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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by Dwight Normile    Tuesday, 09 March 2010 14:52    PDF Print
Stretching Out: The opposing forces of difficulty and age limits
(14 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

We hear it all the time: "The sport is called Women's Artistic Gymnastics." It is the most common rebuttal from those who staunchly defend an age limit. However, I believe it is more accurate to say "it used to be Women's Artistic Gymnastics."

When the sport gained global interest thanks to Olga Korbut in 1972 and Nadia Comaneci four years later, Women's Artistic Gymnastics began its slow transformation. Korbut, 17, and Comaneci, 14, were teenagers more than they were women. And very acrobatic teenagers, at that. They also displayed artistry in their routines, even though some of Korbut's contortions broke the conventional mold of good form at times.

Since the trend toward more difficulty has escalated since, the gymnasts most capable of executing, if not performing, the current trick-filled routines are still teenagers. I just can't imagine 1964 and ’68 Olympic champion Vera Caslavska or 1972 winner Lyudmila Turischeva — two wonderful examples of women's artistic gymnastics — ending their floor routines with a piked full-in, for example. Granted, they lacked spring floors back then, but the idea of sacrificing execution to add another twist or flip was considered a gymnastics sin back then. Case in point: When Nellie Kim performed one of the first tucked double backs on floor in an Olympics (1976), she did it with her knees together and toes pointed. How often (or seldom) do you see that skill done with clean form today on any women's event?

Had Nadia presented her mind-boggling routines in 1976 with sloppy form, well, few would really remember her today. It's interesting that she is known mainly for her impeccable execution — her seven scores of 10.0 — but her difficulty at the time, particularly on uneven bars and balance beam, was just as noteworthy, maybe even more.

Difficulty continued to grow after Nadia, and it is generally agreed among gymnastics purists that the 1980s were the "golden years" of women's gymnastics. After that decade, perfect execution began to lose some of its importance, and Women's Artistic Gymnastics became Female Acrobatic Gymnastics.

By the 1990s, certain Code changes contributed to the beginning of the end of that glorious time in the sport. More and more acrobatics began to take hold, often at the expense of good form and proper technique, which usually go hand in hand. Then, in 1997, compulsories were dropped and the age limit was raised to 16, which is where it stands so divisively today.

Sixteen isn't so sweet for many gymnasts, who find themselves battling their physical maturation and the most demanding Code of Points ever. Professional golf has the senior tour, where 50-somethings get to play shorter courses. But it's quite the opposite for female gymnasts, many of whom are expected to compete the hardest gymnastics of their careers when their bodies can barely do what they could a few years earlier. Taped ankles and/or braced wrists are practically the norm because of the physical strain of today's routines. The Code of Points even states that "bandages must be beige-colored" so as not to "detract from the aesthetics of the performance."

In reality, the sport is only going through its natural progression, since gymnasts and coaches will forever strive to be better than the rest. Difficulty will always have its rightful place in the sport, but it is up to the FIG to manage this trend effectively and responsibly. Which is valued more: execution or difficulty? Strangely, the new, more stringent execution evaluation for women's gymnastics has further bolstered the clout of difficulty. Gymnasts know that the quickest way to increase their scores is to add harder tricks. After all, the execution mark is capped, and even the best routines are lucky to approach 9.0.

In the last 13 years, the age limit of 16 has slowly contributed to a decline in women's gymnastics as we once knew it, and the lack of depth in major all-around competitions is alarming proof. The age limit simply closes the window of opportunity for many gymnasts. Few are born at precisely the right time to hit their competitive peak at 16 or 17 in an Olympic year. Fewer still can remain healthy and motivated until they are 19 or 20 and give it another shot — with easier routines, no less.

Evolution can only be stopped by extinction. So with the current age limit combined with the high premium on difficulty, is Women's Artistic Gymnastics nearing such a fate? Or has it already?

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 05 March 2010 13:20    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Random notes from a busy week
(8 votes, average 4.13 out of 5)

Dwight Normile offers his thoughts on Alexandra Raisman (she's good), Ivana Hong (she's got time) and Dong Fangxiao (he doesn't care).

Alexandra Raisman

Raisman was the final American woman added to the American Cup roster. With the Cup in Worcester, Mass., Raisman, who lives in Needham, Mass., should have plenty of family and friends to support her. This is a big step for the 15-year-old Raisman, who trains at Brestyan's in Burlington, Mass. She has a natural talent, but is still quite young (she'll be 16 on May 25). At the Visa Junior Championships last August, Raisman was in position to win the all-around going into her last event, floor exercise. But she seemed a little over-excited and completely over-rotated a triple twist and fell to her back. Still, she finished third and no doubt gained valuable experience, which she'll put to the test on Saturday.

