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Monday, December 19, 2011

Gymnastics and North Korea

With the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in the news, I was reminded of a fascinating documentary I caught on Netflix (available on instant play or DVD). A State of Mind is a fascinating rare look inside the secretive country, and even more interesting--it focuses on two gymnasts.

For a time, North Korean gymnasts were right up there with the best in the world--see this bit on Kim Gwang Suk, 1991 World Champion on bars--but age-falsifying scandals caused them to be banned from competition for a while. The gymnasts in A State of Mind are not training in traditional artistic women's gymnastics, but instead do a form of group performance gymnastics incorporating artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, and acrobatics. However, this isn't a film about gymnastics; it's about daily life, work, and goals in North Korea.

What we see from the people of North Korea is a god-like reverence for "The Dear Leader" and a conviction to anti-American propaganda so earnest that it would be comical if it weren't so scary. The great question remains, do the people of North Korea truly believe in the cult of Kim Jong Il, or do they simply know that they are required to? Now that he's gone, maybe we're closer to finding out.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Your daily dose of gymnastics: Phan Thi Ha Thanh

Phan Thi Ha Thanh is the first Vietnamese gymnast ever to medal at Worlds. I love it when someone bursts onto the scene from someplace you don't expect. Here she is on vault:

She's a lovely vaulter and all, as you can see, but let's talk about her leotard.

I kinda love it!

So the red and white is a little pepperminty. But I'm really digging the style. The high collar with the faux plunging v-neck--it's a little costumey, but in a good way! Dramatic! But still sleek enough to be sporty. I'd like to see it in red and black so it doesn't remind me of candy canes.

 I see it's a Christian Moreau.

Let me tell you a little about Christian Moreau. When I went to the 1991 World Championships, not only did I get to watch my gymnastics idol, Svetlana Boginskaya, in person, but I noticed she had the most fabulous leotard I had even seen. A PAISLEY VELVET leotard. It emitted heavenly sun rays and made birds in surrounding communities whistle beautiful chirping melodies.


Well, it was 1991 and paisley velvet and Nirvana and Crystal Pepsi were awesome.

Christian Moreau had a booth on the trade floor and I picked up a small catalog. I browsed that little pamphlet till it tore to pieces. Sadly, oh so sadly, I never did get my own Christian Moreau leotard. But I kept that catalog till Hurricane Katrina viciously ripped it from my bag-o-leotard-catalogs. (What, you don't have a bag-o-leotard-catalogs?) Christian Moreau is a little hit or miss, but back to the moral of our story, which is something like this: Phan Thi Ha Thanh-- excellent vaulter, Vietnamese trailblazer, fashion-forward gymnast.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Real Nadia and Teodora

I know a lot of my non-gymnastics friends have loved Nadia, the movie, but most have probably never seen footage of the actual gymnasts.

Nadia was the first female to compete a double back (she and Soviet gymnast Nelli Kim were the first to compete it at the Olympics) and as you can see, this was before spring floors were in use. I learned on an old Nissen mat like this (I'm not THAT old, it's just that my gym's equipment was) and I can tell you, lack of that extra springy boost is only one obstacle; the other is lack of cushiony softness when you land...in a heap...as I frequently did. She's 14 here, this is before the Olympics made her a household name. Nadia doesn't land in a heap:

Seventies style is something I can't get on board with. Everything about that decade was sorta hideous. What I DO like about the 70's are the wacky, inventive bar routines. Did you just go back and replay Teodora's mount five times? And did you compare it to the way you used to jump onto the furniture, half-flip style? Just me? Okay.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The bestest movie ever. NADIA!

I'm not sure how many times I've watched this movie. Enough that I can recite the dialog just according to cues from the soundtrack without actually seeing it as I'm typing. Only Nadia could tell you how accurate it is, but as far as I'm concerned, it's perfect.

It's not on DVD and it's not readily available on VHS (not that I still have a VCR). So thanks, handy youtuber, for putting this out there for me. Nadia, NOW! Hurry!

This is where young Teodora shows her floor routine. It's cuter than puppies.

"You can't get the experience unless you take the risk." I defy you to find another made-for-TV movie that could offer such quotable profundities.

You get the idea. Parts 4 through 9 won't be that difficult to find. Do think it's possible for a little girl to fly? :)

Your daily dose of gymnastics

Just a quickie while I try to get back in to the swing of things after a looooong Thanksgiving holiday.

Li Li: the gymnast who brought breakdancing to the balance beam. I used to try this backspin when I had a little down time at practice. On the low beam. Again and again. Never made it past a quarter turn.

I love this whole routine, it's so creative and lovely, and nothing like routines today-- crammed with tricks that are connected by plodding steps. Well, everything is cyclical...the optimist in me says that eventually we'll see increased emphasis on creativity and originality. Thanks, Li Li!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Gymnastics evolves

I love how a little thinking outside the box can allow a gymnast to adapt their skills for brilliant stunts. Showing this side of gymnastics is really great for the sport, when a lot of people might have an image of gymnasts as sort of quiet and uptight. Skills like these are so impressive and they appeal to the masses; it's similar to the way Cirque du Soleil has found a way to spin off gymnastics into something very different but completely derivative. Gymnastics has always been the original "extreme" sport.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Germans, gymnastics, and buzzmullets

Behold, Ulrike Klotz:

What first caught my attention was the spectacular buzzmullet.

But as it turns out, the choreography and music are actually quite lovely--very similar to 80's era Soviets. Did she seem a tad...thin? Eek. But, she's looking healthier 3 years later:

At any rate, we should probably take a look at some more glorious German hair of the 80's.

Poor Baerbel Wielgoss, with a name that conjures up barbells and barbers, this is the only haircut that truly fits:

Dorte Thummler sports a rather magnificent wave--how does it stay that way? And how did it get there? Was Baerbel bitterly jealous of the volume and bounce?

Martina Jentsch, surprisingly normal (in that normal-1987 kinda way), this style might be called The Valley Girl:

We've already covered Dagmar Kersten (and her fabulous overalls leotard) but I just have to interrupt this hairstyle bit to ask you to watch this vault. I love the hang time in the post-flight before the flip. I just replayed this like 8 times. Check out the distance! Then go back again and check out the length of the hurdle onto the board, then notice the old school board. I am in love with this vault.

