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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Your daily dose of gymnastics: Oksana Omelianchik

I have a cousin who visited the Soviet Union before its dissolution and he returned to the USA explaining that all they ever ate there were cucumbers and tomatoes.

Soviet great Oksana Omelianchik definitely had that cucumber-and-tomato diet look about her; here she is at 15 looking like she's 9 or 10:

Her size is listed at 4'7" and 66 pounds--not that that was unusual for gymnasts of any country in the 1980's and 1990's. This was in 1985 and Oksana won the world title thanks to this innovative and balletic and way cute routine:

Now, I'm on the record as saying I detest the cutesy. But OO gets a cutesy hall pass for this one, on account of technique and exuberance and commitment to the part.

The floor routine made her famous but I love how her bar routine is reminiscent of 1970's style--all hechts and twists and whatnot--but updated with release skills for the 1980's:

But wait, there's more! You also get a really elegant beam routine!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Your daily dose of gymnastics: When Choreography Mattered

It's Saturday! Why not take the time to watch two, count 'em, two intriguing floor routines. Bulgaria doesn't count for much in the international gymnastics scene these days, but in the 1980's they were a force to be reckoned with.

The first thing you will notice about this routine is the gymnast's name: Khrabrina Khrabrova. It is a completely unpronounceable tongue twister and makes me giggle. But I'm sure there a bunch of Bulgarians sitting around trying to say McKayla Maroney five times fast.

The second thing you will notice is the attention to the dramatic choreography. I really dig it.

Then we have Elvira Teza. The French, like the Bulgarians, come and go on the international scene. They stepped it up in the 1990's and Teza was a big star for them. Check out her lovely dance:

Teza was also known for crazy skills like a cross-beam full twisting back handspring to hip circle.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Your daily dose of gymnastics: Romina Plataroti

If there have been any other remarkable gymnasts from Argentina, I can't remember them. Sure, this is something I can google, but I'm far too busy for that. So the only Argentinian gymnast one must familiarize themselves with is Romina Plataroti.

Look her up on YouTube and there's not much that comes up. But I used to watch her 1991 Pan Am Games floor routine obsessively. I even mimicked her dance style and skills and threw them into my own sad little optional routine.

The 1991 Pan Am games featured, for the Americans, the second-string gals who wouldn't be going on to the World Championships in Indianapolis that year. Still, they tore up the competition and the winner, Stephanie Woods, went on to a great career at Alabama (Roll Tide). The competition was held in Cuba and the audience, most of whom had probably never seen a gymnastics meet before, cheered and screamed and booed like they were at a football game. 

Now's the time to insert my usual disclaimer: I'm explaining this all from memory. Google it and let me know if I've got my facts mixed up. I'm here for nostalgia, not journalistic integrity.

Back to Romina Plataroti. She's now a sports psychologist or some such. But it's definitely worth checking out her claim to fame: a really excellent, dramatic floor routine. To do that, you have to go to 0:40 in this clip:

For the record, I also really enjoy how her leotard looks like a swampy-fingered monster claw is grabbing her from behind.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Keep It, Toss It, Bring it On: Balance Beam edition

I mentioned the other day how much I miss the standard 3-skill back tumbling pass on balance beam. But that's not all.

Beam used to showcase a variety of elements. Strength, balance, and flexibility were important--and even required. At one point there was a requirement of a 2-second balance hold--that could be a scale, a handstand, or a v-hold, for instance. But most folks went beyond that requirement anyway. You'd see a beautiful flexibility pose as well as an impressive press handstand to a planche. Because it's what any routine needs--variety. Dynamics. Risk. Proof of mastery of ALL beam elements.

The routines we saw in the Olympics were stock, unimaginative, graceless. Shown here is Sui Lu of China performing the routine which would later win her a silver in London.

Run, punch, flip. Run, punch, flip.

Here's what needs to be changed:

  • Instead of a two-element acro series, an elite gymnast should be required to do a three-element pass--or at least have motivation in the form of bonus points. 
  • Require a mount that is on par with the difficulty seen in the rest of the routine. No swing-a-leg-over mounts. Those are for preschoolers. 
  • Eliminate front/back tumbling connections. In other words, calling a front aerial-[armswing]-backhandspring a connection is a total cop-out. 
  • Require a handstand of any kind, not necessarily held. It IS the basis for most of what we do in gymnastics, after all. Handstands are beautiful, synonymous with the sport, and come in endless variations. 
  • Deduct for plain walking steps in between elements. 
  • Discourage side somis, because they're ugly. 
  • Reward artistry--the code has a section on how to deduct for insufficient artistry. I'm just not sure they actually apply it. 

