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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by dwight normile    Friday, 08 June 2012 11:11    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Much to Like about Mikulak
(7 votes, average 3.57 out of 5)

In my Visa championships preview yesterday I was remiss to leave out Sam Mikulak as a contender should the front-runners falter in the senior men's division. (And yes, I know that's not him in our Visas graphic.) I really like his gymnastics. He's got tricks, originality, form, amplitude and style. He's also a bit quirky, but in a good way.

Mikulak, who just finished his sophomore year at Michigan, still has to develop another skill: damage control. His fall on his triple twist floor dismount in prelims was catastrophic in terms of maintaining touch with the leaders. It appeared as if he could have saved the landing with a big step, but maybe his heavily taped ankles prevent a certain feel for the ground. After all, he broke both of them last summer at the Puerto Rico Cup in a routine that started with a successful triple-double.

In St. Louis, he planted the best Lopez vault (Kasamatsu-double twist, 7.0) I have seen him do this year. He seemed fit and ready to establish himself as a top contender.

The son of two former Cal-Berkeley gymnasts (Sam says he considered Cal but was unsure if its program would be dropped), Mikulak is without doubt one of the most balanced all-around gymnasts in the U.S. right now. And that's also his downfall when it comes to a five-member team selection. He doesn't have that one big score, and his strengths don't really match the U.S. team's weaknesses (rings and pommels). He's pretty good on pommels, but rings is his weak event.

I still think Mikulak could help the 2012 Olympic team, but an alternate role is a more likely fate for this former SCATS gymnast. He is still young and has plenty of untapped potential. But potential refers more to the future than the present.

Mikulak needs to show consistency now. And if he does run into a little trouble in a routine, or on a dismount, he needs to continue competing. And that will come with more experience.

Regardless of his outcome in St. Louis, Mikulak is sure to become a fan favorite before long. His natural talent is undeniable, and his gymnastics is really fun to watch.

Written by dwight normile    Friday, 01 June 2012 10:23    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Friday Roundup, Including New Skills, Compulsories and Memmel
(16 votes, average 3.88 out of 5)

With all the creative videos on YouTube for iconic individuals, spectacular crashes or, more recently, the ultimate gymnastics routine, I got to thinking about tricks I'd like to see regardless of how they would fit with the Code.

Steven Legendre, Chris Brooks or Matthias Fahrig on floor: Punch double front step-out to handspring- or roundoff-whatever. And while we're on the subject of multiple front somersaults, how about a front-1-3/4 roll-out to tucked front? Just because a skill doesn't add tenths doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. It certainly didn't stop Kyle Shewfelt from winning Olympic gold.

Aliya Mustafina, Viktoria Komova or Beth Tweddle on uneven bars: Each of these gymnasts is excellent with the Shaposhnikova-half variation, but instead of following it with a kip, I'd love to see a Zuchold (jam hop to handstand back to the low bar). That skill was a lot more common when the bars were closer, so it would be more difficult today, but not impossible.

And while we're on the subject of Shaposhnikovas, I am still amazed that no deduction is incurred when a gymnast does nothing on the backswing of this skill.

Double-double off uneven bars: The layout double-double off high bar is the dismount of choice for men, but it is rare off uneven bars (named after Elise Ray), simply because women get less air time. So most women try it in an open tuck position, which presents its own challenges, especially for gymnasts who have been competing a tucked full-out (Tweddle, Komova, Katelyn Ohashi). It is really difficult to complete the double twist if it is initiated after the first somersault is completed. The tuck position makes it even harder, since it slows the twist but increases the somersault rotation. Elise Ray and Shawn Johnson both did the skill in the layout position.

Compulsories: I miss them … dearly. It's not that I don't enjoy difficult skills and combinations, but rather that I also love to see simple skills taken to the ultimate in execution. A handspring-tucked front vault kicked out super early and stuck cold. A delayed tuck back on floor that seems to hang in the air. A hecht off high bar that soars eight feet above the bar. How often do we see amplitude and supreme execution in today's optionals?

Compulsories also were the perfect warm-up for optionals at worlds and Olympics. I recently asked FIG Women's Technical Committee Nellie Kim about the elimination of compulsories after the 1996 Olympics.

