Gymnastics fans are really stubborn.
Maybe I’m just not very persuasive, but even when MyKayla Skinner was on the podium accepting her all-around gold medal at Pan Ams this summer, I still had people asking whether I thought she was good enough to be named to the 2014 World Championships team. Why? Because once upon a time, she struggled to hit her routines and had major form issues. But even after she spent more than a year improving her technique and skill, there were those who continued to question her talent.
As the great Taylor Swift said, “haters gonna hate, hate, hate,” but I think Skinner’s doing just fine with her international medal haul this year.
When Aly Raisman announced about a year ago that she was going to begin training seriously again, I encountered the same problem with gym fans who immediately tried to put her down. Even when she was added back onto the national team at the November training camp, fans speculated that it was because of her name, not what she was doing in the gym. People who hadn’t seen her train since 2012 took this standpoint based on absolutely nothing but their own skewed opinions. Where’s the faith?!
Okay, so a national team berth clearly wasn’t enough to persuade people (because Martha Karolyi is constantly handing out undeserved national team spots, am I right?), but have no fear. Thanks to USA Gymnastics, we now have tangible proof that her comeback is not only legit, but mind-blowingly amazing.
What does she have in terms of skills? On beam, she’s working a punch front to sissone, front pike to wolf jump, switch to switch half, and bhs layout to split jump, all very nicely connected. Oh yeah, and a Patterson dismount. No big deal. She’s training an awesome double layout on floor in addition to bringing back the arabian double pike, a powerful triple full, and a 1.5 through to double back, which she plans to upgrade to her infamous 1.5 through to double arabian (possibly with a punch front tacked on at the end). On bars, she shows a Maloney to bail to toe full and a Jaeger, and she’s landing a pretty solid DTY on vault while throwing Amanars into the pit.
What should we take away from all of this? Not only is she working skills that put her on track for awesome routines, Raisman has clearly put a lot of care into her fundamentals. She’s a gymnast who took a lot of flak for her flexed feet, weak flexibility, and poor bars form. Now, her toe point looks better, she’s hitting a clean 180 on her leap and jump work on beam, and even her bars have shown improvement, with stronger attention to detail than they’ve had in the past.
If you doubt Raisman after this, I don’t know what else to tell you. Sure, she’s not showing us full routines, but she has about eight months before she needs to if she wants to be considered for next year’s World Championships. This isn’t the same as when we worried whether Nastia Liukin could scrape together a full bar routine between nationals and Olympic Trials in 2012. The 2015 U.S. Classic is still a long way out, and she has time to work on endurance and putting the pieces together.
Still not convinced? Here’s why I’ve been a believer from day one.
Alicia Sacramone had a lot of skeptics and doubters before she debuted the new-and-improved Asac at the U.S. Classic in 2010. She was truly a better athlete, both mentally and physically, and it was largely in part to coach Mihai Brestyan’s guidance. He took her back to the basics, didn’t push her into bringing events back until they were ready, and let her take breaks as-needed. Why have a full-difficulty beam routine ready for Jesolo in the spring when you can use that time to build your body for the most important part of the season six months later? It was an excellent strategy, and one of the most successful comebacks the sport has seen in recent years.
With Raisman’s comeback, I trusted Brestyan implicitly from the start. He clearly knows what he’s doing, and Raisman even talked about knowing how to come back to the sport after watching her teammate do it four years earlier. She had her fun making the most of her fame on “Dancing with the Stars” and attending award shows, but aside from the occasional public appearances, Raisman has been pretty quiet since she headed back to the gym.
Based on the training clips, her hard work has clearly paid off, but she also has a bit of luck on her side. It just so happens that Raisman’s best events – beam and floor – are exactly the two events on which Team USA had an unusual deficit. I mean, it’s not like they had to worry – with a seven point margin ahead of the silver medalists, they can afford a few weak routines. But the truth is that Simone Biles really is the only gymnast currently hitting top-caliber sets on beam and floor.
Alyssa Baumann has a lovely beam but it isn’t quite good enough to justify as a one-event specialist in a deeper field. Kyla Ross downgraded everywhere due to injury and hasn’t been as polished as she has in the past. Skinner has some of the most difficult skills in the world but gets slammed on her execution. There are a few more girls who have potential on one event or the other in the future, but none who has a true beam/floor specialist ability in the way Raisman does.
Raisman is also known for being one of the most consistent gymnasts in the world. She’s the one you could always count on in a high pressure situation, from her very first international competition as a senior in 2010 all the way to the Olympic Games. She was a team player before anything else, known for always giving her best performances when a team medal was up for grabs, helping the U.S. women reach silver in 2010 and then gold in the two years that followed. Her own individual success was always second to the goals of the team, and once again it looks like she has this aim in mind.
What’s best about Raisman is that she acknowledges being “only 50% back.” She knows she’s in a good place, but at the same time recognizes that getting skills back really is only half the battle, and that she still has a lot of work to do if she wants to compete Olympic-caliber routines with full confidence. Based on what she’s accomplished so far and the high expectations she has for her competitive future, I think we could be looking at one of the most exciting comebacks in our time.
Article by Lauren Hopkins