbent Adrian Stoica. Let's hope the job doesn't wipe the smile off his face.

C - Chusovitina: Making the vault final in her sixth Olympics says it all for Oksana. Runner-up: Canada, for working to potential for fifth in the women's team final without its star, Peng Peng Lee.

D - Douglas: Gabby pulled off the improbable in London. Even though her memoir came out in December, her story is just beginning.

E - Exhibition: Gabby's unofficial win at the American Cup as an exhibition gymnast was a first for national TV. Runner-up: Excalibur, for making the news as Gabby's former club, which denied her charges of racism.

F - Fierce Five: The U.S. women's team won Olympic gold by more than 5.0. Enough said.

G - Great Britain: With the fourth-highest medal total (4) in gymnastics, the Brits, especially the men, were royally satisfied at the Olympics.

H - The highest-rated skill: The FIG added an H category to the difficulty tables of the Code of Points (which will go into effect in 2013). Runner-up: Kytra Hunter, for winning Florida's first NCAA women's all-around title.

I - Illinois: The Fighting Illini beat the odds in winning the NCAA men's title, having dismissed a top scorer from the squad and upsetting favorite Oklahoma in Norman.

J - Jovtchev: Like Chusovitina, Jovtchev made a final in London (rings). Since 1996, his record in Olympic rings finals: 4th, 3rd, 2nd*, 8th, 7th. (He did not make the final in 1992.) *He was the people's champion in 2004, if not the judges'.

K - Kellogg's: With the success of American gymnastics, the cereal-making sponsor is surely eating it up.

L - Leyva: Danell's all-around bronze and lucky towel — or maybe it's the other way around — combined to make him one of the most intriguing gymnasts of the year.

M - Maroney: Her two-second smirk made her famous. Question is, Can she top it?

N - Nguyen: During the Uchimura era, silver medals seem like gold, and all-around runner-up Marcel is reaping the rewards in Germany.

O - Orozco: Up and down — and now out with a torn ACL — the U.S. national champ has made quite an impact between major injuries.

P - Price: Elizabeth's two lopsided World Cup wins at the end of the year should kickstart her 2013.

Q - Qiao: OK, Q's are tough, so we're using the Chinese spelling of Chow Liang's name. But his transformation of Gabby Douglas (along with help from wife Liwen Zhuang) makes him coach of the year.

R - Raisman: Aly definitely got it done in 2012, and proved that hard work and consistency are a potent combination.

S - Shawn: Johnson's DWTS silver kept her in the news, and overshadowed her retirement announcement in St. Louis (another S) at the Visa championships. Now what? Stanford?

T - Tie-breakers: Of the infuriating tie-breakers that tarnished the London Games, the worst was that which bumped Ukraine out of the men's team medals.

U - Uchimura: His Olympic gold in London completed an all-around sweep of the quadrennium, and with room to spare. Factoid: From 2009-12, he won one apparatus gold (floor, 2011).

V - Visa: OK, we're struggling here, but Visa has become synonymous with U.S. gymnastics competitions. Or maybe Vanessa Ferrari is a legitimate choice for her impressive form, six years after winning worlds.

W - Wieber: It's not easy to meet expectations, and even harder to be humbled on global television. But Jordyn bounced back as a role model for attitude.

X - X-rays: Sadly, the sport continues to create its share of injuries. But the sport of gymnastics is one huge family. Visit the "Get well Jacoby Miles" Facebook page when you get a chance.

Y - Yang Hak Seon: The Korean teen dominated vault in London with his own creation: handspring-front with triple twist (7.4). His second vault, a Lopez (Kasamatsu-double twist), might have been the best ever.

Z - Zonderland: Epke had certainly paid his dues on high bar, so it was only fitting that he achieved his biggest title in one of the most thrilling apparatus finals in history.

Happy New Year.

Written by dwight normile    Friday, 21 September 2012 10:45    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Analyzing an Arbitrary Tie-break Procedure
(26 votes, average 2.46 out of 5)

The chalk has settled, gym enrollments are booming, and the Fierce Five — who are now Four, after McKayla Maroney suffered a broken leg — are touring the land and soaking up the love they earned with their Olympic success. So while the rest of the gymnastics world rejuvenates, here are a few thoughts on the past few months.


