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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by Dwight Normile    Thursday, 08 March 2012 16:11    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Reaping the Rewards of Confidence
(21 votes, average 3.95 out of 5)

When Gabrielle Douglas moved from Virginia to Iowa in October 2010, her new coach, Liang Chow, was impressed by something other than her gymnastics potential.

"I give her a lot of credit," Chow told me then. "At only 14 years old, she moved over by herself, without her mom or family."

After about 16 months with Chow, Douglas has now moved into a new level of gymnastics. While many gymnasts struggle for that little bit extra, Douglas has the rare luxury of amplitude to spare. She's flexible, light on her feet and dynamic in her swing. Oh, if only compulsories were still around.

Her 'winning' exhibition performance at the American Cup in Madison Square Garden was certainly compelling stuff, but also shouldn't be taken too seriously just yet. What we can take from her 61.299 is that it included the highest combined D-score by quite a margin (25.5: VT/6.5, UB/6.5, BB/6.5, FX/6.0).

American Cup champion Jordyn Wieber had 24.8, and runner-up Alexandra Raisman had 24.9. Those numbers are not set in stone, of course, as each of those gymnasts probably lost a connection here or there. Chow says Douglas was supposed to have a 6.1 on floor, but did not receive credit for a dance element.

With the math clearly in her favor, however, Douglas has to be considered an all-arounder contender for the 2012 Olympics. And Chow is pleased that his budding star got the chance to show her new program this early in the season.

"I was just so glad we got the opportunity to be in front of people, in front of the international judges and to demonstrate where she is after the winter training," he said. "So that was a real good testing for us, testing the new routines. And I think that also built up her confidence."

Last August, at the Visa championships, Douglas appeared to be in over her head. And at times, she was hard to watch, especially after that one balky beam routine that required three attempts to complete the dismount.

"Visas was really rough," Douglas told me. "I was just not even confident in myself, like I just wanted to give up and just not do it."

Then she regrouped and became one of the bright spots of the U.S. team at the Tokyo world championships, where she helped the team win gold and qualified to the uneven bars final.

Don't believe what Douglas presented last week in New York is a finished product, either. Now that he's had her in his gym for a while, Chow believes Douglas is finally ready to blossom.

"I think this year she's getting much more mature, physically and mentally," he said. "And she can understand pursuing and focusing on her dreams, or working on her goals on a daily basis instead of like last year. I feel like she was a younger kid … pursuing Olympic dreams, but they don't really quite understand what it takes to get there."

Chow and Douglas will travel to Houston Friday for a training camp that will select the women's team for the Pacific Rim Championships, March 16-18. Douglas would seem a logical pick for that squad, and it's a meet she could easily end up winning.

With such great potential under his tutelage, Chow knows he still has some decisions to make. Such is Douglas's wide range of abilities. More upgrades are in store, and each competition between now and the Olympics will be used to gauge the progress.

"We're definitely shooting for the maximum possibilities at this point," Chow said.

Douglas, meanwhile, has never felt better about her gymnastics.

"I just love that I'm so confident in myself from worlds," she said. "I think it's a great learning [experience] and a great journey for me on the road to London, so I'm really excited."

So are many gymnastics fans.

Read an interview with Gabrielle Douglas in the April issue of International Gymnast.

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Tuesday, 21 February 2012 14:30    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Sender Could Be a Factor
(8 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

In the summer of 2010 I bumped into 2008 U.S. champion David Sender at the airport. We were both waiting for our connection to the Visa Championships in Hartford, Conn., where he would serve on the Men's Selection Committee for the world team. Sender, who graduated from Stanford in 2009, had also just finished his first year of veterinary school at Illinois.

During our conversation I asked him if he still had the 99-cent goldfish he had bought for an eighth-grade science project (his first fish died). A fish so durable that he even took him to college, sealed in a Zip-loc bag of water on the plane. He told me he still had the fish, which had traveled by car back to Illinois.

I also asked if he might make a comeback. He just laughed.

Two years earlier he had been a shoo-in to make the Beijing Olympic team, but he rolled an ankle after stilling a vibrating high bar. The sprain forced him out of the Olympic trials he had a good chance at winning. But what hurt deeper was being overlooked completely when the Olympic team and alternates were named. Especially when Paul Hamm, who had a broken hand, was named directly to the team. (Hamm would eventually withdraw.)

