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Written by John Crumlish    Thursday, 04 December 2008 08:11    PDF Print
Interview: Barbara Gasser (Austria)
(15 votes, average 4.93 out of 5)

Barbara Gasser (Austria)

Recently crowned Austrian champion Barbara Gasser spoke with IG about training in Canada, representing her native country and moving up in the world rankings.

Born Aug. 30, 1989, in Lustenau, Gasser has been training at Bluewater Gymnastics in Sarnia, Ont, Canada, with Dave and Liz Brubaker since 2003. She won the Austrian junior all-around title in 2003 and 2004.

At the Austrian Championships in November, Gasser won the senior all-around, balance beam and floor exercise titles.

Gasser was Austria's top all-arounder at the 2008 Senior Europeans held in Clermont-Ferrand, France, in April, where she finished 19th in team qualifications. (No all-around contest was held.)

Gasser's ranking in Clermont-Ferrand marked a significant improvement from her Europeans results in 2005 (47th place in qualifications), and 2006 (43rd in team qualifications - no all-around contest was held).

As Gasser prepares for major competitions in 2009 - including the Europeans in Milan and the World Championships in London - she gave IG her thoughts on reaching her international potential.

IG: What took you from Austria to Canada?

BG: First of all, I did not move to Canada because of my gymnastics but because of my family. My father always wanted to move to Canada because of family connections and occupational reasons. Both my parents really liked Canada in the whole and they decided to move there in the year 2003.

IG: How did you pick Bluewater Gymnastics as your club?

BG: When we first came to Canada we lived on a farm 45 minutes from Sarnia. Bluewater Gymnastics was the closest club I could train at. I was very lucky, as I found out it was one of the best clubs in Canada.

IG: How do you coordinate your training in Canada with the national team and national coaching staff in Austria?

BG: I basically train in Canada and go to compete in or for Austria. My coaches, Dave and Liz, are very supportive and help me to prepare myself as best as I can. It is not always easy, because I do not know the coaches and teammates in Austria very well. However, everyone has been really welcoming, and even though I train in Canada, I definitely feel like I am part of the team. Austria, just like Canada, does not have a national training center where all the girls train together all year long. Of course there are training camps, but after the camps all the girls go back to their clubs. So therefore I usually go to Austria not to train, but to compete.

IG: How often do you train in Austria? Who coaches you while you are in Austria?

BG: I not really go to Austria to train, but rather to compete. I usually go to Austria one week or two weeks before the competitions - depending on the type of competition. Unless it is a preparation for international competitions, which is done with the national coach at an arranged national center, I usually go to the provincial training center. There I do get supported by my provincial coach if I need to, but I mainly try to focus on what I have been taught by my coaches in Canada.

IG: Austria is not yet known as a top gymnastics country. What challenges does Austria face that seem to have limited its international success so far?

BG: There is a limited cooperation between school, work and gymnastics and therefore leads to limited time and space in the gyms.

Barbara Gasser (Austria)

IG: What differences do you notice between gymnastics in Austria, and gymnastics in Canada?

BG: I believe since there is limited time and space in the gyms, Austrian gymnasts have to learn difficult skills fast and have to spend less time on perfecting techniques and execution. Here in Canada, schools are more supportive and gymnastics can be executed almost professionally. In Canada gymnasts often stay longer in their sport because they have the opportunity to apply for scholarships, which is a huge incentive, as secondary education is not free in Canada as it is in Austria.

IG: At 19 you seem to just be "coming into your own" internationally. In the past, 19 was considered "old." How have you been able to maintain your progress so you could win the Austrian title this year?

BG: I have always believed that the age 16 is too young to be considered a senior internationally! I have always looked up to older gymnasts, such as (three-time Russian Olympian) Svetlana Khorkina for example. You have gained a lot of experience when you are 19 and you are able to really express yourself in your own style. However, at the same time it gets harder, because you do not have the innocent mind anymore, but you know all about accidents and injuries. Preparing myself for the Austrian nationals or any other competitions, I try to keep myself physically and mentally fit as best as possible. As long as you do what you love to do, age does not really play a big role. However, the hardest part is growing up, but once you pass that you appreciate gymnastics even more and it motivates you to keep going.

