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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by Dwight Normile    Tuesday, 11 March 2008 12:46    PDF Print
Johnson's Loss at the American Cup Also Her Gain

When Shawn Johnson fell on her Amanar vault at the American Cup March 1, so too did the suffocating expectations that she would continue a winning streak that had begun the year before at the same meet. After grabbing the all-around and three event titles at the 2007 American Cup, Johnson went on quite a tear. The sport's newest star racked up 10 gold medals at the Pan American Games (four), U.S. championships (three) and world championships (three) combined. She was only 15.

Yet with that one big mistake on her first event at the American Cup, Johnson became human again. "Actually, she seems to have had a huge load lifted," Teri Johnson, Shawn's mother, told IG. "She seems much more light-hearted and back to the old Shawn. I think it's really great to have some of the spotlight dimmed for a while."

Shawn Johnson
A similar situation emerged in 2004, when Carly Patterson began the year by winning the all-around and every event at the American Cup. After tying for first with Courtney Kupets at the U.S. National Championships later that season, the spotlight's glare was at least shared. But when Patterson fell off beam (both days) and placed third at the U.S. Olympic Trials, she could finally relax and focus on Athens.

"[Carly] felt like trials was a blessing in disguise because she was on a winning streak, as well, and that it would have to come to an end," says Natalie Patterson, Carly's mother. "It was better to end at trials, which gave her that much more motivation to come back and prove what she was capable of doing. People talk when things like this happen. They write you off as the pressure got to her. This only gave Carly a stronger vengeance to come back and prove herself."

Fueled by a deeper resolve, Patterson won the 2004 Olympics over then-world champion and main challenger Svetlana Khorkina.

Fast-forward to the present and we've got Johnson pitted against Nastia Liukin much the same as Patterson battled Khorkina. That Johnson and Liukin will likely be teammates in Beijing adds an interesting twist, for at least one of them will not win the all-around gold. (Unlike at world championships, ties are broken at Olympics.)

Nastia Liukin
From late 2006, when she injured her ankle, Liukin had something to prove. An all-arounder at heart, she had no choice but to play a supporting role to Johnson's incredible senior debut last year.

Now Johnson has something to prove as well. "Personally, I think this is the best thing that could have happened for her," Teri says of her daughter's runner-up finish at the American Cup. "Don't get me wrong. I never want for her to 'lose,' but I do think she will be hungrier now. I've always told her that knowing how to lose is as important as knowing how to win. You have to experience one in order to fully appreciate the other."

It's too early to predict much about the Olympics in Beijing, although it is not out of the question that Johnson and Liukin could claim the top two all-around spots in either order. The American Cup was little more than a test for both gymnasts. "I'm not, personally, in top shape like I will be in a few months, and this is not the most important meet," Johnson said after the meet. "I came here for experience and to get all my new skills out there."

Said Liukin: "Don't get me wrong, I did not have the best competition of my life ... I can improve so much."

As Johnson and Liukin prepare for their first Olympics, each probably realizes only her best will beat the other. Whether that creates added pressure will show in the coming months. But if Johnson and Liukin have indeed separated themselves from the pack, at least in the U.S., they have only each other to thank.

For now, the pressure is off Johnson. And as her mother said, it's probably the best thing that could have happened to her.

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Monday, 03 March 2008 12:37    PDF Print
Olympic Wild Card?

One spot remains open for the 2008 Olympics for both men and women. The other 97 berths for each gender were determined by the results of the 2007 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. Here's how they were allotted.

1-72: top 12 teams (six gymnasts per team)
73-78: two gymnasts each from teams ranked 13th, 14th and 15th
79-81: one gymnast each from teams ranked 16th, 17th and 18th
82-90: 1 gymnast (per federations other than those mentioned above) based on all-around ranking from Competition I (preliminaries)
91-94: apparatus gold medalists; supplemented by Competition I ranking if gold medalists were already qualified by previous criteria
95-97: three gymnasts designated by FIG Executive Committee with consideration to continental representation
98: Wild card, allocated by the Tripartite Commission (FIG, IOC and Association of National Olympic Committees)

In an effort to expand global participation at the Olympics, the selection system fails to ensure the highest level of competition possible at the games. In gymnastics, for sure, it is often harder to win a medal at a world championships than at the Olympics. The last three female gymnasts to "earn" a berth to Beijing scored between 51.350-51.875 in Stuttgart. Their prelim rankings were 83rd, 84th and 91st.

