Written by John Crumlish
Tuesday, 12 February 2008 15:50
| Interview: Becky Downie (Great Britain)
| Becky Downie is hoping for greatness at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
As Great Britain's top scorer on three events in the 2007 Worlds team finals, |Downie at the 2007 Worlds
Downie, who turned 16 on Jan. 24, played a key role in the British women's historical-best seventh-place finish at last fall's World Championships in Stuttgart. She was the team's top scorer on all three events in which she performed: vault, uneven bars and balance beam. (2006 world uneven bars champion Beth Tweddle did not compete in the team finals.) Based on Downie's performances in the qualifications, she came close to making the event finals on vault and uneven bars, as well.
A native of Nottingham, Downie was a member of England's silver medal-winning team at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, where she placed eighth all-around and third on balance beam. Downie was eighth all-around and sixth on floor exercise at the 2006 European Junior Championships in Volos, Greece. Following these achievements, the BBC's East Midlands Today named her Junior Sportswoman of the Year for 2006.
Downie, who also won the British Espoir (Hopes) title in 2004 and 2005, trains with coaches Claire Starkey and Ian Kime in Nottingham.
In this IG Online interview, Downie candidly describes her past success and her plans for continued greatness in the Olympic year of 2008.
IG: Becky, many people were surprised at how well the British team finished at the World Championships in Stuttgart. What do you think were the main reasons for your team's success there?
BD: We had lots of support from our coaches. And we knew the target was top 12. The team all knew we had to just do what we did in training and go steady. Any risks were out. In the training I had some injury issues with my feet, so we decided it was best to keep me off floor because the team needed my vault and beam more than floor. This meant I couldn't get an all-around position, but it was best for the team. The coaches made decisions for the team that worked.
IG: In what ways have you changed or developed as a gymnast since Worlds?
BD: After Worlds - as I mentioned, I've had problems with my feet - I had an operation on both of them. They are better now, but it has been a slow and frustrating recovery. Once they were OK, I had to do loads of rehab and get fit again, then recover old skills. I still have to be careful with them, but (coach) Claire Starkey and the physios (physiotherapists) help me manage a program to avoid any overload.
Downie at the 2007 Worlds
Now that I have seen and competed with the best in the world, I know that it would be possible to make finals. When we came back I just wanted to get going, but Claire had to hold me back so that I could recover from the injury. I haven't changed much; I just want to get out there and do more.
IG: In addition to Claire, who coaches you on what events?
BD: Claire works every event with me and has done so for years. She does all the planning of routines, training schedules and program, conditioning, choreography, etc. She also used to do most of the spotting when I needed it when I was younger.
Ian Kime has also been involved in coaching me for several years, but he is only in the gym part-time. As I've gotten older, he does more spotting for me because I'm the same size as Claire now, but I prefer to do most of my skills alone. I work with Ian if Claire's away, but she leaves me a strict program and I still phone her to check if I need to alter anything on that program, even if she's in another country.
Obviously I work with the national coaches more now, as well. We go to national training once a month, and more when we are close to a major event. My last floor routine was made up by the national choreographer. We have a few other coaches in the gym at Notts (Downie's club) who all work as a team, so lots of coaches have a small input. I know Claire discusses a lot of things with Adi (British team technical director Adrian Stan) and the national coaches, and sometimes they disagree on things, but in the end it's all about what's best for me.
Downie and Starkey at the 2007 Worlds
IG: You are one of the most powerful gymnasts on the British team, with top skills on all four events. How do you manage to pack the tough skills into all four of your routines?
BD: I want to be an all-around gymnast. I know I have strengths and weaknesses, but Claire (pictured with Downie in Stuttgart) always tries to balance my program and make sure all aspects are covered. Over the years my strongest pieces have changed except for vault. I have always been strong on vault, but I found bars hard when I was younger. Now because we have found skills that suit me and planned the routine progressions carefully, I am quite strong on bars. Floor has suffered a bit, because I have had various injury issues last year and couldn't train floor as much as I wanted.
