Championships weekend is now behind us, and with the benefit of a few days to reflect on the event finals from Sunday, I’ve come to the following conclusion: meh.
This conclusion isn’t specific to this year. It’s always the case, and to a large degree, it’s a function of the nature of the sport and the format of championships. All season, every week, to the point of ridiculousness, we’re told that this sport is all about the team. All competitors have only the team goal in mind, and even if they want to think differently, they aren’t allowed to. It’s all about the team. Grit your teeth and repeat. It’s all about the team.
It’s incongruous, then, to have an entire season that’s all about the team end on an individual note. The season is forced to trickle to a finish with a final day that is counter to the spirit the coaches work so hard to cultivate. The disconnect is palpable during the competition because no one is taught to value an individual accomplishment. Championships is a bit like a floor routine that mounts with a pike full in, has a back 2.5+punch front middle pass, and then dismounts with a crossed-footed rudi. Oh. That.
To a large degree, that’s always going to be the case because Super Six is the crown jewel, as it should be (even if it should be four teams, but that’s another post). Sunday is just the bonus day, the after party, and the competition needs to begin embracing that. The gymnasts already do. No one stopped dancing through the whole competition this year. They had a flash mob at the end. A flash mob. They don’t take it too seriously, so the format shouldn’t be too serious either. Instead of these staid, kind of repetitive event finals that mimic international elite competition structure but without the urgency, we need a final competition with a little more of a wink and a little more embracing of the team focus that so saturates this sport.
The competition would be conducted in the format of a normal quad meet, but the teams would represent the conferences. We would have an SEC team, a Pac-12 team, a Big Ten team, and a Best of the Rest team all going head-to-head. The title would be bragging rights, and it would produce team pairings that we would never see and still allow for the fun and experimentation of throwing new skills and taking risks because nothing real is on the line. The conferences always want to argue about which is superior, so let’s put it to the test each year. Championships this year featured five SEC teams, three Pac-12 teams (with a major one missing out), and three Big 10 teams (again with a major one missing out). We’re starting to reach the point of enough parity where this would be a real competition. Each conference team would be helmed by the coach who won the conference title that year, and the miscellaneous team could rotate (or just give it to KJ each year, honestly).
The appeal of an individual event day should be to allow us to see the best competitors on each event, but that often doesn’t happen right now because of the qualification rules. There will never be an objective system that always qualifies everyone we want to see to the event finals. This day should be an exhibition of the best routines of the year, but going by any objective system, someone good will always either be ranked too low during the year (Danusia on beam this year) or miss the qualifying spot in semifinals (Hunter and Hall on floor this year). This is a subjective sport, so we should follow that philosophy and make this team selection subjective as well.
As is done for all-star games in professional sports, the six-gymnast lineups on each event should be a mixture of a fan vote and coaches’ decisions. For each of the four teams, fans could vote online for three competitors on each event, and the team coach could choose the other three. This would help enrich fan involvement in the sport and create a better representation of the gymnasts everyone wants to see competing than any objective system ever could.
Imagine an SEC vault lineup of Hunter, King, Sloan, Courville, Williams, and Milliner going up against a Pac-12 lineup of Zamarripa, Wilson, Dayton, Blalock, Courtney, and Dabritz, a Big Ten lineup of Wong, DeZiel, Sampson, Zurales, Slechta, and Miller, and a miscellaneous lineup of Martin, Dodds, Mesalles, and Oklahoma people. That would be great, engaging sport and more interesting than a disconnected Yfull parade of the people who happened to reach 9.900 in semifinals. Yes, I can already anticipate arguments over these lineups I selected as examples, but we’re gymnastics fans. Isn’t that what we’re looking for?
The all-star game lineups would be selected right after regionals and would help solve the current problems of individual competitor qualification. Currently, someone deserving and unknown like Monica Mesalles of Bridgeport has essentially no chance to advance as an individual competitor because she is forced to try to win vault at the Florida regional to make nationals (aka never going to happen), and then score in the top four in a semifinal without a team’s scoring support to advance to finals. Selecting her to an all-star team based on a season of success avoids this untenable qualification position and would showcase her gymnastics in a way not currently possible.
One con to this strategy is that it would limit the number of competitors on each event from each conference. The SEC would likely have deserving people on each event who wouldn’t be able to compete, but we have that situation now too. At least there would be some control over it.
We should still award event trophies without giving the events their own day, much like the AA is currently. Since basing event winners solely on semifinal scores would result in too many ties, they could be based on combined semifinal and all-star game scores.
Too out there? Just right? Horrifying?