Elsa Garcia of Mexico scored 52.775, basically without the use of one leg. But her teammate Marisela Cantu tallied 53.350 and received an Olympic invite in the 82-90 group. With Mexico already represented, Garcia is caught in a difficult position.

I can only hope the Tripartite Commission understands and recognizes Garcia's true value when it selects the final woman to go to Beijing in August. That wasn't the real Garcia in Stuttgart, the one who scored a bronze-medal winning 60.200 at the 2007 American Cup. In her wake were Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs (Canada), Zhou Zhuoru (China), Daria Joura (Australia), Kristina Pravdina (Russia) and Daria Zgoba (Ukraine). That's a pretty talented field.

Elsa Garcia
In the following months Garcia won seven medals at World Cup events in Paris (silver on floor, bronze on vault); Cottbus (golds on bars and floor, bronze on vault); and Ghent (silvers on vault and floor). Garcia won these medals against numerous world-class gymnasts, virtually all of whom will compete with their full teams in Beijing.

Just four days before the start of the World Championships in Stuttgart, however, Garcia sustained a serious leg injury that would require an extended break — but not until after she limped through four routines in Stuttgart.

"It hurt every time I put pressure on it," she recently told IG. "Walk, run, jump, land. After worlds I stopped my gymnastics training for almost three months."

At the 2006 Worlds in Aarhus, Denmark, Garcia's 33rd place in prelims would have made her the top individual qualifier with room to spare. But in Stuttgart, Garcia gamely competed with a torn psoas muscle, which extends from the lower back to the pelvis. After rehabilitation, which included swimming, cycling and cardiovascular exercise, Garcia is healthy again. She's also receiving national support for the wild card berth to Beijing.

"The National Commission of Sport and the Mexican Olympic Committee are supporting my case," says the 18-year-old from Monterrey, who is coached by Antonio Barraza and Teresa Lopez. "Mexico had never supported an athlete that was not automatically ranked to go, so this is the exception."

Garcia is a worthy exception to any rule that suggests Mexico shouldn't have two gymnasts in Beijing. She deserves to compete in the Olympics because she's a medal contender in more than one event. Her presence would make a positive difference in the competition.

For now, though, it's a waiting game. "The announcement will be done by the IOC," one FIG official told me recently. "Like you, we're waiting for the decision."

Says Garcia: "I am supposed to get an answer between March and May. I really hope they grant me a place in the Olympics."

So do I. Elsa Garcia deserves the chance to make the 2008 Olympics, because she'll make them even better.

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Thursday, 14 February 2008 12:30    PDF Print
Hamm's True Impact
The pecking order of men's gymnastics got a whole lot more interesting with the complete and impressive return of Paul Hamm at the Winter Cup in Las Vegas. Not only does Hamm, 25, present an immediate challenge to the 2008 Olympic all-around title, his presence also consolidates the potential of a mercurial U.S. men's team, which placed 13th and fourth at the last two world championships.

That Hamm's self-imposed hiatus is finally over should help the U.S. men's program fill some holes very nicely and add a little swagger, as well. This is certainly a great time for men's national team coordinator Ron Brant and 2008 Olympic coach Kevin Mazeika. How often can you suddenly plug someone of Hamm's status into your lineup?

"It's a great addition, obviously, having the defending Olympic champion back on our team," Mazeika said. "It helps the entire country … and I think he helps push everybody to that next level."

Adds Brant: "The one thing Paul brings that you just can't replace is the experience and the focus…. Anything is possible [for our team], and we're leaving the door open for all possibilities at this Olympics."

So what are the realistic chances in Beijing for the U.S. team, which won the silver medal in 2004? Let's quickly crunch some numbers. In Athens, under the old 10.0 scoring system, Japan defeated the U.S., 173.821-172.933, a difference of .888. China, which collapsed to fifth, scored only 171.257. The maximum team total was 180.000.

At the 2007 World Championships, under the current open-ended scoring system, the top four teams were China (281.900), Japan (277.025), Germany (273.525) and the U.S. (272.275). Replace the low scores on each event for the U.S. with Hamm's Winter Cup preliminary scores and the total climbs to 275.575, good enough for the bronze but still well shy of the silver.

