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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by Dwight Normile    Thursday, 18 March 2010 13:28    PDF Print
Stretching Out: 10 observations from the March IG
(6 votes, average 4.00 out of 5)

Once again, IG editor Dwight Normile compiles a list of nuggets, editorially and photographically, from the current issue of International Gymnast magazine.

When IG contributor John Crumlish sat down with Aljaz Pegan, 35, and Mitja Petkovsek, 33, the veteran Slovenians really opened up. Here's what Pegan said about the 2009 world high bar champ:

"I was surprised when I saw the Chinese guy, Zou Kai, with his 7.5 (difficulty score). I didn't expect it. His routine was good, but not so clean, and then 7.5—wow. The routines over 7.0 are usually so unclean and so risky that I think you can [only] do it maybe once or twice, but not when you want—just when you have luck. He was lucky that day. I'm sure his routine is not so well prepared that he can do it whenever he wants."

And here is Petkovsek's response when Crumlish asked if he ever considers retirement: "I'd rather not think about it, because it's such a painful thought."

We reviewed Kim Hamilton Anthony's book, Unfavorable Odds, and also included an interview with her in "Chalk Talk." She placed fourth at the 1985 U.S. championships, then dropped to 13th at the world trials, so we asked her what happened. Here's her answer:

"As crazy as it may seem, I got my wisdom teeth taken out shortly before world trials, without alerting my coach. …the surgery had some complications which caused me to miss quite a bit of training,… It still saddens me to think about it."

Moral of the story: It is always unwise to have your wisdom teeth removed before an important meet. In hindsight, the 1985 U.S. world team, which placed sixth in Montreal, probably could have used Hamilton.

I really liked the feature "Faith and Gymnastics," written by 1992 U.S. Class II champion Tim Dalrymple, whose gymnastics career ended because of a severe neck injury while he was at Stanford. He went on to get his Ph.D. at Harvard, where he teaches today. He also writes and edits for Patheos.com. His neck injury still causes chronic pain today, but his outlook is inspiring:

"As a Christian, however, I believe that a life is not wasted if it is lived in pain and suffering. A life is wasted if it is lived in such comfort and superficiality that the deeper needs of the soul are never exposed."

And I also appreciated what he had to say about gymnasts who finally retire: "Many, as a result, find the adjustment to the post-gymnastics life difficult. If they are no longer gymnasts, who are they? They feel empty and adrift, as though their identity and purpose have been taken from them, until they find another source of fulfillment…."

This, of course, is true for anyone who retires from something s/he loves.

Army's annual men's gymnastics team photo is always an original creation by head coach Doug Van Everen, who refuses to position his squad in any sort of conventional pose. In the past, his team has been photographed on a golf course, the Empire State Building and even underwater. This year's version, which appears on page 10, is particularly clever. You've really got to see it. Oh, and the poster is also an ad for the 2010 Men's NCAA Championships, which will be in West Point, N.Y., April 15-17.

One of my favorite photos in this issue is of Maxim Devyatovsky on parallel bars. It's part of our "Nobody's Perfect" gallery, which reveals various quirky form breaks of top gymnasts.

The March issue also has a profile on Koichi Endo, who has illustrated the men's Code of Points since 1989. Here's how he developed his skill as an artist when he was still a school boy: "I thought many gymnasts did the same [skills]. I drew new skills—for me—on textbooks or notebooks during boring classes. It was fun."

Considering how good he became at it, Koichi must have had a lot of boring classes. And yes, he is related to the late, great Yukio Endo, who was his father.

In his "Ziert Alert!," Publisher Paul Ziert brought up a great point in comparing women's and men's NCAA dual meets. The women still use the 10.0 and have created rules that encourage parity and down-to-the-last-routine excitement. The men use the FIG open-ended scoring system, even though most NCAA male gymnasts are not trying to make an Olympic team. Regular-season men's NCAA meets could be a great spectator event if the scoring format could be altered to create more parity, and thus, a few upsets.

I thought the sibling rivalry of Maike and Katja Roll was especially interesting. Maike, who turns 17 on March 22, says she is happy for the success Katja is enjoying as a junior. "Maybe this will change when we are both seniors, because then we really have to fight against each other since we both want to get a spot on the team," she says.

On the "Warm-up" page, we highlighted the March 1970 issue of The Modern Gymnast, which included men's routine requirements to become an elite back then. Here's one that should be added to the current Code of Points ASAP: "Each apparatus also required "1 non-stock part," which means an original skill. Now wouldn't that be wonderful?

 
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?

 


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