IG: On vault in Stuttgart, you performed a solid double-twisting Yurchenko. Are you planning a new vault or new vaults for 2008, possibly with an eye on the Beijing event final?
BD: We were planning a new one, but because of my feet I just have to recover and correct first. Then I have to secure my second vault.
IG: On bars in Stuttgart, you did a couple impressive combinations (giant 1 1/2, toe-on, Tkatchev; Stalder-full, giant, Ricna). Did you or do you plan to directly connect the Stalder-full with the Ricna in 2008?
BD: On bars both those connections should be in the routine, but I didn't want to take any risks. Claire always plans escape routes so that should a skill not be spot-on in the routine it doesn't mess up the rest of the routine. Sometimes they may connect if they feel OK, but it's not a big problem if they don't.
IG: What do you think you and your team will need to do, to keep the momentum building from Stuttgart to Beijing?
BD: We've got to keep up our team spirit and work hard now. We can't relax. Our target is to try and move up the rankings, but we have to remember that there were good teams that made mistakes, so if these teams hit we will have to do a bit more to stay in our position. For me personally, I have to look after my body and manage my training with care. I want to be able to do all four pieces this year.
IG: What are your goals for 2008?
BD: It's difficult to give you a clear answer because, of course, my ultimate goal is to medal at the Olympics, but this may not be realistic yet. So I plan step-by-step goals. Now my goal is to recover, then get to the European Championships (in April). I would like to make some finals at the Europeans, but I will have to be careful. I don't want to push at this comp and be wiped out for Beijing. So I'll just say my goal is to get to the Olympics and do my coach, my club and my country proud, hopefully with a final or two.
The team goal I suppose is just to hold it together, lift our fitness level and go out to Beijing with a fully fit team, well prepared and ready to do a job.
External Link: BeckyDownie.com
Written by John Crumlish with Introduction by Amanda Turner
Saturday, 08 December 2007 16:00
| Interview: Aljaz Pegan (Slovenia)
| Aljaz Pegan's incredible career.
The numbers tell the story of |
The venerable Slovenian has competed in 14 world championships — every one since his first appearance in 1989.
Six times he has competed in the high bar final at worlds — winning four medals, including the gold in 2005.
He is ranked No. 1 on high bar in the FIG World Cup points system; with more than 750 points, he has nearly 300 points more than the next highest gymnast.
The only unimpressive number in Pegan's career is zero. That's the number of Olympics he has been in. Four Olympics have passed since his first world championships appearance, three have passed by since his first world championships final and one has passed since his first world medal.
At the 2007 World Championships in Stuttgart, he barely missed qualifying to the Olympics. It was the first time that the qualifying system — which traditionally grants berths to the strongest teams and all-arounders — allowed individuals to earn berths to the Olympics by winning an apparatus gold medal. But Pegan won the silver on high bar in Stuttgart, and although it was another world championship medal, it wasn't enough to earn him a trip to Beijing.
At age 33, Pegan points out that trying one more time to qualify to the Olympic Games in 2012 may be unrealistic.
So for the next five months, the most important number for Aljaz Pegan is one. There is one single remaining berth to the 2008 Olympic Games, a wild card spot to be decided in April by a Tripartite Committee made up of one member each from the FIG, the IOC and the 2008 Olympic organizing committee. It is the number one that keeps Pegan's Olympic dreams alive today.
In this IG Online interview, Pegan talks about his numbers, his Olympic hopes and the efforts he and his country are making to convince the Tripartite Commission that he is deserving of its selection.
IG: Aljaz, how are you coping with the fact that you have won World gold and silver medals, but have to fight for a wild card to Beijing?
