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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by Dwight Normile    Wednesday, 03 February 2010 10:15    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Georgia's lows, Utah's highs and much more
(11 votes, average 3.73 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."

Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 22 January 2010 11:17    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Chinese Ages & New Olympic Format
(5 votes, average 4.20 out of 5)

As we wait for the 2010 competition season to warm up, IG Editor Dwight Normile takes a detailed look at a few issues involving numbers.

FIG - China

As reported an an earlier Stretching Out, a Disciplinary Committee will announce on Feb. 26 whether Chinese gymnasts Dong Fangxiao and Yang Yun were too young at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. When North Korea submitted various birthdates for Kim Gwang Suk in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the North Korean women were banned from the 1993 worlds. Didn't the North Koreans try to say it was a typo, a mistake, human error? That's what the Chinese camp has been saying.

If the FIG's Disciplinary Committee delivers a guilty verdict next month, what will the FIG do? Will it ban the Chinese women from the 2010 worlds, which is the beginning of the qualification to the 2012 Olympics? I doubt it will prevent the defending Olympic champs from qualifying to the next Olympics. But I suppose their 2000 medals will be stripped.

World and Olympic Team Size

I find it odd that the team size for the 2010 and 2011 World Championships will remain at six, when the 2012 Olympics will feature five-member teams. I suppose the upside is that one more gymnast gets to experience a world championships, even if he or she never makes it to the Olympics.

Here's the format information from the 2010 Technical Regulations, which can be downloaded from the FIG website (Click on Rules).

Reg. 5.1.3 Qualifying Team and Individual Competition (Competition I)

The results obtained determine…

• the qualification for Competitions II, III and IV

• the ranking of the teams placed 9th or lower

• the ranking of the all-around competitors placed 25th or lower.

• in the year prior to the Olympic Games, the qualification of the teams and individuals for participation in the Olympic Games.

This competition is organized by a rotation of Groups, a Group comprising either a team of 4 to 6 (OG: 5) gymnasts entered by national federations or teams formed from individual gymnasts of different federations. A team shall provide for not more than 5 gymnasts (OG: 4) to compete on any single piece of apparatus and the 4 (OG: 3) highest scores will be taken into account for the team total.

Don't be confused by the phrase "a Group comprising … a team of 4 to 6," which merely means that a team could technically compete in Competition I (qualifications) with only four gymnasts, since the format is 6-5-4 (four scores count).

So the 2012 Olympics will feature a 5-4-3 format in prelims, and 5-3-3 in team finals. I'd vote for any other format for the team finals (5-5-5, 5-5-4, 5-4-4 or 5-4-3), anything to put more routines on display. I think more gymnasts deserve the chance to compete in the medal round, and spectators, who paid a lot of money for tickets, deserve to see more gymnastics.

Alternate Rule

If a gymnast is injured during qualifications, he or she can be replaced by the team alternate in the team finals (with approval of the concerned Technical President, and if the injury is certified by the official competition medical authority).

Written by Dwight Normile    Tuesday, 19 January 2010 11:19    PDF Print
The Show You Love to Hate & Vice Versa
(21 votes, average 3.76 out of 5)

Like many old weekly soaps, such as Dynasty and Dallas, Make It Or Break It has succeeded in generating interest via unbelievable story lines and unscrupulous characters.

I wrote an unflattering review of Make It Or Break It before it came out last fall, and then watched about half of the episodes before giving up. I expected all the gymnastics cliches, which came in abundance. But I suppose the infamous gas-station scene — where Kaylie and friends did cartwheel flip-flops to ward off their would-be assailants — told me I should have been doing something more important, like disinfecting the kitchen trash can or expressing the anal glands of our Basset hound (don't ask).

Even though I fully understand I am not among the target audience for this show, I decided to tune in again last night, just to see what I had missed and why people love to hate it — and hate to love it. Afterward, my only regret was that I'll never get that hour back again.

Here are 10 observations from MIOBI:

1. Including actual gymnastics in a show supposedly set in a gymnastics club has become too much of a hassle for the producers. Last night's gymnastics scenes totaled about 20 seconds. Apparently, the interior of the Rock is about as boring as, well, the inside of any gym. And the daily grind of workouts is even drier. Instead, why not jet (privately!) to L.A. for a party or two? And Payson can get another doctor's opinion while there. Now that's creative, if not convenient, script writing. Is it just me, or does the plot have a "Make It Up As We Go Along or Break It" feel?

2. The sequence of Emily tucking after a pirouette and then slinging a double flyaway was certainly interesting, considering the stunt double was obviously about to jump off. It reminded me of American Anthem, when Mitch Gaylord's high bar dismount at the big meet somehow hovered over the ground forever as the camera panned the emotions of every other cast member. He probably did a quintuple-twisting octuple by the time they showed him land.

3. Lauren is the best tumbler on the team; she flip-flopped on BFF Kaylie last night, just like she does with every other character, for that matter. But you already knew that.

4. Payson looked really confident strolling the red carpet, despite the back brace. Maybe it was the experience she gained earlier in the season when her team put on its own fashion show.

5. The line "Goodnight, Butterfly" made my two teenaged kids laugh and roll their eyes.

6. Emily and her boyfriend seem to speak in text.

7. It was odd to see a promo for Secret Life of an American Teenager, plugging an appearance by Shawn Johnson. (BTW, happy 18th, Shawn.) My daughter said, "Shouldn't she be on MIOBI?"

