It’s time for the 308th edition of You Asked, The Gymternet Answered!
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Other than Brooklyn Moors, who are gymnasts getting zero artistry deductions?
For currently competing seniors, Eythora Thorsdottir for sure, Lieke Wevers, Tisha Volleman…the Dutch really kill it at showing off every last emotion in an almost theatrical way (also see the retired Celine van Gerner). Several of the German girls also present their artistry very well (they have some really great dramatic routines and Leah Griesser is a GODDESS, and while Elisabeth Seitz’s routine isn’t my cup of tea, she never gives less than one million percent in performing it), Flavia Saraiva is electrifying, Nina Derwael does a great job of expressing herself in her routine as do pretty much all of the Belgians, Rifda Irfanaluthfi, Farah Ann Abdul Hadi, Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, Roxana Popa, Danusia Francis…these are the ones I would absolutely not take any tenths from personally, but there are many more whose routines I love, but who aren’t absolutes here.
So because of the whole coronavirus situation, European Championships have been rescheduled for December. I think that’s super dangerous for all the athletes, since they’re coming out of this break right now and it is completely off-season and just half a year before the Olympics…what’s your opinion on that?
Most athletes are back in training right now, especially in Europe, where the coronavirus is pretty well contained at the moment, and with five months until Euros, that’s more than enough time to get back into competition shape…usually gymnasts who take a hiatus will do a month or two away from training at full capacity and then just take another month or so to get back into the swing of things, so five months to prepare after a few months of training at home isn’t all that alarming or dangerous.
The timing of Euros being held in December also isn’t that shocking. While the Americans basically stop competing directly after worlds and don’t start again until March, in Europe many gymnasts continue competing until late November, with some going until early December. With no competitions for most of 2020, they’d basically be starting their season in October or November of this year (assuming they have a few domestic competitions or friendly meets to prepare for Euros), and then ending it in December, which is far less than they’d do in a normal year when they go straight through from March to November. I think it’s manageable, and they’d still have a month or two at the start of 2021 to go on a small hiatus before putting the focus back on the Olympics.
My biggest concern is more about the coronavirus itself. We’re seven months into a global pandemic that doesn’t seem to be slowing, and in fact, in many areas of the world, it’s just getting worse. While most of Europe has done a great job containing the virus, and while life in many countries is almost back to some semblance of normal, I fear a second wave, and don’t think any country (aside from New Zealand) is in a place to be holding mass gatherings in large public spaces. I’m being cautiously optimistic about closed-door competitions happening later this year in countries that have been able to manage the crisis, but I’m also afraid that larger-scale international competitions will contribute to a second wave, and I don’t think there’s a way athletes can safely quarantine in a new country while also keeping up with the training they need during that time to be prepared for competition. There’s just so much at play, and so my concerns are more about keeping the athletes safe from this virus when that’s not something we can have any real control over.
On Athlete A we see a lot about how Bela and Martha Karolyi came from a “Soviet culture of training” and I often think that this is a pretty reductionist argument as I am sure that not all of the Soviet coaches are training their gymnasts like robots. I think that this argument is at least partially based on stereotypes. Do you know what other coaches from past Soviet nations are like? Say Mihai Brestyan. How much of this is real and how much of it is not?
I think while it’s a sweeping generalization to say all Soviet coaches were the same, the culture itself did often produce a certain “type” of coach, many of whom came up in the system as athletes themselves and went on to coach gymnasts the way they were coached. I know of several coaches who came up as gymnasts and coaches in the Soviet system and then came to the west, and were SHOCKED at how tame things were. Some of these coaches changed their ways to match the more relaxed western system of coaching, but others continued with what they knew, teaching many young U.S. coaches to use these methods as well. It’s no secret that Eastern Bloc training methods were absolutely cruel at times, and the most abusive of these coaches moving around the world just brought that culture and cycle of abuse with them. That’s of course not to say that every single coach who came up in a Soviet/Eastern Bloc system was the devil and every coach in the western world was perfect. Many countries in the west had their own terrible cultures brewing far before the Soviets started defecting. But the Soviet system was notably mistreating athletes in most sports, their coaches who didn’t follow suit were kicked out and replaced with people who were onboard with treating athletes terribly, and the “this is what we know” excuse is pretty common because they truly weren’t able to change things.