IG: Internationally, what are your expectations for 2009 and beyond?

BG: I will be supporting my provincial team in Austria for the Austrian National Team Championships. I want to take part in the European Championships in spring and in the World Championships in fall. I usually only set short-term goals because that is the best way to prepare myself for competitions.

IG: What are you specifically working on, or looking to improve, so you can break into the top international group?

BG: I do want to improve my Start Values on all events. It usually takes longer for me to put new skills in my routine because I work on cleaning up my skills as best as I can first - I am a perfectionist. I also want to improve my mindset that every gymnast who works hard, no matter what nationality, is capable of being in the top internationally.

IG: What do you think it will take for Austria to compete against the best teams in Europe, and eventually the world?

BG: I believe it will just take time and of course the right mindset and commitment. We have been working towards getting up higher internationally. If you look back, Austria has improved internationally every year. It is a slow approach, but there is clearly an improvement.

Written by Ayako Murao    Thursday, 06 November 2008 03:46    PDF Print
IG Chat: Takehiro Kashima (Japan)
(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Preparing for his final competition, two-time Japanese Olympian Takehiro Kashima, tells his successors to "aim for beautiful gymnastics."

Kashima, 28, is one of six Japanese men on the roster for the Toyota Cup International, to be held Dec. 15-16 in Toyota City.

It will be the swan song for Kashima, a double gold medalist at the 2003 World Championships and member of Japan's golden team at the 2004 Olympics. He competed in four world championships and two Olympics, earning a total of nine medals.

The Osaka native spoke to the press at the 2008 Japanese National Championships, held this past weekend in Niigata.

Takehiro Kashima (Japan)

Q: How did you decide it was the right time for retirement?

TK: After Beijing, I thought, "It's about time" and almost decided. In fact, I was thinking about this during the training camps for Beijing. I really want to train always at the maximum, but it was getting to be impossible for me. I couldn't train how I wanted. That's why I decided to retire. I wanted to go to competitions by being prepared, but I couldn't do enough training. Then it turned out that my body couldn't keep up with the competitions. For gymnastics, every single day is very important and a stack of everyday training sessions lead us to the competition results. Therefore, the fact that I couldn't keep doing enough of those daily training sessions made me decide to retire. I told Tomita after the all-around final at the Beijing Olympics in the Olympic Village that I would retire.

Q: Which were the most memorable moments in your career? Which were the most painful?

TK: I think my gymnastics life itself led me to develop myself as a person. Therefore even the fact that I could take part in gymnastics is enough to make me glad. Among the gold medals I've won, the most impressive and delightful one is the team gold from the Olympics in Athens. The Olympics was my dream and we went through tough training for it and got the gold medal. This is the most joyful one. The painful moment was the 2007 World Championships, where I had to withdraw due to injury.

Q: What is the pommel horse for you?

TK: It was the best apparatus to bring out the best in myself.

Q: What is next on your schedule?

TK: I'm going to take part in the Toyota Cup, although I'm going to do only pommel horse. I'd like to perform with a feeling of gratitude for people who have taken care of me. After that, I'd like to do something related to gymnastics, like being a coach.

Q: Please give a message to the gymnasts coming up after you.

TK: I want them to aim for beautiful gymnastics. Although the current rules require them to do lots of elements, I want them to remember that the basics and the beauty are important for gymnastics.

External Link: Japanese Gymnastics Association

Written by Amanda Turner    Wednesday, 29 October 2008 07:29    PDF Print
Interview: Mike Burg (U.S.)
(2 votes, average 3.00 out of 5)

IG Online talks to Mike Burg, producer and creator of the Tour of Gymnastics Superstars that's midway through its U.S. run.

The tour, which kicked off in September and is currently on the East Coast, combines Olympic gymnastics stars with Disney Records artists Jordan Pruitt and KSM for a musical mix of sports and entertainment. The gymnastics lineup features a multitude of Olympic stars, including Olympic champions Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson, Paul Hamm and Shannon Miller.

