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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.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Before Bars Lost the Beat

The 1980's were a fantastic time for gymnastics and that's when I got my start. I can't imagine that any sport has ever evolved so quickly and dramatically--if only one or two girls in the world were doing a certain skill in 1981--say, a full-in on floor-- it was practically compulsory by 1989.

If you've seen old bar routines from the past, you've noticed the gymnasts beating the bars--not out of frustration, but in a skill known as the belly beat. This is where you're swinging on the high bar, and you slam your hips into the low bar, pumping your legs to build momentum to swing back up. One thing I can tell you about belly beats: they required very, very, VERY precise bar settings.

I began gymnastics in 1984, and the routines for that four year olympiad cycle still had close bar settings and belly beats.  A length of foam was wrapped around the low bar and fastened with first aid tape--you could slide it into place for practice or off to the side when you didn't need it. This allowed a bit more practice with less bruising. When you didn't use the foam, you better make sure your bars are exactly right--too close and you bruise your hipbones, too far and you hit your thighs and can't bend enough for the upswing. Arms too far apart or shoulders not extended would change the length of your torso and you'd hit on your thighs. But if you hit just right, it was totally painless and really fun.

For meets, the first thirty minutes were allowed for general stretch and bar sets.  Because gyms would have different brands of equipment, every coach had to let each girl hang still with their hips draped over the low bar while they made adjustments and then noted on a clipboard the measurements of low bar, high bar, and center. This could take a long time at a meet full of young kids!

But gymnastics evolved SO quickly in this time frame that before the four years was up, beats were obsolete and they removed the beat from my compulsory routine Class III routine rather than waiting for the new cycle of routines. Bar routines have gotten much more difficult now that gymnasts can swing, fully extended, without hitting the low bar. But are they more interesting? Probably not. Check out Ma Yanhong who was still beating the bar with pretty amazing results in 1984. (Also, her dismount is Cra. Zy.)

Footnote: I can't let this post past without mentioning my favorite story from my coach: once she saw a girl in a meet who was too nervous to leave the floor to go to the restroom before her turn. And when she beat the bars, she peed everywhere. :D