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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by Dwight Normile    Monday, 28 July 2008 10:45    PDF Print
A Sad End to the Hamm Saga

Paul Hamm's withdrawal — "resigning," as USA Gymnastics worded it in its official release — from the 2008 Olympic team stunned the sports world, but it really wasn't all that surprising. If you had heard Hamm speak to the media after being named to the Olympic team at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, you could sense the unease with which he had accepted that vote of confidence from the men's selection committee.

In hindsight, the U.S. Men's Program would have been better off following the lead of the women's program, which didn't finalize its team until mid-July. Then it wouldn't have been saddled with a team built largely around Hamm's all-around capabilities.

What is surprising is how easily Hamm passed his readiness test at a July training camp, even though he was far from ready. Was this wishful thinking on the part of the U.S. Men's Program, or a rationalization of naming Hamm, who had a broken hand, to the team in the first place? I think it would have made more sense to name him as an alternate at the trials. And U.S. champion David Sender, who had to withdraw from trials because of a sprained ankle, should have been added too.

"My hand, in general, has not gotten to the point where I felt comfortable doing all of my skills," said Hamm on Monday, adding that he had pushed himself to "perform skills during the camp that I had not done since my recent surgery."

Hamm also didn't show all of his difficulty at the camp, and I was also told that he was hardly ready on rings, an event on which he was desperately needed in Beijing.

Complaining of a sore left shoulder after the camp, Hamm said he felt worse upon returning home to Columbus, Ohio. "Unfortunately, the week after camp has been a disaster," he said. "I have not been able to do a single full routine since I competed [at U.S. Championships] in May."

Hamm's absence opens the door for Raj Bhavsar, who was named to the team hours after Hamm's announcement. "This is a tremendous honor, and the first feeling that comes to mind is that dreams can come true," said Bhavsar, who had felt slighted by his alternate status in 2004. "Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of a great athlete, Paul Hamm. My heart goes out to him."

Though U.S. aspirations might have deflated considerably, an Olympic team medal is not out of the question. At the 2007 World Championships, a Hamm-less U.S. finished fourth behind Germany — in Stuttgart. There is no reason why the team can't challenge for a medal in Beijing.

Hamm, a two-time Olympian, all-around world champion (2003) and Olympic champion, says he's through with competitive gymnastics. He plans to do the post-Olympic tour and eventually pursue an MBA.

"It was a big goal of mine to see if I could contend in the all-around again and defend my gold from the Athens Olympics," Hamm said. "This has been the hardest decision that I've ever had to make."

Knowing the high standard Hamm probably had set for himself, his decision to pull out didn't surprise me.

Written by Dwight Normile    Tuesday, 22 July 2008 09:24    PDF Print
Just What I Think

Stress Factors ... and Fractures

Broken legs to Shayla Worley (fibula) and Mattie Larson (tibia), injuries which kept both from being named to the Olympic team or as alternates, underscore the physical demands of gymnastics under the Code of Points, but the current rules are only partly to blame. The system for the U.S. women's team, which includes periodic training camps in Houston (I heard one coach call them "death camps"), is simply too demanding.

A selection process involving three two-day competitions — two public, one private — within six weeks is a lot to ask from a psychological aspect alone. And it comes at the end of a four-year cycle when just about every gymnast is either coming off a serious injury or coping with a variety of new ones. What struck me most while choosing photos for our last issue was how many of the senior women were taped for the U.S. Olympic Trials. Toes, ankles, shins, knees ... anything to get through the meet. How can a gymnast convey mastery and beauty when she's covered in bandages?

Alicia Sacramone

Get A(nother) Life: Many of these overuse injuries could be avoided, but a certain mindset exists in the world of top-level gymnastics. If you take more than one day off per week (Sunday seems the day of choice), you're not training enough. Vacations are practically forbidden, and national holidays are sometimes viewed as a disruption to a gymnast's sacred training regimen. I feel sorry for elites who sandwich two daily workouts around a few hours of school, do homework late at night and spend all day Saturday at the gym because there is no school. I respect Liang Chow for how he handled Shawn Johnson's training through the years. He made sure she had enough time to go to regular school and be a kid.

