Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Swinging in the States
Watching podium training at the 2011 World Gymnastics Championships, it is amazing how only the faces change from year to year. In a Pre-Olympic year, the same storyline exists among elite gymnastics that existed back in 1991: the Americans have powerful girls with a weakness on bars, the Romanians are conditioned within inches of their lives and look solid despite a weakness on bars, the Chinese girls have wonderful flexibility and finesse and are hoping to get through the power events, while the Russians pull off tumbling that their girls don't look capable of merely looking at their bodies.
A country's success in gymnastics comes down to training techniques, conditioning, innovation and ultimately... selection. The very girls coaches select to focus on and prepare for the elite ranks ultimately determine the country's success eight or nine years later. Mary Lou Retton, Kim Zmeskal, Carly Patterson, Shawn Johnson and Jordyn Wieber all know what it is like to be at the top of American gymnastics leading into an Olympic Games. They are also all stereotypically powerful gymnastics hoping to compensate for a natural weakness on the uneven bars compared to their other three events. The Romanians are known for the bar weakness and much of that is believed to be technique-driven. If one looks at the girls selected in the US, it becomes apparent that coaches decide to focus on that level 5 or level 6 capable of a double back and capitalize on their natural power. The girls on the American team tend to look like they were all selected along with Hilary Grivich for the Karolyi's Hopes Team back in the youth. Note that Shannon Miller and Nastia Liukin, the Americans with the most international success, were both scouted and/or developed by Russians. Shannon Miller was not a natural powerhouse winning the pull-up competition alongside Jordyn Wieber. Soviet coaches spotted her innate talent and Steve Nunno just happened to be there paying attention. None of the girls Steve selected on his own ever amounted to much. Wieber's muscled routine is exactly the type of routine one would envision the Karolyi six-pack trying to luck out on should they have competed under the current code.
There is even a very literal Romanian quality to the way American coaches train the girls and compose their routines. It is amazing how the Russians and Chinese all pick girls who lack the noticeably-bulky musculature of Team USA. It is also amazing how their gymnasts are able to connect skills on bars and beam through skill, technique and success, rather than muscling through bars or powering through a beam routine like Wieber, Sacramone and Raisman. There is not a single American competing in prelims whom one would say has a gorgeous natural swing. When one looks at the Chinese and Russians on bars, it is evident their girls spend considerable time on front giants, back giants, eagle giants and circles. Their girls are able to connect releases, turns and transitions with ease. Their composition is also considerably better. Sabrina Vega is often said to have a beautiful body. Looking at Vega, one would imagine she is a gorgeous bar worker. It is interesting that her Romanian coaches have taught her a number of releases, yet they can not compose a routine with decent enough difficulty or execution to score well. The number of kip-cast-handstands in her routine is laughable and begging for deductions. It is startling that the Americans are not connecting shaposhnikovas, pak saltos, low bar skills and transitions to the high bar in our to earn respectable D-scores. It is as though we never learn. The only series of giants practiced in the US appear to be power giants winding up for double-double dismounts. It is enough to make Kathy Johnson Clarke cry herself to sleep at night.
Viktoria Komova is returning from ankle surgery and is showing her full difficulty for the first time in a year. It is important to note that Komova is performing all of her tumbling passes despite only competing double tucks and double fulls at the recent Russian Championships. Their coaches focus on technique and timing rather than the literal skills and pounding of Team USA. Their focus on timing, technique and feeling for the equipment is also why the team members are able to look disastrous one day and find gold medals draping around their necks the next. The Russians are six girls with strongly-conditioned cores who are able to use their technique to perform amply on all events. They may not standout as 'floor champion' the way a powerful American tumbler does, but they are able to execute skills and earn high enough scores to keep themselves in contention.
No matter how much changes in the sport, the teams' strengths and weaknesses remain the same. When perpetual bridesmaids lose titles year and year one would think they'd do something about it. Anna Li is relegated to the alternate position due to her injury and inconsistency. Should the bar judges have their way with the American girls in Ivana Hong-Stuttgart fashion, don't be shocked to see Anna subbed in for finals.