Those pesky tied results in London really threw a wrench into things, didn't they? Just think about how happy everyone would have been had they just let the scores stand. As we reported in our pre-Olympic issue of IG, ties were indeed possible in London.

"In the past, if we would have used all possibilities to break the tie, we could have ended up with a tie anyway, even at the Olympics," said Nellie Kim, FIG-WTC President. "It just did not happen because there were (so) many steps to break the tie. And now, with the new system (for London), there may be a tie."

The tie-breaker that bugged me the most was the one between Alexandra Raisman and Aliya Mustafina, who tied for third all-around with 59.566. At its very core, the all-around is a four-event test of a gymnast's abilities; a quadrathlon (for women), if you will. Irrefutably, the women's all-around is vault, bars, beam and floor. No ifs, ands or drop-the-lowest-score-and-add-the-remaining-three. The Olympic all-around final, the most important women's individual competition that exists, suddenly became the Arthur Gander Memorial.

By adding the top three scores of Mustafina and Raisman, the all-around bronze, or at least three-quarters of it, went to the former.

My argument concerning this result has nothing to do with comparing the relative virtues of the tied gymnasts. Personally, I prefer Mustafina's style of gymnastics but respect Raisman's competitive consistency. And there certainly are two ways to look at dropping the lowest score. Mustafina was actually rewarded for bombing beam worse than Raisman did. You could even say that she got the medal because she actually fell off an apparatus, even though Raisman beat Mustafina handily on three of four events.

But Mustafina supporters can say that she also earned the highest mark, a 16.10 on bars (which was only 0.20 higher than Raisman's vault score). Her 13.633 on beam, however, was significantly lower than any of Raisman's four scores. Pick your poison.

Since it was the all-around competition, the first "step" in the tie-breaking procedure should have been obvious: Use the qualification scores to break the tie. In Competition I, Raisman ranked second with 60.391, Mustafina fifth with 59.966. Case closed.

While that is not the perfect solution — what is? — it's much more fair than giving a gymnast a mulligan on one event. You might as well pick their names out of a hat. Imagine the resulting backlash had Raisman and Mustafina tied for the gold!

Blame the IOC for pressuring the FIG to avoid ties in London. The FIG honors tied results in world championships, which is how it should be.

"The issue of how to resolve "dead-heat" situations has long given rise to debate, but the FIG has taken a firm position and chosen to adhere to the principle of equal ranking," wrote Bruno Grandi in his September "Letter from the (FIG) President."


The 2011 world vault champion has had a string of bad luck, hasn't she? She leads the U.S. team in the dubious category of being carted out of an arena this year.

The first was at Visa championships in St. Louis, where she balked on a 3.5 twist and slammed onto her back. The second was last week during the Ontario, Calif., stop of the Kellogg's Tour of Gymnastics Champions. She broke her left tibia on a layout flyaway off bars. How can anyone break their leg on a simple dismount like that? It's easy when you're performing in an unfamiliar setting with the strobe effects of laser lighting. I was surprised she was doing anything remotely challenging on bars in the first place, since it's her weak event. I would have kept it really simple — and definitely no dismounts. Who is advising this girl?

In between those two injuries, Maroney couldn't come up with the goods in the Olympic apparatus finals when she crashed her second vault. And that was under ideal lighting conditions. She had to have been the unhappiest silver medalist in London.

Back to the Kellogg's tour, Alexandra Raisman followed Maroney with her own leg(s) injury when she peeled off the same set of bars. Thank goodness they were not using a 3-up-3-count format. It looked like Raisman had to improvise on the low bar when she went the wrong way on a handstand, and was simply tired by the time she got to the Maloney. (And the bar workers had just finished a group dance number on floor.) She went for it but slipped off and landed on her belly. Her skidding knees missed the landing mat. Ouch. Fortunately, Raisman was not seriously injured.

Written by dwight normile    Saturday, 30 June 2012 09:31    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Leyva, Horton and the 1984 Dream Team
(9 votes, average 3.44 out of 5)

When Danell Leyva predicted Olympic gold for the U.S. men a few weeks ago at the Visa Championships, I chalked it up to youthful exuberance. And when Jonathan Horton echoed Leyva a few minutes later, I figured he had probably just breathed a little too much chalk. (But thanks for the quotes. guys.)

