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Athlete A strongly hinted that Maggie Nichols didn’t make the Rio team even as an alternate because she spoke out about Larry Nassar’s abuse. Do you think this was the reason?
So…in my viewing of gymnastics that summer, I never thought that Maggie was in a position to get one of the five spots on the Olympic team, based only on what I saw from her compared to what I saw from the five who made it. I thought her turnaround between nationals and trials was incredible, and that her fight back from injury with everything else that was going on was just beyond what I could have imagined, and I do think she should have gotten the alternate spot over Ragan Smith, but I would not have replaced anyone on the team with Maggie.
Gabby Douglas was always going to make that team no matter how she did at classics. She was the reigning Olympic champion, proved herself at worlds the previous year and at several competitions in 2016, had a medal-worthy bars set, fit into the highest-scoring potential lineup, and showed at the Olympic Games that she was one of the top three all-arounders in the world even if she didn’t make the final due to the two-per-country rule. Frankly, Gabby could have fallen on every event and placed dead last in the all-around at trials and she still would have made that team because Steve Penny was never going to leave the reigning Olympic champion at home when he stood to profit and line his own pockets from having her there. It’s different from Nastia Liukin’s situation in 2012, because Nastia was clearly not competition-ready, and you could in no way justify Nastia for the team. But Gabby was ready, and had been for a year. Mistakes were made, but Maggie also had a fall at trials, and I don’t think a fall or a couple of falls should be enough to take you out of team contention when your potential is greater than others who hit, and when your competitive history speaks for itself. Despite Gabby’s mistakes, when she hit she was one of the best in the world, and you could absolutely justify her being on that team. Before getting into anything else, I just wanted to clear this up, because for some reason, people are taking the wrong message from Athlete A, which is “Maggie deserved it, Gabby didn’t” and that’s truly a garbage take for so many reasons.
But the alternate situation, however, is the one spot where I find the decision truly controversial. It was clear that for the alternate roles, they took the two next-best all-arounders who didn’t make the team, with MyKayla Skinner and Ragan Smith getting those spots, plus Ashton Locklear as a bars specialist. It makes sense based on the scoring from that one particular meet, because Maggie wasn’t a top-three competitor on any event, and she finished sixth all-around behind all of those who ended up making it over her either for the team or as alternates. THAT SAID…Ragan outscored Maggie by a tenth and a half with a two-day combined all-around score, which is negligible at best, especially since Maggie had the higher single-day score when comparing on that end, and the only reason her two-day score was lower was because of a fall on beam. Without that fall, she would have outscored Ragan by a considerable amount, and possibly would have also outscored MyKayla, both of whom had fully hit performances. I think she was objectively the top all-arounder in the field of gymnasts who didn’t make the Olympic team, and leaving her out of an alternate role was egregious.
On top of that, I also don’t trust that the scoring at U.S. national-level meets is accurate, which is why Martha Karolyi had her own personal judge doing separate calculations on the side. There were the public-facing scores, and there were Martha’s realistic scores, and I’m absolutely certain Martha’s rankings were different. And to get even more conspiracy about it, though I can’t prove it, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the public-facing judges were purposely told to low-ball Maggie so that she couldn’t rank in a position that would get her an alternate spot.
I think Maggie made more sense as a more complete all-around alternate than Ragan did. She was stronger on three events, was more consistent in her overall competitive history, and could have filled in for basically any spot on that Olympic team if needed, whereas Ragan would really only make sense to bring in on beam…and even that was hit-or-miss. MyKayla made sense to bring as an all-arounder because she also had vault and floor where she could step in at a super high level (and even be in a position to medal on vault), Ashton made sense for bars, but Maggie made the most sense as the “complete package” all-arounder who could step in anywhere needed, and I think there definitely could have been some bitterness on Steve’s part in terms of leaving her out of the picture.
