Olympic Gymnastics for Beginners

Two weeks. We have just two weeks until the Olympics begin and I sequester myself in a live-streaming bunker heretofore unexplored by civilized man. Mmm, early-round badminton at 2:30am? I’m there! I’m already a little angry at NBC that ranking round archery on the morning of July 27th is not on their live streaming schedule on the Live Extra App. (Yeah, I’m not well.) Frankly, I will emerge from my cave on August 12th looking like the missing link. I have the Smithsonian’s number in my phone already just in case they need to make some observations for posterity.

But given that we are about to enter gymnastics’ quadrennial foray into public consciousness before the attention is squandered yet again, those of you with social tendencies (I’m sorry) may find yourselves in the awkward position of watching Olympic gymnastics with other people. More specifically, other people who don’t know anything about gymnastics.

It’s a harrowing experience, what with all the questions and lack of understanding about 180-degree splits, so after the jump I have provided a handy list of common questions with their appropriate responses to help you through the process. Feel free to refer to this list, perhaps even employing a simple point so you don’t have to use words, when dealing with a beginner.

Q: Are the American girls going to win?
A: First of all, let’s use “women” not “girls.” “Girls” is diminutive and lends the impression that this is not a real sport to be taken seriously. It reinforces the notion that we should not be too critical or put gymnasts in such a pressure-filled situation, and that attitude is disrespectful to them as athletes and ignorant of all of the hard work they have put in. To that point, “ladies” is no better. To paraphrase Martina Navratilova, “ladies” is subjective, “women” is biological, and most of these women are no ladies. 

As to the question, the answer is quite possibly, but not definitely. Certainly, you are being led to believe it is more of a lock than it is. If the Russians hit all their routines, it would not be a surprise to see them on top because of a significant advantage on bars. In the All-Around, while Wieber and Douglas may medal, they are not the favorites. Victoria Komova should win if she can stay on beam.

Q: That routine looked pretty good. Why are you making that noose?
A: Aside from obvious things like wobbles and steps on landings, deductions come from the legs not reaching a complete horizontal position during attempts at splits, leg separations during twisting and tumbling, a lack of pointed toes, low tumbling without proper flight, and the chest pointed down toward the knees on landing instead of up and facing forward. These are some of the most crucial qualities to a routine. You will learn. Actually, you probably won’t. Here are some crayons. Make a nice picture.

Q: That’s a deduction, right? I knew it.
A: Yes, you’re very smart. Shut up.

Q: They keep talking about going out of bounds on floor. Is that a big deal?
A: Not so much anymore. It’s always been a .1 deduction, but with the increase in total scores, going out of bounds is far less significant now than it used to be. Don’t tell Al Trautwig. Just let him have his thing.

Q: Why do the leotards look that way?
A: Because all leotards are designed by blind goblins who live in the last remaining sequin mine in Kazakhstan and have not seen daylight since 1991.

Q: And what’s with all the weird hair glitter?
A: How dare you? They are Russian gymnasts. They’re part of a tradition. They have a legacy to uphold. They can’t just show up at a competition not having submerged themselves in a barrel of hair glitter. That would be so disrespectful to the generations that have come before.

Q: Why do they have to dance?
A: Because gymnastics is the perfect combination of sport and art, where athletic skill is melded with artistic interpretation to create cohesive performance that is at the same time exciting, dramatic, competitive, difficult, and beautiful. It’s better than any stupid sport with helmets that you think you like.

Q: Then why is the dance so bad?
A: Preach!

Q: Are the Chinese all eleven?
A: No, they all appear to be the proper age and have been training for years and years. That’s why they’re not as great this time. They’re as haggard on the outside as you feel on this inside.  

Q: Why does that one look like she’s going to kill me?
A: Her name is Catalina Ponor, and she has killed men twice your size. Don’t mess.

Q: I liked that little hoppy thing. What was that?
A: That “hoppy thing” was a tour jete, and it was terrible.

Q: What the hell does that green triangle mean?
A: A group of useless people at NBC got it in their pea brains that this scoring system is too complicated. It’s not; it’s just stupid. Gymnasts receive a difficulty score for the elements performed in the routine and an execution score out of 10 for how well they perform them. These scores are then added together. That’s it. NBC has decided that’s so difficult for you to understand that they’ve concocted a system of green triangles and yellow rectangles to make it 16 times more complicated than it ever would have been otherwise. “NBC: We make it easy on no one.”