And finally, no team would be complete without the Grandma Perm, as demonstrated by Jana Vogel--with a few nifty little tricks in this beam routine.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

So Jordyn Wieber is "turning pro." Not that that means much in gymnastics; in football turning pro usually involves a multimillion dollar contract. In gymnastics, winning a prestigious competition like the American Cup means a $16,000 prize. Which sounds like a lot to a 16-year-old, but probably wouldn't be enough incentive for a pro basketball player to show up 10 minutes early to the game.

The problem with NCAA eligibility rules is that in many sports, there is no professional league. Yet all sports are treated the same. The paltry sum a gymnast might receive for placing in a competition could help her afford a flight home, not a closetful of custom Nikes in a McMansion in suburban Atlanta. After college, these gymnastics have no professional league to go on to. They just hope to make a decent living.

This is one of the main reasons gymnasts tend to peak in their teens--there is no promise of a career. For most adult gymnasts, it's simply not feasible to earn a decent living while maintaining elite level. And that's a shame, because adults in general have much better self discipline and time management skills than children--so we're really missing out on the gymnasts-that-could-have-been.

I hate that Jordyn has to make this decision. Sure she looks like a sure thing for the Olympic team, but she'll have to stay injury-free, make the team, compete well, medal, AND interview well in order to make a little dough. A pro football player has only to sign a contract, and even if he plays like crap, he makes his millions. And he's already had his free ride to college!!

An NCAA scholarship would be a prize of at least $100,000 and every Division I school would love to have her--guaranteed. Jordyn may be able to make that kind of money with endorsements, but she better take bubbly lessons from Mary Lou in preparation in order to score the endorsements in the first place. Conveying a sparkly personality is not always easy for a teenager, much less one who spends 40 hours a week in the gym in serious-mode.

Meanwhile her coach John Geddart says:
"I'm supportive of the idea in that Jordyn isn't cut out for college gymnastics. I don't think the 14 weekends in a row doing watered-down gymnastics, that's not what she's all about. When you compete with the best in the world, I don't see her sinking her teeth into that type of situation."

Sure, not every gymnast is cut out for college gymnastics, but consider that NCAA teams now draw plenty of former Olympians and current national team members. That's a pretty insulting statement to the many college gymnasts who are not only maintaining elite level in their early twenties, but are doing it while taking full college course loads and putting in significantly less hours in the gym than most elites....AND drawing bigger crowds than most elite competitions.

Jordyn Wieber's decision to "turn pro" is not necessarily very bad or very good. It's simply a huge gamble-- a gamble that most professional athletes don't have to make.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Best in the Worlds, continued

Sorry for that break in the action, now where were we? Oh yes!

There was the best leotard from Worlds--prize to Great Britain for this understated number.

Let's look at a few more.
China's never put a lot of effort into their leotards. They almost never stray from red, but sometimes the yellow is a mish-mash swirl of a print on the front. So I have to consider this an upgrade from the usual. Still a lot of room for improvement, however.

Yikes, no! This is not improvement! White crushed velvet with sparkly green bits and orange flowers. However, I do appreciate the effort.

Here's the Netherlands in a leotard that I'm not crazy about, mainly for the weird, very square shape in the color blocking at the top. But...ya know what? It's growing on me. It's flattering and slimming, on account of the color down the side. Blue and orange is a combination that's sorta heinous, just ask any poor sucker from Auburn or Florida. (As an Alabama fan, I'm obligated to say this.) (Truth be told, I don't mind the combo as long as the blue outweighs the orange.)

 But the redeeming quality is the nice pop of color when they raise their arms. Sure, it's too bad that it's orange, and we've caught her arms at a bit of an ungraceful moment, but the idea is that it makes your arms look nice and long and that's a good thing.

Let's talk about purple. 

It's a great color for leotards. But almost no countries have it for a national color. It's OK, countries, to branch out a little; we won't think you unpatriotic. The Australians have been embracing purple ever since former Shannon Miller coach Peggy Liddick moved down under and told them how sad their green and yellow leotards were. No one's ever told me why Australia's colors are green and yellow when their flag is red, white, and blue, but I suppose I could google it, or ask Siri.

So purple from Australia on the left, and Gabrielle Douglas of the US on the right. It's a great color for her! Also a prettier purple than the Australians. Aussies, I'd like you to reverse that leo and show me black on the bottom and purple on the sleeves. I still like it, though, just nitpicking here.

Speaking of purple. 
 Bonus points for matching your hair to your leotard. Or 0.2 deduction, I haven't decided.

Roll down your sleeves.
I like this look for Germany. It's a happy medium between old-school color blocked leos and new obnoxious swirly snake ribbon embellished leotards. It's a wee bit busy, but still pretty flattering and nice placement of colors. But dude. ROLL YOUR SLEEVES DOWN. It will look SO much better when you roll  your sleeves down. You are giving yourself stumpy arms.

Roll down your sleeves.

Russia and Canada went for a similar color, and I like it. I'm not thrilled with the polka-dot effect of the crystals on Canada's leotard, but I realize I gave top honors to Britain when they had the same issue so I guess I can't complain. I just liked that one enough to overlook the polka-dottiness.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Best in the Worlds

Let's start with the most important.

Best leotards: Great Britain

It's simple! It's understated! It's navy, which is lovely on everyone.
And then, surprise! Nice little pop of color with the clever placement of a Union Jack on the back. Of course the style is marred a bit by having to pin her competition number on. Remind me why we're doing that? Any reason we should pretend every Brevet judge doesn't recognize all the top competitors by name and face?
Meanwhile, I think I'm gonna have to do a retrospective of British leotards, because lately they are all pretty awesome.

More to come. I'm a little busy at the moment. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

What in the Worlds needs to be changed?

For me the worst part of the 2011 World Championships was realizing my DirectTV had taken my Universal Sports Channel away and lumped it in with a $12.99 a month sports package! (Guess what DirectTV--obscure sports watchers and football-baseball-basketball watchers--two different audiences.) Well, NBC stepped up with some fairly decent coverage! With www.universalsports.com and the FIG Youtube channel, I'm managing to view some interesting stuff that NBC won't show.