You could argue that Maggie made it onto the 2015 worlds team and so why would they reward her with that, but then get revenge on her a year later? Why not just blackball her immediately after she spoke up? And also, both Aly Raisman and Simone Biles were part of that initial group that spoke up, and they both made the teams in 2015 and 2016, so clearly there was no ill will or revenge plot against them, right?
But I think Aly and Simone were in a different kind of situation like Gabby’s where they absolutely would not have been left at home no matter what went down at trials. And in 2015, Maggie was also kind of in this position because she was second all-around at nationals, and it would have been incredibly, noticeably shady if she was left behind. They would not have been able to justify leaving her at home in 2015, but with her ranking at trials the following year, that was basically their way of being like “aww, that’s too bad” and justifying not taking her…even though if you looked at the total picture and not just the high-key ridiculous trials scores, she should have been an alternate at the very least.
Additionally, even though Maggie made the team in 2015, she was still screwed over by Steve with the decision to not let her do the all-around in qualifications, even though she had the second-best bars routine on the team and outscored both Aly and Gabby at nationals. We often got the whole “you don’t know what goes on at camp or in training!” line, but that’s such a BS way to justify things because they could literally just make up whatever they wanted about “how things went” at camp or in training and we wouldn’t know the difference. As much as I don’t love the current system of only naming the top-ranked all-arounders from a single competition to international teams, and think that there needs to be more strategy involved, it at least clears up the transparency issue that allowed Steve to get away with so many decisions in previous years that served only to benefit him.
And that’s another piece of the “conspiracy” here, and it might actually not even be JUST backlash for speaking up. The truth is that Steve hated the girls who didn’t go pro because he couldn’t make money off of them, and so he made decisions based on who he could get money from instead of who was actually “best” for the team. Martha took a lot of the blame for “stupid” team decisions in the 2016 quad, but Steve was the one making decisions behind the curtain, because he stood to profit from it. It’s why he wanted McKayla Maroney competing all-around in 2013 instead of Kyla Ross, and he actually originally moved to keep Kyla from competing in the all-around at qualifications at worlds, so that McKayla would be guaranteed an all-around finals spot and likely even a medal if she hit all four events. I believe the story goes that Kyla’s coaches fought this so hard, which is amazing, so she still got to compete all-around, but then Brenna Dowell was sacrificed so McKayla could do all four events, so it still ended up a bummer of a situation. But Steve HATED that Kyla was the one hold-out on the 2012 team in terms of going pro, because it limited the amount of money he could make off of marketing the Fierce Five as a team, and I’m sure he also would have had these feelings about Maggie, about Madison Kocian, about anyone who took away from his opportunity to make money. I call his money-making schemes a “conspiracy theory” right now because it there’s no definitive proof, but his money-based team decisions are pretty much openly talked about, and I think we’re gonna get the receipts (literally, his bank receipts) for this eventually. I know that at least one investigative journalist is working on the Steve Penny paper trail, and I’m waiting over here with popcorn for it to all come out.
Long story short, I personally would not have included Maggie on the Olympic team over anyone who ended up making it based on what I saw from her with my eyes, but I absolutely would have had her in the key all-around alternate role, and I absolutely would have had her competing all-around at worlds in 2015 over Aly. I think that her being left out of both situations is a result of Steve punishing her partly for speaking up about Larry Nassar, and also partly for not going pro and being a gymnast he could take advantage of for his own financial gain.
I was watching the 2016 Olympic Trials and noticed one of the commentators say something about how no one on the selection committee was watching Maggie Nichols’ performances? Do you think this was intentional now knowing that she was Athlete A?
Ooh, I’ve never watched the video of trials because I was there live, so I missed out on all of the commentary…but that’s interesting. Knowing this and the fact that they didn’t have cameras there getting her family’s reactions in the crowd, it was clear that they had absolutely no intention to include her on the team, and I don’t think anything she did at trials would have mattered – they had made up their mind about the entire team probably weeks before trials, and Maggie was never going to be on it.