Shannon Miller's routine in 1996 had a much greater variety of skills and was in many ways, more difficult than Sui's routine of today. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Gymnastics and the Size Factor

Having gymnastics in the international spotlight, being viewed by millions who haven't experienced the sport on a personal level, inevitably brings up certain age-old discussions. One of those issues is gymnast size.

I definitely noticed that this year's women's team is one of the tallest ever. Raisman, Ross, and Wieber are all listed at 5'2", Maroney stands 5'3", statuesque by gymnastics standards. Gabby Douglas at 4'11" is petite, but certainly not abnormally tiny. I recall when gymnasts Shannon Miller, Kim Zmeskal, and Kerri Strug were at their peak in the early nineties, and all were something like 4'6" to 4'8". Now THAT's tiny.

My sister always joked that I was so short because each time I hit the vault it hammered me shorter. Gymnastics can't actually stunt your growth, but there's lots of speculation that it could indirectly contribute to athletes' short stature. One suggestion is that the gymnasts are exercising so much that puberty is delayed, and therefore growth spurts are delayed too. Dominique Moceanu has a fascinating new memoir, Off Balance, in which she states her belief that she finally had a growth spurt only when she escaped the restrictive diet imposed by Bela and Marta Karolyi. (One hopes that we are past the age of restrictive diets in child athletes, but with the Karolyis and other old-school coaches in the mix, who knows?)

At any rate, I find that most people now believe that you MUST be small to be a gymnast. Some parents ask if they should bother putting their tall child in gymnastics. Some athletes claim they used to be gymnasts but had to switch sports because they got too tall.

Here's the truth:

  • You don't have to be short to be a gymnast. 
  • Gymnastics doesn't stunt your growth. 
  • Tall gymnasts can be just as good as short gymnasts. 
  • Short stature doesn't necessarily give you a natural propensity for gymnastics.
There are definitely sports that attract the tallest athletes. Basketball. Volleyball. Longer legs certainly have an advantage when you're competing in hurdles. If I could swim as fast as Missy Franklin, she'd still beat me to the wall because she's a foot taller than I am (I think that makes mathematical sense, right?) 

There ARE a few reasons why most gymnasts tend to be short, but they're not as obvious as what draws tall people to tall-person-sports. 
  • Gymnasts have to be extremely strong, fast, and agile. So do lots of other athletes. But no matter how athletic you are, if you're a child who is a foot shorter and twenty pounds lighter than your peers, it's very difficult to keep up in team sports. Basketball and soccer are popular for kids, but are extremely intimidating when your opponents, and even your teammates, are so much bigger than you are. Therefore these little-bitty, naturally athletic kids search out individual sports where they don't have to directly encounter or compete against big people. 
  • Sports equipment doesn't offer advantages to small people. I remember playing softball. I could barely grip that giant ball with my stumpy little fingers, so it was really hard to throw. But guess what. They won't let you throw a nice tiny baseball instead. Meanwhile, a 4" wide balance beam is not terribly intimidating when you can stand on it with your feet side-by-side.
  • The tiniest kids are often used as the example. So if a coach wants to demonstrate the proper body position for a skill--say, a cast handstand--they're often going to grab the littlest kid and stick them on the bar and physically manipulate them, like a rag doll with wire limbs, into the correct position for the other gymnasts to see..."See where her shoulders are? See her hollow body position?" Now she has a better feel for the proper position and an extra turn at trying it.
  • Of course every gymnast is going to be spotted, and that's an important aspect of gymnastics training. But as mentioned above, when you're smaller, it's definitely easier for the coach. So the smaller kids often just have a better feeling for where they're supposed to be in the air and what position their body is supposed to be in. Which is not to say coaches can't spot big kids--but when you spot a tiny kid on a back tuck, you can shove them high into the air, relative to their height. When you spot a big kid on a back tuck, you're lifting more weight and they are not going to go as high, relative to their height. You spot a tiny kid on a back handspring, you can literally hold their legs together with one hand. A teenager learning a backhandspring, sometimes you just have to shove and hope you don't get kicked in the head. (Worth noting: now we use lots of tools such as spotting belts, bungee belts, and trampolines to help spot. It's a great equalizer, and a reason why tall people can be good gymnasts too.)
  • Once gymnasts get to a high level, being taller can be a disadvantage when you're trying to fit a complex tumbling pass across the diagonal of the 40' x 40' floor without going out of bounds. So taller folks sometimes have to get a bit more creative when working within the confines of standard-size equipment. 
  • And then of course it may be true that tiny kids are just naturally quick and strong and flexible because it's easier to be in control of a tiny body--unencumbered by the gangly awkwardness of arms and legs held hostage by the cruel growth spurts of childhood. That's how we see you abnormally tall folks, anyway. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Olympics: Keep it, Toss it, Bring it on

I don't have time to build a comprehensive list, like a responsible blogger would, of the best and worst aspects of the Olympic gymnastics competition. So it's all pretty random. And I'll add more as I'm able.