I don’t want to say that Bela and Martha are excused from how they treated gymnasts because it was “what they knew.” It’s not hard to know you shouldn’t emotionally and physically abuse children, and while they may have been expected to behave this way in Romania because the culture there said “this is what gets results,” they could have made a conscious decision to change once they escaped that culture, like many other coaches with the same background did once they moved. But they didn’t change. Their background may explain their behavior, but it does not excuse it in the slightest, even when it was called out publicly multiple times almost as soon as they started getting results in the U.S. They continued with what they knew after being given multiple opportunities to reevaluate their system and culture based on feedback they were receiving from young athletes, and yet instead of listening, they blacklisted these athletes, essentially told anyone who fought the system that they would be kicked out, and maintained their order right up until Martha left her job after the Rio Games.
I have a theory as to why the talent level of the U.S. women’s team dropped so sharply after 1996, and I was wondering if you think there is any merit to it. The cohort of gymnasts that was borderline too young/actually too young for Atlanta and old enough to compete in Sydney would have been born between 1981 and 1984. These kids would have been 7-10 years old when Julissa Gomez died in 1991, 8-11 years old when Kim Zmeskal was touted by the press as a failure in Barcelona, 10-13 years old when Christy Henrich died in 1994, and 11-14 years old when Little Girls in Pretty Boxes was published in 1995. Basically, in the first half of the 90s, gymnastics had a terrible reputation in the U.S. The gymnasts in this age group would have been in the sport long enough that their parents would be aware of all these awful stories, but sufficiently far removed from college/the Olympics that they wouldn’t have as much to lose by quitting. Basically, my theory is that this is a bit of a “lost generation” where a lot of kids got pulled out of the sport in their pre-elite competitive years. I’m not saying it’s the only factor, but it seems like it could be a significant one. What do you think?
I do think everything that happened in the early half of the 1990s could have been responsible for some parents deciding to pull their kids out of the sport, but unfortunately I don’t think too many parents see things like this happening and accept it as something that could happen to their kids. Something we don’t often acknowledge, not just in gymnastics, but in many high-level activities, is that parents often prioritize opportunities over the safety and mental well-being of their children. I’ve seen this first-hand in my own experiences, and most of the time it isn’t coming from a place of cruelty, but just wanting something so badly for your kids that you want to “make sacrifices” without realizing just how detrimental those sacrifices can be.
Even now in the aftermath of Larry Nassar and athletes exposing all levels of emotional and physical abuse at every level of the sport, USA Gymnastics club membership is thriving. I remember reading a survey of parents that was on Facebook a couple of years ago and the general sentiment was basically “it’s very sad that this happened but I trust that my child is in a good situation and that this would never happen to her.” In several stories we heard at Nassar’s sentencing, survivors talked about how they would tell their parents something was wrong, and the parents would be like “eh, it’s probably necessary treatment, you only have a couple years left before you get an NCAA scholarship, just put up with it for now and soon you’ll be free!” I think this is especially true once kids reach a high level of any activity, like, you’ve made it this far, do you really want to stop now when you’re SO close to the end?! That “ends justify the means” attitude can be incredibly damaging, and I feel like based on the fact that basically zero higher-level developmental or pre-elite athletes were pulled from training in the Nassar aftermath, there probably also wasn’t a mass exodus in the early 90s, though perhaps a few did choose to leave.