Anyway, thoughts, opinions, and observances:

  • The US was so dominant that I actually wish the others had been better, for a little more exciting competition. 
  • Maybe China's got some better girls waiting back home, saving up for London 2012? The Chinese are usually so exciting to watch, but they just felt a little ho-hum to me. 
  • To make the World Championships more special, more understandable, more memorable, we need to return to the odd-year format. (Or have we? I can't keep up!) After Indianapolis FIG launched some crazy schedule of random World Championships. "Well this year we'll have Worlds for All-Around in the spring, and then team in the fall! Then next year it'll be Event Finals only, and skip a year, then a full Worlds the following summer!" No one can keep up. It's too confusing, even for those in the sport. How can we recruit new fans and athletes if it's too hard to follow? INCONSISTENCY from FIG is what's killing gymnastics. Ironic, right? 
  • And on that note, reinstate the 10. 
More notes to come....

Saturday, October 8, 2011

I Triumphed at the World Championships

This is Kim Zmeskal, not me.

With the World Gymnastics Championships kicking off in Tokyo, a double take at that 2011 date made me realize that it was 20 years ago that the luckiest kid in the world made an appearance at the 1991 World Championships in Indianapolis. And I guess that statement could apply to Kim Zmeskal, who won the whole thing and became the first American to do so. But really I'm talking about me, a crafty 14-year-old who convinced my parents to let me cut school so we could all fly to Indiana for a long weekend.

My campaign to attend Worlds (slightly different from the Zmeskal strategy of spending couple of years racking up fistfuls of golds in national and international competition) involved strategically placing signs and notes all over the house reminding my parents of my many fine qualities and accomplishments. "A fine student and devoted gymnast!" proclaimed President George Bush from one poster. "Of course she deserves to go to the World Championships!"

I have to say that I never thought it would actually work. When my dad finally said, "OK, call the number and see what tickets are available," my first reaction was disbelief, and then I suddenly felt the urge to turn to a camera, Ferris Bueller-style, to remark, "They bought it!"

We arrived in Indianapolis the final Friday of Worlds; the Women's All-Around competition would be held that night. When we reached downtown, I felt like a chocoholic that had just entered Willy Wonka's factory. Gymnastics banners were hung on every post lining the street. Our hotel's grand lobby had giant flags featuring the World Championships logo. From our room, I peered out the window at the Hoosier Dome, right across the street, and watched as gymnasts, coaches, and fans from around the world roamed around.

My mom would attend All-Around finals with me on Friday night, while my dad would accompany to the first day of Event Finals on Saturday. We decided to duck into a small fast food joint inside the hotel lobby for a bite to eat before the competition. After we spotted two girls approaching another customer, my mom whispered to me, "Is that somebody famous?"

I could hardly contain my excitement...Chris Waller was eating there! Gymnastics was my Hollywood--if Johnny Depp had walked in I wouldn't have been more thrilled. But I was terribly shy--I ate my whole slice of pizza before my mom told me it was now or never; Chris was about to leave. I finally plucked up enough courage to approach him, and got the first of many autographs for my collection. Giddy from this achievement, I practically skipped to the Hoosier Dome.

We had sprung for the $32 gold level seats--seems like such a bargain now!--and I was amazed to find myself sitting in the front row behind the beam. The field was amazing. The US was the best it had ever been, with Kim Zmeskal, Betty Okino, and Shannon Miller all realistic contenders for medals. Every team from the Soviet Union was a dream team, and this year was no exception. Svetlana Boginskaya had long been my favorite gymnast and she showed up in the same leotard she wore when she won the 1989 World Championships. (I ALWAYS notice leotards). While much was made of the Zmeskal/Boginskaya showdown, as a gymnast, you always pull for your favorites, no matter where they come from.

1991 was a fantastic time for gymnastics. New skills were being developed, artistry was celebrated, the USA was becoming a powerhouse team with more depth than ever. Gymnasts like Oksana Chusovitina, Tatiana Lysenko, Christina Bontas, Silvia Mitova, Kerri Strug, and Lavinia Milosovici all made their mark on this Championship. The all-around and event finals competitions were broadcast in primetime; I had to have my friend record them to VHS for me so I could watch later and try to spot myself in the crowd.

But Kim Zmeskal was the star and the clear winner. Kim had a beautiful, unique style and never seemed to break form. She exuded confidence, and her method of slightly arching and opening her arms out of a powerful vault or tumbling pass was a lovely bit of stylization that set her apart. Her reverse-planche handstand with one leg bent became a signature pose, and her big-band swing floor routine featured another iconic Zmeskal move--her middle tumbling run of three whipbacks to a double back. By the time she got to her last event--floor, providentially--everyone in the arena knew that she could win the title. The roar of the crowded increased exponentially with each whipback, and by the time she landed the double back, the music was completely drowned out by the cheering. The home crowd was definitely on her side, but she would have won that competition anywhere.

Gymnastics history was made that night, and I was there. For years and years, this trip was the highlight of my life. It didn't matter that the world team members were my age, while I was still struggling through my mediocre level 7 routines. I had a passion for gymnastics and my parents understood that this competition, and not my own competition, would be the most exciting experience of my gymnastics "career."

Many parents of mid-level gymnasts spend a lot of money on a plane ticket, hotel room, and entry fees for their child to compete at a meet far from home. If parents and coaches would occasionally eliminate one meet to instead organize a trip to view an international competition, I truly believe they would witness many positive effects. My trip to the World Championships reminded me why I loved gymnastics. It reminded me why I stayed in gymnastics when a spot on the cheerleading squad might have been mine for the taking and a considerable boost to my social status. It gave my parents more understanding --high-caliber gymnastics is infinitely more impressive in person than on TV--of why I could watch the sport for hours upon hours. And I think it gave them an appreciation of gymnastics as a healthy distraction from the pressures and drama of adolescence. I was never a star gymnast, but as friends burned out and never looked back, I remained devoted to the sport. If more coaches devoted even just a little time toward developing their gymnasts' appreciation of the sport, I believe they would retain more students, both recreational and competitive.

