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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

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.

Written by Dwight Normile    Thursday, 09 December 2010 10:19    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Another Shopping List for the Gym World
(9 votes, average 3.00 out of 5)

Once again, it's time to compile a shopping list for the world of gymnastics, based on what we witnessed in 2010. I invite all of you readers to add your own, as well.

Kohei Uchimura: A long winter's nap. Though he won his second world all-around gold this year, his taped left shoulder signaled the physical toll he's feeling. Apparently, it doesn't bother him that much, since he recently showed some new skills (triple-twisting Yurchenko, e.g.) at the Japanese nationals. If I were his coach, though, I'd give him a solid three-month hibernation of healing.

Aliya Mustafina: A deeper team. Yes, the Russian women won their first world team title in 2010, but they had help from the underachieving silver and bronze medalists. Mustafina carried her teammates on her back, especially on bars, where Russia placed seventh out of eight in the team final. Wait, what's that I see in her stocking? Viktoria Komova!

Rebecca Bross: More D-score. Ouch, that was hard to write. But as long as the Amanar vault she doesn't have is over-valued at 6.5, Bross should find a way to add a couple of tenths each on bars, beam and floor. Not an easy task, but her coach, Valeri Liukin, is a master strategist. Look what he did for his daughter in 2008.

Jordyn Wieber: A complete senior season debut. Junior winner of the Pacific Rim championships and CoverGirl Classic in 2010, Wieber crunched her ankles at the U.S. championships and couldn't finish the meet. Her presence on the 2011 U.S. world team could really help (she has an Amanar), but not if she's still limping.

Jonathan Horton: Paul in St. Paul. Horton, the 2010 world all-around bronze medalist, needs the competition to reach the next level. So a duel against Paul Hamm at the 2011 U.S. championships in St. Paul, Minn., should do the trick.

Mattie Larson: Another chance. After placing second to Rebecca Bross at the U.S. championships, where she won floor exercise, Larson struggled at the Rotterdam worlds, mainly on floor exercise. And even though her mistakes were big, the silver-medal performance of the U.S. women was a total team effort. Even U.S. national team coordinator Marta Karolyi admitted that Larson can be a beautiful gymnast at times. Remember, gymnastics is only a game. Give her another shot.

Vanessa Ferrari: More horsepower. I'm always impressed when a former star accepts a supporting role on her team. The 2006 world all-around champ was more polished in Rotterdam than in Aarhus, but without her signature tricks. Her coach, Enrico Casella, predicts some of those skills will return, which is easier said than done.

Danell Leyva: A re-gift to himself. I know it probably made more sense on paper to replace his cool jam-dislocate-hop with a jam-dislocate-invert on high bar, but he lost the spontaneous crowd reaction in the process. That skill really set him apart. But knowing him and his stepfather-coach, Yin Alvarez, they'll probably come up with something even better for 2011.

Daniel Keatings: Two strong knees. With the silky-smooth Keatings, who is coming off a torn ACL, the British men, seventh in Rotterdam, could be a legitimate top-five team at the 2011 Tokyo worlds. Keatings would really help the Brits, especially on pommel horse and p-bars.

Philipp Boy: Healthy teammates. The 2010 world all-around silver medalist was impressive, and he did the lion's share of Germany's team bronze, too. If he is supported by a healthy Fabian Hambüchen (chronic Achilles) and national champ Marcel Nguyen (broken leg prior to Rotterdam), he will be a Boy among men at the Tokyo worlds. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Now, who did I miss?

Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 01 October 2010 10:57    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Sloan, Cal and other subplots from a busy week
(13 votes, average 3.62 out of 5)

From comebacks to program cuts, injuries to age flaps, plenty is happening in the gymnastics world right now. Following is a weekly roundup of sorts.

Bridget Sloan: The defense rests?

With the U.S. women's team for the Rotterdam worlds to be named next week, the fate of defending world all-around champion Bridget Sloan (shown here) remains a mystery. At the Visa championships in August, where Sloan protected injuries and competed only on balance beam, U.S. national team coordinator Marta Karolyi assessed Sloan's chances of making the team as such: "She's right at the almost impossible situation."