"I was against cancellation of compulsory exercises," she told me. "I even spoke at Symposium. I tried to defend compulsories."

Maybe with new leadership in the FIG, there will be hope for their return?

Cheating: It's always interesting to read FIG President Bruno Grandi's remarks on cleaning up the sport. In his May Letter From the President, he wrote: "The vast majority of our judging panels have embraced our best practices. Only a few ignorant individuals, trapped within the parochial mesh of their national flags, continue to resist change and pursue this dead end."

Right after I read this I watched the top three vaulters at the recent Men's Europeans, and even though there were no Romanian judges on the panel for event finals, I could only smile/frown at the final ranking: 1) Flavius Koczi (ROU) 16.116; 2) Igor Radivilov (UKR) 16.066; 3) Denis Ablyazin (RUS) 16.062.

Among this trio on that day, Koczi was simply a boy among men. The main criteria for judging vault are height and distance. Besides the fact that Koczi does two similar vaults (Kasamatsu-double twist; handspring-randi, both 7.0), his first vault landed extremely close to the vault table. His second vault traveled a bit farther, but had a straddled pre-flight to help initiate the twist and his form was loose throughout. Judges seem to evaluate the landing only, like a diver's splash.

Ablyazin vaulted a piked double Tsukahara (7.0) and a roundoff half-on to handspring-randi (7.2). Both of his vaults were better than both of Koczi's. (The Kasamatsu-double twist is probably over-valued compared with the 7.0-double somersault vaults.)

Radivilov threw the highest Dragulescu I've ever seen, kicking into the half turn sooner than even Dragulescu himself. Then he did a piked double Tsukahara. Even with steps on the landings, his vaults also were better than Koczi based on his height and distance. Pick your winner between Ablyazin and Radivilov, but the judges had no business placing Koczi above either.

Memmel's Magic: That was the title of the story we ran on Chellsie Memmel in our November 2002 issue. A year later she was receiving the loudest cheers in the Anaheim Pond for her heroics at the world championships. After winning Pan Ams, she was flown in as a fill-in for a U.S. women's team that was snapping ligaments and tendons with regularity. Turns out she was the most clutch competitor on that team, leading the Americans to their first world team gold. But this is old news.

Even though Memmel placed eighth at the 2011 Visa championships (and with an aborted bars routine on day two), I don't think she had a chance of making the 2012 Olympic team. But I do believe her presence at Visa championships, which was denied by U.S. national team coordinator Marta Karolyi, would have been a win-win for Memmel and USA Gymnastics. No, she didn't score at least a 14.00 on beam at the U.S. Classic, but since when has the U.S. Olympic women's team ever been selected solely by scores?

Few emotions are as intense as a parent's protective love for his children, so I can understand the pain Andy Memmel must be feeling right now.

Written by Dwight Normile    Saturday, 17 March 2012 14:26    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Figuring Out Gabby
(10 votes, average 4.00 out of 5)

Don't write off Gabrielle Douglas just yet. The sweet 16-year-old handled herself well yesterday considering how quickly her day went wrong. Her uneven bars routine, on the other hand, was a meet highlight. And that event alone may be her saving grace when it comes time to choose five gymnasts at the Olympic trials this summer. The U.S. needs at least three strong routines on uneven bars, and Douglas may be the best of the bunch.

Still very young, Douglas and is both blessed and cursed by her fast-twitch physique. Her amplitude in competition seems ramped up compared with warm-ups, and she's aware of that. Yesterday she appeared to be trying a little too hard, perhaps.

"When we compete we get a little stronger, a little more energy, and we have to learn how to control that," she said.

U.S. National Team Coordinator Marta Karolyi certainly wasn't pleased with Douglas's mishaps yesterday, but she's probably willing to give her a pass at this point. Having seen her in numerous training camps, she knows what Douglas can do.

"Most of the girls lived up to their expectations, and even when there were some mistakes, we're learning from them, and this is the time you have to do that," she said. And regarding Douglas, in particular, she added, "She is one of those gymnasts who has to be 100 percent sure that she is able to handle everything we throw in her basket, and I think it was too much in her basket this time (laughs)…

"And [Liang Chow] also needs to learn more about her personality … and sometimes doing a little bit less but doing it very clean and confidently is a better thing. But this is the time when we try out [new routines]."

