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?
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?