Ivana Hong

I was saddened by the news of Hong's torn ACL in her right knee, which she sustained last Sunday during a U.S. national team training camp. It seems the ACL injury can happen to anyone at any time. Hong was in terrific shape last summer at the Visa Championships in Dallas, and her bronze medal on beam at the 2009 Worlds in London gave her the confidence to maintain a leadership role on the U.S. women's team.

An injury is never a good thing, but for Hong, at least she has time on her side in terms of the 2011 Worlds and 2012 Olympics. She also has positive examples to follow. Both Annia Hatch and Justin Spring tore their ACLs only one year before they medaled in the Olympics. And both performed on "leg" events when they returned. With hard work and patience, Hong can come back just as strong, if not stronger. Her gymnastics has always been beautiful, but in 2009 it was more complete, as well.

Muriel Grossfeld Scholarship Fund

IG recently received a letter from 1967 U.S. champion Carolyn Hacker Kohn, who was an early student of the venerable Muriel Grossfeld. She left her California home to train under Muriel in New Haven, Conn. She credits Muriel for helping her make the 1966 World team.

Kohn informed IG of a scholarship fund that has been set up at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. It was set up by Sandy Thielz, who also trained under Muriel before coaching the West Chester women's team.

Writes Kohn: "Muriel has a truly unique talent which, coupled with her vast experience since her first Olympics in 1956, was able to bring out the best in others such as Sandy and myself. …It is truly an honor to contribute to Muriel's scholarship fund. I hope it reaches the full endowment quickly."

To make a donation, checks can be send to the address below, payable to "SCSU Muriel Grossfeld Scholarship":

Gregg Crerar, SCSU Development Officer

501 Crescent St. WT 174, New Haven, CT 06515

Oklahoma-Alabama meet televised

As mentioned in a previous online story, the March 5 women's meet between No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oklahoma will be televised live on Cox throughout Oklahoma. Commentators are Bart Conner (1984 Olympic gold medalist) and Jenny Ester Rowland (1989 World team).

Crowds at Oklahoma home meets are sparse compared with the 15,000 that routinely show up in Tuscaloosa. But if Sooner coach K.J. Kindler can continue to build the program she took over four years ago, her fan base should grow. Winning championships is what raises interest and attendance, and Kindler definitely has the team to do it this year.

U.S. Men's Spring Assignments

Paris-Bercy World Cup, April 11-12, Paris

Jonathan Horton, Danell Leyva

Pacific Rim Championships, April 23-May 2, Melbourne, Australia

SENIOR: Chris Cameron, Danell Leyva, Steven Legendre, Tim Gentry

JUNIOR: Dylan Akers, C.J. Maestas, John Orozco, Sam Mikulak

Dong Fangxiao

I really don't know what to make of the recent FIG ruling that Chinese gymnast Dong Fangxiao was underage at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. It just seems so irrelevant in light of the age controversy that erupted at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. That the FIG implemented a "licensing" system to identify gymnasts is a noble idea, but I doubt it will prevent anyone from cheating if they really want to.

When the age limit was raised to 16 in 1997, I knew it would cause problems. Why penalize a girl who turns 16 on Jan. 1, one day after the deadline for a particular Olympics? That's silly.

Truth is, some 16-year-old gymnasts are not emotionally mature enough to compete on the world stage, while certain 14-year-olds are. So, age is really just a number, and not much else. It certainly isn't the most accurate indicator of how "old" someone is. With that in mind, it would be best to eliminate the age limit, once and for all. It's impossible to enforce, anyway.

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 26 February 2010 09:41    PDF Print
Stretching Out: The Adventures of Nastia, Carly & Shawn
(23 votes, average 2.87 out of 5)

Nastia's new love, Carly's comeback and Shawn's bum knee. What a week! IG Editor Dwight Normile takes a look at the three most prominent U.S. gymnasts of past two Summer Olympics.

Evans Almighty

One of the big stories out of Vancouver this week was the blossoming relationship between Nastia Liukin and figure skating champion Evan Lysacek, who met as cast members of the 2008 Disson Skating & Gymnastics Spectacular in Rapid City, S.D. This could get a little confusing for Nastia, whose agent also is named Evan. If things between Nastia and Evan — Lysacek, that is — develop into something really serious, at least her initials won't change.

Skating Pairs

Now that we're pairing off Olympic gymnastics champions with ice skaters, don't you think Shawn Johnson and short track master Apolo Ohno would make a cute couple? They both won Dancing With The Stars and they dueled recently in that Nestle Chocolate-versus-Crispy campaign. Plus, while the 6-foot-2 Lysacek stands 11 inches taller than Liukin, the 5-foot-7 Ohno would be only eight inches above Johnson. So it's settled, then. Shawn, Apolo, you have my blessing.

