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Few Come Out Swinging at Winter Cup
(18 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Former gymnast Ward Black, who attended the U.S. Winter Cup held Thursday and Saturday in Las Vegas, sizes up the competition for IG Online.

DATELINE LAS VEGAS ... Any gymnast wishing to make the U.S. men's national team, or make a world championships or Olympic team: Master pommel horse.

Joseph Hagerty competes at the 2009 U.S. Winter Cup

If the U.S. men's gymnastics program has any goals or aspirations to again medal as a team at future world championships or Olympics it had better devise an out-of-the-box, cohesive national strategy to vastly improve the international competition potential of pommel horse.

One would think that Ken Lehr and Keith McCanliss (Iowa), Russ Hoffman (Iowa State), Ted Marcy (Stanford), Ed Slezak and Kurt Thomas (Indiana State) and countless other pommel horse champions, on this most difficult of all events, were mere ghosts. American pommel horse specialists were among the world's best for many years ... and the U.S. has lost that tradition.

The University of Iowa and Hinsdale Central High School (Illinois) each had a long standing tradition for producing great pommel horse competitors and champions. Marcy and Thomas changed the way the world trained and competed pommel horse.

Yes, it's 2009. Yes, difficulty has drastically increased. Yes, the Code is much different. Yes, routine design has evolved from 12 skills to a marathon routine. So what?

Seventy-seven gymnasts competed this past Thursday in two qualifying sessions at the U.S. Winter Cup in Las Vegas. Sixty-seven competed pommel horse. Evaluating just the B-Panel execution scores: One man (Tim McNeill of Berkeley) scored above 9.00 on pommels. Eighteen scored 8.30 and above. And 48 athletes scored BELOW 8.30.

My original intention was to mark a check in my writing notes each time a gymnast fell off pommel horse ... But I quit — I couldn't keep up. My assignment was to also watch the five other events.

Notwithstanding my journalistic mandate to follow the course of the competition ... Pommel horse form is horrendous, proper technique is questionable and routine consistency is out the window.

Trouble is, over these past several years, this remains a consistent pommel horse pattern with no real evident improvement in form, technique and consistency as a whole nationwide. Pommel horse remains the U.S. men's weak link on the international stage — safe to say, the Chinese are not worried.

And this is sad and unacceptable because pommel horse was at one time such a strong event in the U.S. gymnastics community. Why not now? It should be once again.

It is depressing to continue going to men's meets and watching crappy pommel horse. Too many men have "Blaine feet," or two bent knees on each and every skill, and they can't stay on horse save for threat of torture at Guantanamo Bay. Enough. Change something.

If a gymnast must forfeit routine consistency, proper technique and pencil-like form ... then BACK DOWN the difficulty. Yes, a high start value for the A Panel (difficulty) score is important, necessary, and desired, but let's face reality. A higher B Panel (execution) and STAYING ON THE POMMEL HORSE can lift that combined score from 12.00 to nearly 14.00. Routine design having nine B moves with a D dismount and fulfilling event requirements starts a gymnast's pommel horse score at 14.70. Take .7 in execution deductions for a 14.00 total score. (13.80 would have scored second to Sasha Artemev's pommel horse team score in Beijing.)

Josh Dixon (Stanford) was leading the Thursday meet until his 11.70 on pommel horse. Chris Cameron (Michigan) could have won his qualifying session if he had just stayed on pommel horse instead of blowing up for a 12.10.

Danell Leyva (Universal-Miami) had a 5.40 A-Panel and a 8.65 B-Panel for a combined 14.05 pommel horse score. Leyva's pommel horse is not going to make old timers like USAG Hall of Fame new inductee Fred Turoff (Temple) forget Ted Marcy, and he is not going to set the world championships on fire, but Danell was in third place in the all-around score after prelims. Sensible pommel horse routine design for a gymnast at his level, competed with a reasonable level of good form, technique and consistency.

At their suburban Chicago home, my parents had a pommel horse in the basement. When the winter snows melted that horse was in the back yard. Multiple Illinois state, college conference, and NCAA champions trained together on that horse. When my brother had graduated from the University of Oklahoma that pommel horse was passed down to future Hinsdale champions.

That kind of dedication to excellence and tradition should be a part of our national men's program. See a weakness? Devise a strategic plan and go fix the problem.

Pommel horse is the key to successful and consistent international competition. Look no further than Beijing last summer.

Sasha Artemev (U.S.) at the 2007 Worlds

On the strength of their first-place pommel horse and still rings totals, the Chinese took an awesome 5.125-point lead in Olympic qualifying, gaining a 2.575 pommel horse advantage on the second-place Japanese. In team finals the Chinese beat the U.S. men on pommel horse by 4.150. China's Yang Wei beat Japan's Kohei Uchimura by 2 full points on pommel horse in the all-around finals.