Chow told me after the American Cup that he had to choose which strategy to take concerning the upgrade of Douglas's routines. When you're working with a physical talent like Douglas, you have many choices. One of them will not involve learning a second vault, Chow said. He wants to develop her all-around potential right now. A second vault can come later in her career.

But after the Pacific Rim team competition, Chow realizes there still is more work to do.

"Obviously, there is a problem," he told IG. "And it's good to see the problem at this early stage. Either technique or mental or both, it's good to see the issues [now] so we can fix them a little later."

The U.S. Classic in May will likely be Douglas's next meet. And after that, Visa championships and Olympic trials will provide plenty of chances for Douglas to prove herself once again.

"We've got a little time off," Chow said. "[We will] just try to be a little more precise working on technique and also some good consistency numbers."

Yes, the Pacific Rim team event was discouraging for Douglas. It sapped much of the confidence she gained at the American Cup, and now Chow has to rethink his plan a bit. But again, it's too soon to make any snap decisions with London 2012 in mind. Yesterday was just one meet, and tomorrow is another day.

Written by Dwight Normile    Thursday, 08 March 2012 16:11    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Reaping the Rewards of Confidence
(26 votes, average 3.77 out of 5)

When Gabrielle Douglas moved from Virginia to Iowa in October 2010, her new coach, Liang Chow, was impressed by something other than her gymnastics potential.

"I give her a lot of credit," Chow told me then. "At only 14 years old, she moved over by herself, without her mom or family."

After about 16 months with Chow, Douglas has now moved into a new level of gymnastics. While many gymnasts struggle for that little bit extra, Douglas has the rare luxury of amplitude to spare. She's flexible, light on her feet and dynamic in her swing. Oh, if only compulsories were still around.

Her 'winning' exhibition performance at the American Cup in Madison Square Garden was certainly compelling stuff, but also shouldn't be taken too seriously just yet. What we can take from her 61.299 is that it included the highest combined D-score by quite a margin (25.5: VT/6.5, UB/6.5, BB/6.5, FX/6.0).

American Cup champion Jordyn Wieber had 24.8, and runner-up Alexandra Raisman had 24.9. Those numbers are not set in stone, of course, as each of those gymnasts probably lost a connection here or there. Chow says Douglas was supposed to have a 6.1 on floor, but did not receive credit for a dance element.

With the math clearly in her favor, however, Douglas has to be considered an all-arounder contender for the 2012 Olympics. And Chow is pleased that his budding star got the chance to show her new program this early in the season.

"I was just so glad we got the opportunity to be in front of people, in front of the international judges and to demonstrate where she is after the winter training," he said. "So that was a real good testing for us, testing the new routines. And I think that also built up her confidence."

Last August, at the Visa championships, Douglas appeared to be in over her head. And at times, she was hard to watch, especially after that one balky beam routine that required three attempts to complete the dismount.

"Visas was really rough," Douglas told me. "I was just not even confident in myself, like I just wanted to give up and just not do it."

Then she regrouped and became one of the bright spots of the U.S. team at the Tokyo world championships, where she helped the team win gold and qualified to the uneven bars final.

Don't believe what Douglas presented last week in New York is a finished product, either. Now that he's had her in his gym for a while, Chow believes Douglas is finally ready to blossom.

"I think this year she's getting much more mature, physically and mentally," he said. "And she can understand pursuing and focusing on her dreams, or working on her goals on a daily basis instead of like last year. I feel like she was a younger kid … pursuing Olympic dreams, but they don't really quite understand what it takes to get there."

Chow and Douglas will travel to Houston Friday for a training camp that will select the women's team for the Pacific Rim Championships, March 16-18. Douglas would seem a logical pick for that squad, and it's a meet she could easily end up winning.

With such great potential under his tutelage, Chow knows he still has some decisions to make. Such is Douglas's wide range of abilities. More upgrades are in store, and each competition between now and the Olympics will be used to gauge the progress.

"We're definitely shooting for the maximum possibilities at this point," Chow said.