AP: It has always been difficult knowing that being one of the best gymnasts in the world is not enough for qualifying to the Olympic Games. I am not the only one who is in the same situation — there are quite a few gymnasts who are among the best on their apparatus and cannot go to the Olympic Games. In my case, this is even more obvious as I have been competing at the highest level for so many years. Since my first finals in [the 1994 Worlds in] Brisbane I have won four medals at the World Championships, yet three Olympic Games have already gone by without me being there. I hope these are not going to be the fourth in a row.
Pegan receives a hug from Germany's Fabian Hambüchen at the 2007 Worlds
IG: What do you think of the selection process? Do you think it is fair, or should reigning world medalists receive automatic Olympic berths?
AP: Gymnastics has a certain amount of places at the Olympic Games and the current system has been out of date for a number of years, preventing the best gymnasts in the world from competing at the Olympic Games. It is unfair that we compete throughout the cycle in numerous World Cup events and then can qualify only through one qualifying competition — the World Championships. What if the best gymnast is ill at that time or his partner is expecting a baby and cannot compete on that day? In my opinion the World Cup events should have more weight in the qualification process, — only then we will really have the best gymnasts competing at the biggest competition in everyone's career. The president of the FIG, Bruno Grandi, has been trying to fight for our position for several years now, but I fear that it will be too late for many of us before anything changes.
IG: How did the petition get started, and how many signatures have you received so far?
AP: The petition came to me quite as a surprise — the Slovenian Gymnastics Federation started the process at the congress of the European Gymnastics Union in Prague in October. It was amazing that more than two-thirds of European countries signed the letter of support, including Mr. Dimitrios Dimitropulos — the president of the UEG and Mr. Gianfranco Marzolla, president of the UEG Men's Technical Committee. In Slovenia, the letter of support was signed by the most prominent people from all walks of life, and the Slovenian prime minister spoke about the issue recently with the prime minister of China at a state meeting.
A month ago, the Web site www.pegan.si was launched in the Slovenian language and more than 40,000 people wrote in, expressing their support. For comparison, this number represents 2 percent of our population, which would be equivalent to more than 5 million U.S. citizens. The Web site will be soon available for English-speaking users as well and I hope that many people, who I met throughout my long career, will support the initiative.
IG: When will you know for sure about the wild card berth?
AP: The Tripartite Commission, which decides about the Wild Card, will be selected in January and they will reach their decision sometime before April. I hope that I will be able to enjoy the moment of decision. After being at 14 World Championships and winning more than 50 medals at major international competitions, I would like to compete at THE biggest of them all, if only to experience the spirit of the Olympic Games.
IG: Is the "wait" distracting to you, or does it give you more motivation to train?
AP: I am trying to push the issue out of my head, nevertheless, it keeps coming back. There are too many "What if's?" to be able to focus completely, but I believe that the right thing will be done, and this sometimes helps me to train even harder than before.
IG: What are some of your competitive goals for 2008?
AP: I would like to put another difficult skill in my routine in order to have a 7.0 Start Value. Apart from that, I plan to start the season well on the World Cup circuit in March, then win a medal at the European Championships in May and finally, to stand under the Olympic circles in Beijing in August. After that, I think everyone will need a bit of rest.
IG: Will you compete after the Beijing Olympics?
AP: My first World Championships were in 1989 in Stuttgart and I hope that my last one has not already happened in the same city. It is becoming more difficult to motivate myself year after year, after winning nearly everything there is possible. I would like to carry on with my gymnastics, but I am not sure I can wait four more years in order for rules to change or someone to invite me to the Olympic Games. Going to Beijing would boost my spirits and belief that there is justice in gymnastics world.
External Link: Pegan.si (English-language forum)
Written by John Crumlish
Thursday, 15 November 2007 16:05
| Interview: Aaron Vexler (USA)
| Aaron Vexler, who plays Russell Crowe's stunt double in the 2007 film "American Gangster," seeks and finds new thrills as an in-demand stunt performer for movies and television.