Q: Don’t you feel bad for her that she fell?
A: No. She got tight and didn’t trust her cues. Falls are always unacceptable. I have no heart or soul. Welcome to gymnastics.

Q: Is Mary Lou Retton in this competition?
A: What? . . . What?


A Moment for Alicia Sacramone

The women’s Olympic team has been announced. It is certainly common knowledge in the gymnastics world by this point, so I don’t feel the need to go into dissecting it here. It is the correct decision, but I just wanted to take a moment to talk about Alicia Sacramone.

I held out a little hope that she might have been named an alternate, but I certainly understand why she wasn’t. Price serves as the backup for vault and Finnegan serves as the backup for beam (and they’re both AAers) so there wasn’t necessarily a need for Alicia, but still I had hope. It was not to be, so her elite career has come to an end.

I will always root for the gymnasts who turned senior from around 2002-2005. Sure, I had favorites before that era, from Dominique Dawes to Yelena Produnova, but the 02-05 group are the ones I followed from the beginning and the ones whose careers I feel the closest to. With Alicia Sacramone and Nastia Liukin finishing their careers tonight, that generation has completed its elite journey.

For me, the most important thing about a gymnast is the personality. Clean skills are nice, and I will harp on form breaks like no other, but being able to give something of yourself both on and off the competition floor is a talent that supersedes all other qualities. Alicia Sacramone mastered it.

Alicia let us in to every moment, and we knew exactly how she felt about every skill she ever performed. Whether it resulted in a clenched fist and a glance to the sky, or tears and a harrowing forehead press from Martha Karolyi, we as viewers lived every moment along with her. That’s what makes Alicia Sacramone special. If gymnastics is the Oscars, Alicia has a streak of Best Actress trophies that none of her peers can hope to match, and I mean that in the best possible way. 

Elite gymnastics can be a world where showing emotion is frowned upon. Gymnasts are taught to block everything out, to keep it all inside, to be stern and focused at every moment. Alicia waltzed all over that idea. Being emotional about your passion never hurt anyone, and Alicia proved that every time she arrived at competition. When you care that much, the lows may hurt just a little bit more, but the highs are that much sweeter.    

Of all the comeback girls, Alicia had the most reason to be out of shape at these Trials because of her Achilles injury, but she was farther along than any of them, showing up to Trials in the same form she showed at Nationals in 2011. Because there was so much else going on, that didn’t get discussed enough, but it was not overlooked. She was fit and fighting and making no excuses.  

Alicia put her fans and herself through a series of traumas over the last 8 years, starting with her emotional performance at 2004 Nationals, but for every tear-filled resolution to a beam routine, she gave us ten more sassy thigh rubs, ten more candid interviews, and ten more eye rolls at Mihai over his springboard placement. For every Beijing fall that gets replayed again and again, she saved Team USA when it needed it even more times, from being the only one to hit beam in 2007 Team Finals, to being the best vaulter in US history, to being the most reliable American beam worker over the last three years.

Alicia as a gymnast will be remembered for her boat full of Worlds medals, and while that is all wonderful, that’s not what I’ll remember the most. I’ll remember the tears. Because for every time this sport kicked her when she had already gone out of bounds, she came back swinging with a smile, a sarcastic look, and a giant Rudi that was almost, but not quite, stuck.

And that’s Alicia’s career. It was always a little raw, never quite stuck, and never quite as magical as you hoped it would be for her, but it was no less important because of that. If success is measured by the impact you make, not the teams you make, then Alicia Sacramone had the most successful Trials she could hope for.

Various Whatnots

  • USA Gymnastics has announced the men’s team: Leyva, Orozco, Mikulak, Dalton, Horton. This is not surprising, especially given how much everyone has been playing up the Horton angle to make sure he made the team. There was a legitimate argument to be made for Legendre on this team instead of Horton, but given consistency considerations, this is probably the smartest choice. Legendre, Brooks, and Naddour are the alternates.
  • The women’s Olympic Trials finish tonight. There’s no reason to think anything has changed at this point. NBC was really trying to make Elizabeth Price happen on Night 1, but it’s not going to happen. We saw some sloppiness in some key routines on Night 1, so let’s watch for that to be eliminated on Night 2. Wieber got some favors that she won’t at the Olympics. Mostly, I’m rooting for some veteran miracles tonight, like Nastia hitting a bar routine and Alicia sticking a vault in their last meets. After that, we’ll have a good four weeks to debate lineups and worry about who got injured.
  • LSU has officially hired Jay Clark. This was originally discussed almost immediately after he was fired from Georgia, but these things take time to become official. At first, I thought it would be a good idea for Jay to get out of the SEC, but this seems like it could be a good fit. We know his skills as an assistant, but it will be interesting to watch whether he has much mark on LSU next season. 
  • Speaking of next season, LSU is among the schools that have already announced their 2013 schedules. They face NC State, Alabama, and Georgia all twice. I don’t much care for repeat meets unless it’s a big rivalry. I always like to see a few more out-of-conference meets, but I know how difficult that can be to work with the SEC schedule. Metroplex should be fun next year with Oklahoma, Georgia, Oregon State, and LSU.
  • Brenna Dowell (who was among the few second-tier girls to hit her routines on Night 1 of Trials, so she is in a surprising 8th) will be joining Mackenzie Wofford at Oklahoma in 2014-2015. K.J. got on these elites early, and she is building quite the future team. 