Larisa Iordache’s comeback is looking very real now. She’s back in the gym and already training her old elements. Which place must she take at Euros in order to qualify to the Olympic Games?
She would have to finish in the top two among all-arounders who haven’t previously qualified to the Olympics either as part of a team or individually. She could finish third all-around at Euros and not qualify if the two who finish before her were eligible to qualify, or she could finish 20th all-around and qualify to the Olympics if everyone ahead of her wasn’t eligible. It really just depends on who competes at Euros and where everyone stands in that specific competition. I’d say top five is a safe bet.
Do you think Larisa Iordache will have a successful comeback? And will she have a good chance to be in the top three in the all-around at Tokyo after missing three years of competition?
I hope she has a successful comeback! She’s one of the gymnasts I was most excited about in terms of the Olympics getting pushed back a year, because while I hate that this had to happen, it’s bittersweet that it could lead to another chance for gymnasts who looked like it wasn’t going to work out for them. That said, Larisa still doesn’t have a ton of time, because this year’s European Championships – to be held in mid December for the women – will act as the Olympic qualifier, so she really only has six months to prepare, which is really going to be really hard when her last competition was in 2017 and when she hasn’t been training at more than about half-strength since her injury. It’s not impossible…she’s a talented gymnast and I’m sure can get back to a really good place, especially on events like bars and beam, but six months is a rush given her circumstances, and she might cut it close.
Do you think more countries will be sending their B teams to 2021 worlds if both Tokyo and worlds happen next year? Or will they try to send out an A team to both? What if the U.S. sends a B team while others send A teams? Is the U.S. B team still stronger than the A teams of other countries?
I think many gymnasts who go to the Olympics will end up retiring or going on hiatus directly following Tokyo, especially in terms of the veterans who want to make Tokyo their last big outing. I can see some of the younger ones – like Viktoria Listunova and Vladislava Urazova – sticking around, and I can see gymnasts from smaller programs who are considering retiring perhaps thinking about continuing to train following the Olympics, especially if they’re usually on the bubble for making finals. A weaker overall field at worlds could mean that someone who ends up 15th or something in bars qualifications could maybe actually now get into the final or even reach the podium, which would be really cool. I’m actually excited for potentially seeing a lot of gymnasts from smaller programs getting some attention if most of the top gymnasts in the world don’t continue on.
I think the U.S. will likely have a team that goes to the Olympics, and then an entirely separate group that will go to worlds. I can see a lot of the younger seniors who might not be huge Olympic threats end up doing really well at worlds, like someone in Konnor McClain’s position where the Olympics just came up too quickly for her, but she’d still have potential for multiple individual medals at worlds. I think some of the U.S. girls who don’t make it to the Olympics could still do very well in a weaker-than-usual world championships field, but a weaker U.S. group of gymnasts would definitely be vulnerable and wouldn’t be winning multiple medals on every event the way they normally could, especially if countries like Russia are able to send top girls. Some of the U.S. B-team gymnasts who don’t seem super likely to go to Tokyo are still at roughly the same level as top gymnasts from other countries, so there is a great opportunity for these U.S. gymnasts to shine, but it’s still going to be a challenge, and the rankings could end up being super close. I could see the U.S. position at 2021 worlds kind of like how their position was at 2019 junior worlds, where they were a great group of gymnasts, but so were the teams from Russia, China, and Romania. And I’m really excited to see that potentially unfold at the senior level once again.
What is happening with Australia and the head coach position?
They should be in the final interview stages right now, slash may have even offered the job to someone already, so hopefully we’ll hear something soon, though I’m sure COVID-19 has slowed things down a bit. Basically Mihai Brestyan was only contracted to coach until 2020, and it was decided that he wouldn’t be coming back beyond that, though I’m not sure if that was his decision or Gymnastics Australia’s. I can see commuting to Australia on a monthly basis being THE WORST for everyone involved, so it might be that they want someone who can be in the country more consistently, or maybe he decided that it was just too much for him. I’ve also heard Romania is trying to poach Mihai, so that could play into it…the actual reasoning is all speculation, but anyway, the basic response is that he’s leaving, and someone new will be coming in.