Former gymnast |Aaron Vexler
Vexler's upcoming credits also include roles in Disney's "Enchanted" (in which he doubled for Patrick Dempsey and James Marsden) and Warner Bros.' "I Am Legend," starring Will Smith. Next year Vexler will appear in Paramount Pictures' "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," starring Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett and Shia LaBeouf.
A native of Northampton, Mass., Vexler is a third-generation gymnast. His maternal grandmother, Annie Hoog, was the alternate on the 1948 U.S. Olympic team. His father, Norm, is a former gymnast, and his uncle Paul was the NCAA rings champion in 1969. His mother, Anne, competed for the U.S. at the 1973 World University Games in Moscow.
As a club gymnast in Massachusetts, Vexler was coached by 1984 Olympic team gold medalist Tim Daggett. Later coached by Fred Turoff at Temple University from 1994-98, Vexler earned his best U.S. Championships finish in 1996, when he was fifth all-around in the 19+ "Team 2000" division.
Vexler and his sister, Talya, each won all-around silver medals at the 1997 Maccabiah Games in Israel. Talya, who later competed for the University of Georgia, is now an assistant gymnastics coach at the University of Iowa. Their younger brother, Luke, placed first on floor exercise and fourth all-around at the 2005 Maccabiah Games. Luke is now a senior at Temple.
Diversity and adroitness have earned Vexler nearly 50 roles to date. Prior to 2007, he performed stunts in the blockbuster Spider-Man 3, as well as in the popular television series "The Sopranos," "30 Rock" and "Law & Order," among others. His work has ranged from two stints as George Clooney's stunt double on "Late Show with David Letterman," to acrobatic performances at the 2002 and 2004 MTV Music Awards.
Although Vexler's professional stunt status has gradually risen through his work in big-budget productions, he remains humble. "I always tell my mother that you will be sure to see me in the credits," the 32-year-old Vexler jokes.
In this IG Online interview, Vexler details his latest roles, and his ambition to continue exploring his opportunities as a professional daredevil.
IG: After you finished your gymnastics career, how did you make the transition into acting and stunt work? Were you always interested in stunt work, even when competing?
AV: I always wanted to get into stunt work even when I was competing, but I did not quite know how to go about breaking into the business. My "transition" into stunt work was basically this: retired from gymnastics; worked on the Celebrity Galaxy Cruise ship as an acrobat/circus performer; finished my degree at Temple University; moved to New York and joined the circus performance troupe, Antigravity; went on tour with a live stunt show called Spider-Man Live! A Family Stunt Spectacular; started my own circus company with (former Temple gymnast) Mike Moran, called Axiom Entertainment Inc.; performed in Batman Vs. Catwoman at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey; and finally on to television and film as a stuntman. IG: What did your roles in "American Gangster," "I Am Legend" and "Indiana Jones" actually entail?
AV: In "American Gangster," I was Russell Crowe's stunt double. I worked out a lot of the stunts, and then showed him what the shot and stunt required. Russell is a very good "action actor" so almost all of what you see in the movie is actually him. I was mainly there to ensure his safety, help him with any problems, and make sure he had the right pads. However, I did most of his driving for him. I did all of the driving for the scenes in the movie where he is driving and you can't see his face.
In "I Am Legend," I worked on a big riot scene where all of the people in Manhattan are being evacuated from the island. There is a panic, where everyone rushes to the boats and helicopters, while knocking down fences and each other. This is called ND or nondescript stunts. We used a lot of stunt people for the riot because it was very dangerous. It was very cold and slippery, there were people and fences falling down and helicopters taking off, and we did a lot of it on a barge in the East River in New York. Falling into the river in January would not be good. In "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," I did some of the stunt driving in a car-and-motorcycle chase that was shot at Yale. I was also a pedestrian in the same car chase. I did a lot of diving out of the way of cars and motorcycles. It was really a great experience, because of the caliber of stunt performers on this movie. They really brought in some of the best stuntmen and stuntwomen in the business. This movie is going to be awesome!