Trials Eve

Are there times when you wish you were a only a casual gymnastics fan? I do right now. Then, I would be going into Trials not knowing who the team might be and wondering what kind of exciting gymnastics I’m going to see. We spoil it for ourselves sometimes.

Examiner Blythe quotes Martha as saying what we already know. “Really, very honestly, I have one ideal team in my head. I still have the same team in my mind as I did two months ago.” So do we, Martha. So do we.

I don’t follow MAG as closely, but it seems like that race is a little more open, at least for the last spot. People who follow it obsessively may already know the team, but I don’t, so I have that exciting, casual feeling going into those Trials.

Women’s podium training yielding nothing much new. Nastia completed a bar routine that looks like it’s going to be 50/50 for hitting in competition. Regardless of the hitting, the difficulty is just 6.5, which is not high enough for a specialist.

Many of the veterans are going through the motions when it comes to interviews about how they fit into the team, but you can tell that they know the game. I don’t see a ton of delusion from those on the outside, which is nice. They can go out and enjoy their final elite competition, and we can enjoy watching them for the last time.

As we turn to evaluating how the group might fare in London, we need to look at a few specific routines. Unfortunately, the necessities of the five-member team leave few questions as to who will compete what in Team Finals (except perhaps floor), but the decision as to who will be the All-Around gymnasts could be made based on performances this weekend, so that will be fun to watch. The team is brimming with Amanars, but how people hit them at Trials will help determine lineups, so watch that. Martha loves Aly Raisman’s sturdiness, which makes me think Aly is still in it for an AA spot, but the tide certainly is moving the other direction. If she scores lowest of the main group on vault and bars (quite possible), how can she be kept in the AA? Expect Douglas and Wieber to go 1-2, but watch the fight for third. Ross beating Raisman could seal that.

Olympic Trials: The Wishers and the Hopers

One of my concerns over limiting the teams to five members was that it would make the Trials process anticlimactic if a clear five had already emerged. This appears to be the case this year. However, sitting back and accepting the preordained Olympic team of Douglas, Wieber, Raisman, Ross, and Maroney would be no fun. So here’s a look at the three things that anyone with a conceivable shot at the team (besides the total locks) needs to do next weekend to stay on the current “team”/make the actual team/get into the conversation.

McKayla Maroney

1) Be less concussion-y.
2) Start getting rid of that .3 step on vault. She won’t score a 16 at the Olympics otherwise.
3) Keep that double tuck in bounds. There’s no hope now that they will change the pass, so she just needs to keep it traveling forward and not land 15 feet OOB like she should. She’s way to talented to be a 1.25 event gymnast.

Kyla Ross

1) No falls. With her lack of senior experience, she will be dealt the “can she handle the pressure?” card at Trials. She has to prove that she can. Her position is the most susceptible to crumbling with a  poor performance.  
2) Outscore the other 15ers on beam. There’s a bushel of Sacramones and Finnegans and Liukins who can also score 15 on beam. Ross needs to beat them to maintain the status quo.
3) Send Martha some flowers with a card reading, “International look. Love, Kyla.”

Rebecca Bross

1) Obviously, fix the Splatterson. Imagine if she were hitting that dismount like she did in 2010. It would legitimately be a close contest between her and Kyla for that UB/BB spot. We should all root for that beam routine to come together because it will make Trials more fun.
2) Perfect execution on bars. If she’s going to knock off Ross, she has to match her for execution. She’s at a legs disadvantage, so everything else has to be pristine.
3) Repair broken brain. Thinking about the dismount has taken a toll on the rest of her beam routine as it looks more tentative than it ever has before. Watch for the connection between the walkover and the bhs+layout. Performing that fluidly is a good indicator of her confidence.

