You Asked, The Gymternet Answered

Sunisa Lee

It’s time for the 314th edition of You Asked, The Gymternet Answered!

We apologize if we haven’t gotten to your question yet, but we try to answer in the order in which they were received (unless they are super relevant and need to be answered in a timely manner).

Something you want to know? Ask us anonymously by going through the contact form at the bottom of the page.

Why is there a trend of everyone throwing the Nabieva on bars? It seems out of the blue?

Various skills will often become trendy for a time, usually because they have a high level of difficulty, but also because they represent the evolution of that apparatus, and bars has long been trending towards one day becoming more like men’s high bar with powerful swings and high-flying releases.

Back when Tatiana Nabieva debuted the skill, it seemed like an impossible level of difficulty, especially since it was so different than the types of elements we saw in the majority of the strongest bar routines in the previous quads, where Beth Tweddle was basically in a league of her own with her own eponymous toe-on Tkachev to mixed grip. Her routine was so different from most of the others that won medals in the 2008 quad, which had tight pirouette connections and circle elements, and favored Jaeger and Gienger releases. Others did Tkachevs at this time, of course, and gymnasts had been upgrading them since the 70s, with Silvia Hindorff the first to get a Tkachev variation named for her. But it obviously took a long time to progress, as the Hindorff, the Ricna, and the toe-on Tkachev (which existed prior to becoming the Ray in 1999) were the only upgraded variations that existed until the mid-to-late 2000s, when we got the Church, the Tweddle, and the Galante to begin the shift toward the current trend.

Over the past decade, as bars has continued to evolve and more and more gymnasts began to develop into powerful swingers like Beth, difficult Tkachev releases became even more common, so we got the Nabieva, the Downie, the Shang, the piked Galante, and the Derwael-Fenton in pretty rapid succession. Since these skills are now must-haves due to their difficulty (all are rated an F, with the Nabieva a G), gymnasts are focusing more on getting several high-level Tkachevs in their routines, and a Nabieva is simply the next step for many of the gymnasts doing these types of routines. It’s natural that we’re going to see so many attempting it…if you have gymnasts who have been working their way up the Tkachev ranks, a Nabieva is the ultimate goal.

It took a few years to go from a brand-new WAG element to a realistic upgrade for many bar workers, but now that both gymnasts and coaches have more experience working their way up to this element, there are more drills for this type of release, and this coaching knowledge is more easily passed on between gyms and programs so that a Nabieva has gone from rare to common, to the extent that we’re now seeing attempts at Nabievas to mixed grip, and even Nabievas with full twists.

In the meet where Nastia Liukin had a save on beam by doing a handstand, did she get a deduction for the save? Would she have gotten a deduction if she had “sold it” better and made the handstand look intentional? 

Yes, she got a deduction for the save. As badass as it was, any deviation from a solid landing is considered as the gymnast not having control of that skill, so although she made it fancy, it was still a pretty large deduction because she wasn’t able to control the landing of her skill without going into a large wobble/recovery attempt. This would be the case even if she “sold it” better and made it look intentional, because you can’t land a skill like that. If it’s something like an Omelianchik where you’re supposed to finish in handstand, then yeah, that’s obviously fine, but unless otherwise stated, you have to land on your feet. It’s also pretty obvious to distinguish between an intentional connection and a mishap, so while maybe someone would want to connect an acro element into a handstand like that, and while it might even look really cool if done fluidly, a trained eye can easily tell the difference between intentional and mistake, and even the most controlled version of what Nastia did out of her fumble still would have looked like a cover-up for an uncontrolled landing.

There is a deduction for arm waving when trying to save a stick. In that case, why not just take the step?

I think this is basically a psychological kind of thing. Steps are clearly mistakes, and they tend to stick in the mind more than an arm wave, which is also a mistake, but they can sometimes be subtle or even covered up as choreography.

This psychological aspect is especially clear in NCAA, where routines get so few deductions in general, so a routine that looks like a 10 until the landing can then get a tenth off for a 9.9, and the difference between a 9.9 and a 10 in NCAA is pretty huge. But an arm wave in NCAA? I’d say most judges in the higher-ranked programs probably wouldn’t even deduct. 

In elite, the judges are far more likely to take deductions for arm waves or other similar balance struggles on landings, but I still think there’s always the off-chance that a judge might not be as strict with them as they are with steps, unless the wave is really big and obvious and lasts forever. I think most gymnasts are probably trained to always go for the stick, and to try to get away with the slightest possible arm wave if they can’t hold on, with a step being the last resort. Even though you can get 0.1-0.3 off for arm waves just like you can get the same off for steps, in most cases a gymnast has a better chance of getting away with an arm wave than they do with a step.

If a team can only have two coaches on the floor at a time, and only personal coaches on the floor for the U.S. in individual finals, how do other teams have multiple coaches on the floor at all times?

I think in terms of team competitions, most countries seem to follow the rules, but I’m always like what is happening during apparatus finals especially, when you have a Russian and her coach out on the floor, and then basically all of her teammates out there as well, chalking the bars for her and carrying her bags (I notice Russia more than any other country because they always seem to have the most people out there for bars and it always makes me laugh).

The official rules say that only one coach is allowed for all-around and apparatus finals, but that a “personal coaches may be present” as well, so I guess that allows for both a national-level coach and a personal coach in an individual final…though I think most of those who end up being on the floor with the gymnasts aren’t registered as coaches, which makes them able to get around that rule. For instance, in my Russia example above, it’s usually the coach plus additional gymnasts and other support staff (like trainers/physios) who go out onto the floor for finals, and I can’t seem to find any rules that would really limit this. I think bars is where we see it most commonly because it often takes a village to prep bars when you have such a quick turnaround time for the touch warm-up and in between routines, but the coach is the one out there for the actual coaching assistance, and the others are just there to help out with the non-coaching aspects of competition, so that’s a bit different and not against any rules.

Would it be possible to make beams softer to reduce pounding?

Beams are already somewhat “soft” in the sense that they have a more springy type of surface than the old wooden beams had, and for training hard landings repetitively, gymnasts just use the softer floor beams, or throw down sting mats on the high beam. Why not just make a beam out of a sting mat or some other similar material? I think if they were too soft, gymnasts would sink in too much and wouldn’t be able to get as much punch off of the surface, limiting their amplitude…and on the other end, if they made the surface springier, they’d have too much give, and gymnasts wouldn’t be able to land without bouncing off (though trampoline beam would be highly entertaining and I now really need this to exist). I think the current makeup of the beam achieves that balance between being having some give to it, but not being so soft that it limits the gymnasts, or so hard that it hurts them…but sports engineering is always improving, and maybe someday there will be even more advancements in this sort of technology to make it even better.

Punch fronts have disappeared in beam routines this quad. Were they devalued? Or are there easier skills for the same value?

They weren’t devalued, but I think for many gymnasts who struggle with landings on these type of elements (aka a blind landing and a two-foot landing), they fit into that “not worth the risk” category, and many would rather do the front or side aerial, or side somis, which are worth the same but are quite a bit easier for most. This is pretty typical of front elements in general, not just on beam, and frankly I think pretty much every front salto needs to be bumped up a letter grade.

What sort of career did Yulia Khorkina have?

She competed mostly domestically, including at a few national championships, but she didn’t get any international assignments until she was older, when she was selected to compete at Universiade in 2003. She also competed at the WOGA Classic a year later, where she placed eighth all-around and she retired from the sport when she was 21.

If Nina Derwael could participate in NCAA, which team do you think would suit her best? Would she get perfect 10s?

I can’t really seem to place her? I feel like she would fit on many teams, but maybe Oklahoma would make the most sense. They tend to be very strong on bars, and get away with high scores on floor despite lower-level tumbling on because they focus more on the execution, which is definitely Nina’s energy (tbt to when she qualified into the floor final at worlds last year with just a 5.0 D score thanks to the highest execution in the competition). I think she’d get perfect 10s on pretty much every event, especially if she downgraded bars to make execution more of a focus. I know she has her flexed feet on a few bars skills with her current level of difficulty, but a downgraded routine for her would be pretty immaculate.

How different do you think Aliya Mustafina’s career would have been had she not torn her ACL in 2011?

Aside from her potential for medals at worlds in 2011, I don’t see things playing out too differently for her. I think the injury, as well as what her Amanar looked like in the months prior to her injury, pointed to the fact that she probably shouldn’t have been competing an Amanar at that stage, and so I think the vault could’ve been gone prior to the Olympics even without the injury…but at the same time, maybe Russia wouldn’t have cared how it looked, and would’ve had her do the vault in London. Maybe she got lucky that she got injured when she did, because what if she kept doing the Amanar into the Olympic year and got injured just prior to the Games instead of more than a year ahead of them? I think there are often some “blessing in disguise” injuries like this, where it’s like, yes, this sucked and it probably cost her some world medals in 2011, and maybe even limited her potential in 2012, but with that Amanar sticking around another year if the injury didn’t happen, it could’ve been even worse for her career. Despite the injury, Aliya was able to come back at a high enough level to win several Olympic medals a year later, and then continue to bring in big results for Russia in the next quad, where she won another eight Euros medals, six worlds medals, and three Olympic medals, making her one of the most legendary Russian gymnasts (and gymnasts in general!) of all time, with an almost unheard of longevity in the open-ended code era. Her career was definitely affected at the time, but in the long-run, I think she accomplished pretty much everything she was capable of.

Why do we never see gymnasts sneeze during a competition with all the chalk that is in the air? Would it be a deduction if it happened even if it didn’t cause a wobble or fall?

Having been around a significant amount of chalk, for some reason, it doesn’t make you too sneezy? Maybe if you had an allergy to it, but there is way more chalk to contend with in the gym on a daily basis, so if sneezing was a concern, it would come up as an issue on a daily basis and they’d probably figure out how to deal with it so that the problem is solved before they get to a competition. If someone did randomly sneeze in the middle of a routine and it didn’t cause any wobbles or other issues, then there wouldn’t be a deduction, unless the judges were inspired to give you a rhythm break deduction or something. But I think that when you’re competing, you’re so focused and so full of adrenaline, your body literally just would not sneeze during that 90 seconds that you’re out there, which is probably why we never see it happen. 

Reading about all of the abuse and more and more gymnasts coming forward, have there ever been any allegations against Al Fong and his wife? They always seem very nice and calm with their gymnasts and don’t tower over them when they have made mistakes.

So…there haven’t been any direct allegations in terms of actual claims brought forward against them to some sort of governing body or anything. Obviously their history is pretty problematic, especially in the 90s, when Al’s coaching led to incredibly dangerous situations that resulted in the deaths of two of his gymnasts, as Julissa Gomez died while training a Yurchenko on vault, and Christy Henrich passed away from anorexia…though I don’t think it’s fair when people say things like “Al killed Christy” because (a) her illness was triggered by a judge telling her to lose weight, and (b) there are far more things that go into the development of an eating disorder as severe as Christy’s than comments from other people, and while comments can be the trigger, they’re almost never the actual cause. Still, both of these were clearly red flags for the gym, and several gymnasts going into the late 2000s left the gym because they felt the culture was still a bad one. Ivana Hong told NBC that she fractured her ankle and Al told her to “ignore it” while Katelyn Ohashi also left the gym as a junior due to problems within the culture.

But again, neither Ivana nor Katelyn actually reported Al or Armine, and in recent years, I’ve heard only good things about them, so I hope that over the past decade, they’ve been able to make changes to their culture so that gymnasts feel safer than previous generations of athletes did. I can’t say what it looks like inside the gym right now, and my perspective of how they treat athletes at competitions is pretty meaningless since public perception is wildly different from the gym’s daily culture, but based on conversations I’ve had with gymnasts dating back to about 2012, it seems like things are better, and I haven’t seen any accusations against them since Ivana’s over a decade ago. I think that while past behavior needs to be acknowledged and that coaches with unsafe cultures should be held responsible, I also respect those who make efforts to move forward and become better. When the Fongs were at their most abusive in the 90s, so was every other gym in the country, which doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it just pointed to a wider cultural issue within the sport in general. Now that the wider culture is changing, so are many individual gym cultures, and based on what current and former GAGE athletes have said, this seems to be true for the Fongs, especially Al. I will also say that almost no one fights harder for their athletes than Al, who often butted heads with Martha Karolyi when he felt his athletes were being treated poorly or unfairly at camps (this was in the post-2010 era especially). Again, we don’t know what’s happening in the gym on a daily basis, but the overall opinion surrounding the gym seems to have been on an upward tick over the past decade, and hopefully that’s due to the culture changing for the better.

Edit: Reportedly, Aleah Finnegan stated something online about Al not letting her see a doctor at Pan Am Championships, but she is still at GAGE and has not made any official report or allegations. Often people who deal with “medical abuse” like this do not recognize it as abusive, but it is never okay for a coach to make medical decisions like these for athletes, especially minor athletes.

Any idea why Athlete A triggered so many revelations of abuse? HBO released a similar doc and the Nassar trial made headlines worldwide.

My gut response is accessibility…hundreds of millions of people worldwide have access to Netflix, but HBO is a bit more guarded in terms of who can watch, and it tends to be difficult to access a lot of their programming internationally. The social media push for the HBO documentary also wasn’t that great, whereas Athlete A was produced by a former gymnast with a lot of ties in the gymnastics community, so I think it was easier for more people outside of the U.S. to discover it and share it with others, creating a greater number of people who responded to it by recalling their own abuse and using the film to bring attention to their own stories.

I think Athlete A was also a bit different than just the Nassar trial making headlines, too, because it really personalized one athlete’s story, and got more into the culture of the sport that many gymnasts who didn’t experience sexual abuse (or even physical abuse) could relate to. The story became more about what’s wrong with the sport in general, not just about how one man got away with sexually abusing athletes, and I think that was really inspiring for gymnasts who saw their own situations through how the culture of the sport was presented in this documentary.

Have a question? Ask below! Remember that the form directly below this line is for questions; to comment, keep scrolling to the bottom of the page. We do not answer questions about team predictions nor questions that ask “what do you think of [insert gymnast here]?”

Article by Lauren Hopkins

14 thoughts on “You Asked, The Gymternet Answered

    • It would be SO MUCH FUN. The falls would be GLORIOUS. I think we’d need to put them over a foam pit or something to allow for maximum hilarity and minimal injury.

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  1. From the perspective of a mid-level gymnast who retired 13 years ago, my gym had 3 high beams, of various ages. One of them had an almost slick, but not quite surface, with sharpish corners…I believe this was the oldest one. Another had quite a bit of padding, soft leather, and likely due to the padding, rather rounded corners. The third was the newest, an AAI beam with soft leather, some padding, but not too much, and sharper corners. The AAI beam was everyone’s favorite because it was the right combination of surface, padding, and corners. The second one, the one with all the padding and rounded corners sounded nice, but it was a lot easier to slip off of if you didn’t land right on because of the edges. This was the beam I once had both hands slip off of in a back handspring. I mean, it hurt less when my face hit the beam because of all the padding, but I think the roundness of the corners helped cause the slipping. As a gymnast, I preferred the more sharp corners. I mean, it’s not like the edge of a piece of wood, but the radius on the corner was smaller.

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  2. The increased frequency of higher-difficulty Tkachev variations, especially the Nabieva/Tweddle, make me really, really nervous about the long-term wellness of everyone’s shoulders…

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    • Oh, that’s right! I just always picture them together hahaha. I remember seeing their baby at nationals one year, maybe 2013, and was shocked that they had a kid that was so young because I just figured they’d been together forever.

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  3. I hadn’t thought of the progression specifically, but I was thinking about that trend on bars recently, in the sense that up until recently, a top bar worker was probably doing either inbars or one-handed pirouettes, but now it’s all about the releases (IIRC, all of the bars medalists at last year’s worlds only counted one pirouette in their routines, basically the bare minimum for the CR).

    It makes sense when you think about it, though, since pirouettes top out at an E (I believe enforced?) while releases go up to a G (and most of the top bar workers are doing at least one F or G release), and there’s also more potential for connection bonus with flight elements.

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  4. Pingback: Around the Gymternet: It Was A TUCK! | The Gymternet

  5. Unrelated to my last comment, I 100% agree with you about Christy Heinrich. I think a lot of the misconceptions speak to a fundamental misunderstanding that many people have regarding eating disorders (I’m close with two people who’ve struggled with them, so I’m a little more familiar with how they work). It’s ultimately the same mentality that leads people to think that if they can just find the right words to tell the person they don’t need to lose weight, the eating disorder will be fixed — an assumption that eating disorders are on some level a continuous choice based on some kind of rational calculus, that can be initiated or interrupted just by saying the right thing. In reality, eating disorders are a form of mental illness — environmental factors play a role in their development but it’s not as simple as “her coach told her she needed to lose weight so she became anorexic.” (And that’s before you factor in the fact that insofar as messages played a role, she was getting those messages from more places than just one coach.)

    Julissa Gomez is a straighter example of a failing on Fong’s part, but at the same time, the number of safety improvements that were rolled out in the wake of the accident (that weren’t even on the radar prior to said accident) suggests that there was a general lack of understanding of how badly a Yurchenko could go wrong. It wasn’t quite the same as Elena Mukhina where the potential for head and neck injuries was extremely obvious. I’m not saying Fong was blameless or didn’t make some bad decisions, but he himself may have had a less-than-accurate perception of how risky the skill really was.

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    • Totally agree. I’ve had an eating disorder for most of my life and I’ve definitely gotten comments over the years that have triggered certain behaviors in response, but it would be an oversimplification of the illness to blame it on one person or event. It’s usually a perfect storm of having a perfectionistic/Type A personality, and then being under a high level of stress or going through a triggering event without having the appropriate coping mechanisms to deal with it. Eating disorders in sports are even more layered because there’s also the layer of needing to eat a certain way or diet to be at a certain weight, usually with a lot of other people involved making comments or weighing you or even straight up telling you to lose weight. It’s complicated, but a full-blown eating disorder, especially one so severe that it results in your death, is going to have a lot more at play than just a few comments from a judge or a coach. Obviously those comments are never okay, and they likely did play a role in triggering her disorder, but it’s also way more complex than that, and it’s unfair to her and to all sufferers to say that someone else “caused” her illness.

      And yeah, I also tend to agree on the Julissa front. Maybe she wasn’t quite ready for this vault, especially given that it was so early in the Yurchenko’s development, but it was also a freak accident that could have happened to any other gymnast who was fully unprepared for that specific vault at that time (which was most of them). An injury like Julissa’s can also happen to a gymnast doing a skill that is relatively safe, and you’re right in that no one at that time knew just how dangerous a Yurchenko could be, or knew how to make it safer in the event of a misstep.

      I just find the whole “Al killed two gymnasts” line kind of problematic in general. He was a tough coach, and by his own admittance, horrible to his athletes at times, but he also coached his gymnasts for years and also very clearly cared for his gymnasts and is affected by what happened to them to this day…and probably also feels responsible for what happened. I think you can talk about his role in both of their deaths without being gross about it and calling him a murderer.

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