Aaron VexlerIG: What was it like working with Russell Crowe, on a personal level?
AV: Russell Crowe is a super great guy. He is always looking out for the crew and is very gracious to everyone on set that he is working with. One night he bought the whole crew — at least 100 people — Australian steak dinners. However, he has been doing action movies so long that it is also a bit intimidating, because he is such a good stuntman himself.
IG: As stunt double for both Patrick Dempsey and James Marsden in "Enchanted," what were your key tasks?
AV: For Patrick Dempsey I did a lot of rigging, testing and performing stunts. There is one scene at the end of the movie where Patrick Dempsey and Amy Adams, who incidentally my wife stunt-doubled, are fighting Queen Narissa, played by Susan Sarandon. In the scene, there was a lot of wire-flying stunts that we helped create, rig, test and perform. This was along with assisting Patrick and Amy when they did some of the stunts themselves. For James my role was very similar. You can see one of my stunts for him in the trailer for the movie, when his character jumps off a bridge in Central Park and then gets run over by a pack of mountain bikers. I did the jump, and also the shot where he gets hit by all of the bikes. Incidentally, in the group of bicyclists, there were (former gymnasts) Shane Geraghty, Gabriel Hansen and D.J. Surgent.
IG: What have been some of the most challenging stunts you've had to perform?
AV: My driving stunts have been the most challenging. I have not done anything death-defying in a car yet. However, for me, it is a totally new challenge. Although some of the qualities I think you develop as a gymnast — staying cool under pressure, focus, coordination — help with stunt driving, nothing from gymnastics carries over directly into stunt driving. Conversely, other stunts like high falls, air rams and wire flying have a lot of carryover from gymnastics in terms of the physicality of the stunt.
IG: Gymnastics has obviously benefited you in your new career, but what are some of the new skills you have learned or picked up in your stunt work?
AV: Gymnastics has been a huge help in stunt work. Some other skills that I have been working on are rigging, stunt driving, motion picture combat, and acting, just to name a few.
IG: What is your ultimate goal in stunt work — a specific stunt, working with a specific director/actor, or perhaps something more general?
AV: That is a great question, For me the ultimate goal would be a stunt coordinator. However, there is so much to learn between now and becoming a coordinator that I really don't think about it that much. The more you learn as a stuntman, the better stunt coordinator you will become. Being a stuntman always is a challenge, because your job presents vastly different challenges on a day-to-day basis, so I am never bored or thinking of future goals — just the challenge at hand. Staying safe on the job and training to expand my skill base when I am not working provides me with a multitude of goals on a day-to-day basis.
Read more about Vexler and his family in "Meet the Vexlers," an in-depth feature in the February 2005 issue of International Gymnast magazine. To order back issues, click here.
Written by John Crumlish
Tuesday, 09 October 2007 16:15
| Interview: Kyle Shewfelt (Canada)
A month after surgery on both legs, 2004 Olympic floor exercise champion Kyle Shewfelt of Canada told IG he plans to be 100 percent back by January.
Shewfelt in Stuttgart with Jana Komrskova (CZE)
Shewfelt was injured Aug. 27 while training for the 2007 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, when he landed stiff-legged on a layout Arabian double front on floor exercise.
The 25-year-old Shewfelt underwent surgery on Sept. 7 by Dr. Nick Mohtadi, a surgeon with the Canadian Sport Centre in Calgary.
Shewfelt is the reigning Olympic champion on the event, as well as the 2003 and 2006 world championships bronze medalist.
Shewfelt's injury sidelined him in Stuttgart, where he remained for the team qualification round to support his Canadian teammates. Even without Shewfelt's scores, the Canadian men finished 11th, earning Canada one of 12 team berths to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Shewfelt plans to spend the next several months rehabilitating his legs and hopes to defend his Olympic floor exercise title in Beijing.
In this IG Online interview, the optimistic Shewfelt describes what happened in Stuttgart, his intended recovery process and his ultimate goal of returning to the Olympic Games next year.