It is the second such tour from Burg, who produced the 2004 Rock 'n' Roll Tour, starring 2004 Olympic champions Hamm and Carly Patterson, and teen singer Jo Jo.

After receiving a degree in government from the University of Virginia, Burg went into the media field in 1982 with a job as an associate producer at CBS. He then moved to Jefferson-Pilot Sports, where he cut his teeth in the figure skating world with made-for-television events including ICE WARS and the Rock & Roll Figure Skating Championships.

In 1996, Burg founded Edge Marketing & Management, which partnered with USA Gymnastics for that year's post-Olympic tour with six of the seven members of the U.S. gold medal-winning women's team from Atlanta.

Berg produced a similar tour with USAG following the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, but says creative differences led him to create his own tour following Athens.

Burg, who has survived two bouts with Hodgkin's disease, is now combining his marketing and TV experience to raise awareness for cancer. In 2006 he teamed up with women's cancer advocacy groups and ABC to form Frosted Pink, a two-year campaign featuring musicians and figure skaters. In 2008 he launched Frosted Pink with a Twist, bringing in gymnasts to join the fight for a cancer-free world.

IG Online chats with Burg about his experiences and motivations behind the Tour of Gymnastics Superstars.

Mike Burg, producer of the Tour of Gymnastics Superstars

IG: What is your background? Were you ever a gymnast or figure skater?

MB: No, no, I had been very involved in the world of figure skating. I was working with a company called Jefferson-Pilot Broadcasting that we felt could really capitalize on the area of women's sports. We identified figure skating as one of them. As figure skating did well, we figured we could do a similar thing with gymnastics as one of the few women's sports that actually has a big female audience.

Why did you split with USAG in 2004?

MB: About a year ago, we had reached a partnership with Hollywood Records & Disney Music about trying to put together a show. What we wanted to do was to create a show that was sports and entertainment combined. We felt since the demographic of gymnastics was so heavily toward a younger "tween" [aged 8-14] female, there is no better brand to reach that tween female than Disney. So we did a partnership with them, and I don't believe that at that time USA Gymnastics had the same vision that we did. So we continued to pursue our vision and did our agreement with Disney. You'd have to ask [USAG President] Steve Penny for their reason for deciding not to move forward with their tour. But we continued to move forward and we're fortunate that USAG has agreed to sanction our tour, and they've been a great partner to have since then.

IG: In 2004, you first tested the waters combining musicians and gymnasts...

MB: We had Jo Jo on the tour and it was a start, but we wanted to make it even bigger and better.

IG: What is the difference between the 2008 and 2004 tours?

MB: The production value of this is probably second to none in any gymnastics tour. It's a state-of-the-art lighting system, state-of-the-art sound system. [Former Univ. of Oklahoma gymnast] Mike Rice, who is the creative director of the tour, designed all the rigging and all the flying in the air. He does a lot of the Cirque du Soleil stuff. Plus we have two live music acts from Disney. We have video on the tour that no one's ever had before. We have video screens behind it all. You add all those things together and it's a really high-end, expensive product, and it's a product we're really proud of.

IG: You mentioned the expense. How is the current economy affecting the tour? Some families might not be able to afford for the whole family to go see an expensive show.

MB: What we're doing right now, as a matter of fact, in the remaining dates we're doing a promotion called Recession Busters: We're offering families 2-for-1 ticket sales on some tickets. We realize the economy is really tough right now, so we're not foolish. We're trying to make it affordable for anyone who wants to go, and doing the 2-for-1 promotion we think will be a great one.

IG: How have the crowds been?

MB: The crowds have been up about 40 percent over the similar tour in 2004, so they're really, really strong.

IG: Have you been surprised by the turnout in some cities?

