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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

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.

Written by Dwight Normile    Tuesday, 28 June 2011 14:05    PDF Print
Looking Ahead to Visa Championships
(21 votes, average 3.57 out of 5)

Our July-August issue will be out soon, and it includes a preview of the 2011 Visa championships in St. Paul, Minn. But until then, here are a few tidbits of what I learned in recent conversations with the coaches of the top senior contenders for the women.

Defending champion Rebecca Bross (shown here) is slowly coming back from November ankle surgery, so don't expect her to peak in August with the world championships in October. For a gymnast like Bross, who has already won silver and bronze world all-around medals, the main goal for 2011 is to be ready to help the U.S. team in October, which pretty much makes the Visa championships a practice meet for her.

"When the girls get older, things don't come as easy anymore," said Valery Liukin, who coaches Bross at WOGA. "You can't keep them too long in shape and peak too early."

With Bross less than 100 percent, the likely favorite would be Jordyn Wieber. But her coach John Geddert also is looking beyond August. The combination of the demanding Code of Points and the arduous U.S. women's selection procedure (Visas, selection camp, worlds) has Geddert concerned, so he, like other coaches, wants to make sure his gymnast still has "gas in the tank for worlds."

Mattie Larson, the 2010 U.S. floor champion and all-around runner-up, has upgraded her uneven bars and balance beam and is doing well, according to All Olympia coach Galina Marinova. But when I spoke with Marinova last week, she was disappointed that McKayla Maroney had just developed a back problem and was not sure how serious it was. "She was doing just phenomenal," said Marinova, who also expressed her frustration with the growing number of injuries under the Code of Points. "This Code is tough. I mean, you cannot see healthy people with this Code."

Alexandra Raisman and Alicia Sacramone are both healthy right now, according to coach Mihai Brestyan, who said that Raisman will compete an Amanar on vault, and that Sacramone would do vault, balance beam and floor exercise in St. Paul.

Liang Chow, who coaches Shawn Johnson and Gabrielle Douglas, said that Johnson will do two events this summer at the Classic (July) and Visas, and that Douglas has upgraded quite a bit in the past year. He wasn't concerned about Douglas's all-around placement, and cautioned that consistency might be an issue because of her more difficult routines. And, yes, he said she will vault an Amanar too. As for Johnson, the knee injury she sustained in January 2010 continues to keep her out of the all-around, but things are improving, Chow said.

2009 U.S. and world champion Bridget Sloan is coming back slowly from surgery on her biceps four months ago. Her coach, Marvin Sharp, said that Sloan has signed with Florida but will defer until next year. "We are going to take it at an easy, safe pace, making sure she is at full strength before we attempt any competitions," Sharp said. With London the obvious goal for Sloan, I would be surprised to see her compete again until 2012.

Chelsea Davis (Texas Dreams) has decided to retire from elite and attend Georgia this fall, and you can read on the Stanford website that Samantha Shapiro and Ivana Hong are set to join the Cardinal.

Unlike the women, the men will learn their world-team status at the Visa championships, and then meet later on, as a team, for a training camp. Jonathan Horton will be going for three national titles in a row, and Danell Leyva told me he thinks he has "a pretty good chance" of winning his first.

Of course, a lot can change between now and Aug. 17, but the 2011 Visa championships are shaping up to be excellent.

Written by Dwight Normile    Thursday, 17 February 2011 11:59    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Let's Talk Floor Exercise
(10 votes, average 4.10 out of 5)

As the sport continues its never-ending push forward, I've noticed a few trends that might be leading gymnastics off the most desirable path. And by desirable I mean what is good for both the gymnast and the spectator. Of course, the best path is always open to debate, which I welcome in this periodic Stretching Out column.

Stag Jumps: Every time a new rule is imposed, gymnasts and coaches figure out a way around it. Now that women are required to stick their tumbling passes on floor exercise, we're seeing stag jumps after double Arabians. These stag jumps, some of which reach an elevation of six inches, are odd because so many gymnasts are doing them in a desperate attempt to avoid a landing deduction.

I prefer the old rule, which allowed gymnasts the freedom of stepping back into a lunge or dancing out of a landing. Judges could still deduct if the landing was short or otherwise. Stag jumps should be high and show good posture and flexibility. Most of the ones I see now look like an afterthought.

Mai Murakami: The floor routine of the minuscule Murakami (she looks to be about 4-foot-4) at the Japanese championships is creating some buzz on the Internet. She can tumble and dance. Her passes are well done too: double layout; tucked double-double; punch front-full, rudi; triple twist. While it may not be a growing trend, there is one technical glitch prior to her tumbling: she takes two hurdles before each tumbling pass, which means 6-7 steps before her roundoff. If and when she grows taller, she'll have a difficult time staying within the floor area if she doesn't learn to economize her tumbling approach. But this hurdle hiccup is probably a habit she developed as a beginner, and may be hard to change. But considering how amazing she is in the air, she should be able to handle it.

Transitions: In men's floor exercise, "corner moves" were once the sweet filling between cake layers. They offered a creative breather between passes, and artistically positioned the gymnast in the direction of his next tumbling run. They served a purpose by turning four tumbling passes into a floor exercise. If you were to simply step into the corner, pivot on one foot and windmill your arms, you would have been hit with a deduction. You can't just walk into the corner and turn around!

Now you can just walk into the corner and turn around. The talented Jake Dalton did virtually the same step-turn five times in his winning floor routine at the recent Winter Cup. And since it's well within the current rules, I don't blame him. Energy is at a premium when you're doing six demanding passes.

The 10-skill requirement for men's routines has led to the six-pass routine, and inadvertently eliminated corner moves (and probably increased the number of Achilles' tendon injuries). So men's floor exercise, once an exploration of creativity, of rhythm and contrast, has become a monotony of tumbling in a confined space. For the most part, there is no "performance" aspect.

Maybe it's time to cut the 40-by-40 mat into thirds, make one long strip, and see what these guys can really do. Or, maybe it's time to reduce the number of required skills, which would lead to fewer passes — and perhaps something interesting between them.

Check out this routine from the late Yukio Endo from 1966. He's "on stage" from beginning to end. You never see him "let down" in the corner and suck air. He actually does a version of the step-turn into his first corner, but it's beautiful instead of cursory.

Lauren Mitchell: This is a bit of trivia instead of a trend. Guess who choreographed the floor routine of Aussie Lauren Mitchell, who won the gold at the 2010 Rotterdam worlds? Stacey Umeh-Lees, older sister of former Canadian Olympian Stella Umeh. By the way, Stella is back with Cirque du Soleil, performing in Asia.

As always, I welcome your views.


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