But then I got to thinking, which I sometimes forget to do. Why not? The team that will be named this weekend should be stronger than the one in 2008, when two alternates stepped in to secure the bronze in Beijing. Why can't this talented bunch of Americans pull off an upset in London? Why shouldn't they be gunning for gold? The 3-up-3-count format tears down the safety net for everybody. Any team can choke, as China and Japan have both proved in the past.

"We understand what we're up against a little more (than in 2008)," Horton said. "I don't ever want to come across as cocky, but we know we can win. … And we have to believe in that. And if we don't … then why even go?"

The U.S. men seem to be matching their improved physical ability with a new measure of confidence. Or maybe it's the other way around. Either way, you need both to succeed in any sport.

Remember 1984? Nobody gave the U.S. men much chance to win at home in Los Angeles. China had just shocked the Soviet Union with a victory at the 1983 Budapest world championships, where the U.S. finished out of the medals. Even without the Soviets in Los Angeles, the Americans still needed to get past China, which had superstars Li Ning and Tong Fei, plus four more superb talents.

Prior to those games, even U.S. head Olympic coach Abie Grossfeld told the media he thought his team would finish second.

"I thought we could beat Japan," he told me here in San Jose, implying that China would win gold.

But inspiration was brewing among Grossfeld's all-star team, which was composed of UCLA-Nebraska rivals and a three-time Olympian from Oklahoma. The Bruins were Peter Vidmar, Mitch Gaylord and Tim Daggett, the Huskers Jim Hartung and Scott Johnson. Bart Conner was the lone Sooner. At some point in their careers, all six would be national champions. The Olympic trials that produced this Super Six left a lot of talent on the sidelines, just as the 2012 version will.

During the days prior to those Olympics at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, Hartung became a believer, and then a convincer. He told his teammates, "We can beat China."

Grossfeld did a little strategizing himself. Scouting the Chinese during practice, he noticed things. And anyone who knows Grossfeld understands that he is very resourceful. He says he saw that the Chinese were doing relatively simple dismounts off rings, for example. He knew his team could do harder dismounts, and he made sure some of them did. He also helped in the confidence department, allowing guys to take a calculated risk. Gaylord responded by catching his fickle Gaylord II on high bar. No Chinese was throwing a Gaylord II.

But Hartung's words must have been infectious, because the whole team got on a roll that week in L.A. And the Chinese must have felt it, because they lost their invincibility. They made mistakes. And like Hartung had said, the U.S. beat China to win what remains the only Olympic gold for the U.S. men. Simple as that.

"If the truth were to be told, I only said what everyone was thinking — and feeling," Hartung told me yesterday. "I just happened to be a little more vocal than my teammates."

I asked Grossfeld for his version, and he didn't deny it. "If anyone rallied the team, it would have been Jim," he said.

Said Hartung, now an assistant coach for his beloved Cornhuskers: "The 1984 games almost seem like a dream to me these days. Maybe a dream come true would be more accurate."

Which brings us back to 2012, and a U.S. team of similar caliber to the one 28 years ago.

Olympic gold seemed improbable for the U.S. men in 1984, but Leyva won't let himself think that way heading to London.

"I kind of know that we're going to win, because I have to keep saying that to myself," he said. "...I have to think like that, otherwise it's not gonna happen."

I watched Hartung and his teammates pull off the Miracle on Mats in 1984, and it was really something special. But it all started with a dream and belief.

Leyva and Horton are believers already. And while that won't guarantee success in London, it will at least allow for it.

Written by dwight normile    Thursday, 14 June 2012 08:30    PDF Print
Stretching Out: This, That & the Other from Visa Championships
(14 votes, average 3.43 out of 5)

Much happened in St. Louis last weekend to clarify the U.S. Olympic team selections for both men and women. And if tickets had not already been sold for San Jose, Calif., at the end of June, a trials might not be necessary.

Here's what we do know:

The top two male all-arounders after trials will earn Olympic berths, as long as they also place in the top three on three events. In St. Louis, only Orozco satisfied the latter requirement, since he was in the top three on pommel horse, rings, parallel bars and high bar. Leyva was in the top three only on p-bars and high bar.