MB: Because we got such a late start, becuase of the disagreements we had with USA Gymnastics, we weren't quite sure what we were going to get. The fact that we're 40 percent over the Olympic tour in 2004 is a very pleasant surprise. [Oct. 26 tour stop] Boston year in, year out is the No. 1 tour market, I'm not sure I understand it. Right behind it are [Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin's] hometowns of Des Moines (Nov. 14) and Dallas (Oct. 11).

IG: Do you go to each tour stop?

MB: If I want to. I go to a number of them but not all of them.

IG: Are you still doing a lot of figure skating events?

MB: With the Winter Olympics coming up in 2010, we're about to get intimately involved in figure skating. Over the past two Olympics you've seen a drop off in the interest in figure skating and we think the opportuntiy to really kind of relaunch the sport is right there, especially with the Games being in Vancouver.

We do a number of big television shows. We're the producers of the Teen Choice Awards on Fox. We had it in August and this was our 10th year. We're the executive producers of the Kids Choice Awards on Nickelodeon. So we do a lot of entertainemnt specials and some philanthropic specials as well. We just finished a show called Frosted Pink with a Twist, which is all about enlightenment with regards to women's cancer. I'm a two-time cancer survivor so I'm pretty close to that.

IG: On the tour you have a wide range in age, with some younger teenaged girls. Are they chaperoned?

MB: Yes. Shawn [Johnson] at 16 has an 18-year-old, her cousin with her. We have two security officers with the tour at all time.

IG: The gymnasts were under so much pressure at the Olympics in Beijing. What do you think it's like for them to be able to perform just for fun?

MB: It's interesting. You have athletes who have done this type of show before, like Paul and Morgan Hamm, Shannon Miller and Blaine Wilson and they kind of knew what to expect, but the other Olympians were — once the tour got going — absolutely thrilled with the ability to be showing their skills without having to look over their shoulders and see who is judging them. I think it's a skill you learn and I'm really impressed with the bunch of kids we have.

IG: So are you already making plans for a post-Olympic tour after London 2012?

MB: We're just trying to get through this right now. (laughs).

External Link: 2008 Tour of Gymnastics Superstars

External Link: Frosted Pink with a Twist

KSM performs the tour theme song, "A Hero in You"

Written by John Crumlish    Thursday, 23 October 2008 03:20    PDF Print
Interview: Eugenia Popa (Romania)
(33 votes, average 4.88 out of 5)

Eugenia Popa (Romania) at the 1991 Worlds

Now coaching in Northern Ireland, two-time world team medalist Eugenia Popa shares her perspectives on her competitive success for Romania, and her efforts to improve gymnastics abroad.

Popa was a strong, elegant member of Romania's powerful team in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Born Sept. 10th, 1973, she began gymnastics at Dinamo Bucharest, training alongside the legendary Aurelia Dobre. Her major competition debut was at the 1988 Junior European Championships in Avignon, France, where she finished fourth all-around and second on balance beam.

With her outstanding flexibility and extension, Popa stood out the most on balance beam and uneven bars. She also used her fluidity and grace to excel on floor exercise, where she often dismounted with a double back, punch front.

Popa helped the Romanian team win the silver medal at the 1989 World Championships in Stuttgart, and the bronze medal at the 1991 World Championships in Indianapolis. She served as the alternate on Romania's silver medal-winning team at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Following Barcelona, she retired from competition and began coaching in her hometown of Bucharest.

For the past 13 years, Popa has devoted her attention to developing gymnasts in Northern Ireland and England. She began coaching at Salto Gymnastics Centre in Lisburn, a suburb of Belfast, in October 1995. Popa later coached in England, and returned to Salto four years ago to continue her work on behalf of Northern Ireland's young talents. She and her husband, businessman Adrian Dickson, have a 3-year-old daughter named Ellie Anna.

IG's John Crumlish visited Popa — known as "Gina" — in Northern Ireland this week. In this IG Online interview, Popa shares her insights on her own competitive fortunes, and her work to help Northern Ireland's gymnasts reach and succeed at the international level.

Popa and daughter, Ellie, at the Salto gym in Lisburn, Ireland

IG: When and why did you leave Romania for Northern Ireland?

