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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 30 December 2011 13:00    PDF Print
Stretching Out: The Year In Quotes From the Gym World
(11 votes, average 3.73 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
(13 votes, average 3.62 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.

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 30 September 2011 14:23    PDF Print
Stretching Out: 10 Things to Like About Danell Leyva
(13 votes, average 3.92 out of 5)

As the U.S. men's team prepares for the world championships in Tokyo, I started thinking about its new national champion, Danell Leyva. I have watched him compete in the senior division of the U.S. championships since 2006, when he placed 17th as a 14-year-old. I remember thinking, Why is this kid trying compete with seniors?

The following year I started to figure it out, because he placed ninth. From 2008 to 2011 he finished 11th, fifth, second and, just over a month ago, first. No. 1. The champ. Not a bad run for someone who doesn't turn 20 until Oct. 30 (the same day Nastia Liukin turns 22, by the way, but I digress).

The longer I've watched this unique gymnast, the more I've come to appreciate what he's done and, more importantly, what he represents. So, following are nine things I like about Danell Leyva, because I've left No. 10 for you.

1) His work ethic: I used to think he would never be more than a two- or three-event guy. He was pretty good on floor, parallel bars and high bar, and very average on the other three. Now he's pretty good on pommels, rings and vault, deceptively talented on floor, and absolutely amazing on parallel bars and high bar. Through hard work, he has turned himself into a legitimate contender for an all-around medal in Tokyo.

2) His attitude: He is humble yet confident. When he says he wants to win, he doesn't sound cocky. He respects two-time world champion Kohei Uchumira (who is only 22), but he's not intimidated by him. Instead, he wants to put a little scare in him. It may be the world championships, but for Leyva it's still all part of the fun.

3) His parallel bars: He is fantastic on this event, and I like that he doesn't do any somersaults on the apparatus. His peaches, giants and Diamidovs are so good, he doesn't need to.

4) His gym: He seems to be in the perfect place for his gymnastics career. He decided to go pro, so the NCAA is out. But his steady progress over the years proves that everything is clicking for him at Universal Gymnastics in Miami.

5) His coach: When I see coaches chewing out their gymnasts after a bad routine, I appreciate that Yin Alvarez is always there with a hug. He realizes that his gymnasts don't mess up on purpose. "I have my moments like everybody else, but I never go to the gymnasts when I'm mad," Alvarez once told me. "Gymnasts want to do nothing wrong; they want to do good all the time."

6) He's old school: There are certain details that reveal a gymnast's training and tradition. On floor, for example, Leyva understands that good form applies to the entire body. When he runs into his tumbling, he keeps perfect form with his arms and hands (arms straight, fingers together). And here is a subtle detail that you just don't see very often (anymore): After his Manna, press to handstand, he pikes down and silently places his toes on the mat first, then his heels. That's control. When he stands up from this position, he lifts his arms overhead simultaneously. Very classy. (A lazy gymnast would bend his knees a little during the pike down, slam his feet onto the mat, and then leave the arms hanging down when he stands up.)

7) His trademark: Every star needs a signature skill, and his jam-dislocate-hop to undergrips on high bar works wonders on a crowd. It's also unexpected because it's at the end of a very difficult routine. Now that he follows this skill with an immediate Endo-full pirouette, it's even better. Leyva says he added the Endo combination by accident. "I was training one day and was a little tired," he said. "And when I did the hop I caught the bar directly in a handstand with my legs open already. And ever since I was little I've always mashed my skills together."

8) His post-routine routine: Leyva never celebrates harder than he just worked on the apparatus itself. After all, he's got a coach to do that for him.

9) His team spirit: Even though he has specific individual goals, he's the ideal team player. And his overall improvement in the past year could be the biggest factor in determining the U.S. team's fate in Tokyo. The irony here is that he's a native of Cuba. "I can't wait to show a better job of what we did [at Visa Championships] in Tokyo," he said. Note that he said "we."

10) What do you like about Danell Leyva?

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Wednesday, 14 September 2011 13:30    PDF Print
Stretching Out: The True Legend of Paul Hamm
(32 votes, average 2.91 out of 5)

Like many in the sport, I was saddened by the Paul Hamm incident that led to his termination as an assistant coach at Ohio State. It only takes one slip-up in the Internet age, especially when video is involved. So Hamm, whose gymnastics brilliance had always shone brighter because of his humility, was humbled even further.

While I don't condone his actions, I certainly will not judge him on one night of his life. As a writer, I have covered him since he and his twin, Morgan, dominated the age-group scene. When he showed up at the 2002 U.S. championships in Cleveland, he ran off with the first of three consecutive senior national titles.