Sender served on the Men's Selection Committee again last summer in St. Paul, Minn., which is when the gears started turning again. He had figured the level of gymnastics would have advanced beyond his reach.

"When I was watching championships, it didn't really seem that way," Sender said. "I think that kind of got the process started for me."

Sender, a native of Arlington Heights, Ill., is taking a one-year break from vet school to chase his Olympic dream one more time. He trains at Illinois under 2008 Olympian Justin Spring before the college team starts its workout. Then he hangs around and helps out.

You see, Sender can't forget 2008. It is one thing to hurt yourself on a Super-G element, but quite another to knock yourself out the way he did. So the only way to get past the disappointment is to try again.

"Bottom line, I still felt like I had a lot of gymnastics left in me," he said. "And if there was any chance at all that I had of making the Olympics this year, then I owed it to myself to at least try. And after how things went in ’08, I guess I sort of still felt something unfinished."

Sender hurried back for the 2012 Winter Cup to place sixth all-around and regain national-team status. He also placed second on vault and third on rings. And though he didn't throw the Yurchenko-double pike he unleashed in 2009 (he did a Yurchenko-2.5 twist), he's training 17.0 and 17.2 vaults.

"I have to be a little more conscious of my age now," said Sender, 26. "And that vault is a really big vault. And even when it's done really well, it's still a tough landing to take.

"I think a 17.00, at least, on vault for me — I don't know if it would make or break my case, but I think it would help quite a bit," he says.

On a scale from 1-10, Sender gave himself a 6 on his performance at Winter Cup, where he said he watered down in places. And his prolific floor exercise proved too long for his level of conditioning at the time.

"That's the hardest [routine] so far, in terms of endurance," he said.

Sender knows the U.S. is still weak on pommel horse and rings, and said he's been training pommels twice as much as any other event.

"I can cover rings (for the team) just fine — I think everybody knows that," he said. "So in my head, obviously pommel horse is the ticket. So that's been something we've really focused on a lot."

With a few more months of conditioning, a healthy Sender should be a major player in the 2012 Olympic team dogfight. And he has to be the sentimental favorite, as well. But regardless of his fortunes this summer, he knows he's doing the right thing.

"Honestly, I tried to keep [2008] out of my head a little bit when I was making the decision to come back, but I think it would be pretty ridiculous to say that that didn't influence my decision," he said. "That was kind of the peak of my gymnastics, and that was my best shot and what I felt was supposed to be my time to make it. And I didn't even have a chance necessarily to prove whether or not I should be on the team. That was really tough to go through."

At the end of our conversation yesterday, I had to ask Sender if he still had his goldfish.

"I do," he said enthusiastically. "He's still doing OK."

Sender also said the fish still didn't have a name. How about London?

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 13 January 2012 15:07    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Grading the Olympic Test Event
(15 votes, average 3.00 out of 5)

Every four years the Olympic venues and staffs get a dress rehearsal for the real event. From a sporting standpoint, test events have often fallen short in terms of relevance. Some countries don't show up, while others send B- and C-team gymnasts. But by making the 2012 Olympic Test Event in London a second qualifier for teams and individuals, the FIG created a competition with built-in drama. Was it a good thing? On some fronts (ticket sales, YouTube live streaming) it certainly was.

Following are a few thoughts on what transpired in London this week.

Test Event Team Competition: I think it was a mistake to use the test event to qualify the final four teams to the Olympics. All 12 teams should qualify under the same conditions, which was not the case this time. At the test event, teams could use first-year seniors that were ineligible for the Tokyo worlds three months ago. (I preferred the old rule that allowed 15-year-olds to compete in the worlds the year before the Olympics.)

The biggest losers were the Canadian men and Spanish women, both of whom would have qualified under the old rules with their 12th-place finishes in Tokyo.

It would make a lot more sense to use the test event specifically for individual qualification. And if the FIG really wants to raise the level of competition at the Olympics, then it should reduce the number of all-around berths and add more top specialists via the previous worlds apparatus finals.

China: I am not quite sure why China sent 2011 balance beam world champion Sui Lu to this competition. She was lucky to avoid injury in the beam final, where she placed last with a 10.366. And on floor, where she is the world silver medalist, she finished only seventh out of eight.

I can understand why they sent Yao Jinnan, who is young and has a legitimate shot to win the Olympic all-around, but Sui has already competed in three worlds, including the one in 2009 in the O2 arena.