Elizabeth Price 

1) Prove herself a legitimate bars alternative. She’s the best bar worker of the vault and floor girls, which will certainly work in her favor come 2013+, but she needs to get credit for her iffy bail handstand and somehow outscore Wieber to make herself necessary. 
2) Work that Amanar landing. She has the potential to be the #2 scoring vaulter, but she has to nail a landing closer to Night 1 of Nationals, otherwise she can’t make the vault argument because Douglas and Wieber are more valuable.
3) See above but make it about floor. Right now Douglas and Wieber do everything just a bit better, making Price the ideal alternate. If she’s going to make the team, she has to prove superiority.

Sarah Finnegan

1) Prove impossible to ignore on beam. No one can match her potential score, but she’s not setting herself apart from the 15ers.
2) Um…suddenly learn an Amanar? She doesn’t fit well with the rest of the group because Raisman and Maroney already take the “bad at bars” spots on the team. She can’t compete with Maroney’s vault or Raisman’s floor.
3) Develop a time machine or some sort of Bruno Grandi/Nellie Kim mind control device.

Alicia Sacramone

1) Upgrade to a handspring double full on vault.
2) Perform a 5.7+ floor routine.
3) Convince McKayla Maroney that it would be really fun to spin around in chairs for a few hours.
(Easy as pie, right?)

Bridget Sloan

1) A 6.6 UB routine? There were some reports that she mentioned this at Championships. It’s quite possible she was just mistaken, but if she wasn’t we need to see it hit and outscoring Ross.
2) Get competitive floor landings back. Her best shot is to somehow make Sloan/Sacramone the new Ross/Maroney. She would do that by being usable on bars and floor with Alicia usable on vault and beam. They complement each other well.
3) Wear a shirt that says, “This isn’t 2004. Don’t Schwikert me.”

Anna Li

1) Win bars.
2) Win bars.
3) Win bars, and steal Sarah Finnegan’s time machine to remove her history of inconsistency.

Nastia Liukin

1) Obviously, win bars with a real dismount.
2) Beat all the other 15ers on beam.
3) Have a little heart-to-heart with Martha at one of their sleepovers (they have sleepovers, right?), and by “heart-to-heart” I mean “friendly hypnosis session.”

Kennedy Baker, Sabrina Vega, and Brenna Dowell will be able to put “2012 Olympic Trials Competitor” on their NCAA bios.

From Championships to Trials

Visa Championships came and went last weekend, and ultimately we leaned little that we didn’t already know about the potential makeup of the US Olympic team. No one who isn’t named Wieber, Douglas, Raisman, Ross, and Maroney did enough to put themselves into serious consideration. But we’re gym fans, so we’ll find a way to make Trials not boring. We always do. Can Nastia dismount? Will Martha pretend to consider taking Anna Li? Will Alicia magically have an upgraded vault and a floor routine? Will Maroney recover from her nose concussion? Will Kupets come back? 

The US is in an interesting position because, while all the other major contenders are doing the Amanar Scramble (a new option at Denny’s), the US is doing the “Sweet Lord, is that your bars composition?” Two-Step. Other teams are trying to find the best vault options while the US is trying to find the least horrible bars option. It has become obvious that Jordyn Wieber will do bars in Team Finals, and she will go over on a handstand and get a 14.100, and everyone will just need to deal with it.

I still have a feeling that Martha will try to go out of her way to put Nastia on the team if she looks at all believable (meaning she hits two bar routines at Trials and outscores Ross), but the realistic storyline I’m most interested in is the Wieber/Douglas AA battle. It’s irrelevant to team selection, but it will be great to see how it plays out. John Geddert will likely win Best Supporting Actress in an Olympic Trials. Well, it will be either him or Maggie Smith for Downton Abbey. It will be difficult for Geddert to cope if Wieber loses. We’ll hear a lot of “National Championships is the one that matters.” Maggie Smith will be fine is she doesn’t win. She’ll throw a double layout at the Olympics anyway.

The second day of Visa Championships showed us that four for four hit routines from Douglas will outscore four for four from Wieber even at a domestic meet. Wieber is the preordained golden child after winning worlds last year with the NBC packages to prove it, so it’s not inconceivable that we could see her propped up at Trials, maintaining the narrative. Douglas, however, has the potential to be an Olympic star both in and out of the O2 Arena, so I can’t imagine them trying to hold her down. Both (along with Raisman) received very unrealistic scores at Visa Championships, and I expect everyone to be swamped with gifts yet again at Trials.