I should add that I’m not saying parents are nefarious beings nor am I blaming parents for their children being treated poorly or abused, but they do want their kids to succeed so badly that it’s sometimes easy for them to overlook things that don’t seem serious at first glance. None of the Nassar survivors who talked about their parents actually blamed their parents, and said their parents were just as manipulated as literally everyone else, so even if a kid is telling a parent “this thing is happening to me and it’s terrible,” if a parent talks to a coach and the coach brushes it off or calls a kid a drama queen or justifies/explains it away, parents really want to believe that it probably IS just an overreaction and end up believing that the coach is right and that their kid just needs to suck it up. I’ve seen it a lot in pretty much every aspect of my life, and I’ve only felt a couple of times that the parent was the one pushing their kids past the breaking point or ignoring warning signs. Usually they’re just as blindsided as their kids, and while occasionally it’s like, how the hell did the parent not do something?!, you really have to think about what they were being told and how they too were victimized in a way by a manipulative abuser.
I do think you are maybe partly onto something here, but I also think this was just a chaotic time for gymnastics in general…the Karolyis stopped coaching after 1996, the U.S. was incredibly unorganized at the national level without any sort of semi-centralized system, there was a new code of points that required a greater level of difficulty to reach a 10.0 start value that many gymnasts seemed to struggle with, Nassar was beginning to take advantage of his position on the national team to abuse children, and most top club coaches at this time were straight-up terrors, causing their athletes to seize up in fear and limiting what they were capable of in competitions. I don’t think gymnasts at the developmental/pre-elite stage were leaving in high enough numbers that could have turned this all around and vastly affected the overall performance for the U.S. internationally. I think this was a “lost generation” in the history of the sport in this country, but feel the reasoning was more about the U.S. system just being a mess in general.
Which elements are easier to keep after puberty?
It really depends on the gymnast, what her talents are, the types of skills she was doing pre-puberty, and so on. Looking at it more generally, I would say beam is the easiest overall to hold onto, because the skills are relatively simple. A growth spurt doesn’t affect a side aerial the way it can affect something like a double layout on floor or a release on bars, so while it could take a little adjusting to get back your full beam routine, as a whole it’s typically the event that comes back the quickest.
Skills on vault, bars, and floor can often be tough to retain after growth spurts, but growth spurts can also help gymnasts in some ways. A tiny gymnast who could barely make a dent in the springs on the vault springboard or on floor might gain much more power after puberty, and so she might go from doing Yurchenko fulls on vault and double tucks on floor to Yurchenko double fulls and double doubles. But at the same time, someone who was a powerful little thing pre-puberty doing huge skills beyond anyone else at her level might suddenly struggle when they grow, because adding height and weight can make skills like these feel much more difficult than they felt when you were tinier. The same kind of thing happens on bars, where gymnasts who once struggled because they were too small to transition between the bars can suddenly swing brilliantly, while others lose all sense of air awareness and have to completely redo their routines.
In general, because you never know what puberty can do, I think it’s proven best that gymnasts wait until after puberty before they start competing bigger skills, because it makes no sense to learn a skill when you’re a wee child and then having to learn it all over again when you grow. This has happened SO often throughout the history of the sport, and yet coaches are still like, yes, my 12-year-old gymnast should totally be doing an Amanar, what of it?! I think throwing big skills for fun is one thing, so if coaches want to let their kids try quadruple-doubles off the trampoline track into pits, I don’t see that as a big issue (and I’d rather see coaches watching this happen than kids just chucking them when their coach isn’t looking, which obviously isn’t super safe!)…but a coach who seriously wants to put these big skills into routines, I’m just like, please learn from literally every other 12-year-old who has had to retire by 15 that this DOES NOT WORK, okay?!
Last year Simone Biles voiced her opinion that she did not want to compete at the Stuttgart World Cup but she still did it anyway. Was she paid to go? She could have easily refused and there’s nothing USA Gymnastics could have done.
I heard at the time that she was offered money to compete, because with worlds being held in Stuttgart last year, they wanted to use the world cup to sell tickets to worlds, and thought having Simone there would help the cause…but I also read that Stuttgart tickets were long sold out by then, so I think it was also a publicity thing, especially since they had their “Set New Signs” song revealed at that meet and there was a lot of fanfare in general with worlds coming up. So I don’t think it was USA Gymnastics being like “you must compete here, or else!!” and more just an opportunity for her to be the face of the upcoming world championships by giving the people of Stuttgart a little preview of the main event.