Hamm at the Winter Cup
While no victory is ever secure, the new Code of Points is not nearly as penal as the old Code. China's considerable margin of victory at the 2007 worlds was built largely on its superior combination of A- and B-scores (difficulty, execution). Even with multiple falls, China could still finish on top in Beijing because 1) falls account for a smaller percentage of the final score as they did four years ago, and 2) the additive A-score further neutralizes the negative effect of a fall. With their high Start Values, the Chinese simply have more room for error.

Hamm's impact in the all-around competition could be a different story. If you can trust his scores from the Winter Cup — and some of them were generous, according to insiders — Hamm is already a threat to favorite Yang Wei of China. And Hamm, who rated his Winter Cup effort an 8.5 out of 10, should only improve in the next six months. Yes, he's about a full point shy of Yang in difficulty, but that can be made up with clean execution. "I think he's at a level that I don't know if I even could reach," Hamm says of Yang's difficulty, specifically on rings, vault and parallel bars.

But Hamm was obviously encouraged by his first all-around outing since the 2004 Olympics. "I had a couple mistakes at Winter Cup that, if I avoid, would put me up above probably the 94-range in the all-around," he predicts. "I think at that point I become competitive with almost anyone in the world."

Yang won the last worlds with 93.675 (93.925 in prelims), and Hamm logged a 93.050 on day two of the Winter Cup, which included a fall on his Kasamatsu-1.5 vault.

Hamm will be tested on a grander scale March 1 at the American Cup in New York, a meet that's set to include Fabian Hambüchen, Hisashi Mizutori and Jonathan Horton, a trio that placed second, third and fourth all-around at the 2007 worlds.

"I have to admit that I'm really impressed by what Paul did or is still doing," Hambüchen told IG. "His comeback is amazing! I always looked at his homepage (makingtheolympics.com), how his progress is, and he got back in shape really fast. He has a tough program and it won't be easy to beat him, but that's not my aim … I just want to have a good and fair competition and the best one will win. I know I also have a tough program and also a small chance to reach the top."

Hamm has to be considered the favorite to win the American Cup, and a victory there will send a strong message to Yang. The compact Chinese gymnast will know that the challenge — and pressure — to win at home in Beijing will be that much greater. Yes, Hamm's return has already made things a lot more interesting.

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Tuesday, 22 January 2008 12:27    PDF Print
Skills and Combinations I'd Rather Not See (Anymore)
My last column, "Skills and Combinations I'd Love to See," created some lively discussion, as well as some really great new combinations I hadn't thought of. And after all, that was the whole point. As a follow-up, I hereby offer a list of elements (or trends) that can disappear as far as I'm concerned.

Women's Floor Exercise

• Any full-, 1.5- or double-twisting jumps (with no somersault involved). These elements just don't seem to require any true gymnastics ability, and it's too difficult for judges to see if they are complete.

Tumbling

• Any twisting somersault that finishes in a forward landing, unless it is followed by a skill which completes the pass aesthetically. In other words, no more roundoff, flip-flop, 2.5 twist dismounts, since they are virtually impossible to stick.

Uneven Bars

• Any skill in which the feet are touching the bar but the hands are not. So no more sole circles on the low bar where the gymnast merely stands up and reaches for the high bar.

• A Shaposhnikova or Maloney that leads to nothing on the backswing. On men's parallel bars this would be an intermediate swing and incur a deduction. I am not sure why these elements get a free pass on uneven bars.

Balance Beam

Kristina Vaculik (Canada) doing a side somi
• Linking acro elements that go forward to ones that go backward. A punch front salto followed by a flip-flop, layout, for example, does little for me since the gymnast can pause after the front while keeping her arms moving. Yes, it takes some degree of continuity to do this sequence, but the flip-flop, layout is not dependent on the front salto at all.

• Rulfova. It's difficult, sure, but it's just not very pretty.

• Any skill that lands on the beam with a thud. What comes to mind immediately is Daria Joura's Shushunova.

• Kochetkova. This full-twisting back handspring rarely looks fluid.

• Side somi. This skill is just plain ugly on beam. It's better suited for the circus, where an acrobat does about 10 of them in a row as he circles the ring.

• Mounts that really aren't mounts.

Parallel Bars

• Any skill in the tucked position, unless it's the dismount or a giant swing. That should solve most of the problem concerning the mushrooming trend of doubles that crash land on the upper arms. Parallel bars offers far too much variety via other skills for gymnasts to focus so much on these release skills.

• Front uprise-L and front uprise-reverse straddle cut. Neither combination really looks like it should go together.