EP: I retired after the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. I suppose I felt I was getting older (laughs) — I was turning 19, so I think it wasn't just my point of view that I was getting old, but also the coaches' point of view. They always wanted younger gymnasts to move into the team. Now it is different because you can do one or two events and go on longer, but back then, you had to do all four pieces, so it was tougher. I had injuries, and my back wasn't great at the time, so I didn't think there was any point in carrying on.

I started working at my old club, Dinamo Bucharest. My coach, Rodica Apateanu, was the adjunct director, so she was basically my boss — again! Rodica selected me when I was 6; she came to my school, and I think she really liked me. I didn't go to the gym after the selection, but she came back to the school and more or less dragged me to the gym (laughs). She showed me where the gym was because I wasn't that interested. She was very perseverent with me, and then she married Liviu Mazilu, who also coached me. They are coaching in America now, in San Jose, Calif. They have very good kids. They have been in America for about 13 years — the same time I've been here. Rodica has been basically my second mother.

I worked in Bucharest for three years, but I wanted to work abroad. There was a girl who worked with Tony (Byrne, Salto co-owner and head coach), and she came to Romania to visit some gymnastics clubs. Through (1987 world all-around champion) Aurelia Dobre, I met them, and they told me Tony needed a coach. Tony came to Romania for a training camp, and I went up to Deva (Romanian national team training center) to meet with him. He gave me a three-month contract, and I came here in October 1995. I also coached in Birmingham, England, for a couple of years, when I lived in the Midlands. After that I decided to stop gymnastics and do something else. I did beauty therapy for a couple of years — massages, facials, aromatherapy, full-body massages and such. I wanted a change, but gymnastics was still in my blood. After so many years, it doesn't wash off. Tony needed another coach and said he would take me back, and I came back about four years ago.

IG: As the product of such a systematic training program in Romania, how have you been able to adjust to a different style of coaching in another country?

EP: It's very hard, but I was quite young when I came here, and I didn't coach long enough in Romania to have that strict kind of approach where you had to do what your coach tells you, no matter what. Here, I found it difficult at first. It's an attitude thing. You have to say, "If you want to do it, fine, but if you don't, there's nothing I can do about it." It is frustrating because you get kids who are so talented and you want to do so much with them, but you can't. It's very much a struggle, but I suppose you just have to adjust. You have no choice, really. You know you can do more, but at the same time, you can't. The kids have the freedom to say yes or no. We (in Romania) had the freedom to say yes or no, but if it was no, there was no second chance.

IG: Were any aspects of the Romanian system easy to adapt to Northern Ireland?

EP: Not really. The kids here tend to want to be more friends. They think that, if they're competitive, they lose the friendship. I don't think they know yet how to be friends and competitive at the same time. When we trained, we were both. We were very competitive, but we were friends at the end of the day. We lived together so we had to be friends. And even if you don't like somebody, you have to have respect. Gymnastics is about respecting the kids, and having the kids respect you to achieve something. But I think it's because the kids here are just nice. You don't have to be nice in gymnastics (laughs) — you have to be tough, and build up your strength, mentally and physically.

Popa shows off her flexibility at the 1991 Worlds

IG: What was your relationship like with Dobre and other members of your team?

EP: Dobre came from my club. She was a year older than I, and I used to look up to her and the older girls. I remember the first time I went to the national team, I thought it was so wonderful to have such good gymnasts to learn from. That's one thing I want my gymnasts to see — that the older ones should be good examples for the younger ones. I used to respect the older girls because they were very good and I wanted to be as good as they were some day. I was very intimidated by them, because they were older and better. It was quite an achievement when I went to the Romanian Championships and came in first on bars. I beat Daniela Silivas, which was a big achievement for me.

IG: During the years you competed for Romania, there were so many great gymnasts on the team. What made your team so good, and good enough to challenge for first place?

EP: Hard work. Determination and the hunger to do well were also important. I don't know how the Russians or Chinese trained, and I'm sure they trained hard, but we were always consistent, and that came from repetitions over and over until we became perfect. The coaches used to tell us, "You should be able to get out of bed, get up on the beam and do it" — with no fear, wobbles, falls or anything. That's hard to teach here. Even in Romania nowadays, it's not as good as it used to be. The system has changed a lot. Also, a lot of good coaches left.