Marvin Sharp, Sloan's coach, told IG today, "It is just going to be a matter of time. Is there enough time to get in world routine shape? We are giving it a try, but have to keep the future in mind, as well, and not risk pushing beyond a reasonable level."

For a top team like the U.S., the Rotterdam worlds represent bragging rights only, since the top 24 teams advance to the 2011 worlds in Tokyo. So reading between the lines, it doesn't sound like Sloan is prepared to make a serious challenge as an all-arounder. We'll find out next week if she goes at all.

"We are hoping to be on the world team," Sharp added. "We are hoping to help in any capacity that will assist the USA in a successful world championships."

Cal Gymnastics

The men's and women's gymnastics teams at UC-Berkeley were dropped Sept. 28, along with baseball and women's lacrosse. Rugby will be reduced to a club sport. The timing was odd, considering former Golden Bear gymnast Tim McNeill was hired in August to coach the team. Barry Weiner retired earlier in the summer, having coached the team to NCAA team titles in 1997 and ’98.

Cal gymnastics has a rich history, and 2012 would have been its 100th year in existence. Its first national championship was in 1968, under coach Hal Frey, who won another in ’75. For more about the Cal tradition, visit, the site that was launched to help save the program.

"We are extremely disappointed in the decision that was made, and are very saddened by this outcome," said former Cal gymnast David Kruse, who said that $400,000 in pledges over three years was raised via Cal Gymnastics Forever.

McNeill, meanwhile, says his contract goes through Aug. 24, 2011, "so both the team and I will continue on until then." Athletes from the dropped sports have the option of keeping their scholarships or transferring without sitting out a year of competition.

McNeill, who was petitioned to the U.S. team in August even though he did not compete at the Visa championships, told IG that his own training is under way. Strong on pommel horse and parallel bars, two critical events for the U.S. men's program, McNeill has an excellent chance of picking up where he left off last year at the London worlds, where he placed seventh all-around and fifth on pommel horse.

Germany's Predicament

The German men's team took a big hit when it lost national champion Marcel Nguyen, who fractured his right fibula while tumbling at a meet against Switzerland and Romania on Sept. 25. It's never good when a tune-up for worlds knocks out your top all-arounder.

German star Fabian Hambüchen, who did not compete on floor or vault at the German championships or the tri-meet, is hopeful that his sore Achilles' tendon will be 100% for worlds. With Nguyen out, the team really needs him.

"My doctor and I are very optimistic about competing in the all-around in Rotterdam, but it just depends on the healing process," Hambüchen told IG. "I'm in shape on four events and just need to wait for the 'go' of the doctor for floor and vault."

Hong Su Jong/PRK

With a birth date of March 9, 1989, currently registered with the FIG, North Korean Hong Su Jong would have been 15 at the 2004 Athens Olympics, where she was registered with a 1985 birth date. She was her team's third-best all-arounder in Athens, placing 50th in prelims. Nullifying her team's results, which is what recently happened to the Chinese women for the 2000 Olympics, would hardly make a difference. North Korea finished 12th out of 12 teams in Athens, and won zero medals.

The odd thing about this whole mess is that Hong's birth year changed for subsequent world competitions, while the birth date for Hong Un Jong, who we assume is Su Jong's twin, remained consistent at March 9, 1989.

"My staff is about to check the various documents we have in our archives, and I am looking into the matter," FIG General Secretary Andre Gueisbuhler told IG today. "The further procedure to be taken in this case will be decided in the forthcoming days."

Stay tuned. Will the North Korean federation claim it was all a clerical error?

Shawn Johnson/USA

If you want to see Shawn Johnson back on Dancing With the Stars this season, you can vote her on. DWTS will be bringing back 10 former couples, and the Cha-Cha and Freestyle dances of Johnson and partner Mark Ballas are up for vote on the DWTS website.

Science of Gymnastics Journal

This free online technical magazine, edited by Slovenian Ivan Cuk, just celebrated its one-year anniversary with issue No. 4. To say that Cuk is merely a student of the sport would not be accurate. He's extremely passionate about gymnastics, and smart, too.

The journal is mainly composed of contributed articles, with submission guidelines available on its website. Each issue is downloadable in PDF format. Click here for more information.


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