With no significant break — say, two weeks to a month — how can the human body cope with the constant pounding and torque on just about every joint? The FIG Women's Technical Committee made a smart decision to reduce from 10 to eight the number of skills required in routines beginning next year. I am still wondering why the men didn't do the same.

I believe extended breaks should be scheduled throughout the year to allow the body to heal properly and to prevent burnout. In the end, I just don't think gold medals — even in the Olympics — are more important than a gymnast's long-term health.

Men's Olympic All-around

China's Yang Wei says he's ready to win the all-around gold he literally let slip through his fingers in the fifth rotation in Athens 2004 (he missed the regrasp on a full pirouette). That was under the 10.0 system, when a fall really killed your chances. Now Yang is likely to start the all-around competition with a huge head start because of his A-scores (difficulty).

Defending Olympic champion Paul Hamm figured he would trail Yang by a significant margin in A-score, and he will likely start behind Germany's Fabian Hambüchen, too. Hambüchen, who won the 2007 world all-around silver, has beefed up his difficulty by 1.3 since worlds, which puts him .8 or .9 in front of Hamm's first-day A-score at the U.S. championships in May. And considering Hamm is coming off a broken hand, it is unlikely he can add new skills in the coming weeks.

Hamm's hand situation effectively eliminates any pressure for him to win, which can't be said for the hometown hero. If Yang indeed choked in 2004 when he peeled off high bar, he'll really be under the gun to perform in Beijing. "To compete on home turf, you surely have great pressure, and I think I can turn the pressure into motivation," he told Xinhua News Agency. "Whatever happens, I'm going for the gold in Beijing."

Did Yang just jinx himself?

Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 04 July 2008 11:33    PDF Print
Scouting the U.S. Women's Team
If five of the six members of the U.S. women's Olympic team are locks — and I think they are — the sixth spot presents any intriguing situation. Given the top five are Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin, Chellsie Memmel, Samantha Peszek and Alicia Sacramone, the final berth is a battle among Ivana Hong, Jana Bieger, Shayla Worley and Bridget Sloan. And as impressive as Mattie Larson was in Philadelphia, I'm not sure Marta Karolyi will take a chance on someone with limited experience. But, hey, what do I know? I was surprised when she chose both Annia Hatch and Mohini Bhardwaj in 2004. But I was glad she did.

Anyway, the final spot will be determined largely by uneven bars scoring potential, and among the aforementioned candidates, Bieger is ahead, having ranked third on bars at trials, behind Liukin and Memmel. Hong was fifth, Sloan eighth, Larson ninth and Worley, who fell the second day, 10th.

Bieger, the 2006 world all-around silver medalist, is an interesting case, since she has been out of the picture because of injury. "You know how it is," Andrea Bieger, Jana's coach and mother, told me in Philadelphia after the first day of competition. "They forgot about [her], and you have to start from [the bottom]."

Said Jana, after day two: "I was just happy with myself just to show everybody that I'm back here and competing again." I have to believe Karolyi noticed.

Worley can probably relate to Bieger's situation. Second at the U.S. championships a year ago and a member of the 2007 world champion team, Worley has been slowed by a herniated disk in her back. She's great on bars, though, but must prove it at the selection camp.

Sloan also is accomplished on bars, but she looked a bit mechanical in Philadelphia. I'd like to see her perform and not simply execute. She's got a lot of upside, and needs to trust her ability.

It's too late to change now, but I think Liukin should experiment with a new uneven bars dismount after the Olympics. The rest of her routine is often flawless, but the form break on the tucked barani-out might not be worth it. I think she could learn a tucked full-out (like Svetlana Khorkina did) and score even higher. Now that's a scary thought for her bars competitors!

Though Johnson weakest event is bars, she is really clean and consistent. She is not built for inside-Stalders, so she relies on a high B-score and big dismount (double-twisting double layout). Her coach, Liang Chow, has done well to get the most out of Johnson on this event. If Johnson competes beyond 2008, I could see her adding a full twist to her Gienger.

Hong placed fifth all-around at both the U.S. championships and trials, and she has a double-twisting Yurchenko. She ditched her signature German giant sequence on bars because it wasn't rewarded at the 2007 worlds, and her new routine scores a bit higher. She may not be Karolyi's answer on bars, but she still has much to offer as a table-setter.