Shawn's Injury

Speaking of Shawn Johnson, we recently learned that she had surgery to repair tears to the ACL and meniscus in her left knee. She fell while skiing in Colorado in January. Now she's at home recovering from her first major injury, and one that she says has confirmed her love for gymnastics.

Devastated by her injury, Shawn says she went to see her coach, Chow Liang.

"Chow shocked me in his response to the news," she wrote on her website. "He was so comforting, so positive — it was just like old times. He told me things happen for a reason. … He told me to look at it as a blessing. …[With six months of recovery] I have time to reflect, time to myself and time to figure out who I am. The one thing that scared me the most when this happened was that possibly I could not return to gymnastics, even if I wanted to."

Suddenly for Johnson, London 2012 probably feels like it's just around the corner instead of a long way off.

Carly's Comeback

2004 Olympic champion Carly Patterson recently tweeted that she was thinking of making a comeback to gymnastics on vault and beam. Hey, why not? Carly would be 24 at London 2012, 13 years younger than Oksana Chusovitina, who is going for her sixth Olympics. Natalie, Carly's mom, told IG that her daughter's back problems might make a return unsafe.

"I think it is always in the back of your mind when you love a sport," Natalie said. "You can never say never, though."

WOGA Wonders

That would be some workout group at WOGA, should Carly and Nastia start training again. I can hear coach Valeri Liukin now: "Olympic all-around champions go to vault, and everyone else start on beam." Then again, how do you motivate someone who has already won the Olympics?

Note: With the runner-up finish of Rebecca Bross in London last October, WOGA now has three world all-around silver medalists. And if Bross should win gold at London 2012, WOGA, a converted grocery store, would record quite the hat trick.

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Wednesday, 03 February 2010 10:15    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Georgia's lows, Utah's highs and much more
(6 votes, average 4.33 out of 5)

The NCAA gymnastics season produced some surprises in January, so here are some interesting story lines to follow as the year moves forward.

• Georgia, the five-time defending women's NCAA champion, has a record of 1-3. Do the Gym Dogs miss the influence of retired coach Suzanne Yoculan or the 9.95s and 10.0s of retired NCAA record breaker Courtney Kupets? Maybe a little of both.

But really, January is a time when all teams are finding their identity, even Georgia. And although first-year head coach Jay Clark took over a winning program—the toughest job in sports—he's hardly a rookie. He was an assistant to Yoculan for 17 years.

"It has happened in the past," he told IG about starting off with a losing record. "And [it] has actually happened when we have won championships. Surely, no one envisions [starting this way], but it is not that atypical this early. We have a great training team that is underachieving in meets to this point. We will be fine. It is more magnified now because there is a new coach and all, but we are confident in our kids, our system and this program as a whole. Growing pains can be painful, but they do pass."

After starting the season with a 0.10 win over visiting Stanford, Georgia has lost three consecutive road meets (Alabama, Utah and Auburn). If the ninth-ranked Gym Dogs lose at home to 11th-ranked Kentucky on Friday, those growing pains might get a little more intense.

• LSU senior Susan Jackson tops the women's all-around rankings, over Morgan Dennis (Alabama) and Ashanee Dickerson (Florida), respectively. Jackson is an incredibly athletic gymnast who has the experience to stay at or near the top of the rankings all year. But after making the Super Six the last two seasons, LSU is ranked only 12th.

"Right now we are going very slow and having to compete with a bit of caution due to a lack of depth caused by untimely and unfortunate injuries to key individuals," LSU coach D-D Breaux said. "Susan has been a rock this season. If anyone can lead and pace this team to a strong finish, it will be Susan and the other seniors."

• Utah drew 15,552, the largest crowd in NCAA gymnastics history, to its Jan. 22 dual meet against Georgia, which it won, 196.550-196.500. The following week the Utes defeated Washington on the road in front of 1,851. I asked Utah coach Greg Marsden if his team ever experiences a motivational letdown on the road when there is a sparse crowd.

"To be honest, that can be a problem at times," he said. "We have to work hard to create our own energy. At home, the crowd does that for us."

For the record, Utah's 15,552 eclipsed its own single-meet record of 15,447 against BYU, March 28, 2008. Perhaps even more impressive is that of all women's NCAA sports, Utah ranked second in home attendance in 2008-09 to Tennessee basketball, 13,999-13,861. Alabama gymnastics was fourth (10,484), behind Connecticut basketball (10,529). Since 1992, Utah has topped the Average Home Attendance rankings for gymnastics every year but three (Alabama, 1997, 2004; Georgia, 2001).

• Michigan has claimed the top men's team ranking over early leader Illinois, the latter excelling under first-year head coach Justin Spring, who is assisted by two-time world all-around champion Ivan Ivankov.

One of the Illini team members reportedly quipped: "We're the only team whose coaches are better than we are."