Why is the Rulfova on beam no longer done by many gymnasts?
I think because it’s just hard to do it accurately on a consistent basis, and that the reward – it’s only worth a D – isn’t super worth the effort. It’s the kind of skill where if you can do it well, it’s worth it and makes you stand out, but if you don’t do it well on a regular basis, you’re going to get deducted more than it’s worth. It’s one of my favorite skills when done correctly and precisely, but is also quickly becomes a least favorite skill when it’s done wrong, and I’m sure the judges feel the same way, and that it would definitely show in their scores.
How does the university gymnastics system work in the UK? Are gymnasts able to compete for their university?
They have some lower-level competition in the UK, but it’s not like the U.S. where it’s a big goal for top-level gymnasts. I would say it’s similar to NAIGC in the U.S., where it’s like a non-varsity club sport and you’ll get some gymnasts who were at a higher level, and others who just do more basic skills and routines. A gymnast who wants to compete at university in the UK will likely choose to attend a university that has a club team for gymnastics, but top gymnasts in Great Britain generally don’t do university gymnastics in the UK.
You’re also not recruited for university gymnastics, and there are no athletic scholarships, similar to NAIGC (though in the UK, this isn’t really a thing, because tuition isn’t ridiculous as it is in the United States). For most clubs, if you’re going to that university, you can literally just be like “I want to compete for you!” and they’re like cool, welcome. Loughborough University, considered the strongest among the UK university programs, takes former elite-level competitors to compete at their top level, more basic-level competitive gymnasts, and absolute beginners who have never stepped foot in a gym before and don’t want to compete, but just want to train in the sport. The competitive gymnasts are evaluated and placed on whichever training squad best fits their level, but the beginners can just sign up.
The big event for UK university gymnastics is BUCS Championships (BUCS is the governing body for university sports in the UK, aka British Universities & College Sports). Gymnasts are separated into different levels for the purpose of BUCS competition (and all related university competition), with Grade 1 being the highest. Grade 1 uses the FIG code of points, and you may see some low-key recognizable names here, but even at this level, only a few have former elite experience, and usually only at the national level (meaning English or Welsh national squad at the highest, not the British squad…if you were a British squad gymnast and want to compete at the university level, you can usually get an NCAA scholarship and wouldn’t consider UK university gymnastics, like how U.S. level 10s and elites would get NCAA scholarships and wouldn’t think about doing NAIGC). Grade 2 and below are all lower-level competitors. They use a specific BUCS code of points which is like a modified FIG code, and they don’t compete all four events. Grade 2 gymnasts choose three of the four events to compete, while Grade 3 and Grade 4 only compete vault and floor.
Just to give you a glimpse into who competes at this level, at BUCS Championships this year, Yoana Yankova (who trained in the UK but competed for Bulgaria internationally, including at worlds in 2017) won the Grade 1 all-around competition, Holly Curran (who competed at English Championships a few times) was second, and Tara Donnelly (an elite-level gymnast from the Isle of Man who went on to represent Ireland at world championships) was third. I recognize a few more names at this level, but not all competed at the highest elite levels in the British system. In Grade 2, I only recognize a couple of names, a handful who competed at English and Scottish Championships, and then Chloe Donnelly, Tara’s sister who also competed both for Isle of Man and for Ireland at various moments in time.
Do we know what the status of Sunisa Lee’s dad is?
He seems to be moving along in his recovery. He was paralyzed, so obviously he’s in a wheelchair and the situation isn’t great, but she has said that he’s getting a lot stronger. He really wants to be able to travel to Tokyo and see her compete at the Olympics, and is apparently working hard in his recovery so he can make this happen, so Sunisa said this dream of her dad’s just makes her want to work even harder and get to Tokyo so they can both make their dreams come true.
What do you think a double layout beam dismount would be worth in the code of points?
I don’t think you can seriously give it anything lower than an H, but could see the FIG being stingy and giving it a G.
Is Simone Biles eligible for NCAA?
No, Simone isn’t eligible. She initially considered doing NCAA gymnastics, and signed her letter of intent to compete for UCLA, but in the summer of 2015 she announced that she was instead going to turn professional so she could make money in the year leading up to the Olympic Games.
Why did Cheng Fei never compete on bars? Wouldn’t she have been a pretty stable all-arounder had she done bars?
Fei competed on uneven bars for the early part of her career, but she wasn’t very strong at the uneven bars, and was never really given the chance to do bars in qualifications at international events, so even though she probably could’ve gotten a decent all-around score with big scores on the other three events, the Chinese program always chose to use stronger bar workers for qualifications over wanting to give Fei an all-around spot.
Though Fei had wanted to compete in the all-around at the Olympic Games in 2008, after consistently being shot down and realizing she was never going to get that chance, in 2007 she decided to announce that she was giving up her bars training so she could focus on the other three events. I’m pretty sure she was basically told “you’re not going to be an all-arounder, stop trying to make bars happen, they’re never going to happen, focus on getting medals on events you can win” which is probably what led to “her” decision to stop training them. The Chinese women’s program had basically pegged her as team leader for Beijing in 2007, so there wasn’t ever any risk of her being off the team, but I think they had a very clear picture of what they wanted that team to look like, and Fei doing bars even in qualifications wasn’t part of that picture.
I know coaches and athletes can file an inquiry on a D score but not an E score, but what about neutral deductions? If a judge ruled that a gymnast was out-of-bounds but she actually stayed in, does she have any recourse?
According to the FIG’s technical regulations, you can only file an inquiry for difficulty scores in elite gymnastics, so unless there’s some unwritten rule or there are exceptions for something truly egregious, there’s no process for appealing penalties. I don’t see too many issues where a red flag goes up and a gymnast wasn’t actually out-of-bounds…actually, I don’t think I’ve EVER seen this personally, though I’m sure it’s happened at some time or another. I have seen numerous moments where a gymnast has gone out-of-bounds and the gymnast wasn’t penalized for it, which is like, yay, but I feel like the other way around is super rare, though there are definitely times where it’s questionable when just the heel is on the line or something, and I feel like that’s something that could/should be cleared up by video review. There IS a provision in the NCAA code of points for an inquiry with going out-of-bounds, and it’s not used super often, but it does come in handy for the more ambiguous out-of-bounds.
What’s the latest age you’ve heard an elite gymnast take up the sport? Are there any “late bloomers” who have succeeded at the international level?
The latest age I’ve heard of is 11…Daiane Dos Santos of Brazil and Ludivine Furnon of France both started at that age and obviously went on to be super successful, but I feel like that’s incredibly rare. I think eight is a typical cut-off for when coaches will usually be like “it’s not gonna happen” and honestly, even eight is a bit old for many coaches who still hold onto the idea that you have to start out basically as a toddler, but there are obviously going to be rare talents that come along and move super quickly through the sport, and if these kids can find coaches willing to take them seriously, then it’s totally worth giving it a shot.
Why do arabian skills have this name?
Arabians come from the circus and acrobatics world, have existed since the 1800s, and exist in many sports outside of artistic gymnastics, like cheer and parkour. It’s definitely not an artistic gymnastics-specific term, and it’s one of several acrobatic elements that kept its name as it was brought over from circus arts to gymnastics. It’s been called a variety of different names around the world, and wasn’t named for any specific person, though I’ve heard that the common usage of the term for this specific skill came from an acrobat of Arab origins in the 1800s being internationally known for doing this skill, so thus the name arabian was born.
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Article by Lauren Hopkins