So parents and coaches: make an effort to take your young gymnasts to the National Championships, or the American Cup, or the Olympic trials. Let them mill around and bring their cameras and buy a program to get autographed. Buy the T-shirt, spring for the good seats, if you can. (And if you can pay $200 for that rather garish leotard, you can spring for the good seats.) Fill those arena seats to let the world know that gymnastics is every bit as exciting and difficult and worthwhile as the NFL.

After the excitement of the All-Around final, Saturday was a fun day of roaming around, cornering gymnasts for autographs, and checking out new products, equipment, and gymnastics apparel at the convention center. I was in heaven. It was my Disney World and Super Bowl rolled into one. That evening we saw the first night of Event Finals, with men competing on floor, pommel horse, and rings, and women on vault and bars. The highlight of the competition was tiny North Korean Kim Gwang Suk with her outrageous bar set.

It's hard to believe that competition was twenty years ago. It remains one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I know there's a kid in Tokyo now, having the time of her life and making memories to share with her own kids twenty years from now.

And now, here's Kim in that famous moment:

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Your daily dose of gymnastics: Shannon Miller

Shannon Miller has recently recovered from cancer, and if you watched her throughout her career you probably had no doubt that a gymnast so consistent, confident, and hard-working would put away the cancer as surely as she put away the competition.

Frankly, I've always thought she should have had the gold in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics over Tatiana Gutsu, but scores had crept so high that differentiating between first and second place was nearly impossible.

Here's Shannon on her final event at the 1992 Olympic all-around final:

And here's Tatiana's to compare:

Granted, there were three other events to consider and Gutsu was also a very talented gymnast. However, it did come down to the vault and I think Shannon's is better.

Anyway, here she is when she was teeny tiny (well, really teeny tiny) and already just crazy talented:

And here is she earning the gold on beam at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics:

And just to show what a great all-arounder she was, here's a bar routine for good measure. It's also worth noting that Shannon, coached by Steve Nunno and Peggy Liddick at the height of the Karolyi era, had a much more innovative and diverse repertoire of skills than the Karolyi girls, who were known for safe "stock"routines, particularly on bars.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Have you been inspired lately?

Chelsea Werner is a special athlete in more ways than one. I am so impressed with her skill level! I've read in the past that children with Down Syndrome tend to be flexible--if that's true, then gymnastics is the perfect sport. What a shining example she sets for people with special needs, and what a great representative she is of the sport of gymnastics.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gymnastics in the News

This is the sort of thing you hate to read.... coach Don Peters of SCATS, the southern California gym known for cranking out quite a few high caliber gymnasts in the 1980s, is accused of sex abuse against at least three gymnasts. (This story sounds familiar....did I read it in Jennifer Sey's intriguing memoir? I could be wrong. I'll have to check.)

The most notable accuser is the very pretty and talented Doe Yamashiro, whose picture I recall cutting out of a magazine for a fourth grade collage. Here she is in 1986:

Friday, September 16, 2011

Your Daily Dose of Gymnastics: Katelyn Ohashi

International Gymnast  claims that US junior Katelyn Ohashi currently has the best beam routine in the world. I'm inclined to agree! I love a memorable mount, and the tumbling is so quick and confident. All that remains is to clean up the leaps a bit...

Unfortunately for us all, she's too young--born in 1997-- to be eligible for next year's Olympics. Unfortunately for me, I seem to be older than dirt. 1997, are you kidding me? Yeesh.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Cute Factor

Oksana Fabrichnova: how cute was she?

The cute factor is diminished a bit in this weirdly skanky leotard. BUT, it's easy to forgive because of the cradle. What is a cradle, you ask? Catch it at 0:45 and let me know if you've ever seen anyone else do that neckbreaker of a skill.

But speaking of cute. Mo Huilan made a big impression as China's first really solid all-arounder, and she did it as the owner and proprietor of this supremely cutesy routine:

Normally, I don't care for cutesy one bit. But I guess if you're gonna go cutesy, you should go full-on-cutesy. If you're not careful, you could veer dangerously close to cringe-worthy, as seen in this sad Kerri Strug routine. I feel sorry for her every time I watch it.

It's almost as if a mistake was made. Like maybe someone left her choreographer the music with a note attached but part of the memo got lost:
"I've found the perfect music for circus poodles on unicycles!"

But we don't want to remember Kerri like that, do we? Because she looks miserable. She was 15 years old, and doing a 5-year-old's routine, on national television. Poor kid. But don't worry, 1992Kerri, just tippy-toe and shuffle-step your way to 1996, where you will be the hero of the whole Olympics, and no one will ever even remember that one humiliating cutesy routine until youtube is invented.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Your Daily Dose of Gymnastics--Vaulting Through the Years

This nifty little montage (complete with appropriately cheesy montage anthem) is a nice demonstration of the evolution of women's vault. The 1950's and 60's vaults sure look pretty similar to what you might see in a low level, local gymnastics meet. But note the springboard in the earlier clips--they didn't always have springs, you know.

To me, the dividing line between the older style of gymnastics and the powerful modern standard is Elena Shushunova.


Among those lost on September 11, 2001, was newly appointed UC-Santa Barbara coach/former Iowa State gymnast Mari-Rae Sopper.

Read about her life here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Your daily dose of gymnastics--70's weirdness.

This routine is so weirdly sloppy. She does a weird little skip into her weird little dismount. Front aerial, weirdly difficult compared to the rest of the skills. There's a theme here.

Sometimes the really obscure performances give the best glimpse into a particular era of gymnastics.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

If I wrote the code...

If I wrote the code, one rule I'd change would be the deduction for stepping out of bounds. As long as a tumbling pass is executed well and the movements are well-controlled, why penalize a gymnast for stepping a few inches further?

I'd much rather see a controlled step out of bounds than a clumsy struggle to stay in the blue. And truly, taller gymnasts are automatically at a disadvantage. A double layout is going to cover more distance when you're 5'6" than when you're 4'9". If a step out of bounds happens with lack of control or a fall, there will be a deduction anyway. And that's what should separate the best gymnasts from the lesser competitors, not the location of their feet.