Do you think it’s advantageous for Chellsie Memmel to stay off bars and keep drilling the basics? (And by basics I mean things normal humans still can’t do!) Where do you think her extreme conditioning will put her when she does decide to throw elite level routines together? I’m obviously imagining bionic limbs!
I feel like Chellsie Memmel won’t be super likely to make the main team if she ends up coming back to elite gymnastics, and her best shot at going to Tokyo is if she can snag the non-nominative individual spot, which she can do with just one event as a specialist. I feel like they’ll take an all-arounder in that spot, based on what Tom Forster has said, but I’d love to see a “true specialist” get the spot since it’s so rare for specialists to get this kind of opportunity. I think Chellsie’s best bet would be focusing on one event (beam, obviously) and proving that she can be unbeatable at the international level, and think if she shifts her focus to other events like vault and bars where she’s going to struggle matching the level of current national team members, it could be detrimental to her ultimate goal (assuming the Olympics is her ultimate goal). I think Chellsie absolutely has the skill level to put together a pretty baller beam set, and would love to see her come back to elite just for that, but I can see if she wants to go further than just Tokyo, maybe with her sights set on worlds next year (assuming they happen) or more in the future. Either way, what she’s doing is awesome and an inspiration!
I was impressed with the Canadian junior team in Györ. WAG and MAG. Great composure, great skills. Thoughts on the future for them?
I think Clara Raposo is going to be the next big thing in gymnastics for Canada. I was devastated to see her get injured at Elite Canada this year, but she’s phenomenal and has the potential to be a huge threat as a senior, especially as the current generation moves on. She is already at such a solid level of difficulty, and she’s SO much fun to watch, I absolutely adore her!
Cassie Lee and Okeri Katjivari are also fabulous, and still though they still need to make some improvements here and there before becoming leaders on the senior team, both stand out in many ways, and I’d love to see them continue on into incredible careers. Cassie is absolutely brilliant on beam, and I love Okeri’s bars, and think she’s capable of so many unique connections and big skills there.
As for the boys, Felix Dolci is incredible and has the potential to be one of Canada’s best MAG gymnasts ever. I was so happy he ended up absolutely killing it at junior worlds, especially with so many super talented guys there! His senior career cut in a little too close for 2020, leaving him with only Pan Ams as a qualifier assuming this happens next year, but I feel like come 2024 he’ll be a huge deal both at home and internationally. I don’t know as much about the other two, Evgeny Siiniuc and Ioannis Chronopoulos, but both are definitely promising for the future, and Evgeny had a fantastic day in Györ.
After watching Athlete A, I’ve read a lot about how Steve Penny marketed the USA girls and how this impacted decisions – both for selections and also for advertising. Are you able to expand on this at all or do you have any examples outside of McKayla Maroney in 2013 or Gabby Douglas in 2016 (or any more information about either of these situations)?
So without having hard evidence, like documents or recordings or something, I can’t say definitively, but I will say that it has long been spoken about among the top coaches, athletes, and administrators within the sport, and I know Martha Karolyi was pissed about pretty much all of it. She wasn’t in on any of those decisions, and often had her teams in mind that were then gutted and reshaped by Steve, who wanted to do things his way so he could make money.
I first heard word of this back in 2013 about the decision between Kyla Ross and McKayla Maroney for all-around qualifications, and multiple people have said that Steve was “mad” that Kyla didn’t go pro, so he wanted to make sure McKayla got into the all-around final, where she’d be likely to medal with a hit performance, because McKayla getting an all-around medal with her post-London fame would have been HUGE…for getting sponsors interested in USA Gymnastics, which I’d guess would come with some sort of bonus for him. Apparently Kyla’s coaches were like, “she was second at nationals, no way” so Steve had to let Kyla compete, but then Brenna Dowell ended up getting kicked off of the team so both Kyla and McKayla could do all-around qualifications. This was being talked about pretty widely in 2013, and one person told me “if you’re ever questioning a weird team or line-up decision, it’s NOT Martha.”