Double Standard: In his Jan. 3 "Letter from the President," Bruno Grandi called for the following:

"In a world where globalization and a world without borders are core issues, I would invite you to move beyond national, continental or international mind-set and strive toward a universal sport, as unique in its philosophy as it is diverse in cultural participation. And yet, a self-serving mission continues to permeate our ranks."

On Jan. 12, during the test event apparatus finals, Grandi could be seen congratulating fellow Italian Alberto Busnari immediately after the gymnast's fine performance on pommel horse.

Did the FIG President, who holds a position that requires complete impartiality, cross the very line of nationalism he is trying to eradicate?

Steven Legendre/USA: I can't help but wonder if the test event was Legendre's Olympics, given that he and training mate Jake Dalton share the same best events. At the Tokyo worlds, Dalton did floor, rings and vault in the team final, while Legendre did only floor and vault. And that was on a six-man team. London 2012 will feature five-man teams. Still, you never know what's going to happen between now and the summer, regarding the health of every contender.

Madeline Gardiner/CAN: Does anyone else see a bit of Svetlana Boginskaya in Gardiner? She has a certain flair and style that reminds me of the great Belarusian.

Ken Ikeda/CAN: The apparatus finals were already a mere exhibition with medals, so I could see how Ikeda might not have been very motivated to compete in the parallel bars final after his team failed to qualify to London. And his performance was proof.

Jordan Jovtchev/BUL: At 38 (39 on Feb.24), and with various body joints conspiring mutiny, the Bulgarian veteran willed himself through six routines to qualify for his sixth consecutive Olympics. If he competes in London this summer (and I'm sure he will), he will surpass Finland's Heikki Savolainen, who competed in five games (1928, ’32, ’36, ’48, ’52; World War II canceled the games in 1940 and ’44). Unique to Jovtchev's streak is that he's made his last three Olympics as an individual. Had he not qualified via the test event, perhaps he would have been given a wild card berth.

Maybe he'll need it in 2016.

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 30 December 2011 13:00    PDF Print
Stretching Out: The Year In Quotes From the Gym World
(6 votes, average 4.33 out of 5)

As the year comes to a close, we instinctively recap the previous 12 months. The highs, the lows … the quirky. 2011 was definitely memorable for gymnastics, but instead of another year in review, I have culled an eclectic collection of quotes from the last 10 issues of International Gymnast. Some are long, others short, but all, I believe, are worth repeating here. Happy New Year.

January-February

"Her father has a very rough nature. When she goes to compete, he says, 'Aliya, tear them apart!'"

Alexander Alexandrov, on Aliya Mustafina in "The Mustafina Mystique"

March

"I love the challenges, the preciseness, the dancing on floor, the sharpness on beam. I just love gymnastics."

Gabrielle Douglas, in "The Great Gabby"

April

"I am shocked, and am still shocked that I won [Elite Canada]."

Peng-Peng Lee, in her interview

May

"We are two members of the German national team. He's not my best friend, but we accept each other."

Philipp Boy, on Fabian Hambüchen, in his interview

June

"We deleted her results and sent her back to Vietnam immediately. She was absolutely not guilty, in my opinion."

Dr. Michel Leglise, President of FIG Medical and Anti-Doping Commission, on Do Thi Ngan Thuong, her country's first gymnastics Olympian, who tested positive for furosemide, in "10 Questions With…"

July-August

"I am going to quit [coaching] gymnastics when I can't do it anymore. But as long as the motor is running, I'm going to continue. Quite frankly, I don't really care what people think about me, because I have the official results to speak for me."

Leonid Arkayev, former USSR and Russian head coach, when asked how he would like to be remembered, in his Hall of Fame interview

September

"I think we push each other, and in a weird way, I'm kind of happy about the outcome of this meet. I wanted to be three-time champion, but for him to do what he did … he had such a passion, such a heart to come out here and beat me, and that's kind of flattering."

Jonathan Horton, on placing second to Danell Leyva at the Visa championships

October

"Nobody argues with me. Never, ever, I guarantee it. This is the only way it has to be in gymnastics. You can speak, you can talk. But once you start arguing, you're going down.

"Look at the Japanese guys; that's when they [declined]. Before, the coaches were like gods for them. And now again they work like horses day in and day out, and they never open their mouth. So much respect for their coaches. It's as simple as that."

