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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

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.

Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 07 January 2011 07:38    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Resolutions for the Gymnastics World
(41 votes, average 2.85 out of 5)

With the 2011 season still several weeks away, there is plenty of time to make a few New Year's resolutions. So I humbly offer the following list for the world of gymnastics.

Aliya Mustafina/RUS: I don't mean to be picky, and it may feel uncomfortable at first, but you will endear yourself to even more fans if you smile more often. I realize how stressful it can be to carry an entire team on your back, but that pressure should subside this year.

Kohei Uchimura/JPN: The sport has rarely seen someone of your technical brilliance and attention to detail. When I look through countless photos of you for stories in IG, I simply never see your toes unpointed or legs apart. Everything is always impossibly perfect … from the neck down, that is. Kohei, please get a haircut. If you become the first male gymnast to win a third world all-around title this year, people will want to see your whole face.

FIG Women's Technical Committee: Find a way to give Execution scores in the mid- to high-9s again. There has to be a way for technique and artistry to battle effectively against tricks and acrobatics. But right now, it's not a fair fight.

FIG Men's Technical Committee: Less is more. If you insist on retaining a 10-skill D-score, then impose a limit of 15 skills to achieve that quota. And if 15 skills are not enough to accommodate 10 value elements, then drop to eight like the women did. After all, there is only so much chalk in the world.

FIG Executive Committee: Abolish the age limit. It has caused more negative P.R. this year than the sport can handle. Plus, we gymnastics journalists want to write tired phrases like "the team was an interesting mix of youth and experience" again.

People's Republic of Korea: Where to start? If you fudge the birth date of a gymnast, make sure she doesn't have a twin sister on the national team. Because of your oversight with Hong Su Jong's birth year(s), fans will not be able to see your other incredible gymnasts, such as male vaulter Ri Se Gwang, at the next worlds and Olympics.

Excessive Celebrators: It's a penalty in college football, and I hope judges are deducting for it in gymnastics. I don't care how well you think you performed, your routine is not officially complete until you stand erect with arms up. Respect for the sport dictates that you should then turn toward the judges and present yourself. Then, if you feel the need to applaud your own routine, knock yourself out (but only if you just did something special).

Impatient Gymnasts: Similar to the entry above, your dismount or vault landing is not complete until you stand up straight with heels together (focus forward), regardless of how many steps were necessary to achieve this position. It is a deduction to land in a squat and then quickly pivot toward the judges. It's cute when a Level 4 does it, but for an elite? Absolutely unforgivable!

Men's NCAA Gymnastics: Do whatever it takes to make every dual meet meaningful, especially the ones between David and Goliath. If that means adopting a radical new scoring system, DO IT, before it's too late.

Women's NCAA Gymnastics: Now that the overall performance level is higher than 10 years ago, start rewarding for a little extra difficulty.

Jonathan Horton/USA: Spend as much time swinging pommel horse as you do playing video games. OK, maybe not that much, but after an unbelievable turnaround from 2009 to 2010, you're one routine away from a shinier all-around medal (although a world bronze is not too shabby).

Nikolai Kuksenkov/UKR: Train harder, complain less. If you think you should have beaten Jonathan Horton at the 2010 worlds, then prove it the next time you face him. It's not as if Horton had the home advantage in Rotterdam.

Octavian Bellu/ROU: Find a new strategy for your team on uneven bars, and practice it all day, every day, until you get some results. If the Russians can teach all their gymnasts a Maloney with a half turn, so can you.

Danell Leyva, Yin Alvarez/USA: Keep doing what you're doing. I'll take a coach who hugs over one that scolds any day. Yin, I realize people think your sideline contortions are a distraction, but they are unique and entertaining. And anything that enlivens the crowd at a men's gymnastics meet is a good thing.

Paul Hamm/USA: Health. And maybe forgo that stutz to one rail on parallel bars for this comeback.

Now, who did I miss?

Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 31 December 2010 19:45    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Looking Back But Also Ahead
(11 votes, average 3.18 out of 5)

2010 has been an interesting year for gymnastics, and now we look ahead to 2011. Following are a few story lines that we should follow in the coming year(s).

Kohei Uchimura/JPN: The two-time defending world champion (pictured here) will make men's gymnastics history if he wins the world all-around gold next October in Tokyo. If he does, what an incredible moment for the sport. If he doesn't, I just hope it's not because of an injury. Am not sure if he is flashing the peace sign (which he did after his first world all-around title in 2009), or if the gesture signifies his second win in Rotterdam. Guess it could mean both.

Mattie Larson/USA: Yes, she bombed floor exercise at the Rotterdam worlds, but her mistakes were overblown because the U.S. team did not win the gold medal. Truth is, the U.S. women had absolutely no margin for error in Rotterdam. They placed third in prelims, so taking the silver was an improvement. Russia self-destructed too, but with higher Start Values, it could afford to.

Prediction: With a few talented juniors becoming seniors in 2011 (Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Sabrina Vega), Larson, who was still training at All Olympia in December, needs to assert herself at every opportunity she gets.

Yuri van Gelder/NED: By now, it is hard to believe who is telling the truth in the sad saga of the 2005 world rings champion. Suspended for a year by the Dutch Federation after testing positive for cocaine at the 2009 Dutch championships, van Gelder returned to winning form a year later and made the world team. Apparently, the pressure of competing at home at the Rotterdam worlds had become too great, so the 27-year-old gymnast purposely got himself kicked off the team by saying he had used cocaine again, even though he didn't. To some, a false self-incrimination might be worse than the original offense.

So, why would the Dutch Federation take him back? Could it be that Jeffrey Wammes' 14.40 on rings at worlds was the team's highest score on the event?

Amanar Vault: With one word, I recently created a heated discussion concerning the rarely seen 2.5-twisting Yurchenko vault, which is worth 6.5 compared with a 5.8 for a double twist. I called it "overvalued." All the arguments had good points. But with such a high premium placed on a single skill (which determines 25 percent of the women's all-around), I worry that gymnasts all over are going to risk their knee ligaments to learn it. And who can blame them?

I agree that the increment between a 1.5 and double twist should be smaller than from 2-2.5. But following the existing pattern, a triple-twisting Yurchenko should be worth 7.4.

Following are the current values, followed by what I think they should be worth:

Yurchenko-full: 5.0/5.0

Yurchenko-1.5: 5.3/5.2

Yurchenko-2: 5.8/5.5

Yurchenko-2.5: 6.5/6.0

This would make more sense when you consider that on women's floor exercise, the difference between a triple twist (E) and 3.5 twist (F) is 0.10.

FIG President: We're still two years away from FIG elections, but behind-the-scenes campaigning is surely going on. In an interview that appeared in the September IG, FIG Men's Technical Committee President Adrian Stoica did not mince words when asked if he was interested in becoming FIG President: "Yes, I will candidate for the position."

So who is likely to run against Stoica? One of my sources believes that FIG Gymnastics For All President Margaret Sikkens Ahlquist, a native of Sweden, could be that person. Stay tuned.

Will Nastia Liukin or Shawn Johnson compete on an event or two at the 2011 Visa Championships in St. Paul, Minn., next August? I think at least one of them will. Paul Hamm can't be the only former Olympic champion to return!

For a complete recap of 2010, from A to Z, check out the January-February issue of IG. In the meantime, here's to a happy and healthy new year to the entire gymnastics world.


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