At the 2003 Worlds in Anaheim, Hamm performed one of the best routines I've ever seen under the circumstances. After China's Yang Wei had already finished his all-around performance with a solid floor routine, Hamm needed to nail the high bar set that had betrayed him more often than not in the past. That's what I remember most. He went up and hit the best routine of his life, stuck his dismount, and became the first American male to win a world all-around gold.

"It was just an awesome feeling," Hamm said at the time. "I was finished, and I finally beat high bar."

A year later, at the Athens Olympics, he again completed his all-around with a clutch high bar routine. And even though his Olympic all-around title was clouded in controversy because of a scoring error, he carried on as best he could. He did nothing wrong, yet was robbed of the elation that usually comes with being Olympic champion. At his athletic peak, he disappeared from the sport after that.

Hamm, who turns 29 Sept. 24, was the most successful U.S. male gymnast ever, but I'll always appreciate his demeanor off the apparatus. No matter the situation, he answered questions honestly, respectfully and thoughtfully. He was never too busy, or too full of himself. That's what impressed me more than anything.

So when I think of Hamm, I will consider the total picture, not just one unfortunate evening. Because all we really learned from his incident with the police is that nobody is perfect. And nobody ever will be.

Paul Hamm was great for gymnastics. He was pivotal to the resurrection of a U.S. men's program that had nose-dived after its 1984 Olympic team victory. And if his comeback stalls and he never returns to the sport, that's how I will remember him.

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Monday, 11 July 2011 08:25    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Code Talk and the Tokyo Draw
(10 votes, average 3.50 out of 5)

It is both interesting and encouraging that the next version of the Code of Points will likely include input from those outside the International Gymnastics Federation. By soliciting suggestions from gymnasts, coaches and others, the FIG is essentially waving a white flag of futility. It also means that after the 2012 Olympics, a seven-year experiment will have finally come to a close. Or so we hope.

Among the various proposals for the 2013 Code: ditching the 3-up-3-count team finals format, increasing the value of execution scores, and expanding the difficulty tables. And for those who preferred the old Code of Points, a source very high up at the FIG told me recently that the Executive Committee has mandated that the Code will not go back to the 10.0. That surprises me given the common complaint that scores in the teens are meaningless to spectators.

Personally, I believe the FIG made the wrong score open-ended under these rules. Or at least the difficulty score should not be completely immune to deduction.

One of my proposals to the FIG was to subtract the execution deductions from both the E- and D-scores. Such a formula becomes a great equalizer. Artistic gymnasts actually have a fighting chance against sloppy acrobats.

When legendary Russian coach Leonid Arkayev visited the IG offices during his induction into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame, I asked him about the new Code of Points. Here is one of his responses: "My personal opinion is that I was never in favor of limiting the difficulty of exercises, but at this particular time it kind of backfired. The intention was very, very good, but it didn't work the way they intended." (Complete interview appears in the July/August issue of IG.)

2011 Worlds Draw

The world championships in Tokyo will break from tradition and qualify only eight (instead of 12) men's and women's teams to the 2012 Olympics. The remaining four teams will be decided Jan. 12-13, 2012, in London at the Olympic test event. The countries that ranked 9-16 in Tokyo will battle it out at the O2 Arena for the final four Olympic team berths.

While past Olympic test events have usually lacked relevance, I am not sure the 2012 version will be much better. It is likely that the top four teams at this competition will be afterthoughts at the Olympics, anyway, except for an individual who makes it to an event final. And if the British men's and women's teams finish in the top eight in Tokyo (they were fourth and fifth, respectively, at the 2010 worlds), then what kind of crowd will show up to watch an event that does not even include the home team.

In Tokyo, the first of eight subdivisions of the men's draw includes the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. With no more 10.0 hovering in the back of the judges' minds, there is no reason to keep scores conservative in the morning session. So these teams can actually relish the fact that they get to compete first for a few reasons: 1) there will be no need to wait nervously for a later session; 2) there will be no posted scores to surpass; 3) they will have plenty of time to rest for team finals, should they advance.

Barring a disastrous effort, Japan and the U.S. should have little trouble making the top eight, but Puerto Rico will be sweating it out until the final subdivision is complete the following evening. Though Puerto Rico was 12th in 2010, it was only 1.024 behind eighth-place France. That's approximately one fall separating France, Romania, Italy, Spain and Puerto Rico, respectively.

Ukraine and Canada were 13th and 14th in 2010, respectively, but both have more ground to gain to challenge for the top eight.

The women's field in 2010 was more spread out between eighth and 12th, with Japan securing eighth over the Netherlands, 218.895-217.286. In Tokyo, Japan drew the 10th and final subdivision, so its pursuers can only hope that the home advantage turns into immense pressure. France, 11th in 2010 without Youna Dufournet, also is in the final session, so Japan will definitely have to earn its place. If Japan indeed benefits from competing at home, then look for France to bump a team like Italy out of the top eight and on to the test event.

 


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