The top all-arounder at the women's trials will earn an Olympic berth. The women's program wasn't exactly sticking its neck out with that criterion.

Jordyn Wieber: Wieber has had an amazing run since winning her first senior U.S. title a year ago. She seems comfortable (or she hides it well) with the pressure of being the one to beat. And this is the longest she's been healthy in quite some time. She has nothing to gain at the trials.

Gabrielle Douglas: It's probably better for Douglas (shown here) that she didn't win in St. Louis. Remember what happened after she unofficially won the American Cup? Her hand missed the vaulting table on her first event at the Pacific Rim meet and she scratched two events later, after bombing beam. How do you miss the new, larger vaulting table, which was designed to prevent such mishaps? Maybe her head got too big after American Cup.

I believe Douglas has had enough ups and downs this year to finally learn from them. We'll see in two weeks. Because if she ends up winning trials, we can only wonder which part of history might repeat itself. Will it play out like the 1992 flip-flop, when Shannon Miller slipped past world champion Kim Zmeskal? Will it be 2004 revisited, when Courtney Kupets won trials but Carly Patterson rebounded to win the Olympics? Or will it be like the Shawn Johnson-Nastia Liukin duel of 2008?

The Michigan Man: In a column last week I suggested that Sam Mikulak will likely have to wait until 2016 to make the Olympics, but that was before his six-for-six effort in the finals. Earlier in the year, I saw him barely make—or miss—his Lopez vault (Kasamatsu-double twist) at three different meets. And he always seemed to make a silly mistake somewhere. I didn't think the men's selection committee, which is looking for consistency and 7.0 vaults, would take that gamble. He made both Lopezes in St. Louis with room to spare. He also went 11 for 12 and competed with flair, style and excellent form. If he repeats his performance at trials, he should be on the team.

"If you had asked me a few years ago if I had a shot at making the Olympic team, I would have been like, 'Yeah, I'm kind of focusing on 2016,'" Mikulak said in St. Louis. "But as of right now, I'm just trying to make my push as strong as possible."

Said Michigan coach Kurt Golder: "He's so well balanced. Where he helps [the team] the least is probably rings, but he can help them on the other five events. The most is probably p-bars."

Pommel Horse Specialist: Alex Naddour did only two routines at the 2011 Tokyo worlds, both on pommel horse. The U.S. won the bronze, 0.10 behind Japan and 4.038 ahead of Russia. The new five-member Olympic team might be Naddour's undoing, even though he proved himself by winning pommels in St. Louis. Yes, the U.S. needs every tenth it can get, but obviously it could have used one more in Tokyo.

"I think [the selection committee is] going to look for consistency," Naddour told me. "That's what you need on an event like pommel horse. I think I did what I needed to do."

Naddour left the U. of Oklahoma last fall and returned home to Arizona, where he's been training under his father, Mike Naddour (former coach of 2004 Olympian Jason Gatson). I asked him how that situation has been going.

"It's been working out really well," he said. "I definitely miss my friends [at Oklahoma], but you have to sacrifice sometimes, and it was something I had to do."

And how is it training with Dad? "I think when I was younger we used to butt heads a little more, but now, when he knows my goals — he knows me better than I think any other coach, really. So he can see when I'm upset about something, not to push it too much. If I need the extra push he's there for me. He kind of knows just what to say. I love him and I love having him as my coach."

Nastia's Dilemma: There are two ways to look at Nastia Liukin's situation after her performance in St. Louis, where she couldn't get through a full uneven bars routine and hit one of two cautious beam sets. 1) She has absolutely no chance to make the team; or 2) she is in position to make one of the quickest turnarounds ever.

Nastia said she was grateful for the "opportunity that Marta's (Karolyi) given me to go on to Olympic trials, and have faith in me that I can improve in three weeks."

Said Marta Karolyi: "I admire what she did [in St. Louis] but it's still not enough ... We certainly would like to have our former Olympic champion on the team, but it just will depend on what we see in a few weeks."

One way or another, San Jose will be the end of the road to London, and not just for Nastia.


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