We did what we were told. We couldn't say anything in interviews except "Yes" and "No." We couldn't express our opinions about anything. So in that way it was a duty, as well. You had to do what you were taught or you were off the team, and someone would take your place. If I went to a competition and was injured, I couldn't say I wouldn't compete, because otherwise I'd be off the team. I competed many times with injuries, because it was a strict regime. At the moment, I don't think the Romanian system is as strict, and they are losing it, and we can see it.

IG: What do you think it would take for Romania's team today to return to the same level as in your day?

EP: I haven't been there is a long time and I don't know how they train, but they know they can probably turn around and say a lot of things, good or negative, in interviews. I think the coaches may have reservations on how to coach. You're not going to be able to push gymnasts to do it anymore. The only motivation they may have is money or power, to be the best in the world. The fact that you can be an individual gymnast and not an all-arounder can be an advantage, or a disadvantage. I don't think the team is as strong because you don't have as many four-piece people. Some choose three (events) and the others fill in. In our time, we had good coaches and choreographers. Romania has kind of lost that. I think it's also a matter of coaches not wanting to commit to living in one place (at a national team training center) — even the good coaches. Whoever wants to stay there has to sacrifice the time with their family. It is kind of disappointing to see the system drifting away, but I hope the juniors will be better and prove they are still worth it.

Popa doing a Tkatchev on uneven bars

IG: What is your opinion of the state of artistry in artistic gymnastics, compared to when you were competing?

EP: It's quite sad to lose that, because after all, gymnastics is about elegance. I miss watching girls doing beautiful routines, because I don't get inspired. I don't get inspired if I don't see anything. It's nice to see people doing beautiful dance. But I think (the decline in artistry) is because of the new Code of Points. Everyone is trying to get in so many elements for their Start Values, so they just leave out the dance. I think that's one of the main problems. They have five tumbling passes on floor like the men, so there isn't energy for dance! Even if you wanted to, it's tough. So I think most coaches will go for strong gymnasts instead of elegant gymnasts.

IG: What was your opinion of the Beijing Olympics this summer?

EP: I liked Nastia Liukin. She's very elegant, and it's nice to see an elegant gymnast winning the Olympics. Shawn Johnson is a nice gymnast, pretty and strong, but I think she lost because she lacked elegance. Maybe next time she'll win, but I preferred Nastia.

IG: There was speculation that perhaps some gymnasts in Beijing were underage, and you lost your place on the team in Barcelona to Gina Gogean, who later said she was not actually old enough in 1992. How have you reconciled that?

EP: I'm not resentful. I was kind of aware, but because I was very young at the time, I became more aware of it as I got older. I was disappointed because the year before the Olympics was the hardest year for me. I was never angry at Gina, and we were friends afterward, too. I could have competed, but they wanted her on the team so she could make a name for herself. They didn't really care about me because I was stopping anyway, so they preferred someone younger. I wasn't resentful toward Gina. She's a very nice girl, and it had nothing to do with her anyway. It wasn't her fault. It was a decision made above us.

I may have had a bitter taste regarding the coaches and not the gymnasts, because of the choices they made. I worked really hard, and that was my only chance to make the Olympics. I was reliable because I was a good competitor. I think I had a bit of bad luck, as well, because I missed two senior European Championships, which is a very good competition where judges start to notice you. I was an elegant gymnast, but not the strongest. Coaches focused on gymnasts they thought could win a medal, and the rest just supported the team, so that's why I probably never go the chance to be an overall gymnast. I think Gina and Lavinia Milosovici were probably stronger, so to the coaches it looked like they had a better chance to win than I did.

Popa has taken her experience in the Romanian system and adapted it to help young gymnasts at Salto

IG: What do you think it will take for Northern Ireland to establish itself internationally?