IG: Was the nature of your injury more complicated than you originally thought?
KS: It was definitely more complicated than originally expected. As it turns out, both fractures were displaced, and the left knee had a chipped bone and a stretched ligament. During surgery they put one screw into my right knee, and two screws and a plate into the left. They also had to reattach the bone chip and stabilize the stretched ligament.
IG: Based on the progress you've made between surgery and now, how long do you think you will need to be back at 100 percent?
KS: It's been a few weeks since surgery, and things are going pretty well. I am still very restricted, but I have a bit more freedom in terms of movement and activity.
After surgery, I woke up with two giant braces on my legs. I was able to partially weight-bear on the right, as the brace was set to allow a 30- to 90-degree range of motion. The left was locked in at 30 degrees. I think the first two weeks after surgery were the most difficult, because I couldn't do anything on my own and I was in quite a bit of pain.
During this time, I spent a lot of time doing nothing! It was a struggle to conjure up any motivation because it was a huge effort to do easy, everyday tasks. I had some time to catch up on my movies and read a few good books, though, so that was all right!
IG: What is your present condition?
KS: I got clearance to remove the right brace. I am now allowed to work up to full weight-bearing on this leg — although it is really stiff and I can't bend or straighten it all the way yet. I also get hyperextension flashbacks when I straighten it too much — not a nice feeling!. I am also allowed to partially weight-bear on the left. Dr. Mohtadi said that the left should be about a month behind the right due to the ligament damage.
I think that I should be back to 100 percent by January. I should be back into training in a couple of weeks. I have time right now, so I need to make sure that I heal properly. I have the tendency to get frustrated and try to push myself too much a little too soon, but I need to avoid doing this. It will be counterproductive, and I want to come back strong.
IG: What kind of physical therapy and conditioning are you doing?
KS: I have been doing physio since a few days after surgery. Just basic stuff like ultrasound, laser treatments, muscle stimulation and some massage. I have also done a few acupuncture treatments. I am taking a huge variety of vitamins, as well, to optimize healing. Now that I have the right brace off, we have done some leg conditioning and range of motion stuff.
As for conditioning, I have spent a lot of time on the arm bike, but my main source of activity has been getting around in a wheelchair and using my crutches and walker! I have an amazing support team at the Sport Centre here in Calgary, and we are developing a good plan for my recovery. I am going to start some weight training and core conditioning and continue with physio.
Shewfelt at the 2003 Worlds
IG: What gymnastics, if any, are you allowed to do presently?
KS: I'm not cleared for any gymnastics as of right now. I am still very restricted. Also, I don't want to go into the gym just because I feel like I have to be there. That's pointless. I want to come in with a plan and feel like I'm accomplishing something. I think that I will be able to do some press handstands and specific conditioning within the next couple of weeks, so I will go in when I am more comfortable doing these types of things. I think it's important for me to feel a little more mobile before I head back into the gym.
IG: What have the doctors advised you, regarding your competitive status leading up to Beijing?
KS: We did the surgery with the intention of being in top form for the Olympics. I might not compete until the late spring, but I will be healthy. I want to compete in my third Olympic Games, have the opportunity to defend my Olympic title and contribute great performances to the team. My goals are still the same; it's just going to be a more interesting journey!
Kyle Shewfelt is featured in the following issues of International Gymnast magazine: "Production Values," "Shewfelt's Role Both Familiar and Foreign" - features on Shewfelt's co-starring role in the film "White Palms" (November 2006)
"My Year After Athens" - Shewfelt memoirs (August/September 2005)
2004 Olympic Games Special Issue - includes Shewfelt (October 2004)
"The Style of Kyle" - profile (November 2003)
Quick Chat: Kyle Shewfelt - interview (November 2002)
"IG Profile: Kyle Shewfelt" (January 2001) To subscribe to IG magazine or order back issues, click here.