Keep it: Shannon Miller did an excellent job as a commentator. She didn't generalize, she didn't make big mistakes (Oksana Chusovitina is originally from Uzbekistan, Al Trautwig), she remained impartial and offered up praise for gymnasts of all nationalities. Most importantly, she knows her stuff. Unfortunately, if you weren't lucky enough to watch the live feed and instead had to rely on NBC, you were stuck with the Trio of Doom....

Toss it: Tim Daggett, Elfi Schlegel, and Al Trautwig continued their reign of terror by ensuring that every gymnast was insulted or stereotyped, and confusing the hell out of anyone without a working knowledge of the sport. Tim and Elfi could be heard spouting off gems like, "Gymnastics 101: Stick the landing!" while a thoughtful Al mused after one performance, "Balance beam, balance beam."

Keep it: Meanwhile in the Twittersphere (gawwwd, I hate Twitter), Samuel L. Jackson offered up hilarious one-liners and called out the the commentators for their inane remarks and glass-half-empty attitudes. He's the only reason I have Twitter.

"Dance element trouble?! She was dancing in there somewhere????!!"
 "That was the "wait up Gurl y'all walkin' too fass " stagger on the beam! W/ a WTF DISMOUNT!"
 "Uh Oh, Pommel Horse next! Thass like Balance Beam for dudes! Horse def has US men's numba! Oh well, Go USA!"
"Luvvin' Tim's Positive Analysis of Gabby's chances!....NOT!"
I hope Tim's HAPPY!!! He's the Largest DEDUCTION in my Joy! HEMORRHOID!"
Toss it: Samuel makes a great point when even he questions the presence of any dance at all. Hitting a pose is not dancing. Running clear across the floor for a switch leap, also not dancing. I actually think the American team does a pretty good job of fitting some actual dance into their floor routines. But I cringe when watching Catalina Ponor, a fantastic tumbler who has the most embarrassingly poor choreography. Her teammate Sandra Isbaza hardly seemed to notice there was any music playing. (I guess she was hoping for a Silvia Mitova moment--what with the very similar, understated bluesy music--but the movement and music seemed completely incongruous.

Toss it: The jumps out of the tumbling passes are killing me. Even worse are the standing back tucks out of tumbling passes. Limit routines to one rebounding jump out of a tumbling pass. Deduct for lack of continuity when a back tuck or other skill that seems out of place is performed.

Toss it: Why are we still wearing paper numbers? Completely unnecessary. I know this is nitpicking. But it's stupid, right?

Bring it on: PLEASE. We MUST develop a way to reward artistry. My vote would be to give artistry/choreography bonus: 0.0 bonus for unsatisfactory artistry (Catalina Ponor, Beth Tweddle) 0.1 for acceptable artistic presentation (Gabby Douglas), 0.2 for excellent artistic presentation (Aliya Mustafina, etc.), and 0.3 for outstanding presentation and choreography (Victoria Moors, etc.).

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Epke Zonderland wins the whole Olympics

From start to beyond the finish, Epke Zonderland had the Olympic moment everyone wants to see. A routine that makes people gasp, an amazing dismount with a drilled landing, and a reaction of pure happiness and joy. And while it was obviously, and officially, the most difficult routine of the Games, it was the routine that makes you say, I wish I could do that.

Why do gymnasts love gymnastics? Why will I never slog through a miserable marathon for some stupid "bucket list?"

Because running feels like hell; gymnastics feels like flying.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Vanessa Ferrari's schizophrenic leotard

HUGE goings on in the world of gymnastics today! But as exciting as event finals was, let's talk about Vanessa Ferrari. Specifically, Vanessa Ferrari's delightfully awful leotard.

Big props to VF for shaking things up! Italy is known for fashion, and thinking outside of the box can yield fantastic results. Unfortunately no one achieved fantastic in the making of this beauty, but at least we all had something to interesting to look at.

This is a photo of my computer screen, pardon the quality, but in a panic I had to grab this image quick.

