The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Things Are Happening – March 15, 2018


So here we go. Aly Gonna Getcha, Part 715.

In a Washington Post article, Aly Raisman expanded upon the issues she related in her book about the conditions at that Victorian Slum House known as the ranch. It was dirty, gross, poorly maintained, the food was bad, there was no nutritional assistance or even the smallest hint of appropriate medical facilities, and gymnasts were afraid to question any of it, all of which is corroborated by Melanie Seaman, an athletic trainer with the program during some critical years—and someone from whom I’d like to hear a lot more.

To anyone who read Aly’s book, this is mostly review (like studying for the final—and it will be on the test), but it does serve to reinforce the picture of a wildly antiquated environment with no safety/ behavioral standards or oversight and a training facility woefully inadequate for the medical and nutritional needs of a modern high-level athlete heading toward the Olympics.

We’re not surprised. Except apparently Kelli Hill and Mary Lee Tracy are very surprised, as they have imploded in real time on the GymCastic Facebook page about it. It’s worth addressing because I think their approach reflects the views of many coaches.

But here’s the thing: Regardless of whether you thought the food was edible or not, very bad situations did occur. These are not lies or inventions or matters of opinion. There weren’t appropriate medical facilities at the ranch or nearby, That Guy was abusing gymnasts in their beds and exploiting unpleasant conditions to groom them, gymnasts were afraid to speak up about issues small and large, there wasn’t a well-thought-out approach to the nutritional needs of top athletes (BUT THEY HAD YOGURT SO EVERYTHING’S FINE), there weren’t appropriate standards or oversight regarding abuse in any form, the gymnasts were admittedly miserable, Mattie Larson literally tried to give herself a concussion so that she didn’t have to go there. The list goes on.

These are things we know. Not perceptions to be argued. And while the individual coaches like Kelli weren’t actively complicit in creating these scenarios and don’t necessarily deserve punishment for them, everyone who ever went to the ranch should at the very least be doing some introspection about why they were (and apparently continue to be) OK with an environment that perpetuated a sense of powerlessness among gymnasts and as a result allowed a predator to go unchecked for that many years. “How might the conditions at the ranch being discussed here have indirectly created an environment that allowed this to happen?” “Maybe it’s actually about more than just the taste of the food?” “Did I unintentionally contribute to a culture of silencing athletes?” “Am I still doing that?” “Was there anything I could have done differently?” “What might I have missed?” “Why wasn’t I aware of these miserable gymnasts?” Those are hard questions but necessary ones.

Instead, we get defensiveness and accusations of lying.

But they were afraid to ask for simple things, so maybe try to figure out why, why their experience and perception of the environment might have been very different from yours.

But they were. They said it. So maybe try to see it. Try to figure out how that could have happened. What might other coaches have been doing to create that situation?

They aren’t lying brats to be disbelieved, no matter how much easier it is to think of them that way. They are victims of abuse. Listen to what they’re trying to tell you about contributing factors. Listen when they tell you that those factors—which might very well seem like unrelated overreactions to you—cannot be separated from That Guy and the reasons he was allowed to groom them and abuse them.

Because they’re trying to tell that to you.

And even if your athletes didn’t have the same experience, not everyone is your athlete. And the positive experience of some athletes does not negate the negative experience of others

Yes, you can argue whether conditional complaints like moldy egg showers are actually relevant to what are obviously much more serious issues like sexual abuse. But I happen to think they are relevant because the overall conditions at the ranch combined to cultivate low expectations in the gymnasts for how they should be treated. That meant when it came to actual serious mistreatment—sexual, physical, verbal, emotional—they were less likely to speak up (or recognize that it was wrong) because they thought they were supposed to be miserable in order to become successful. Or they thought they couldn’t speak up for fear of retribution. Which is a troubling environment to create.

CLEARLY it was a faulty environment. You don’t have decades of sexual abuse ignored, undetected, or covered up in environments that are working well and positively. The reason the environment came to be so bad can (and should) be argued—and there are legitimate arguments coming from a lot of angles in that regard—but you have to start from the place of agreeing to at least acknowledge that it was a bad situation. Otherwise there’s no hope of fixing it.

So maybe don’t refer to a situation where athletes were abused by a doctor as a learning environment? Just a thought?

The other issue bouncing around here is that even the defenders of the ranch are saying things like “it wasn’t great but it was edible.” Uh…high praise?

Let’s discuss why your expectations for an Olympic athlete training center are so low, because that’s part of this as well. Have you seen what other Olympic sports are doing in the realms of sports psychology, physical therapy, and nutrition? Shouldn’t the goal of a national training center have been to put high-level athletes in the best possible position to succeed? What about the ranch was actually doing that?

WHY was it a camp? WHY was it there? WHY did you have to “rough it”? Even if you found that tolerable, or fun, or fine, WHY was is like that? That’s not normal. It certainly wasn’t a matter of economic necessity. Steve Penny wasn’t on the bread line. In real sports, the goal is to help athletes be at their physical and mental peaks so they can perform their best in important situations. Why wasn’t that the goal here? What is it about how the system viewed these top athletes that led it to decide they don’t merit the same consideration and treatment as the world’s best swimmers and runners?

And how might that have helped create an environment where they felt powerless?

Maybe ask these questions before doing a Facebook-vomit.

It’s also worth noting that this article is by Sally Jenkins. Yeah, that Sally Jenkins—the one who was really into Bela and really not into the gymnasts in 2000. Yet, my feeling is that if you’re on the team now and trying to do good work, then we’ll take you. And hopefully the same process will follow for Kelli and Mary Lee. But for the moment, it’s clear that a number of coaches still don’t get it.