Douglas, meanwhile, has never felt better about her gymnastics.

"I just love that I'm so confident in myself from worlds," she said. "I think it's a great learning [experience] and a great journey for me on the road to London, so I'm really excited."

So are many gymnastics fans.

Read an interview with Gabrielle Douglas in the April issue of International Gymnast.

Written by Dwight Normile    Tuesday, 21 February 2012 14:30    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Sender Could Be a Factor
(13 votes, average 4.23 out of 5)

In the summer of 2010 I bumped into 2008 U.S. champion David Sender at the airport. We were both waiting for our connection to the Visa Championships in Hartford, Conn., where he would serve on the Men's Selection Committee for the world team. Sender, who graduated from Stanford in 2009, had also just finished his first year of veterinary school at Illinois.

During our conversation I asked him if he still had the 99-cent goldfish he had bought for an eighth-grade science project (his first fish died). A fish so durable that he even took him to college, sealed in a Zip-loc bag of water on the plane. He told me he still had the fish, which had traveled by car back to Illinois.

I also asked if he might make a comeback. He just laughed.

Two years earlier he had been a shoo-in to make the Beijing Olympic team, but he rolled an ankle after stilling a vibrating high bar. The sprain forced him out of the Olympic trials he had a good chance at winning. But what hurt deeper was being overlooked completely when the Olympic team and alternates were named. Especially when Paul Hamm, who had a broken hand, was named directly to the team. (Hamm would eventually withdraw.)

Sender served on the Men's Selection Committee again last summer in St. Paul, Minn., which is when the gears started turning again. He had figured the level of gymnastics would have advanced beyond his reach.

"When I was watching championships, it didn't really seem that way," Sender said. "I think that kind of got the process started for me."

Sender, a native of Arlington Heights, Ill., is taking a one-year break from vet school to chase his Olympic dream one more time. He trains at Illinois under 2008 Olympian Justin Spring before the college team starts its workout. Then he hangs around and helps out.

You see, Sender can't forget 2008. It is one thing to hurt yourself on a Super-G element, but quite another to knock yourself out the way he did. So the only way to get past the disappointment is to try again.

"Bottom line, I still felt like I had a lot of gymnastics left in me," he said. "And if there was any chance at all that I had of making the Olympics this year, then I owed it to myself to at least try. And after how things went in ’08, I guess I sort of still felt something unfinished."

Sender hurried back for the 2012 Winter Cup to place sixth all-around and regain national-team status. He also placed second on vault and third on rings. And though he didn't throw the Yurchenko-double pike he unleashed in 2009 (he did a Yurchenko-2.5 twist), he's training 17.0 and 17.2 vaults.

"I have to be a little more conscious of my age now," said Sender, 26. "And that vault is a really big vault. And even when it's done really well, it's still a tough landing to take.

"I think a 17.00, at least, on vault for me — I don't know if it would make or break my case, but I think it would help quite a bit," he says.

On a scale from 1-10, Sender gave himself a 6 on his performance at Winter Cup, where he said he watered down in places. And his prolific floor exercise proved too long for his level of conditioning at the time.

"That's the hardest [routine] so far, in terms of endurance," he said.

Sender knows the U.S. is still weak on pommel horse and rings, and said he's been training pommels twice as much as any other event.

"I can cover rings (for the team) just fine — I think everybody knows that," he said. "So in my head, obviously pommel horse is the ticket. So that's been something we've really focused on a lot."

With a few more months of conditioning, a healthy Sender should be a major player in the 2012 Olympic team dogfight. And he has to be the sentimental favorite, as well. But regardless of his fortunes this summer, he knows he's doing the right thing.

"Honestly, I tried to keep [2008] out of my head a little bit when I was making the decision to come back, but I think it would be pretty ridiculous to say that that didn't influence my decision," he said. "That was kind of the peak of my gymnastics, and that was my best shot and what I felt was supposed to be my time to make it. And I didn't even have a chance necessarily to prove whether or not I should be on the team. That was really tough to go through."

At the end of our conversation yesterday, I had to ask Sender if he still had his goldfish.

"I do," he said enthusiastically. "He's still doing OK."

Sender also said the fish still didn't have a name. How about London?


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