I understand Karolyi's philosophy of wanting to wait until the last minute to choose the team, but I wonder if it's worth it in terms of the added stress on the gymnasts. Johnson and Liukin were named to the team in Philadelphia, but Memmel, Peszek and Sacramone face another month of flipping and twisting by day and tossing and turning at night. Their chickens have already hatched, so why not give their worry glands a much needed rest?

Written by Dwight Normile    Thursday, 26 June 2008 08:04    PDF Print
National Champ Left in the Dark
I am still scratching my head about David Sender's omission as at least an alternate to the U.S. Olympic team. He won the all-around and vault at the U.S. Championships in May, and dominated the "10-Point Program" that rewards individual event ranking. Sender amassed 66 points to runner-up Jonathan Horton's 55, yet somehow it was determined he couldn't help the team. When I asked USA Gymnastics why it overlooked Sender, who sprained his ankle and had to scratch from Olympic Trials, I received the following statement from Men's Program Director Dennis McIntyre:

"USA Gymnastics and the men's program recognize the dedication, desire and accomplishments of every athlete who competed for the Olympic team. Each athlete and his coach has contributed to the program during the past few years, and it is never easy to tell anyone that he will not be a part of the Olympic team given the sacrifices and commitment demanded. Winning a team medal at the Olympic Games is our goal, and the priority is to compile a team that has the best chance for success in the 6-5-4 and 6-3-3 formats. The men's selection committee analyzed nearly 50 different team scoring scenarios and feels confident that the assembled team gives us our best opportunity to medal in Beijing."

OK, that's great. But what about Sender? "They decided that his scores from USAs didn't hold up," said Thom Glielmi, Sender's coach at Stanford. "I ran the numbers too, and it's like any statistical analysis. You can manipulate the numbers any way you want."

Sender, meanwhile, is left in the dark about why he was overlooked. "I wish I had an explanation, because it would at least make me feel better," he said.

I don't buy that "each athlete and his coach has contributed to the program during the past few years," as McIntyre claims, but Sender certainly did. He's been one of the most consistent gymnasts in the U.S. in this quadrennium, and went five-for-five at the 2006 World Championships. It wasn't his fault the team crumbled to 13th. He also tried to make the 2007 world team, which earned the U.S. men a team berth to Beijing. That can't be said for every member of the 2008 Olympic team.

At some point the athletes who strive to [help the program] should be made to feel like more than a potential score on rings or vault. A certain human aspect is missing from the selection system.

"They didn't really tell us anything," Sender said about the final selection. "They told us that they took everything into account and they treated the injured individuals (Sender and Hamm) as if we were healthy. They told us it was probably 90 percent just on scores, and nothing else really came into it until that last 10 percent."

The priority of the USAG Men's Program of winning a medal is understandable, but at some point the athletes who strive to make that happen should be made to feel like more than a potential score on rings or vault. A certain human aspect is missing from the selection system. If you're going to sell tickets to a national championship, then show some respect to the guy who wins it. For that accomplishment alone, Sender should have been named one of the three alternates to Beijing.

Bad luck robbed Sender of the chance to improve his standing at the Olympic Trials, but he will always be the 2008 U.S. champion. "I would like to take some pride in that, but apparently that doesn't mean much anymore," he said.

Said Glielmi: "What's frustrating for the athletes and coaches, if you just look at the numbers, this is the one time where the numbers didn't work in his favor, and his past successes didn't carry any weight."

Random Trials Thoughts…

Yewki Tomita was breathtaking on pommel horse, parallel bars and high bar, though his father, Yoichi, told me the new Code is "not kind to 5-foot-9-inch gymnasts." If the Code indeed rewarded what it originally proposed — execution — Tomita would have scored much higher. Still, Tomita was the classiest gymnast in the field in terms of presentation.

Tomita and Sean Golden, each of whom did three events, combined for a strong six-event total. I could envision them on any six-man team, along with four balanced all-arounders.