Your daily dose of gymnastics: Brandy Johnson

Brandy Johnson was a particular hero of mine. Known for powerful tumbling and vaulting, she was a great dancer that delivered a total-package routine with style. This routine was just about the coolest thing ever to pre-teen me:

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Your daily dose of gymnastics--Dominique Dawes

I've always been a big fan of Dominique Dawes. When she first broke out on the scene she was best known for her fast tumbling, lots of back-to-back passes with fun combinations. (Let's resurrect that trend, by the way--it's so fun to watch a great tumbler just tumble.) This was probably the first time I saw her:

Here she is, at only 12 in 1989. Bless her little heart, pulling out a full-in for her last pass and not quite making it around:

And despite being known for tumbling, she turned out to be a really great all-arounder. This 1996 beam routine is not only beautiful, it's full of risk.

Finally, she's still going strong at the 2000 Olympics. What a career, what a gymnast, what a role model.

Another nice thing about Dominique was that she stuck with her coach, Kelli Hill, throughout her gymnastics career. At the time, Karolyi was at the height of his teenage gymnast manufacturing operation and there was a lot of gym-hopping amongst elites. But Dominique knew what worked for her and I dig loyalty.

When I was 14 I had a friend who loved writing fan letters to gymnasts. She gave me an address for Dominique and that was my one and only fan letter. Dominique replied with a really long, super nice letter, and at the bottom said, "P.S.--where did you get this address?" Oops....got it from my friend, Dominique. Sorry, hope you didn't think I was a crazy stalker. Just a happy little gymnast.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Dagmar Kersten and the Awesome 80's Overalls-Leotard

Dagmar Kersten was a fixture on the international scene in the late 1980's. At a time when East German gymnasts were sort of interchangeable and unremarkable, she was elegant and just so darn cute.

So here she is, I think there may have been some tumbling in this routine, but I can't remember because the image of her spectacular overalls-leotard is seared into my memory and overwhelms any other thoughts I might have had at the time of viewing. The fluffy hair, polka-dot bow, and choreography complete the whole look. I'm fairly certain my 11-year-old self thought this was the coolest style ever. 

Here she is again, if you want to see how compulsory bars looked in 1988...always interesting, to me, anyway. (Excellent quality video by the way.) This leotard is also weird, what with the random placement of "DDR" on her front hip there. Weird ugly, as opposed to weird interesting like the fabulous overalls. 

And this leotard is just all happiness and rainbows and makes me want to ride a unicorn into the sunset:

And finally, a decent leotard with a scary vault. Maybe she should have worn the overalls.

Monday, August 22, 2011

2011 U.S. Gymnastics Championships: What They Wore

Gymnastics apparel has been in a rut for, oh, like 15 years now. I just hate where it's gone. It's like the leotard plant has two giant machines: one to slap some rhinestones on and one to apply some snaky shapes. Voila! Your finished product!


Let's check out some of the competition leos seen at Nationals, shall we? 

Jordyn Wieber, not bad:

Snaky patterns? Check. Rhinestones? Check. But not terribly busy so I can live with it. 

Shawn Johnson, hmmm:

My rule of thumb for sleeves is, if they're going to be different, keep them solid. Even still, I thought, "Well, at least it's not terribly busy." Then I got a closer look:

Turns out it IS covered in crystals and those crystals are applied in funny little shapes on one side. Bummer. 

Alicia Sacramone, it's not like she ever looks bad, but:


Three-quarter sleeves on leotards are bad news. They make your arms look stumpy. Also, here the rhinestones themselves are applied in snaky shapes!! And I really can't decide if that makes it better or worse. 

The combined talent in this conversation is off the charts:


But the fashion looks like someone's mom just hit the scrap bin clearance at the spandex store and then got assaulted with glitter on the way out. 

How about elegance? How about athleticism? How about a friggin simple stripe to accentuate the line of the arm? I'm waiting for the backlash when the leotard manufacturers discover that less is more and we return to a more athletic style. Till then, you may have to create a shoebox-solar-eclipse-viewer to endure the likes of this:


Botched landings, busted knees, and Karolyis

When a gymnast is injured, who's to blame?

In Saturday's US Championships, defending national champion Rebecca Bross dislocated her knee upon landing her double-twisting Yurchenko vault:

Ugh, why did I watch that again? It's awful.

Interestingly, some contend that this injury was completely preventable. Check out Blythe Lawrence's opinion piece and the ensuing comments for to see if you agree that Bross's injury is the fault of her coach Valeri Liukin and national team coordinator Marta Karolyi for allowing her to compete a skill that, according to Lawrence, had been giving her trouble all week.

Who's at fault? The suspects:

Marta Karolyi: Marta serves as the national team coordinator--she and Bela no longer produce top gymnasts themselves--and is frequently criticized for her training camps and selection procedures.

Valeri Liukin: Surely Liukin, one of the top coaches in the world, wouldn't hesitate to use his own judgment, even under the watchful eye of Marta. Even though Marta is disliked by many, I can't imagine she held a gun to Valeri's head and made him order Rebecca to do the skill.

Rebecca Bross: I feel like an 18-year-old national champion is capable of making at least some of her own decisions in competition. This would include watering down skills or safely bailing out of a trick with a wonky takeoff. It's easy to blame Marta, especially when so many dislike her handling of the national team. But I would hope a gymnast's personal coach would be able to stand up to her in matters of safety. It's easy to blame Valeri, because he could have told her to water down her vault if, as reported, she had been having trouble with it all week. But isn't there still a chance that Rebecca herself insisted that she was fine to do the vault? She is 18 after all, and a national champion and tough competitor. In the end, it's up to her.

Regardless of who's to blame, this may be a good opportunity for everyone involved in Rebecca Bross's gymnastics career to assess how decisions are made. USA Gymnastics needs to examine whether Marta Karolyi is helping or hurting. Valeri Liukin needs to examine whether he and his gymnast are communicating well. And Rebecca Bross's parents--because's even though she's "an adult," she's still a teenager--need to examine whether she needs encouragement to make some of her own decisions, even if it means questioning a coach.

