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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by dwight normile    Saturday, 30 June 2012 09:31    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Leyva, Horton and the 1984 Dream Team
(4 votes, average 4.00 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
(9 votes, average 3.67 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.

 
Written by dwight normile    Friday, 08 June 2012 11:11    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Much to Like about Mikulak
(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

In my Visa championships preview yesterday I was remiss to leave out Sam Mikulak as a contender should the front-runners falter in the senior men's division. (And yes, I know that's not him in our Visas graphic.) I really like his gymnastics. He's got tricks, originality, form, amplitude and style. He's also a bit quirky, but in a good way.

Mikulak, who just finished his sophomore year at Michigan, still has to develop another skill: damage control. His fall on his triple twist floor dismount in prelims was catastrophic in terms of maintaining touch with the leaders. It appeared as if he could have saved the landing with a big step, but maybe his heavily taped ankles prevent a certain feel for the ground. After all, he broke both of them last summer at the Puerto Rico Cup in a routine that started with a successful triple-double.

In St. Louis, he planted the best Lopez vault (Kasamatsu-double twist, 7.0) I have seen him do this year. He seemed fit and ready to establish himself as a top contender.

The son of two former Cal-Berkeley gymnasts (Sam says he considered Cal but was unsure if its program would be dropped), Mikulak is without doubt one of the most balanced all-around gymnasts in the U.S. right now. And that's also his downfall when it comes to a five-member team selection. He doesn't have that one big score, and his strengths don't really match the U.S. team's weaknesses (rings and pommels). He's pretty good on pommels, but rings is his weak event.

I still think Mikulak could help the 2012 Olympic team, but an alternate role is a more likely fate for this former SCATS gymnast. He is still young and has plenty of untapped potential. But potential refers more to the future than the present.

Mikulak needs to show consistency now. And if he does run into a little trouble in a routine, or on a dismount, he needs to continue competing. And that will come with more experience.

Regardless of his outcome in St. Louis, Mikulak is sure to become a fan favorite before long. His natural talent is undeniable, and his gymnastics is really fun to watch.

 
Written by dwight normile    Friday, 01 June 2012 10:23    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Friday Roundup, Including New Skills, Compulsories and Memmel
(11 votes, average 4.27 out of 5)

With all the creative videos on YouTube for iconic individuals, spectacular crashes or, more recently, the ultimate gymnastics routine, I got to thinking about tricks I'd like to see regardless of how they would fit with the Code.

Steven Legendre, Chris Brooks or Matthias Fahrig on floor: Punch double front step-out to handspring- or roundoff-whatever. And while we're on the subject of multiple front somersaults, how about a front-1-3/4 roll-out to tucked front? Just because a skill doesn't add tenths doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. It certainly didn't stop Kyle Shewfelt from winning Olympic gold.

Aliya Mustafina, Viktoria Komova or Beth Tweddle on uneven bars: Each of these gymnasts is excellent with the Shaposhnikova-half variation, but instead of following it with a kip, I'd love to see a Zuchold (jam hop to handstand back to the low bar). That skill was a lot more common when the bars were closer, so it would be more difficult today, but not impossible.

And while we're on the subject of Shaposhnikovas, I am still amazed that no deduction is incurred when a gymnast does nothing on the backswing of this skill.

Double-double off uneven bars: The layout double-double off high bar is the dismount of choice for men, but it is rare off uneven bars (named after Elise Ray), simply because women get less air time. So most women try it in an open tuck position, which presents its own challenges, especially for gymnasts who have been competing a tucked full-out (Tweddle, Komova, Katelyn Ohashi). It is really difficult to complete the double twist if it is initiated after the first somersault is completed. The tuck position makes it even harder, since it slows the twist but increases the somersault rotation. Elise Ray and Shawn Johnson both did the skill in the layout position.

Compulsories: I miss them … dearly. It's not that I don't enjoy difficult skills and combinations, but rather that I also love to see simple skills taken to the ultimate in execution. A handspring-tucked front vault kicked out super early and stuck cold. A delayed tuck back on floor that seems to hang in the air. A hecht off high bar that soars eight feet above the bar. How often do we see amplitude and supreme execution in today's optionals?

Compulsories also were the perfect warm-up for optionals at worlds and Olympics. I recently asked FIG Women's Technical Committee Nellie Kim about the elimination of compulsories after the 1996 Olympics.

"I was against cancellation of compulsory exercises," she told me. "I even spoke at Symposium. I tried to defend compulsories."

Maybe with new leadership in the FIG, there will be hope for their return?

Cheating: It's always interesting to read FIG President Bruno Grandi's remarks on cleaning up the sport. In his May Letter From the President, he wrote: "The vast majority of our judging panels have embraced our best practices. Only a few ignorant individuals, trapped within the parochial mesh of their national flags, continue to resist change and pursue this dead end."