Horizontal Bar

• High bar is a great event, so there's not much I would change other than to limit skills that are simply variations of themselves in the same routine. I'd rather see just a Kolman in a routine instead of a Kovacs, layout Kovacs AND Kolman. Same goes for the full- and 1.5 pirouettes that all finish in different grips. I realize the Code is partly to blame here, because the gymnasts have to come up with 10 skills.

• No more giants that go over the top without doing SOMETHING, unless it's before the dismount. Linking elements is what makes high bar unique, so swinging over the top with no grip change, or whatever, just doesn't help the routine at all.

 
Written by Dwight Normile    Monday, 14 January 2008 12:25    PDF Print
Skills I'd Like to See
The Code of Points has a way of dictating which skills and combinations appear in routines, but that doesn't mean we can't dream. Following is a list of elements, some borrowed from the past, that I would love to see.

Floor Exercise

• Full-twisting Arabian dive roll. I don't think I would ever tire of seeing this breathtaking skill. Remember, it was the exclamation point that completed that memorable back-to-back pass by 1985 world champion Oksana Omelianchik. And refuting the notion that more is always better in gymnastics, I don't think I'd like to see a double-twisting Arabian dive roll. Ever.

• Morgan Hamm's Airflare is really cool, even if it's been done already by B-Boys. However, to incorporate it in a floor routine could bring new fans to the sport.

Uneven Bars

• In the 1970s the sole circle-1.5 twist was a rare skill because it was difficult. It's no longer performed since routines are based on the giant swing now. But with the bars farther apart today, it would be interesting to see the sole circle-1.5 twist to a Pak Salto.

• Nastia Liukin (among others) performs an Ono turn (which unwinds a gymnast from an elgrip to undergrip) immediate half pirouette. How about an Ono turn immediate full pirouette back to elgrip? That's a double pirouette. The current rule that requires pirouettes to finish near a handstand might preclude this combination, but maybe not for long.

• During her lengthy career, Svetlana Khorkina performed several different elements that took her from the low bar to the high bar, but my favorite was the Stalder-hecht she used only briefly. From a handstand on the low (back facing high), she dropped into a Stalder. But just when you thought she would complete her ascent to a handstand, she simply let go and caught the high bar. It was beautiful and unexpected. I can only guess that it also was inconsistent, because she didn't keep it for long. Or perhaps her coach, Boris Pilkin, had already invented that crazy, whirling Shaposhnikova she used for years.

Balance Beam

• More gainers in combination: cartwheel, layout gainer; flip-flop step-out, layout gainer; flip-flop step-out, gainer back handspring; layout step-out, gainer back handspring. The list goes on.

• No-handed forward roll.

Men's Vault

• Roundoff onto the board, half turn-on, handspring-double front. It's worth 6.8, which isn't too shabby.

Parallel Bars

• I must admit, when I first saw Shinji Morisue chuck a tucked double back to upper arms at the 1984 Olympics, something inside me said it wasn't good gymnastics. Not that it wasn't difficult, mind you. I just didn't think it belonged on the event. I had a hard enough time accepting bent legs on giant swings, but throwing a skill on p-bars in the tucked position seemed to show complete disregard for tradition.

Well, these doubles have overtaken what was once a beautiful event. So if they're here to stay, how about following them with something other than a front uprise? And let's be honest, some of the front uprises we see after Morisues are skidding, arm-scraping, reverse push-ups. Still others employ a small kipping action to reach a full support. Why not do a simple back shoulder roll? Or better yet, one of those interesting slip-kips, where the gymnast reaches back from the upper arms, catches in a piked inverted swing, then kips to a support. And if you're really strong, maybe a Streuli? Or back shoulder roll to Streuli! See, the combinations are endless!

• Back uprise, straddle cut, peach. Some gymnasts used to do a straddle cut immediate cast to upper arms. They didn't catch the straddle cut in a support, but instead reached in front for the regrasp. It was eye-catching and flowing. Perhaps this could also be done to a peach-handstand. Perhaps not. (Combinations always seem possible while dreaming, but prove impossible rather quickly when attempted for real.)

Horizontal Bar

• More dismounts in combination with release elements. A Tkatchev seems the best candidate to link directly to a dismount, since the gymnast usually has plenty of swing and has time to tap after regrasping.

• With Takemotos on the rise again, how about a Takemoto to double undergrip immediate half pirouette (or full pirouette to elgrip)?

 


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