Or, maybe the whole injury was just a fluke and she's all cool with it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

2011 Nationals, Finals!

Well finals turned out much better than prelims, it's nice to see that most of the gals can pull it together in a pinch. Some notes:

  • Well-deserved win for Jordyn Wieber. Maybe her consistency will wear off on her teammates. 
  • Rebecca Bross, what a heartbreaking injury. When you see a gymnast go down like that, suddenly she's not this athletic machine, just a kid that needs her mama. Hope she can recover quickly.
  • I could watch McKayla Maroney vault all day. I could also watch her walk away from her vault all day. She looks like she's trying to play it cool, but is close to busting out laughing about how awesome she is.
  • Alexandra Raisman: she's so pretty! But sort of missing something....she needs to find a way to be memorable.
  • Alicia Sacramone. I so dig her, and her first vault too. I want all these teenagers to hang in there and keep improving and evolving like she does. Plus, it's so important to have a great personality out there; she's a great ambassador for the sport. 
  • Chellsie Memmel, also a great veteran. She was known for her more unusual skills, like an illusion on beam: now that she's been doing them for years, I'd love to see her come up with some new interesting tricks. 
  • Gabrielle Douglas: I see great potential. She was all over the place, but she's young. She makes me want to watch her. 
  • Team Caquatto: I'm not blown away by the sisters, but something's right about their coach or their genes or both. 
  • Shawn Johnson, almost forgot her! I've always liked Shawn and I'm happy she's back...now I wanna see an all-around, please. 
  • Who else am I forgetting?
  • Oh! Sabrina Vega. Nice choreography. I think that was her anyway. I was reading a magazine and texting and watching and had the volume down. 
Now let's see a comparison of Simona Amanar doing her own vault:

And let's all thank FIG for introducing the vault table so that McKayla Maroney could make it look this much better:

(Why it needs the cheesy music, I'm not sure, but there ya go.)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

And another thing.

IG is killing me with their website. The continuous loop of video is more ads than routines, and the mute doesn't always work! And if you click on a link that opens up a new window, you've got two of those un-mute-able ads playing! I love Universal Sports, and I love International Gymnast, but this needs an adjustment.

Also IG, you were monopolizing my Facebook page with your updates so I had to hide you. I've never been able to get into the whole gymnastics play-by-play thing. It's a visual sport and reading a routine just gets boring. Maybe they should post an image with each routine description to catch my attention.

And finally, maybe there's hope for me yet...read about the very awesome Tina Wise. If I get started now, maybe I could be a 42-year-old level 9 too!


So I was happily watching all the gymnastics on TV the past two evenings, not always completely paying attention. Three kids and a husband often prevent, for various reasons, the viewing of gymnastics for more than two or three consecutive routines.

At some point the commentators agreed that 13.5 was too low for a particular routine. Was it? I don't know. Not because I didn't see it, but because I still have no idea if a 13.5 is good or bad. Or is it all relative?

So I'd like to reiterate my stance on the scoring system: Eliminating the 10.0 ceiling alienates the viewers. 
Let's review from a previous post:

I've been a gymnast, I've been a coach, I've been a fan for most of my life. Heck, I've even been a judge (albeit a mediocre compulsory level judge who couldn't seem to pass the level 7/8 written test). BUT STILL. I can claim to be a judge. And I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT A GOOD SCORE IS IN THIS CODE. Is a 14.9 good? Is a 16.0 good? I couldn't begin to tell you, but more importantly, I've given up trying. 
The ten-scale isn't just about achieving the elusive perfect score...it's pretty much the basis of mathematics. So when you remove the ten-scale, what you're taking away is the ability of the average person to associate the given score with the routine they have seen and to then compare that score and routine with subsequent routinesA score of 15.4 means about as much as an amp that goes to 11. 
At first I wasn't totally opposed to the new open-ended system. But the more I watch, the more it bothers me. Gymnastics as a sport is perpetually fighting for media attention and recognition. It would be in the best interest of the sport to be more viewer-friendly. Am I just too lazy or stubborn to go over the new system? I guess so. But there's got to be a better way. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

2011 Nationals, Day 1

Out here in Skeetersville, we have to get DirectTV to have decent cable service. And finally, FINALLY, DirectTV has picked up Universal Sports.

LIVE gymnastics...on a THURSDAY...with pre-game & post-game shows?!!! I'm in gymnasticsdork heaven. Even though the competition was pretty darn sloppy overall. Here's hoping it improves for the big day--Saturday.

Not sure how I feel about this leotard. Is it gold? Is it yellow?

I do know how I feel about that handspring. How much better would it look with that free arm straight?


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Set the DeLorean to 1981

YouTube is great for a gymnastics enthusiast like me because I'm usually focused on looking for a particular routine or skill, and I don't have to watch the fluff pieces or downtime or slow motion replays or score deliberation. However, I've really enjoyed watching the 1981 National Championships, which someone has posted in its entirety, divided into different video clips.

Watching the whole broadcast, you really get a feel for the skill level and style that the US was working at in 1981. I'd compare it to a decent level 9 meet today. Maybe level 10. Julianne McNamara and Tracee Talavera seemed to be ushering in the 80's with a more dynamic style and improved technique than what had been seen in the '70s.

Tracee, at only 14, had a such a mature presence and great form and confidence. Julianne already was swinging bars in a more modern way--although I hate how the very first thing you see is a bent arms.

There are lots of scary falls too--double tucks that were lucky to be face-plants instead of broken necks. Shari Mann's balked bar dismount--a free-hip-back-- was a near disaster, but it didn't seem to faze her. The rest of her routine is really fun to watch though--old school '70's style, full of beats and twists. Viewing the entire field, it's pretty clear that the big difference between then and now is improvement in proper technique. When you see them run for the roundoff backhandspring, you already know that the double back--or whatever-- is going to be a disaster.

Here's part 1, with parts 2 and 3 following.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Daniela Silivas, My Favorite Romanian With or Without a Perm

Daniela Silivas was super-cute, super-talented, and in the 1988 Olympics, super-permed.

But we've all had our bad hair moments, and it's easy to overlook when you're watching a great floor routine. I picked that floor music for my [sad, lumbering] optional routine solely because she was one of my favorite gymnasts. Perhaps I was not as successful because I didn't have a fab '80's perm to propel me to victory. Or maybe it was because I have the air sense of a turtle.

Here she is in 1985, before the perm added 8 inches to her height.

Unfortunately, the Romanian gymnasts that followed this era always seemed to lack the grace and presentation of the '80's stars like Silivas and her teammate Aurelia Dobre--the last of the great Romanians.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Quick clip: 1992 Olympic Compulsories

I've been searching and searching for a clip of the 1992 compulsory floor. It's a beautiful routine, but every clip I see is very poor quality. So while I'm still looking, enjoy some grainy footage of Henrietta Onodi.