EP: We're trying. We had Holly Murdock (14th all-around at the 2001 World Championships), who was one of the best ones. She was a child I liked to work with, because she worked hard. If I asked her to do something, she worked hard to achieve things. It's nice to have kids like that, because you see a reward. That's what we're trying to do here. You have to work with what you have. When a talent comes along, sometimes they don't want to do it, and it's hard to make them understand the same thing you're thinking and what you want.

I think it takes years of following examples (older gymnasts to emulate). If they have good examples and follow them, they will progress. It doesn't happen overnight. That's what happened in England. (Romanian native) Adrian Stan has a very good program, and he helped the U.K. enormously to come to the level they have reached. He's put a lot of work into it. I don't think having good coaches is enough, if you don't have the material, the program and the system. So you basically have to introduce the system to make it work and have some decent gymnasts.

IG: You mentioned the importance of having older gymnasts to emulate. How familiar are your gymnasts with your own competitive career?

EP: I don't think they have an idol to look up to. I used to have Nadia Comaneci, and then when I went to Deva, there was Daniela Silivas and Aurelia Dobre. Dobre was very elegant, and I loved watching her. They don't have that, and I wish they did. The wee ones sometimes come up to me and say, "I saw you on YouTube." I ask if they liked it, and they say yes, and I say, "Well, you have to work very hard to get there, because I did!" In a way, it's hard for me to understand why they can't "feel" gymnastics. You almost have to teach them, rather than feel it. When I was a gymnast I remember I always felt it, maybe from so much practice, but I had a sense of where I was and how to change things halfway through. I knew the full element and how to fix it so I wouldn't fall, because that would cost us a lot. They (Northern Ireland's gymnasts) don't have that sense, but I think it should come with practice.

IG: What do you think you are contributing on a personal level to gymnastics in Northern Ireland?

EP: If you really want to have results, you have to commit yourself 100%. It's hard to do that, with my husband traveling for work and me at home with my daughter myself. It does affect the kids. With Holly, I was there six days a week, and now I'm here just four days a week. It's better than nothing, but you have to commit yourself. If the girls see you're committed and you work side by side with them, they take you more seriously.

It's especially true with the younger gymnasts. If you start fresh with a group of young gymnasts, it's much easier than with an older group you haven't worked with before. They had the liberty of doing what they wanted, and all of a sudden we change the program and push them into it, rather than give them the choice. I think the older girls find it difficult, but it's easier with the younger girls because they don't know anything else. They have known only you from the start, so it's not hard. That's all they know.

Popa at the 1991 Worlds

When I came here, I selected a group of young girls, and I used to be very strict. They hadn't done anything before, so they knew only me, and that meant hard work (laughs). So they didn't think it was that bad. But working with a child that has been playing most of the time and trying to change their approach to very serious, I think they find it very difficult. It's a psychological thing. But I think they're starting to get better, and once they see results, they think, "Oh, it's not so bad. We're getting somewhere."

IG: How did hosting last year's USA vs. Great Britain meet in your gym motivate your gymnasts and help you?

EP: I think the competition was great for the girls. I told them, "You might never be as good as they (USA and British teams) are, but you can always be so much better than you are. They work more than you do, but it doesn't mean you can't." Even the (USA and British) coaches saw some of our girls and said, "They're not too bad!" So I told the girls, "See, you can do more if you want to, but you must want to." But they're not going to do it just because I tell them to. They have to want to. That has to come from them. I'm trying to convince them that working hard isn't a bad thing!

IG: Overall what are your expectations for the next few years?

EP: It's hard work, but I like it. Sometimes I think of giving up, but I can't get the same satisfaction doing anything else. When you go to a competition and the gymnasts do well, you get great satisfaction. Even if they are not world champions, they've done well and I'm pleased when they have. They are getting better. It's been a long four years since I came back, but they are gradually starting to see progress. They're not the way I want them to be, but they are trying. They can do things better than they did three years ago. I think they see the benefit of working hard.