Sean Townsend gamely landed his Dragulescu vault both days of trials, even though it was low. It was nice to see him stick his full-in dismount on floor, which was most likely his final competitive routine.

Joey Hagerty impressed me with his form and technique, and his consistency ultimately landed him on the team.

It was great to see Justin Spring, who tore his ACL last summer, tumble and vault with no brace or wrap on his knee. He really earned his spot on the team, although he said he didn't think he had a chance prior to trials.

Alternate Raj Bhavsar made a remarkable return to the all-around this year, and he hit every routine in Philadelphia. He also was able to light up a crowd like no other. "It's not something that I plan to do," he said. "It's just absolutely raw emotion coming out. That's who I am." I could have seen him on the team, no problem.

Written by Dwight Normile    Monday, 09 June 2008 07:24    PDF Print
10 Thoughts on the U.S. Championships

Women's National Championships, Boston

Dead heat: Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin could go 1-2 or 2-1 at the Olympics. Their A Scores across four events on Day 2 were 26.20 (Johnson) and 26.10 (Liukin). Liukin actually beat Johnson on the second day, 64.20-64.05, but her fall and out-of-bounds deduction in prelims proved to be the difference in the end. If both hit in Beijing, I honestly couldn't pick a winner — they're that close.

Depth: When was the last time the top three finishers were all-around world champions? (And I'm still giving that title to Liukin, who tied Memmel for the 2005 gold in Melbourne, and then was bumped to second when the scores were truncated via a senseless rule.)

Samantha Peszek: Peszek's ambitious floor dismount of 1 1/2 twist through to double pike backfired on day two, when she put her hands down on the double pike. It's always difficult to maintain your horizontal momentum while stepping out of a 1 1/2 twist, because the roundoff becomes shorter than when it's performed after a normal hurdle (especially at the end of a routine). If she struggles with that pass at trials, too, it should be replaced.

Chellsie Memmel: After missing the 2004 Olympic team because of a fluke injury at the wrong time, Memmel has to be considered a sentimental favorite to make the team. And if she performs at trials the way she did in Boston, I'd put her on and name her team captain, too. Her routines looked solid, especially on bars, where I don't think she really needs to cowboy her double front dismount. But I guess she — and everyone else who cowboys this skill — doesn't want to risk sitting down on the landing.

U.S. Olympic team: Marta Karolyi has a much easier task of choosing a team than the U.S. Men's Selection Committee. She simply has fewer slots and events to fill. Barring injury, Johnson, Liukin and Alicia Sacramone are locks, and I'd add Memmel and Peszek too. That leaves one spot open. Ivana Hong, Jana Bieger, Shayla Worley or Bridget Sloan? It's too early to tell, but the trials in Philadelphia should help to clear up that fuzzy picture.

Men's National Championships, Houston

Houston, we have a problem: I'm not sure the results at the U.S. Championships did much to help the Selection Committee. In fact, the two-day meet might have made things a bit more confusing, since so many contenders kept falling off their best events. If that trend continues in Philadelphia, the selection committee should choose the highest-scoring team under the assumption that everyone will hit. No reason to compete for fourth or fifth at this point.

Blaine Wilson: Three-time Olympian Wilson bowed out after two routines, and I liked the quiet grace with which he exited the sport. He really had nothing more to prove, anyway.

Specialists: If you are good at both pommel horse and rings, an unlikely combination, you really help this team. Rings champion Kevin Tan comes closest. Under the "points system" he earned the maximum 22 (11 each day) for rings and amassed 11 on pommels. Add his 15 for parallel bars and six for high bar and he has 54. Working only four events (no floor or vault), Tan sits third in the points race, behind all-around champion David Sender (66) and runner-up Jonathan Horton (55).

Philadelphia: With the Olympic trials counting 60 percent toward the final results, the pressure will be that much greater than it was in Houston, which counted 40 percent. The meet is sure to bring some guys to tears, and I'm not saying which kind.

U.S. Olympic team: Paul Hamm, Kevin Tan... sorry, can't name the rest. There are too many viable choices, and no matter which combination you select, one event gets shortchanged. Better to wait and see how the U.S. Olympic Trials play out, because that's when the final four will really earn their berths to Beijing. See you in Philadelphia.


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