Not surprisingly, Alabama, which placed second in 2009, sits atop the women's team rankings, ahead of Oklahoma. Of course, early rankings aren't as important as what you can do at the end of the season, but it sure must be motivating to see your team near the top. As noted above, senior Morgan Dennis is the No. 2-ranked all-arounder, and sophomore Ashley Priess, who placed 10th all-around at the 2006 World Championships, is tied for seventh.

Speaking of Oklahoma, the Sooners just moved into their newly-renovated gym (and also expanded by 7,000 square feet) over the semester break. The new digs must have sent a welcome message, especially to the men's team, that gymnastics will be around in Norman for a while.

For the OU women, redshirt freshman Natasha Kelley, who missed last season because a torn Achilles' tendon, is competing on bars and beam despite a complete tear of her right ACL last fall. And 2003 co-world uneven bars champion Hollie Vise is making the most of her senior year by competing on floor, having been a bars and beam specialist her first three Sooner seasons.

• California-Berkeley, which qualified Kyle Bunthuwong and Glen Ishino to the U.S. national team last summer, is off to a slow start this season. How slow? Cal is ranked 18th, below club program Arizona State.

Actually, injuries have kept the Golden Bears in hibernation a little longer than usual. Bunthuwong needed time to recover from a jammed knee, and Ishino peeled off high bar when his grip broke at the bottom of tap swing for a Kolman. He sustained only minor injuries, according to Weiner.

"I'm very excited about this year's team," he told IG. "With Brian Del Castillo's return to good health, we have four excellent all-arounders…."

So there you have it after the first month. Any predictions as to which teams will win the 2010 NCAAs in April?

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 29 January 2010 09:20    PDF Print
Stretching Out: 10 observations from the Jan-Feb IG
(10 votes, average 4.10 out of 5)

I realize our IG online visitors may be a different group than our print subscribers, but I nonetheless offer the following observations regarding the January-February issue of IG. I would be interested in your feedback, as well.

1. What comment(s) did you like most from Shawn Johnson's interview? For me, it was "I don't think [fans] do get the complete gist of [how hard it would be to come back], but that's what the media is for. That's why I love being able to tell them that, and try to get it across to them."

2. I believe the photo that Dave Black got of He Kexin made one of the best IG covers ever. He actually shot this skill at various moments, but this image in particular captured a critical point in the skill, as she begins her turn to catch in a cross-grip. Her face is visible, too, which is a bonus.

3. In my Stretching Out column (Worlds in Review), I took the men's high bar judges to task, claiming that the trio of medalists had the worst form of the eight finalists. I also brought up the fact that winner Zou Kai's routine was 57 seconds long, which is absurd when you consider gymnastics legend Dmitry Bilozerchev won the 1983 world high bar title in 37 seconds. I later learned that the Men's Technical Committee discussed the high bar judging in London at its meeting in the U.S. after worlds. Aljaz Pegan, who placed fifth in that final, has some candid comments regarding Zou's routine in our March issue.

4. We included various sequence photos in the issue, and none was more revealing than Igor Cassina performing the skill named after him. When you look at the form breaks in this sequence, it is extremely hard to understand how he was given the highest execution score in the final—by a considerable margin! That this type of judging can be overlooked in a major competition is quite sad.

5. What I liked most about interviewing new world vault champion Kayla Williams was the confidence she seems to have in herself. I also liked her response to the prompt, Something unusual nobody knows about you: "I don't know. I'll tell anybody just about anything."

6. IG's John Crumlish took a remarkable trip for the "Central European Sojourn" feature, which chronicled his daily gymnastics hook-ups with friends, coaches and gymnasts. It was interesting to read what Austria's Carina Hasenöhrl had to say about her training days in Romania (and I thought her white eyeglasses were great too). Remarkably, shortly after returning home to Los Angeles, Crumlish jetted off again in late December, to Spain and Morocco!

7. In our "10 Questions With Paul Hall" (coach of Daniel Keatings and Louis Smith), he explained how he separates the tendency to become a friend rather than a coach: "I hope I can say that we are all friends, but also that there is mutual respect. The guys know that there is a line in the gym that they shouldn't cross, and I've learned that patience and an ability to depart from the rule book are sometimes necessary."

8. One of my favorite images in the "World Gallery" is a shot by Eileen Langsley of Ivana Hong doing a layout step-out on balance beam. Hong looks like she's six feet above the beam. I also like Thomas Schreyer's image of Brittany Rogers, hitting a momentary one-arm stag handstand on floor. He obviously knew it was coming, because it is a split-second pose.

9. I thought one of Shannon Miller's comments about being a new mother was very true: "Things that seemed so important a year ago just don't matter anymore. And things, like whether Rocco had a good burp or ate enough today, are at the top of my priority list."

10. I really liked this New Year's Resolution in "Kids Klub": "I will spend more time conditioning than I do on Facebook."

 


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