Popa on floor exercise at the 1991 World Sports Fair

Written by John Crumlish    Tuesday, 22 July 2008 07:24    PDF Print
Interview: Hannah Whelan (Great Britain)
(11 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Whelan at the 2008 British Championships

Hannah Whelan turned 16 on July 1, but this year's birthday celebration included a special gift that she earned herself: a berth on the 2008 British Olympic team.

After finishing third all-around and first on balance beam at the British Championships held in late June, Whelan was named one of six British female gymnasts set to compete at the Beijing Olympic Games in August.

Whelan is the second youngest member of the team that also includes 2006 world uneven bars champion Beth Tweddle (the only returning 2004 Olympian), Imogen Cairns, Becky Downie, Marissa King and Rebecca Wing.

Whelan's Olympian status is all the more impressive considering that she was only fourth all-around at the 2007 British Junior Championships.

Born in Singapore, Whelan is coached by Sarah Atwell at the City of Liverpool club, where her training partners include Tweddle. Whelan and the other members of the British Olympic team are currently in the final stages of preparation for Beijing, at the national team training center in Lilleshall.

In this IG Online interview, Whelan outlines her goals and expectations for Beijing, and the potential her British team has for success on the Olympic stage.

IG: How did you celebrate your birthday, being not only your Sweet 16 but also come soon after you were named to the Olympic team?

HW: I went out for a meal the Monday after the British Championships, which was when the selection was announced, just with my friends, my coach Sarah (Atwell) and my family. The Tuesday was my birthday when we began training at Lilleshall. When I came in they had a cake hidden at the back of the gym, which Corina (Morosan, national coach) gave me, and also a big card signed by everyone!

IG: How are you preparing yourself to handle the Olympic experience, especially being a first-year senior without World Championships experience?

HW: All the girls help me prepare and make me feel part of the team. I recently competed at the Doha Grand Prix (in Qatar) and several internationals along with the pressure of Olympic Trials, so I think I should be OK to handle it.

IG: What do you feel is special or different about this British team, which can help your team do its best in Beijing?

HW: It quite a young team which can help for us all to support each other. Obviously we have Beth and Becky Downie who are very strong, and the rest of us have quite high Start Values, so things look good for the whole team.

IG: What are your thoughts on each of the girls on the team, as far as their gymnastics strengths are concerned?

HW: Obviously the main girl is Beth who is very strong on bars but also in the all-around and she has great experience competing in major events, as has Beckie Downie. Becky Wing is very elegant especially on the floor, and she has very high Start Values so can score well. Similarly Laura and Marissa have the ability to score very well, particularly on their best pieces.

IG: How have your individual and team workouts changed between the time before the Trials, and this period leading up to the Games?

HW: We're now all training as a team, which means we can help each other out a lot more. Also we train with the national coaches all the time, which can help in making sure our routines are perfect in time for Beijing.

IG: How has clubmate Beth helped you over the years to reach Olympian status?

HW: Beth always helped me in the gym. Just the little comments help to pick you up if things are going wrong. She has the experience and she has had bad days in the gym, but it's good to know that she's gotten where she has by living through the same things that you are.

Tweddle and Whelan

IG: It's interesting to know that you were born in Singapore. Was this because your parents were working there at the time? And, when did you move to England?

HW: Yes, my dad was there because of his job. I moved over to England when I was 2.

IG: How old were you when you began gymnastics...and why gymnastics over other sports or hobbies?

HW: My mum did gymnastics when she was younger but more at recreational level, but I was the one who really wanted to get into it, having done cartwheels and handstands around the house when I was about 6 years old.

IG: Great Britain is now counted among the best teams in the world, having placed seventh at the 2007 Worlds. What are your realistic team and individual goals for Beijing?

HW: I just want to help the team achieve the best result we can, hopefully get into the team final and look to better the results that we got in the Worlds

IG: Making it to the Olympics at age 16, what other goals do you have in gymnastics beyond the 2008 Olympics?

HW: I would like to compete at Worlds and at Europeans, as I haven't done either of these yet, and I wouldn't mind doing (2010) Commonwealth Games as well! And hopefully carry on till 2012!

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