Steve apparently had his hands in all team selections post-London, in addition to also trying to be Simone Biles’ agent at one point. It seemed like exploiting athletes for personal financial gain was something he legitimately took advantage of for years…another thing that comes to mind is that commercial he had Maggie Nichols, MyKayla Skinner, and Madison Kocian do, I think for Under Armour? At the time I was like, why is he having the three girls who are going on to NCAA in this commercial when they can’t make money, and now I’m like, oh, it’s because the sponsorship money will go to the program, and probably to him, instead. Same thing with using Lexie Priessman in P&G print ads back in 2012.
How many A-team worthy gymnasts would a country have for you to consider that country to have depth?
I would say enough to field a full worlds team and then another two or three who are at the same level as those on the team but who aren’t part of the team for whatever reason. So like, the United States last year left behind basically an entire second team with MyKayla Skinner, Morgan Hurd, and Leanne Wong all more than capable of earning scores to match the top girls on the team (minus Simone Biles obviously), which is really great depth, compared to Russia at times, which has a really fabulous top-tier team, but their alternate for gymnasts who are scoring around a 54-55 are sometimes girls who barely score five points lower, hough Russia goes back and forth with its depth…sometimes it’s solid, other times it’s like, put everyone in bubble wrap. I just use them as an example because they’re a top team that sometimes survives with very little depth because the top girls are SO good. But if one or two gymnasts on your team get injured and you can’t replace them with athletes who match their level, give or take a few points, it will cause your overall team potential to massively decrease, which means you do not have a lot of depth.
Obviously depth can change with the year, though, which happens often with Russia, and smaller programs also go back and forth from having excellent depth to having basically none. Belgium, for example, had nine top-tier senior gymnasts vying for Olympic spots in 2016. But in the year following the Olympics, four of these gymnasts retired, and there was really only one who joined the senior ranks at a high level. In 2018, literally all of Belgium’s seniors were at worlds between the team and alternate spots, and then after worlds, two of the six retired, meaning Belgium only had four active seniors at one point. But thankfully in 2019, they had four new seniors joining the ranks, literally doubling the size of their team and adding a solid level of depth, and then they had another three very strong first-year seniors coming in 2020, taking them from four seniors to 11 who would all be strongly in the mix for Tokyo. Senna Deriks has since retired after the Olympics were postponed, so they’re now at ten seniors on the team, though that’s still excellent depth for them, because all ten seniors are at a similar level and are legitimate contenders, and if they needed to replace one of their team members with another athlete, they wouldn’t be in a compromising position in terms of the team score.
Who do you think wins gold, silver, and bronze for the top three performers of the magical inbars? Who did them best? Top three?
Viktoria Komova is always number one for me. Whenever I need to show people what an inbar should look like, I point them to screen grabs of Vika. I think most of the Russians overall have that position down pretty solidly, with Anastasia Agafonova my most recent Russian inbar obsession, and outside of Russia, I really like Anastasiya Alistratava, Ana Padurariu’s are usually quite good, and though most of the Americans are barely clearing their feet past the bar, Ciena Alipio always gets a chef’s kiss from me.
Do you think the U.S. dominance on vault is starting to decline (without Simone Biles) or do you think it’s more that not as many girls are training vaults like the Amanar because it was downgraded?