B. Jordyn

Speaking of athletes explicitly sharing their experiences and not being believed, Jordyn Wieber is not having a USAG court filing that asserts the victim impact statements from January don’t prove that USAG knew about Nassar prior to 2015.

Jordyn says that not only is the notion of USAG not knowing about Nassar until 2015 incorrect—because she witnessed someone being informed pre-2015—but this court filing also reveals that USAG is still attempting to silence them and avoid responsibility despite publicly trying to play the “We support the survivors. We’re listening. Empowerment scarf” card.

This reinforces why the athletes have so little trust in USAG or the USOC as organizations (or their “independent” investigations), because when it comes down to culpability, they are still acting as adversaries to the gymnasts and will always act as adversaries to the gymnasts in order to to defend their own interests as the court proceedings continue. That’s why an investigation must come from the outside.

C. To the gymnastics!

You have a very busy weekend in front of you. In addition to the final week of regular-season NCAA action (schedule coming soon), you have to follow the Baku event World Cup, the Stuttgart team competition, and the Stuttgart all-around World Cup. Good thing you don’t have friends or a life. That nonsense just makes trouble.

Let’s start with Stuttgart where there are several things that you mi—KOMOVA. Komova is back. That’s the thing. She’s last-minute participating in the team competition (replacing the injured Saifulina), with qualification beginning Friday at 10:00am local time and the final on Saturday at 5:00pm local time.

Here’s podium training:

Russia is the definite favorite with Kharenkova, Akhaimova, and Ilyankova also on the team, though pay attention to what we see from Belgium, which is sending its big five (Derwael, Klinckaert, Hermans, Deriks, and Brassart), Switzerland, which is sending Steingruber and the other top Swiss competitors, and Japan, which is sending Hatakeda and Kuwajima. You may remember Kuwajima took the world by storm with her beam routine at the WOGA Classic.

[FUN UPDATE: “Definite favorite” Russia was ALL THE RUSSIA on beam and melted into a ball of sad on the first day, missing the team final entirely. Cool. In good news, Komova was the best one on bars and beam and a small child screamed through the entire beginning of her beam routine. That small child was you.]

In the women’s AA world cup event, Jordan Chiles is competing for the first time in quite a while, attempting to take down name contenders like Melnikova (cross your heart and hope she lives) and Seitz. The other competitors will be Volleman (NED), Woo (CAN), Voss (GER), Kajita (JPN), Zhang (CHN), and Lucy Stanhope’s DTY (GBR). Competition is Sunday at 12:30pm local time.

On the men’s side, the US has allowed Akash Modi to leave “you’re not going to worlds” purgatory to take on Belyavskiy (RUS), Yusuke Tanaka (JPN), Nguyen (GER), Bevan (GBR), Sun (CHN), Bretschnider (GER), Pakhniuk (UKR), and Rijken (NED) at 12:30 local time on Saturday.

Because our time in the US has changed but it has not yet in Europe, keep in mind that the west coast of the US is currently 8 hours behind Germany (and the east coast 5 hours behind), instead of the usual 9 and 6 hours.

In Baku, qualification has already begun, with Chusovitina well out in front in women’s vault, showing a handspring lay 1/1 and Tsuk 1.5 that look totally believable and usual Chusovitina.

On bars, Lyu Jiaqi and Luo Huan are several thousand points out in front of the rest of the field because China.

Beam and floor will continue on Friday.

D. Last week’s results

We had a huge upset at the British Championship last weekend when Kelly Simm took the all-around title over the heavily favored Amy Tinkler. Tinkler had errors on beam and (most surprisingly) vault, while Simm out-performed her recent American Cup score by a point and a half to move just ahead. With a depleted group now being sent to the Commonwealth Games next month, Kelly Simm’s ability to give a reasonable showing in the AA is slowly turning into a must.

GB experienced another depletion scare when Georgia-Mae Fenton had a disaster-bars complete with a potential elbow injury, though word is she’s going to be fine.

Instead, it was the “I’m retiring” Charlie Fellows who took bronze. Maybe want to rethink that retiring thing?

Speaking of rethinking things, Brinn “you didn’t select me for CWG” Bevan took the British men’s AA title ahead of Cunningham and Purvis. Makes things kind of complicated.

But of course, the real highlight we all need to talk about is Danusia Francis, who competed as a guest and recorded a 49.000 in the AA. That 49.000 came with mistakes on bars and beam, so Danusia will feel like there’s definitely room for her to get up into the 51s, the score it took to make the worlds AA final last year.

The real show, however, was her save in floor finals.

Totally meant to.

At Gymnix, the primary question mark gymnast coming into the competition, Isabela Onyshko, won the all-around title in the challenge division with a 54.134, a score that would have put her second at Elite Canada a few weeks back. So mission accomplished. Victoria Woo finished second here, followed by Irina Aleexeva (and to answer your question, no I don’t know), Kayla DiCello, and Shallon Olsen.

Full results can be dissected and explored to your heart’s content here.

E. GymCastic

Get excited. This week, Jessica had the pleasure of chatting with legendary daredevil beam queen and two-time Olympian Elvire Teza and her partner in French greatness, Cecile Canqueteau-Landi, 1996 Olympian and coach of Madison Kocian and—now—Simone Biles.

Think of it as your break from the trash.

F. Beam routine of the week

How could it be any other?

She performs both of the beam Tezas in this routine: The Yang Bo from side position and the back full twist to hip circle from side position— still the craziest skill anyone has ever invented on beam.

“I’d hate [beam] too if I had to do that every day.” Preach Kathy.

%d bloggers like this: