Remember when I asked the question, “What is Bon Appétempt?” and said that I wanted to write about gymnastics? Well, that wasn’t an empty threat. Truthfully, I’m feeling pretty weird about posting this here, but whenever I feel this way, I’m almost always reassured by the fact that I’ve definitely posted weirder things here in the past. Point being, thanks for reading part one of what I think will be a three or four part series.
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March 25th, 2015
I’m on Gymnastike.org (pronounced Gym-nast-eek), which is the website where I get most of my gymnastics information, to find out what is going on in Jesolo, Italy. A competition is set to start there this week. It’s not a big competition, but it marks a big moment in the present-day milieu of elite gymnastics as it’s the first competition in almost three years for 2012 gold-medal winning Olympians Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas. Put in more familiar terms, Raisman and Douglas competing in this meet is the gymnastics equivalent to that moment in politics when a major politician announces their candidacy for president—only of course instead of running for president, these gymnasts are throwing their hat in the ring for a second Olympic team.
Even if you’re not a gymnastics fan, if you tuned in to any of the 2012 Olympics, these names probably sound familiar. In addition to the team gold, Douglas and Raisman also took home individual gold medals: Douglas in the all-around and Raisman on floor exercise. Raisman won bronze on beam too, making her the most decorated gymnast of the 2012 Games.
But the first headline I see and thus the first one I click on is about Kyla Ross. New Bar Routine for Ross it reads. Ross was also a part of that 2012 gold-medal winning Olympic team, though she was by far its quietest member; she wasn’t expected to qualify for any of the individual competitions and didn’t, nor did her unimpressed face on the medal stand inspire a meme. After the Olympics, she stayed quiet. Unlike her other four teammates, she never went “pro” a.k.a. she never accepted money to endorse products, and she also never really took any time off from training. This means that her bar routine has basically been the same for a number of years now. (That is how gymnastics works: you learn skills, you learn how to connect them in a routine, and then you do that routine everyday for the rest of your young life so that by the time you compete the routine, you can perform it sans thinking.) In other words, a headline like New Bar Routine for Ross is total click-bait for someone like me.
Only, when I click on the video, I am denied access because I’m not a gold member of the site. To be a gold member, you have to pay money, about $20/month.
I’d been resisting becoming a gold member for a couple of years now, but after a few minutes of online research, I realize that Gymnastike has purchased the rights to the Jesolo meet and if I don’t become a gold member, not only will I not be able to see Kyla’s new bar routine, but I also won’t be able to see a moment of Aly and Gabby’s first competition back.
The last time the United States saw back-to-back Olympians in women’s gymnastics was in 2000, which may not seem that long ago. However, back then completely different rules applied. In 2000, seven women comprised an Olympic team. Remember 1996’s gold-medal-winning “Magnificent Seven”? Well, today teams are down to just five members. Thus, 2012’s “Fierce Five.”*
Plus, in 1997, the International Gymnastics Federation or F.I.G., which is the sport's international governing body, ruled to change the minimum age for senior international competition to 16 instead of 15. (In the 1980s, the minimum had been 14.) This minimum age requirement is key because even if you’ve never caught a moment of a gymnastics competition, you probably still know that it’s a sport lousy with teenagers. Remember Nadia Comaneci? She was just 14 when she won the Olympic all-around title in 1976. If today’s rules had applied then, we might not even know her name.
As another example: in 2008, U.S. gymnast Nastia Liukin won the Olympic all-around competition at the age of 18. She had so many world and national titles under her belt by that advanced age; who knows what would have happened if she’d been allowed to compete as a 14-year-old in 2004?
To put things even further into perspective: of the six women who comprised the 2008 U.S. silver-medal-winning Olympic team, five attempted comebacks with the goal of making the 2012 team (one of whom was a 22-year-old Nastia Liukin). None of them made it.
All of this information begs the same high-pitched question: who do Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, and Kyla Ross think they are? Trying to make back-to-back U.S. Olympic gymnastics teams is like trying to get your foot in the door as some sort of highly-specialized sports journalist by writing about gymnastics on your food blog. It’s simply not done.
Or is it?
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Within a few more minutes, I’ve become a gold member and am watching Kyla’s new bar routine. To be clear, what I’m watching isn’t the actual competition. It’s called podium training, which is the training (on a raised surface/podium) at the competition venue in preparation for the meet.
Within another minute, I’m watching Aly’s new bar routine. And then Gabby’s. I move quickly from video to video, event to event. It’s thrilling. Aly seems just like her old self again on just about every event except vault where she is performing a double-twisting Yurchenko instead of the two-and-a-half she competed in London. Gabby, in my opinion, isn’t quite as far along. Don’t get me wrong. She looks good and she has most of her old skills back, but this is the problem with being the reigning all-around Olympic champion: I expect more from her.
To be honest, I’m a little worried for Gabby. I mean, as worried as one can feel for a total teenaged stranger. Last summer, she left her longtime coach, Chow, for a second time. This time, seemingly for good. Chow was the one who had coached her (as well as 2008 Olympian Shawn Johnson) to Olympic gold, and now she was training with a relatively unknown gym in Ohio. Plus, she seemed distracted (a pejorative in most cases but particularly in the sport of gymnastics). There had already been a Lifetime movie about her, and now, an Oxygen reality show co-produced by herself and her mother, was to debut later this year.
I don’t seem to be the only one worried about Gabby. In some of the podium training videos, Marta Karolyi—whose official title is National Team Coordinator for USA Gymnastics but whose unofficial title could be something like “U.S.A. Gymnastics’ All-Knowing Supreme Leader”—can be seen and/or heard loudly coach-cheering for her.
In one beam set in particular, we can see Gabby’s new coach standing front and center watching her, but all the coaching—at least what I can hear—is coming from Marta offscreen. Through the entire routine, she doesn’t let up; her commands range from “Trust it!” to “C’mon!” to “Goooood, Gabby!” It’s noteworthy for a few reasons.
One: Marta has always come across to me as cold and unfeeling. But that’s decidedly not the tone of her coaching here. (To be fair, I think she has to maintain some degree of coldness. I mean, part of her job is choosing which gymnasts to take to which major competitions, including of course the Olympics. Therefore, she is also effectively in charge of choosing which young woman’s dream to fulfill and which to trample on.)
But here, there’s definitely warmth, or rather: a sense of a parent seizing on an opportunity to praise the child of hers that needs it the most.
Secondly: while it would make sense for Marta to have a deeper relationship with those gymnasts she’s already gone to an Olympics with, during Aly’s beam set, we don’t hear a single thickly Romanian-accented peep from Marta.
What I do notice during Aly’s beam set is her longtime coach, Mihai Brestyan. I always notice him. With his thick build, black tracksuit, cropped gray hair, and lack of a smile, he beams a half-fatherly and half-mob-boss brand of self-assuredness. If I were to put my gymnastics fate in anyone’s hands, it would be his.
|Raisman and her coach, Mihai Brestyan, at the 2012 Olympics|
But then, at the end of the practice, we see Aly sitting on the floor and Mihai talking to her. He tells her, “Rest tomorrow. Get a massage if you can get. Get a Jacuzzi if you can get. Relax. Okay?” And then, his voice changes in pitch ever so slightly—from that of a coach to that of a friend. “Okay,” he says.
In a more recent interview, Mihai is asked about Aly’s initial return to the gym after her yearlong post-Olympic sabbatical.
“I told her you need to choose the way you come back,” he says. “We coming back from the gymnastics or we coming back just for the fame? Again. Because I’m not interested just for the pictures.”
I like Mihai.
And back in Jesolo, I like how unimpressed he is. Aly just about stuck one of the hardest beam dismounts in the sport—a double Arabian—and his nod of approval holds less enthusiasm than the nod I use to show my husband I’m listening to his work-related story as I chop vegetables for that night’s dinner.
Of course, what do I expect? For him to Bela-Karolyi her off the mat in a frenzy of seemingly uncontainable pomp and joy? No. But sort of. I mean, she’s doing it. She’s really doing it. Though it’s an international meet and Marta actually left a couple of our better gymnasts back at home, the top five all-around spots are still filled by Americans. Aly ends up in third place behind 18-year-old Simone Biles, the reigning World Champion, and 16-year-old Bailie Key, a previous U.S. junior national champion competing as a senior for the first time. Gabby places fourth. And Kyla, because of some very uncharacteristic mistakes on floor, ends up tenth.
In her post-meet interview, Kyla addresses these mistakes with a smile. She knows it’s not like her. (It really isn’t.) There’s a lot of talk of going back to the gym and hopefully doing better next time.
In Gabby and Aly’s post-meet interviews, each is asked: “And what are you looking forward to next?” They are in Italy after all. Maybe they’re going to go tour the city and eat some gelato.
“I’m looking forward to just more improvements and upgrades,” says Gabby smiling.
And as for Aly? “Well, we have training camp in a couple of weeks, so, uhm, getting more flexible and cleaning up everything. I know I have a lot of work to do.”
And as for me? Well, I’m definitely looking forward to more improvements and upgrades—both theirs and my own.
The next major competition is the U.S. National Championships, which is in mid August. Marta (and the other two bodies that make up the Selection Committee) will use the results of this competition to help decide who will make the five-person 2015 World Championship team. And while of course making the World team the year before the Olympics doesn’t guarantee you a spot on the Olympic team, if history is any lesson, if you are a woman gymnast who would like to go to the Olympics in 2016, you really want to be on that 2015 World team.
I can’t wait to follow along.
* Remarkably (and in my opinion, insanely), in a decision that came in while I was finishing up this piece, F.I.G. ruled to reduce the size of Olympic gymnastics teams even further, down to a mere four members, starting with the 2020 Games.