I think you’re on the money with your second hypothesis. In the 2012 quad, if you didn’t have an Amanar, you basically didn’t have a shot at making the team unless you were a bars queen, because anyone who was ANYONE had an Amanar, and Martha Karolyi wanted four Amanars in that team qualification. But when the Amanar was devalued, fewer gymnasts made it a focus, instead focusing on increasing their difficulty elsewhere while perfecting what they could do with their Yurchenko doubles, and I think that was smart. If you can’t safely and relatively easily do an Amanar, there is no point to doing one. The risk is not worth the reward. So while the difficult level went down across the board on vault after 2012, the team still has a number of incredibly strong vaulters and I think if you put a team of all U.S. gymnasts doing DTYs against a team of another country with a full pack of DTYs, the U.S. would still come out on top because they have so many technically-skilled vaulters. If the Amanar still had a seven-tenth gap ahead of the DTY, I feel like everyone would still be pushing really hard to do this vault, but I’m glad the change came because one apparatus shouldn’t make or break a gymnast or team in an all-around competition.
Assuming you understand German based on your tweets during German nationals, why does it seem like they use the skill names differently than in the English language? It feels like they describe half the skills as Tsukahara, which we rarely hear in American commentary.
Yes, I took German in college and lived on the outskirts of Berlin for a few months! I feel like every country has their own version of how they refer to skills, and it took me like a year of listening to British commentary back in the day to be like “oh, an aerial cartwheel is a side aerial because it’s literally a cartwheel done in the air!”
If I can recall German competitions and commentary, they seem to refer to any full-in double salto regardless of apparatus or salto position or MAG/WAG as a Tsukahara. Mitsuo Tsukahara was the first person to compete a tucked full-in on floor and high bar, so many countries refer to EVERY full-in as a Tsukahara, and Germany is one of them. I normally don’t return to any full-ins by name on any event, but will say “full-in” or “full-twisting double layout” for bars dismounts, or “piked full-in” or “layout full-in” on floor, but for all of these, Germany is just like “TSUKAHARA!!!” hahaha.
I’ve watched a lot of competitions with non-English commentary, and you get used to how the different skills are referred to. The best is reading another country’s live blog via google translate and seeing something like “two screws off log” and knowing that someone in Russia just did a double-twisting layout beam dismount. Russia and Japan often have live blogs or written commentary that I always make sure to go back and run through google translate because it always makes me giggle, though it’s terrifying that I’m at a point where I now understand what these nonsense translations mean!
Why is North Korea so good at vault? Who is their vault coach? Why are they not as good on the other events?
I’m not sure who their vault coach is specifically, but I feel like when a country is trying to gain an edge internationally as a team, vault is always the biggest focus because it’s where you can bring in the highest difficulty and execution with the least amount of work for one particular “routine” since a routine is literally just one skill. Obviously it’s still a lot of work, and teaching/learning correct and strong vault technique is important, but it’s still easier than constructing a 6.5+ bars set and having a bar worker who can pull it off.
I feel like how China makes certain bars elements practically compulsory for gymnasts at a young age so that they can one day bust out Onos and Healys and Lings, North Korea must have a pretty strenuous vault development program early on so that their gymnasts are basically all throwing FTYs at eight or something. The team had three DTYs and one Rudi at worlds last year, and one of their DTYers, Kim Su Jong, also has a Cheng, which is pretty awesome. Of course, if they could match what they do on vault on other events, they’d be more of a threat, so I think they do need to also focus elsewhere, but vault is clearly what they do best, and it’s not like NOT having a great vault rotation would suddenly make them amazing at everything else. I like that they do what they can for now, and even if they don’t have a very top team or very top all-arounders, they still do pretty well for themselves, and always seem to have someone close to (if not in) the vault final.
Would Irina Alexeeva competing for Russia have an impact on her gaining U.S. citizenship?
I don’t think so. I think the fact that she has lived in the U.S. for most of her life and has only spent a few months training in Russia. I think she could also explain her competing for Russia by the fact that she didn’t have American citizenship, so it’s not like she had citizenship and then chose to compete for Russia. She literally couldn’t compete for the U.S. I don’t think one world championships with Russia would be something that even comes up in any sort of citizenship interview, let alone keep her from becoming a citizen, but I think if it did come up, there would definitely be ways to rationalize why she competed for them.
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Article by Lauren Hopkins