Monday, August 8, 2011

I'd like to apologize to 1986 for underestimating it.

When I think of 1986, I picture bad hair, ugly jeans, and Poison. But apparently that year does have some redeeming value.

How haven't I heard of this one? I honestly had no idea this beam routine was going on in 1986. Standing full? Full-in dismount? Yes and yes! In 1986 I was only just beginning to obsess over gymnastics which explains why I haven't ever heard of Alevtina Pryakhina. She's all over the place, but the skills must have blown people away. Clearly she enjoys full twists, however sloppy.

I'd also like to take a minute to thank the Japanese for being so far ahead of the game in quality of video. If you want to see great gymnastics from the 1980's, search "Chunichi Cup" for the most watchable clips.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hilariously bad choreography for your entertainment

I try not to be too mean-spirited in critiquing gymnastics in a public forum. But in this case I figure the statute of limitations has run out.

On the other hand, the following montage contains some recent and even current gymnasts, but it's too funny to not include while I'm on the subject. College gymnastics choreography especially can be pretty entertaining for better or for worse. So many girls have routines that must have seemed cute or funny in practice among friends, but  look completely ridiculous when performed in a competition leotard and sandwiched in between decent tumbling passes.

I don't think that EVERY gymnast shown is a bad dancer. In fact, in many cases the blame needs to go squarely on the coach. Still, mime in a floor routine? Awesome.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Like putting lipstick on a side somi

Hooray, DirectTV finally picked up Universal Sports, so I actually got to watch the Covergirl Classic! On a shallow note, I recall the last time I saw a meet sponsored by Covergirl I was left wondering why they didn't make up the girls a bit. It's national television, we've got HDTV these days, somebody needs to tell these girls to slap on some lipstick because they'll thank you for it later. Anyway, I noticed more effort this time around. Bravo, Shawn Johnson with your smoky eye. Although listen girls, Covergirl makes this lipstick that lasts ALL DAY till you have to scrape it off in the shower. Look into it.

As far as general impressions, here are a few:

Let's devalue side somis on beam because they are so ugly. OR reward someone who can figure out how to make it look good (is that possible in the scoring system? I'm still not sure). 

I've been a gymnast, I've been a coach, I've been a fan for most of my life. Heck, I've even been a judge (albeit a mediocre compulsory level judge who couldn't seem to pass the level 7/8 written test). BUT STILL. I can claim to be a judge. And I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT A GOOD SCORE IS IN THIS CODE. Is a 14.9 good? Is a 16.0 good? I couldn't begin to tell you, but more importantly, I've given up trying. 
The ten-scale isn't just about achieving the elusive perfect score...it's pretty much the basis of mathematics. So when you remove the ten-scale, what you're taking away is the ability of the average person to associate the given score with the routine they have seen and to then compare that score and routine with subsequent routines. A score of 15.4 means about as much as an amp that goes to 11. 

I found a lot of the beam routines to be lacking in fluidity. I know you're trying to cram a lot of skills in, but there sure were a whole lot of clunky steps, choppy movements, and flat foot pivots--can I get a high toe please? Please? It's such a cop-out for an elite gymnast to work flat-footed just because she's scared of a random bobble. Also, a side aerial is a basic skill for an elite gymnast--that's one skill that should always be stuck solid.  

My current favorite gymnast is McKayla Maroney. She's a bit like a 1980's era Soviet total-package gymnast: lots of power with a natural, balletic quality of movement--think Natalia Laschenova or Tatiana Groshkova--and refreshingly, she's cute but not given to cutesy-ness. She's still a bit all over the place, so I really, really hope everything will click in to place in time for next year's Olympics. (I also hope someone will tell her to point her toes instead of digging in with her heels when she runs for leaps.) 

Here she is, all stumbles but so full of potential!

Here's her vault from last year that I like so much:

Monday, July 25, 2011

I Need a Montage!

Every time I hear that stupid Lady Gaga song "Edge of Glory," I think about how at next year's Olympics, every evening broadcast will end with a montage set to that song. Then I figured, surely, SURELY, some intrepid YouTuber with far more spare time than I has already had the same notion.

So yeah, you have to endure the song but this is actually a really nice montage of current rising stars with some really cool skills. Awesome example of a Yurchenko 2 1/2 twist, I really dig the flipflop-layout-arabian beam sequence, and did I see more than one double-double on floor? I'll have to watch it again...with the volume down.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gymnasts I love, love love: Henrietta Onodi

Hungary is not exactly a gymnastics factory, but Henrietta Onodi represents quality over quantity. She was a perennial contender in the 1990's, even in a sea of Svetlanas and Oksanas; an all-arounder with great style and consistency. I have to say, I met her once, and she was so gorgeous she could have been a model...you know, if models under 5 feet tall were in demand.

I used to watch this clip ALL THE TIME--she's such a fast tumbler! Music? A rocked out version of Hungarian Rhapsody, of course.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

...then there was the time I saw THE WORST TUMBLING CLASS EVER.

Cheerleading clubs often share space with gymnastics facilities; because of this that I ended up observing one particular private cheerleading organization. While my child was participating in a preschool gymnastics class, I witnessed a tumbling class for cheerleaders of about 9 to 10 years old.

After a bit of stretching, the instructors (a teenage boy and girl) perched on a spotting block and had the girls line up at the end of the floor. "Forward rolls!"

The girls, in turn, performed a row of forward rolls.

"Backward rolls!" 

The girls performed a row of backward rolls.


The class continued in this manner, with the instructors calling out a skill and then observing the tumblers. Not a bit of instruction was offered. No "keep your knees together." No "straight legs." No "great job!" No assistance was offered, no technique was explained, no professional or upper level coach was present to witness this "class," and in fact no instructor ever removed their rear end from their comfy perch to be near the students. 

Because my kids and their friends are at the age where they're trying lots of new sports and activities, I'm often asked what to look for in a tumbling or gymnastics class. While watching the class described above, I wondered what the three cheerleading mothers next to me thought. In that particular circumstance, it would be absolutely appropriate to find the owner or head coach to ask if this class is typical of their gym. Give them a chance to explain, but if they defend this sort of "teaching," I'd pull my kid out right away.

