Things I Don’t Entirely Hate: 2014 Uneven Bars Edition

The early-summer lull. It can be a difficult slog to endure with so little interesting gymnastics going on, but we have had the pleasure of the World Cup and watching Miroslav Klose eat it on a punch front goal celebration (best part by far). There was also a web-streamed Pro Gymnastics Cup debacle that I skipped through most of. Katherine Grable did a comaneci, Luiza Galiulina is from Pakistan now, Jake Dalton’s eyes and Chris Brooks’ nipples did some high bar, and it was extremely pointless.

We’re at the bottom of the barrel. But that’s about to change soonish. The US women are heading south to the Theater of Broken Dreams for their final camp verification before things become real, a camp which has taken on a little more interest because of the Gabby Douglas comeback. We don’t really know anything yet, but Martha’s positive reaction from last camp has people mildly optimistic because she didn’t give the old, expected “It’s very difficult to come back. Just because you won in the past, that doesn’t guarantee you anything” routine, what we’ll call the Shawn Johnson treatment.

A somewhat in-form Gabby Douglas would throw a very pleasant little wrench into the whole post-Elizabeth Price elite landscape. The most interesting part of the Douglas comeback for me is bars because it’s the event I really enjoy her on, and it would be the biggest asset event (both for herself and the team) if she could perform at even 3/4 of her 2012 self. To be honest, she could sit on the low bar and knit a tea cozy and I would want her on the Worlds team to do bars.

USAG did produce a video about her return with some blips of her training bars and, at the very beginning, getting some brief shaposh action on to the tune of a music clip obviously called “general uplifting while overcoming obstacles #2.” The shaposh is new, but of course she would be training it. This is the quad of the shaposh.

Did you like that segue into a discussion of bars composition? Because I did.  

As much as it pains me to say it, the FIG’s adjustments to the uneven bars code for the 2013-2016 quad are smart and have produced better and more entertaining routines. I know. I’m sorry. I won’t make a habit of it.

The emphasis on rewarding flight combinations more than pirouetting combinations has forced gymnasts to compose more dynamic routines, which is what uneven bars is supposed to be. The bars final was the best part of Euros this year, and not just because Beckie Downie won and then everyone cried. Only mostly. 

Bars is my event for 2014. I have a different event every year. Last year it was beam. In 2012 it was vault. This year it’s bars. It hasn’t been floor in a long while. Let’s work on that. And by “work on that,” I don’t mean introducing more rules requiring people to look backward before starting a tumbling pass (ARTISTRY!)

It’s all very well to make vague proclamations about the changing nature of bars routines, but if you know me, you know that’s not good enough. If you don’t make a table including numbers and percentages, then it never happened.

In that spirit, I looked back at the uneven bars finals from the major competitions of the last four years, two from the 2012 quad and two so far in the 2016 quad (with Euros standing in for this year because we haven’t had anything bigger yet), and broke down all the skills by category—pirouettes/circle elements, transitions, and same-bar releases—to see how many of each type were performed and what proportion of the total skills they made up to get a sense of how routine composition has evolved in the last few years. 

(Note: This includes only C elements and higher, so no giants and casts mucking things up, and does not include dismounts. Spoiler alert: everyone has one of them.) 

In the 2011 final, over half of the C+ skills in routines were pirouettes and circles, a number which has drastically fallen ever since, replaced by a nearly equivalent rise in the number of transitions. Because those valuable 0.2 connections now require flight, the E release+pak+shaposh 1/2 combination is the holy grail of the current code. I think we all knew that anecdotally, but the degree and immediacy of the change in composition is interesting. A change was made to the code, and it’s sort of . . . doing exactly what it was meant to do.

Rebecca Tunney is a great example of someone whose D Score on bars has recently skyrocketed by exploiting releases and transitions and whose routine style is continuing to change the complexion of bars finals.

She has just two pirouetting elements in her current routine (a stalder 1/2 to get into her jaeger and a stalder 1/1 connected into her dismount), and she gets the majority of her value from the toe-on piked tkatchev+bhardwaj and shaposh+pak+shaposh 1/2 combos. It’s so flight-ful! That’s a more common approach now, but was much rarer in the 2012 quad, with only Tweddle and Komova among the big fish showing routines with just 2 pirouetting skills, both of whom were very much ahead of the curve in bars composition.

The number of same-bar releases is more all over the place. I guess I would have expected a consistent increase because of the new emphasis on flight, but most people have gone the transition direction instead to fulfill the flight expectation. But those releases are very valuable for those who can do them and are willing to take the risk, as Tweddle and Seitz showed in 2012 to push those release numbers up, and as Downie and Popa did in 2014 to a similar effect. Roxana Popa is repping the same-bar release like crazy in her routine right now because that’s how she can build a D score without those valuable E elements.

Also significant: The decrease in pirouetting began before the introduction of the 2013-2016 code, with the biggest drop over these years coming between 2011 and 2012. It’s not entirely the code imposing a change in routines but the code adjusting to reflect a change that was already taking place by the more forward-thinking coaches. The shaposh 1/2 skills were just as valuable in the last quad, but no one had figured that out yet. Once the Russians started doing them, they came into vogue, and everyone else followed suit. As it always goes.

By now, everyone recognizes the value of the shaposh 1/2. It’s the new walkover+bhs+layout stepout, except I don’t hate it. I could watch a pak into a direct stalder shaposh 1/2 all day, and the code agrees with me. As a result, we’ve seen a dramatic uptick in the number of E transitions over the past few years.

At both 2013 Worlds and 2014 Europeans, just 2 of the 8 competitors lacked an E transition, whereas in the 2011 final, only 2 of the 8 competitors had E transitions (those ahead-of-the-curve Russians, Komova and Nabieva.) In the 2012 final, Tweddle, Yao, and Mustafina also attended the party.

The equivalent lowering in E pirouettes is also dramatic. They were all the rage in the 2012 quad, either Ono/Bi family elements for those who could do them, or piked stalder fulls for those who could not. Neither are in fashion nearly as much these days, though they’re still valuable E elements and useful for those who can do them. 

20% of the C+ skills in 2012 were E pirouettes, which is a pretty huge number when you think of it. It should also be noted that some of the lowering in E pirouettes from 2014 Europeans can be attributed to the lack of Chinese gymnasts. In 2013, 5 of those 7 E pirouettes came from Yao and Huang.

But at the same time, it’s not just the Chinese who have to adjust to a code that doesn’t favor pirouetting as much. The idea that the changes to the code hurt the Chinese the most or were designed to hurt Chinese routines is, like most ideas in gymnastics, incomplete. Which brings us back to Gabby Douglas. In the 2011 bars final, Douglas counted the same number of pirouetting elements as Huang Qiushuang, and Wieber was just one behind. At the 2012 Olympics, Douglas and Mustafina both counted more pirouetting elements than He or Yao. While Douglas sported her two big same-bar releases, she relied on pirouetting to make up her routine rather than transitions (with just the pak and the stalder shoot, rather than any shaposh combinations), so in her comeback, recomposition of her bars routine to reflect current trends and code values will be something to watch.

And it all comes back to the shaposh.

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