Preparing for his world championships debut this month, 2009 U.S. all-around bronze medalist Wesley Haagensen told IG that comprehensive physical and psychological training has well prepared him to face the world's best gymnasts.
Haagensen, who is slated to compete on pommel horse and still rings at worlds (Oct. 13-18 in London), has emerged to the senior international level after a lengthy career in junior and senior U.S. competitions.
Born Dec. 21, 1985, in Sheridan, Wyo., he lived in Oklahoma until age 16. He resided in Belleville, Ill., until age 18.
At the 2002 U.S. Championships, Haagensen placed fourth all-around in the 14-15 age group. At the 2003 U.S. Championships, he placed fifth all-around in the 16-18 age group. Haagensen competed as a senior at the 2004 U.S. Championships, where he placed 19th all-around. During Haagensen's NCAA career at the University of Illinois from 2005-2008, his best NCAA all-around finishes were fourth place in 2006, and second place (tie) in 2007.
Haagensen's third-place all-around finish at the 2009 Visa (U.S.) Championships marked a 19-rank improvement from his results at the 2008 U.S. Championships. He credits his rise to his relocation to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where he has been training under coaches Vitaly Marinitch and Alex Shchennikov since Dec. 31, 2008.
As Haagensen makes final preparations for London, he spoke with IG about the plans and progress he has made as he heads toward the 2012 Olympic Games.
IG: You improved by an impressive 19 positions from last year's U.S. Championships to this year's competition. What specifically contributed to this big leap?
WH: There were several factors that contributed to this season's success. I moved to the Olympic Training Center and started a consistent training plan all the way through to the U.S. Championships. I moved to the OTC on New Year's Eve, and basically rededicated myself to the sport of gymnastics, putting forth all of my efforts into my training, through preparation in and out of the gym. I believed in my head coach, Vitaly Marinitch, and assistant coach, Alex Shchennikov, and followed their training plan precisely. Also, I did various methods of mental preparation, such as visualizations, meditations, and specific breathing and relaxation techniques in order to develop my mental toughness.
The USOTC also caters its athletes with a great nutritional plan, which helped me to stay on a healthy diet. I spent numerous hours in recovery from workouts for my body in order to be prepared for each practice every day by sitting in cold tubs, hot tubs and steam rooms, receiving massages, and rehabbing all injuries. I went into this USAs knowing and believing I could hit my routines, and let everything else fall into place. I feel that the combination of all these tasks helped me to reach the next level.
IG: Although you had four solid years of NCAA competition, we did not see as much of you at U.S. Championships competitions during that four-year period. What were the reasons for not competing at U.S. Championships from 2005-2007?
WH: I always had the desire to compete in the U.S. Championships, but I underwent shoulder surgery in 2005, and was not on a consistent training plan to be prepared for championships the following years. It was very difficult for me to watch these competitions go by without being in the heat of the mix, so I decided to make a change.
IG: What motivated you to continue training and competing, following graduation and the end of the last Olympic cycle?
WH: I just knew that, if I retired after my graduation, that I would regret it for the rest of my life. There was no way I was going to look back and wonder what could have happened, so I decided if I was going to stay in the sport, then I am going to give it everything I have, and then live without any regrets. I know that I have not yet reached my full potential and have many more accomplishments left to achieve.
IG: What are your specific plans for London?
WH: In London, I am competing on pommel horse and still rings. My plan is to stay calm and relaxed, raise my hand, and perform my routines in front of the judges and the crowd. It's as simple as that! It's really all I can do. My main focus is to hit these two events to the best of my capabilities, and everything else that happens is out of my hands.
I will be performing the same pommel horse routine I did at the U.S. Championships, so it will be a great experience to swing some horse with the best in the world.
On rings, I have slightly changed my routine from what I performed at the U.S. Championships. The Start Value remains the same, but I have rearranged the order of my skills to make things flow better and eliminate some deduction. On rings I've been working hard to perfect my Maltese position, so I really want to show that off. I'm focusing on holding my strength, having very smooth swinging skills, solid handstands without any shakes or wobbles, and sticking the dismount. I believe I can open some eyes to the rest of the world on this event, and won't be holding anything back. More than anything in particular, I am focused on hitting, and letting everything else go.
IG: Although you are an experienced gymnast, worlds will be your first major international competition. How are you and your coaches mentally preparing you to face the top international gymnasts?
WH: Indeed I will be competing against the best gymnasts in the world, but I'm not focused on the other gymnasts; I'm only focused on myself. In the sport of gymnastics, I can't control what any of the other athletes do, I can only control myself. With that in mind, Vitaly has been training me very hard to be prepared for this competition. I've been doing so many routines that, by the time the competition comes around, it will be like second nature. While doing routines in practice, we have been working hard to simulate exactly what it will be like at Worlds.
Vitaly has convinced me that I have no pressure, and to just go out and perform my routines, and that's what I plan to do. I've also been training my mind daily through breathing exercise to help control my heart rate during competitions to stay relaxed, meditation techniques to block out any distractions that may occur, and visualizations, so that I have practiced and trained my routines until they become automatic. Although it is World Championships, it's still just another competition. It's going to be a lot of fun.
IG: Who coaches you on which events?
WH: Vitaly and Alex both coach all six events. They do an excellent job of working together, and balancing out their coaching styles in order to give all necessary feedback, spotting, and anything else that may be needed on all the events.
IG: Previously you had a plan to go to law school and become a sports agent. How does this fit into your future competitive plans?
WH: Well, my plans have changed somewhat since then. I don't think I will be going to law school, although it isn't completely out of the question. I really don't know yet of what career I plan to take on after gymnastics. I have been looking into and weighing out different options, such as earning my master's, or looking at other graduate school programs. But honestly, my No. 1 focus as of now is gymnastics, and the 2012 Olympics (also in London). Afterwards, if I were to retire, I definitely want to take on a career that stays involved in sports in some manner. I graduated with an MBA in business, so possibly running a sports team, managing one, starting my own gym, or maybe even pursuing to be a sports agent could all be options. Sports are my passion, and I never want to stray from that. We'll just have to see where that road leads me.
Read about Haagensen's performance at the 2009 U.S. Championships in the October 2009 issue of International Gymnast magazine. To subscribe to IG Magazine or order back issues, click here.