Valeri Liukin, in "Sky's the Limit," (profile on Katelyn Ohashi)

November

"I remember hearing (Tennessee basketball coach) Pat Summitt say, that as coaches, we compete in front of crowds we deserve, and that really hit home with me."

Sarah Patterson, Alabama coach, on who has influenced her, in "10 Questions With…"

December

"We took difficulty out of her routines for worlds. … If it's consistently going to lose more than it's worth, we don't do it. We're not going to rely on adrenaline in the moment."

John Geddert, coach of world champion Jordyn Wieber, in his interview

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Tuesday, 06 December 2011 10:59    PDF Print
Stretching Out: A Holiday Gymnastics Wish List
(8 votes, average 4.00 out of 5)

It's that time of year again when the spirit of giving fills our hearts. So I hereby present a brief wish list for the gymnastics world.

Code of Points

I really hope the 2013 version of the Code solves some serious issues. I keep hearing that the execution score might be doubled, to dilute the difficulty score, but that's just adding another step to the equation. FIG President Bruno Grandi wants simplicity, and there is an easier way to lessen the importance of difficulty.

Since there are hundreds of gymnastics skills of varying degrees of difficulty, it's time to expand the categories to accommodate them more accurately. So instead of doubling the E-score, the difficulty values should be cut in half. A-skills are worth .05 instead of .10, B-skills are .10 instead of .20, and so on. This achieves two goals: it lowers the overall D-score and creates more room to assign the correct value to a growing list of skills. For example, how can a tucked double-twisting double tuck (E, .50) on floor be worth the same as a 2.5-twisting tucked double? One is obviously harder than the other. There are numerous other examples in the current Code.

Limit the Roll-outs

I do not like the full-twisting front-1.75 roll-out that nearly knocked out Yusuke Tanaka at the Tokyo worlds, especially when it's done after something tricky like a 1.5-twisting back. When the punch angle is off by a few degrees, there is little margin for error. I hope the FIG is taking a hard look at skills like this. Six-pass routines on a time restraint is the perfect storm for serious injury right now. And many gymnasts are choosing multiple roll-out skills to avoid landing deductions.

Impose a Skill Limit

Danell Leyva won the world title on parallel bars with a total of 10 skills. Defending champion Feng Zhe, who placed seventh, did 23 skills. Should a set of rules allow such routines to coexist? Shouldn't they encourage efficient routine construction? Again, here is where artistic gymnastics can learn something from trampoline, which requires 10-skill routines with no repetition.

Three-Step Approach

If every gymnast learned to tumble from the beginning with a three-step approach into his or her roundoff, we'd see a lot fewer out-of-bounds infractions. Too many gymnasts take four, or even five, steps (Jordyn Wieber, Alicia Sacramone, Lauren Mitchell, Yao Jinnan, et al.), which leaves little room at the end of the tumbling run, especially when a punch layout front is tacked onto the end.

These extra steps are usually out of habit and really don't contribute to the final skill(s) in the pass. And in a routine that is supposed to be a performance, they are visual clutter.

Ksenia Afanasyeva won the world title on floor with powerful tumbling, and she used an efficient three-step approach.

It's a subtle detail, but something I always notice when I watch floor routines. It's also something that is hard (but not impossible) to change late in a career. If I am not mistaken, years ago it used to be a deduction to take more than three steps for men. For the record, Valeri Liukin took three steps into his historic triple back.

Stocking Stuffer

We included a poll in our special December world championships issue about whether Kohei Uchimura was the greatest male gymnast of all time. The opinions from various generations were enlightening to say the least. Results-wise, we seem to have already forgotten that Yang Wei won three consecutive major titles: two worlds and the Olympics. Also, Viktor Chukarin sandwiched two Olympic crowns around the 1954 world title. I don't think Yang was as good as Uchimura (not even close), but it's difficult to compare generations.

I think the venerable Abie Grossfeld put things in perspective when he quoted Christopher Columbus: "It's easy when someone shows you how." Grossfeld also recalled the accomplishments of various gymnasts that many of us have never seen in action.

Personally, I think Uchimura is fantastic, but superlatives are too unforgiving. That said, I will always remember the beauty, power and precision of Dmitry Bilozerchev, whose first world title came at age 16, in 1983. But I'm not saying either is the greatest of all time.

On that note, who is the greatest female gymnast of all time?

Happy holidays.

 


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