Yes, that's sleeveless on one side, 3/4-sleeve on the other (3/4 sleeves ALWAYS make your arms look stumpy. ALWAYS. BAN THEM.). But wait! A window to her shoulder! Perhaps she has a muscle ailment and can apply the Ben-Gay directly through the handy access port. I'm thinking this leotard would score in the twelves. (Twelve is bad, right?)

In the end, she's an awesome gymnast. And if I were an Olympian, I'd wear whatever the heck I wanted, too. Brava, Vanessa!

Monday, August 6, 2012

McKayla Maroney, as it turns out, is human

And now she knows what she needs to work on. I won't speculate as to what caused her to fizzle out on her second vault. Pressure? Nerves? Overconfidence? It can't be the lack of a podium one-touch warmup, because the first one was great. But I would like to point out that for vault, more than any event, allowing each gymnast a quick run or two would be a wise nod to athlete safety. When spatial awareness is of the utmost importance, imagine the difference going from the floor of a warm-up gym to an elevated podium in a massive arena. Then you'll hit a springboard that sees less use than the one in the warmup gym, and may be a little tighter--for better or for worse.

My second safety concern is for Yamilet Pena Abreu and anyone who takes a cue from her strategy. Before the Games, I read one of those articles about gymnastics where the sport's jargon is consistently misused. It said, "McKayla Maroney will attempt the Amanar vault." Obviously not written by anyone who knew anything about the competition, because in the gymnastics community, we know Maroney wasn't planning to "attempt" anything--she was going to PERFORM it. The "attempt" was made during the learning process.

It WOULD be accurate, however, to say that Pena Abreu was planning to "attempt" a handspring double front, because I'm not sure she can actually do it! She sat it down in prelims, and no matter the difficulty rating, it's silly to be able to qualify with a missed vault. I get the feeling that each time she goes, it's just a crapshoot. She doesn't know if she'll make it, but she's not afraid to try. And that's a very dangerous precedent to set. I'm sincerely worried for her safety.

Dwight Normile at IG suggested that a fall on vault should be deducted more than 1.0. And that makes sense; while a larger mandatory deduction would have cost Maroney any medal, it would have prevented Pena Abreu from qualifying with a failed vault.

Finally, I am so happy that the legendary Oksana Chusovitina is getting the press she deserves. Check out the great article about her and 39-year-old Bulgarian Jordan Jovtchev.

Friday, August 3, 2012

NBC Coverage: A blight on the sport of gymnastics

I have a great idea. This fall, let's take Matt Lauer and [insert whichever botoxed beauty is the current co-anchor], and have them call all televised NFL games. Let's tape delay all games so we can eliminate the 3rd quarter altogether--it's probably not that important, after all--and for the remaining quarters, let's replace coverage of every other play with shots of the players on the sidelines and melodramatic fluff pieces of the most popular guys.

This would never fly with football fans, yet this is how gymnastics is presented. World-class athletes in one of the most popular Olympic sports are reduced to campy characters on cringe-inducing reality TV.

In the past twenty years, we've seen fewer and fewer broadcasts, more uninformed and embarrassingly melodramatic commentary, and massive reduction of the number of routines and gymnasts viewed. At a time when gymnastics is on the world stage and the general public is clamoring for more, NBC is giving them less and making a mockery of it too.

The goal of FIG and USA Gymnastics should be to grow the sport, not make it seem totally inaccessible. NBC coverage, fluff pieces, and commentators are counter-productive to this goal and are an utter embarrassment to the sport. I'm not sure if there's any way for USAG to get us out of a contract with the devil, but they are the governing body of the sport in this country--don't they have any influence AT ALL on how gymnastics is broadcast?

Dvora Meyers has been doing a fantastic job of translating gymnastics for the masses, injecting a healthy dose of sarcasm and wit while demonstrating a keen knowledge of the sport. Her pieces are often featured on Deadspin and she's got the best gymnastics blog around, Unorthodox Gymnastics. She's also way funnier than I am and a qualified professional writer, so please take a moment to read the following spot-on article, and forward it to every gymnastics enthusiast you know. Who knows, maybe we'll spark some change.

Fake, Jingoistic, And Stupid: Gymnastics Coverage Is The Worst Part Of NBC’s Olympics

Dvora Meyers


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Golden Gabby

Wow! What a great competition. Well deserved for Gabby, and a bummer of a tiebreaker for Aly. Komova and Mustafina are such beautiful gymnasts.

The Russians are the new standard for excellence on uneven bars. I'm now more excited to see them than the Chinese on that event.

My 5-year-old just asked, "Is the one in the gray coat the American?" We saw how bad the gray looked during the team medal ceremonies...wish they'd just wear the USA ones they wear on the floor!