8. I wonder if, say, Bridget Sloan, works part-time at a pizza joint. "Marta, is it OK if I miss the first two days of training camp? I couldn't get anyone to cover my shifts — not even my mother."

9. The music is the best part of this show.

10. The music is the best part of this show. (Sorry, but out of complete indifference, I could only come up with nine observations.)

Feel free to add a 10th to the list.

Written by Dwight Normile    Wednesday, 30 December 2009 10:08    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Codes, Comebacks and Cinderella
(39 votes, average 3.38 out of 5)

As the calendar flips to 2010, we reflect on the past 12 months of the unpredictable world of gymnastics. Here's hoping the new year will provide even more excitement.

Code of Points: The Women's Technical Committee boldly lowered the required skills from 10 to eight, while the Men's Technical Committee did not. The result? Across four events, a woman must do 24 skills and one vault, while across six events, a man must do 50 skills and one vault. Whatever happened to gender equity? Of course, as I've stated numerous times, I commend the WTC's decision. That said, I must say the women have gotten a bit severe in their execution deductions. I've always trumpeted that perfect execution should take precedence over risky difficulty, but I just can't see where some of the deductions are coming from now.

Most Popular Combination: The most common high bar combo might well be a Takemoto-Yamawaki (layout Voronin), even if the latter often morphs into whatever the gymnast must do to clear the bar and regrasp. The most common for women? Hmmm. Anything to a flip-flop-layout on beam.

My New Rule: I offer the following proposal to the FIG. To reverse the trend toward marathon routines, reward those that satisfy the requirements with the fewest number of skills. Makes perfect sense to me. So in the apparatus finals, for example, a tie would be broken by the number of skills. Fewest wins. Under this rule, Beth Tweddle would be even harder to beat.

The American Cup Jinx: After winning the 2009 American Cup in Chicago last February, Fabian Hambüchen and Jordyn Wieber sort of fizzled. Hambüchen still competed for much of the year, winning the Europeans and the first two legs of the Champions Trophy, but he had to withdraw from the biggest meet of 2009: the World Championships. Late in 2009 he gamely competed in the Champions Trophy final, at less than 100%, and finished second. Wieber's chronic hamstring was aggravated early last summer at a national team training camp, which knocked her out of the U.S. championships in August.

2009 Nadia Comaneci International Invitational: The inaugural competition named after the 1976 Olympic champion scored a 10.0 for the field it drew to Oklahoma City: Clubs from Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Mexico, Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan and the United States. 2008 Olympic floor champion Sandra Izbasa won the all-around, but later in the year tore her Achilles' tendon while preparing for worlds. Here's hoping we see Izbasa back in 2010.

Russia Returns—Briefly: The two Ksenias, Semyonova and Afanasyeva, went 1-2 at the Europeans in Milan in April, but were practically invisible at the worlds in October. Granted, the latter left London prior to the meet because of injury, but Semyonova, fourth all-around at the Olympics and the 2007 world champ on bars, had the worst results of the Russian women in London. For the record, Semyonova won the Europeans with 58.175, which would have been golden in London.

Swiss Peaks: Ariella Käslin continued her ascent in the Swiss record books after making the Olympic vault final. She won the event at the Europeans and placed second at worlds. Of course, much of her success comes from her ability to vault a handspring-rudi, which carries an unusually huge value in the women's Code (6.3). I predict that we'll begin to see more women attempt this vault in 2010.

Obituaries: The gymnastics world lost several notable individuals in 2009. Japanese great Yukio Endo, IG founder Glenn Sundby, 2009 world bronze medalist Yuri Ryazanov. Others included Pierre Chabloz, Irina Gabashvili, Claus Haller, Tom Cook and Levi Torkelson.

Comebacks: While the gymnastics world awaits the possible comebacks of 2008 Olympic champion Nastia Liukin and all-around runner-up Shawn Johnson, who are holding firm on their decision to keep that option open, Alicia Sacramone announced her intention to return to competition in 2010. Of course, comeback promises are much easier to make than keep, especially when those old aches and pains start to return.

More Comebacks: Comebacks are not only for gymnasts. Former FIG photographer and long-time IG contributor Eileen Langsley began shooting a few meets in 2009, and Dave Black, former photographer for USA Gymnastics and IG, joined the IG tour to the London World Championships. Apparently, shooting gymnastics is just like riding a bike, judging by their beautiful photos in recent IGs.

Biggest Cinderella Story: Kayla Williams, for sure. A Level 10 champion in the spring, Williams became the first American vault world champion in the fall. Regardless of what the rest of her career holds, she will always be a world champion.

U.S. Women: The world all-around gold by Bridget Sloan in 2009 gave the U.S. a stranglehold on that event, after Shawn Johnson's victory in 2007 and Nastia Liukin's Olympic triumph in 2008. With Rebecca Bross a close second to Sloan in London -- and no doubt having gained a huge dose of experience in the process -- look for an American to challenge for the 2010 title, as well.

Asian Domination: Considering that Japan's Kohei Uchimura won the world all-around title with plenty of room to spare, and China hogged half of the 12 golds in London, it is safe to say that Asia will be a major player in 2010.

Thank you to all who contributed to IG in 2009, and happy New Year.


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