Think about it: what if you paid for piano lessons, and the teacher comes in, sits across the room and says, "Go for it. Just try to play. You'll eventually figure it out." That would be completely ridiculous. Of course in the case of tumbling, you've got the added factor of safety. There's no reason a gymnastics or tumbling class can't be completely safe, fun, and effective. Here are some things to look for in your child's class:
  • Active instructors. A coach of young children, particularly beginners, should be close to the action at all times. Simply standing nearby and making eye contact and engaging the children shows enthusiasm; a coach should also be ready to offer a quick demonstration or assistance if necessary. 
  • Helpful verbal instruction. A coach should be telling your child what they're doing correctly and what they're doing incorrectly. When a coach tells your child to adjust their hand placement or straighten their legs, they're not just making the child look better, they're developing the safest and most efficient technique. A coach should also be giving the occasional positive reinforcement ("Good job, much better!"), or gentle discipline if necessary ("Pay attention!"). 
  • A logical progression of skills. Your child wants to learn a back handspring. If she is not proficient at basics such as forward/backward rolls, cartwheels, handstands, and backbends, there is no reason for a coach to use all his strength to put her through the motions of flipping backward and tell her she's working handsprings. Now, will it kill her to do that? Probably not. But it does make me wonder if the coach is, a) trying to win customers by promising them that they will learn back handsprings within a quick timeframe, or b) not educated in proper tumbling technique. (More about modern techniques for learning back handsprings in a later post.)
  • Safety. The occasional cringe-worthy cartwheel, falling handstand, or "headspring" happens to the best of kids. But if your child is encouraged to practice a skill that repeatedly makes them crash on their heads, it's time to question the coach. Not only will the child be at risk for injury, but they're certainly not learning how to tumble properly. 
  • Competent coaches. One friend told me about a cheerleading practice where the young girls were encouraged to spot each other. Red flag! Red flag! (Again, what are we paying for?) And a word about teenagers: the kids in my story above were obviously not ready to be coaching their own class, but don't be alarmed if your child has a teenager for a coach. Everybody's got to start somewhere, and teenage gymnasts are usually very enthusiastic and have had tons of on-the-job training! 
  • Efficient use of time. If the coach has taken the kids to the water fountain three times in an hour-long class, they're just killing time. An efficiently run class should not have lots of standing-in-line time. 
  • Progress. I've heard parents say they wonder why their child isn't learning many new skills. What may not be obvious to parents is that their child's basic skills are steadily improving. A coach would prefer a gymnast to have a handful of skills performed well than many skills performed poorly. It's also very important to remember that every child progresses at their own rate. Some children simply have a natural ability and will learn faster; it's not easy to explain this to the children who struggle more and have to work harder, but that's part of life and sportsmanship. 
  • Fun. That's what your kid is there for. If they are not enjoying themselves or if they find class stressful, it may be time to stop. If they're having fun, if you and your child like the coach, if the class seems professional and well-run, but your child still can't do a cartwheel--it's ok. Some kids are like that. :)
Don't be afraid to ask questions of your child's coach or the head coach at the gym if you are concerned--but try to avoid being confrontational. There could very well be a reasonable explanation for what you see. A parent at the gym where I worked once commented, rather shocked, that one girl kept falling onto her back and no one seemed bothered by it! Turns out she was watching an upper level competitive gymnast who was doing a drill meant for learning multiple rotations in the air. She was purposefully landing on her back on a resi-pit--a thick, soft, cushiony mat. 

The above advice is what I, as a mother and former gymnast, coach and judge would look for in a class. There may be other factors that go into your decision about gymnastics or tumbling class such as location and cost, but where your kids are concerned, follow your instincts and insist on safety and fun!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Best gymnast OF ALL TIME. Yes, EVER.

In any sport, a two-decade professional career (or elite level, as we'd translate in gymnastics) is pretty darn rare. But in the sport where retirees are in their teens, it's unheard of. Unless you are Oksana Chusovitina.

Oksana first became well-known competing for the Soviet Union at the 1990 Goodwill Games. But she really made a name for herself at the 1991 World Championships, where she won the gold on floor with the most killer full-twisting double layout, like, ever. Because it's a full-OUT! Watch this. Watch this!!!

It's sort of a shaky video but this particular competition was really her best performance of the layout full-out, followed by a really nifty tucked full-out. More people really should do full-outs instead of full-ins, because they look so cool! (What's the difference, you ask? A full-in means you twist on the first flip of your double back, a full-out means you twist on the second flip. Cooler!)

So fast foward to 2011 at nearly 36 years old--THIRTY-SIX!--a THIRTY-SIX YEAR OLD MOTHER, for crying out loud!--and she's still at the top of her game.

Oksana's competed for the Soviet Union, the Unified Team, Uzbekistan, and finally Germany (she moved there to get the best treatment for her son when he had leukemia). She's been in 5 Olympic Games--6 if she can hold out till next year. And if you ask me, I would be so bold as to call her not only the best gymnast of all time, but the best female athlete of all time.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Best beam routines ever: Kui Yuanyuan

I'm sitting in a corner of the Georgia Dome for the team finals of the 1996 Olympics. Not the greatest seat in the house but I still shelled out $212 for it (compare to front row seats for the 1991 World Championships at $32 a pop).  This competition is best remembered for the injured Kerri Strug's famous vault to a one-footed landing. But the second most memorable moment of the 1996 Olympics--for me, anyway, because I'm a beam nerd--is this amazing routine from Kui Yuanyuan (China). And I'm pretty sure that 15 years later (holy crap! 15 years?!) you couldn't find another routine as difficult and gorgeously executed. (The dismount could have used an upgrade but we'll forgive her that.)


Read a little more about Kui here. Crazily enough, she never won a gold on beam in World or Olympic competition; most significantly she won the silver on beam at the 1997 Worlds, with the gold going to the incredibly dull yet consistent Gina Gogean (Romania). Compare their routines, if you want, and get really angry about the travesty of it all:

Props to the best gymnastics commentators ever, Bart Conner and Kathy Johnson, for tearing the judges a new one after the inappropriately low score.