Yes, the U.S. men nailed three on-the-edge, over-the-top high bar routines in Olympic team finals ... But it was Artemev's pommel horse that helped his team win the bronze medal. Had it not been for those unfortunate injuries to Paul and Morgan Hamm — and with the inclusion of Artemev into the lineup — the American men might possibly have won the silver. As Olympic training in China unfolded, in all their wisdom the USAG Men's Program Committee had Artemev controlling the TV remote in his hotel room back in Japan.

Something is amiss in the men's Junior Olympic program, and/or at the NCAA level, and/or with the Men's Program Committee. American men did great pommel horse in the past. Why not now? If Jonathan Horton swings better horse he might be world all-around champion. And don't tell me he is too slight. Kurt Thomas, Bart Conner, Jim Hartung and Mike Wilson were not giants.

Perhaps the "Karolyi model" is something to copy and follow.

Pooling its many talents at the Karolyi ranch many times throughout the year, the U.S. women's national program has grown into an international powerhouse. It used to be that back stabbing and other such negatives dominated their program. Now, the top two competitive rivals are best of friends.

Consider the possibility. Six times a year the top 24 men and their coaches gather for a pommel horse only workshop. Trade information, training, conditioning and motivation strategies. Come together, work together, improve together with the goal to take the U.S.'s weak event and make it stronger and more competitive internationally.

Such an atmosphere may help someone like Artemev — who runs hot and cold on pommel horse and trains alone — to harness his great talent and become more routine consistent on the competition podium. Such a forum and exchange of ideas might help Horton get his 13.00-plus pommel horse more toward a 14.00-plus. The veterans help the rookies. The best pommel horse coaches in the country share their knowledge. Paul Hamm lends his insights and inspirations.

Myopic, yes. But one of the most respected sports camps in the country is Pete Newell's Big Man Camp for college and professional basketball centers. No guards or small forwards. No Michael Jordan. Just centers concentrating on their position specifics within a team game.

The top six gymnasts at the 2009 Winter Cup

Winter Cup Finals

In all fairness to both gymnasts and coaches, the pommel horse demonstrated in Saturday's Winter Cup finals was vastly improved over the two qualifying sessions.

As a group, both Berkeley and Stanford stood out. The Cal Bears swung big and had team depth. They showed big stretch in swing, better than the norm technique and good form, combined with adequate difficulty. Cal came up short on consistency, but one could not ignore their focus and attention to proper pommel horse training and preparation. If the Bunthuwong brothers had hit pommels, the announced make-up of the national team might certainly be different.

On the other hand, Stanford was not as technically proficient. But when a Stanford gymnast was a little off they had the strength to put the arm on their mistake, stay on and finish the routine. Both their form and difficulty were good. Consistency needs work. But what team depth! If Winter Cup were an NCAA preview, Stanford and Cal will be hard to beat, and much of that assessment stems from the quality of their pommel horse.

The Michigan crew of Chris Cameron, Mel Santander, Paul Woodward and Paul Goldberg all finished pommel horse in the top 30. Illinois was next with four men in the top 35. This may indicate a Big Ten finish at the conference championships in April in Ann Arbor.

The purpose of Winter Cup is the reranking of the men's national team. The first week each February is an odd time for such an important meet, especially in a long international calendar reaching into the fall months, but this timing allows the NCAA gymnasts a certainty to compete within their season.

Last year's Winter Cup was a no brainer in terms of importance and multiple story lines ... An Olympic year, the return of Olympic champion Paul Hamm, the last go around for many senior team members, some of whom were past their 28th birthdays. A extreme first for American men's gymnastics.

This year's Winter Cup was a combination of proven international experienced gymnasts with an outstanding group of "newcomers." Exactly the mix needed at the start of a new Olympic quadrennium.

Freelance writer Ward Black, a former gymnast for the University of Michigan, lives in Las Vegas.

Comments (4)add comment

BTPHC said:

jacob grall
I completely agree with you. I also am hoping for improved pommel horse in the future. But I did notice from looking at the results that there were a few more athletes that did score a 9.0 or higher in finals. (3) If you did see these athletes can you specify further as to if they along with the above mentioned Tim Mcneil and Sasha Artemov could possibly be competitive internationally?
February 10, 2009
Votes: +3

patricia smith said:

patricia smith
I completely agree with you as well. Heck, any sort of regular national team training camps would be great. It could be all team members except NCAA athletes, they're getting enough competition time as it is anyway. But yes, I'm not sure how Sasha Artemev was left off the Olympic team in the first place and I do hope something drastic is done to improve our men's pommel horse.
February 10, 2009
Votes: +1

stickitmedia said:

Ron Noe
You're right about Stanford and Cal. At the Stanford Open, Cal really blew the meet wide open on pommel. Ishino(15.4) and Kyson Bunthuwong(15.0) looked terrific. Nic Blair, Kyle Bunthuwong and Daniel Geri all had scores over 14. Meanwhile, Stanford had an off night with Bryant Hadden turning in the team's highest score (13.7).
February 10, 2009 | url
Votes: +1

Richard Kaziny said:

Richard Kaziny
Well said
I couldn't said it better myself.
February 10, 2009 | url
Votes: +0

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