Even though Douglas hit her Amanar both days at Championships, that vault is still not a given. We need to see two more hits from her so that Raisman doesn’t have to vault in Team Finals, and she certainly needs it to pass Wieber. She also needs to, you know, stay on the beam, but we’re going to be dying internally with each of her Olympic beam routines anyway.

Wieber is going to have a deficit to Douglas because of bars, so she needs to get some kind of help on beam either in the form of a Douglas fall or the judges deciding that those combinations are real. I’m not in favor of either of these eventualities. The judges at Trials need to stop living in a fantasy world where Aly Raisman gets a 97.300 on floor. Otherwise, when she gets a 14.750 at the Olympics, there will be an unnecessary uproar. Same with Wieber’s Hate Sandwich (front walkover + back full + back handspring). No credit, or I’m walking.

“No credit, or I’m walking” should be the slogan for Trials. No good?

Right now, I give the edge to Douglas on potential, but Wieber is the more solid choice. Unless some of those non-American Amanars materialize (Maria Paseka, we need to talk about your reliability) the All-Around with Komova, Douglas, Wieber, Iordache, Yao(?), and Mustafina will be the much more fun battle. Being an NCAA devotee, I usually buy into the ALL ABOUT THE TEAM rhetoric, but this Olympic season may be all about the individual.

Thoughts on Classic

While apparently there was some gymnastics performed on Saturday, focus is solely on this month’s USAG Lifetime Original Movie called The Denial of Chellsie Memmel. You’ll probably cry. While I feel bad for Chellsie because she should have Qualifier Emeritus status at this point and there’s no legitimate reason to prevent her from going, I also live for all of the commotion this has caused. That part of me now wants to see Shawn Johnson skip Nationals and be granted a petition to Trials just to see what would happen.

Most of the controversy of the petition denial has centered around the arbitrary 14.000 one-event qualifying score that Martha apparently established without telling anyone. She has said that Chellsie could not be granted a petition because she did not meet that score. This is a red herring. The entire point of the petition is that it can be granted to a gymnast who doesn’t meet the qualifying criterion and yet deserves to go anyway. So the argument that a petition cannot be granted to a gymnast who failed to reach a qualifying standard is ridiculous. That’s why petitions exist, and it certainly could have been granted if they wanted to do it. They didn’t want to.

Chellsie Memmel was never going to make this Olympic team, but neither is Brianna Brown, so let’s not pretend that advancing to Nationals is all about who is in contention to make the Olympic team.

In the rest of the competition, we learned little from our top competitors. Aly Raisman is sturdy and will not fall. We already knew this. Martha loves her consistency. She will be on the team to do probably three events in Team Finals, so we should all just get used to it. Gabby Douglas will make the team because of bars, and beam is still scary. This we also already knew.

Jordyn Wieber’s bars issues won’t become a problem until Trials, but keep an eye on them. While Jordyn will be on the team regardless, if she proves unusable on bars in Team Finals, that will inform the selection of the rest of the team. If they can’t use Jordyn on bars, Raisman and Maroney can’t both be on the team. Maroney desperately needs Wieber to prove solid on bars, while Kyla Ross would be fine with it if she doesn’t.

Nastia Liukin stole the show with an adequate beam routine. Like I mentioned in the Classic preview, if she makes the team for bars, she can also be used on beam in TF with little loss of score compared to the rest of the team. But now we turn our attention to bars. At Nationals, I need to see a hit 6.7+ routine. That’s asking a lot, but it needs to happen for her to be anything but a “what if.”

Rebecca Bross hit her best bars routine of the year. As Martha mentioned after the meet, this is meaningless without a beam routine. Her Patterson dismount wasn’t close again, and she can’t hope to make the team until she figures out a consistent dismount. I’m not hopeful.

Sarah Finnegan and Elizabeth Price are the dark horses du jour. Price has an Amanar and inconsistency, and if anyone makes the team just to do an Amanar, it will be Maroney. I don’t know what to make of Finnegan. She is very pleasant to watch and potentially useful on a couple events. It seems like she should have more of a chance than she does. Beam and floor stand out, while she’s not so useful on bars, so she’s like the bizzaro Aly Raisman. There’s only room for one on this planet.

Anna Li fell again on bars, and Kennedy Baker has a 6.4 D-Score. Sit with these things.

Sabrina Vega and the rest are here on Gilligan’s Isle.