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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 18 June 2010 12:30    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Cal's Precarious Future & an Update From Romania
(10 votes, average 4.00 out of 5)

2012 would be the 100th anniversary of Cal men's gymnastics, and I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping it reaches that milestone. But the winds of economic gloom, particularly in the great state of California, have caused considerable concern among the Cal gymnastics faithful.

"No announcement has been made about program cuts here at Cal," said head coach Barry Weiner (shown here), who just completed his 19th season with the Golden Bears. "However, with the poor economic climate in the state of California, our athletic director, Sandy Barbour, has clearly stated nothing is off the table, including program cuts. Therefore, the Cal men's gymnastics family is asking for letters of support."

Weiner, an ardent student of the sport, led Cal to back-to-back NCAA titles in 1997 and 1998, and his gymnasts claimed three of the top six ranks at the 2009 U.S. championships.

The cuts are slated for late July or early August. If you are a supporter of Cal gymnastics—or simply a supporter of gymnastics—log on to calgymnasticsforever.com to see how you can help. It would be a shame to lose a program that enhances both the NCAA and USA Gymnastics.

Bellu, Bitang back in the gym

IG reported earlier that Romanian women's national coach Nicolae Forminte resigned in a huff after learning that the expertise of his predecessors, Octavian Bellu and Mariana Bitang, had been solicited by the Romanian federation. Forminte later came to his senses and said he would reconsider his rash decision to quit.

Forminte's sudden resignation certainly took federation officials by surprise, but now, a few weeks later, his return apparently is no longer needed. With the national team on vacation from school right now, they have been training in Izvorani. Bellu and Bitang have been in the gym daily and running the workouts, along with other national team coaches.

Word out of Romania is that the atmosphere in the gym is very positive, so don't expect Forminte to be welcomed back. And while nothing is set in stone yet for the Rotterdam worlds in terms on who will coach the team, it wouldn't surprise me to see Bellu and Bitang return to their former head coaching roles at some point before 2011.

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Tuesday, 01 June 2010 11:58    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Olympic Qualification & Guess Who's Back? (updated)
(16 votes, average 3.13 out of 5)

The FIG announced the qualification process for the 2012 London Olympics, which will feature five-member teams for the first time. The 2010 Rotterdam World Championships in October will reportedly be the largest ever in terms of number of participants, but only the top 24 men's and women's teams will advance to the 2011 Tokyo World Championships.

2012 Olympic qualification

The format for Tokyo will differ from past Olympic qualifiers. Instead of the top 12 teams advancing to the Olympics, only the top eight teams, plus individual apparatus medalists, will earn Olympic berths.

In January 2012, the teams that placed ninth through 16th in Tokyo will battle for the last four team berths to London. This final qualification meet will be held at London's O2 Arena, the venue of the 2009 worlds and 2012 Olympics.

Having the final qualifier at home could help Great Britain secure berths for both its men's and women's teams. Its men's team did not qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics (it placed 15th at the 2007 Stuttgart worlds), and its women's team placed ninth in Beijing.

Give these guys a break

The Rotterdam worlds, which expanded its competition schedule from seven to nine days, also seems to have altered the usual meet format. For years, the men's qualification rounds preceded the women's, but the schedule printed on the official Rotterdam worlds website has the women's prelims on Oct. 16 and 17, followed by the men's prelims on Oct. 18 and 19.

The women's team final is slated for Oct. 20, the men's on Oct. 21. Then it gets weird.

Both the men's and women's all-around finals are scheduled for the same day, Oct. 22, with the men's at 4 p.m. and the women's at 7:30 p.m. So much for celebrating your team victory the night before if you are an all-arounder.

I feel for any all-arounder from a top-eight team, such as Japan's Kohei Uchimura or Germany's Fabian Hambüchen. These guys will have to gear up for the all-around final less than 24 hours after competing in the emotionally draining team final, where they might have performed on all six events. It will be completely understandable if any of these guys fails to reach his potential in the apparatus finals the following two days.

Why schedule the men after the women for the prelims and team finals, only to reverse them for the all-around finals? With only four events (and eight skills counting) compared with six (10 skills) for men, it is far easier for female gymnasts to compete back-to-back all-around competitions than it is for men.

If the FIG insists on holding a world championships in every non-Olympic year, perhaps it would be wise to follow the "individual" worlds (London 2009) with a shorter, team-only format the following year. No need to decide individual world champions again. Remember, years ago the worlds were held only every four years, between the Olympics. They were a really big deal, but not so much anymore. This year the Commonwealth Games will be held in New Delhi, India, from Oct. 3-14. The gymnastics competition runs from Oct. 4-8, and podium training for the Rotterdam worlds begins Oct. 12. That's a lot to ask of the Commonwealth teams that also need to be peaking in Rotterdam.

Keatings the latest casualty

I was saddened to hear about the ACL injury to Great Britain's Daniel Keatings. Saddened both for him and for what the sport will be missing in the short term. He sustained the injury shortly after the recent Birmingham Europeans. Again, the Europeans used to be a rarely contested event, but the European Gymnastics Union now holds them annually.

The open-ended Code has been in effect since 2006, and I have to believe that the longer routines for men combined with the growing frequency of competition is going to take a toll beyond our wildest nightmares.

Shawn Johnson also tore an ACL this year, but on the ski slopes. So just when you thought her gymnastics retirement had been confirmed by an injury, the opposite occurred. Apparently the setback spurred a comeback, which she announced recently. My guess is she won't be the only one. London 2012 will be here before you know it.

Bellu's back (updated)

When former Romanian head coach Octavian Bellu and his former assistant Mariana Bitang were recently asked by the Romanian Federation to help prepare the 2012 Olympic team, the sudden resignation of head coach Nicolae Forminte came as a surprise. The plan was not to have Bellu and Bitang move to Deva to take over, but to periodically work with Forminte to help the team. Now reports out of Romania say that Forminte might reconsider his decision to quit.


 
Written by Dwight Normile    Thursday, 18 March 2010 13:28    PDF Print
Stretching Out: 10 observations from the March IG
(11 votes, average 3.55 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
(19 votes, average 4.47 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
(12 votes, average 3.92 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.

 


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