Right after I read this I watched the top three vaulters at the recent Men's Europeans, and even though there were no Romanian judges on the panel for event finals, I could only smile/frown at the final ranking: 1) Flavius Koczi (ROU) 16.116; 2) Igor Radivilov (UKR) 16.066; 3) Denis Ablyazin (RUS) 16.062.

Among this trio on that day, Koczi was simply a boy among men. The main criteria for judging vault are height and distance. Besides the fact that Koczi does two similar vaults (Kasamatsu-double twist; handspring-randi, both 7.0), his first vault landed extremely close to the vault table. His second vault traveled a bit farther, but had a straddled pre-flight to help initiate the twist and his form was loose throughout. Judges seem to evaluate the landing only, like a diver's splash.

Ablyazin vaulted a piked double Tsukahara (7.0) and a roundoff half-on to handspring-randi (7.2). Both of his vaults were better than both of Koczi's. (The Kasamatsu-double twist is probably over-valued compared with the 7.0-double somersault vaults.)

Radivilov threw the highest Dragulescu I've ever seen, kicking into the half turn sooner than even Dragulescu himself. Then he did a piked double Tsukahara. Even with steps on the landings, his vaults also were better than Koczi based on his height and distance. Pick your winner between Ablyazin and Radivilov, but the judges had no business placing Koczi above either.

Memmel's Magic: That was the title of the story we ran on Chellsie Memmel in our November 2002 issue. A year later she was receiving the loudest cheers in the Anaheim Pond for her heroics at the world championships. After winning Pan Ams, she was flown in as a fill-in for a U.S. women's team that was snapping ligaments and tendons with regularity. Turns out she was the most clutch competitor on that team, leading the Americans to their first world team gold. But this is old news.

Even though Memmel placed eighth at the 2011 Visa championships (and with an aborted bars routine on day two), I don't think she had a chance of making the 2012 Olympic team. But I do believe her presence at Visa championships, which was denied by U.S. national team coordinator Marta Karolyi, would have been a win-win for Memmel and USA Gymnastics. No, she didn't score at least a 14.00 on beam at the U.S. Classic, but since when has the U.S. Olympic women's team ever been selected solely by scores?

Few emotions are as intense as a parent's protective love for his children, so I can understand the pain Andy Memmel must be feeling right now.

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Saturday, 17 March 2012 14:26    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Figuring Out Gabby
(5 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Don't write off Gabrielle Douglas just yet. The sweet 16-year-old handled herself well yesterday considering how quickly her day went wrong. Her uneven bars routine, on the other hand, was a meet highlight. And that event alone may be her saving grace when it comes time to choose five gymnasts at the Olympic trials this summer. The U.S. needs at least three strong routines on uneven bars, and Douglas may be the best of the bunch.

Still very young, Douglas and is both blessed and cursed by her fast-twitch physique. Her amplitude in competition seems ramped up compared with warm-ups, and she's aware of that. Yesterday she appeared to be trying a little too hard, perhaps.

"When we compete we get a little stronger, a little more energy, and we have to learn how to control that," she said.

U.S. National Team Coordinator Marta Karolyi certainly wasn't pleased with Douglas's mishaps yesterday, but she's probably willing to give her a pass at this point. Having seen her in numerous training camps, she knows what Douglas can do.

"Most of the girls lived up to their expectations, and even when there were some mistakes, we're learning from them, and this is the time you have to do that," she said. And regarding Douglas, in particular, she added, "She is one of those gymnasts who has to be 100 percent sure that she is able to handle everything we throw in her basket, and I think it was too much in her basket this time (laughs)…

"And [Liang Chow] also needs to learn more about her personality … and sometimes doing a little bit less but doing it very clean and confidently is a better thing. But this is the time when we try out [new routines]."

Chow told me after the American Cup that he had to choose which strategy to take concerning the upgrade of Douglas's routines. When you're working with a physical talent like Douglas, you have many choices. One of them will not involve learning a second vault, Chow said. He wants to develop her all-around potential right now. A second vault can come later in her career.

But after the Pacific Rim team competition, Chow realizes there still is more work to do.

"Obviously, there is a problem," he told IG. "And it's good to see the problem at this early stage. Either technique or mental or both, it's good to see the issues [now] so we can fix them a little later."

The U.S. Classic in May will likely be Douglas's next meet. And after that, Visa championships and Olympic trials will provide plenty of chances for Douglas to prove herself once again.

"We've got a little time off," Chow said. "[We will] just try to be a little more precise working on technique and also some good consistency numbers."

Yes, the Pacific Rim team event was discouraging for Douglas. It sapped much of the confidence she gained at the American Cup, and now Chow has to rethink his plan a bit. But again, it's too soon to make any snap decisions with London 2012 in mind. Yesterday was just one meet, and tomorrow is another day.

 


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