Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

Why Shawn Johnson deserves to go to Stanford

June 30, 2009

One of Shawn Johnsons biggest accomplishments.

One of Shawn Johnson's biggest accomplishments.

It’s easy to get used to seeing mean comments at the bottom of online news articles, especially when they concern local matters.

Nonetheless, I was shocked to read the downright nasty things being written about Shawn Johnson on the Des Moines Register’s website yesterday after the paper printed a story where Johnson stated that she’d like to attend either UCLA or Stanford.

The response was more than 20 pages of comments, many filled with vitriol, directed at Johnson for apparently taking it for granted that she’d get into either of those schools. Johnson has also said that she’s fallen so behind on her schoolwork that attending her senior year at Valley High School in West Des Moines is out of the question, and that she’s taking online classes to finish her diploma.

For this post only, I’d like to respond to some of the mean-spirited but more importantly inaccurate assumptions made by the commenters of the Des Moines Register article, and explain why Shawn Johnson indeed deserves to go to Stanford.

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SEC power play jeopardizes new NCAA rules ideas

June 22, 2009

The background: At their annual conference last month in Seattle, NCAA coaches voted 60-3 in favor of two new policies long championed by Utah coach Greg Marsden: turning the NCAA Super Six into a four-team final (thus making it live-TV eligible) and implementing a six-up, six-count competition format.

The idea: To give the stagnant NCAA gymnastics scene some much-needed oomph among the sport’s more casual fans. After all, less than 3,000 people showed up in Nebraska this year to watch Courtney Kupets, arguably the best NCAA female gymnast in history, dominate the NCAA Championships.

The drama: An 11th hour letter from the (gymnastics powerhouse) SEC Chairman Mike Slive to the head of the NCAA women’s gymnastics committee is asking the committee to maintain the status quo and not adopt the rules coaches voted overwhelmingly for. That status quo benefits the SEC tremendously. For years, SEC schools have dominated the NCAA gymnastics scene; Georgia, after all, has won the last five NCAA titles. The new rules are likely to hurt the SEC cohort the most. (The three who voted against the new rules in that 60-3 vote: LSU’s D-D Breaux, Alabama’s Sarah Patterson and Florida’s Rhonda Faehn. Those three are almost always in the Super Six and likely have the biggest cases of NCAA title angst.)

But if college gymnastics is going to thrive, there needs to be more competition. More upsets. Georgia et al losing a few NCAA Championships. Of course the SEC doesn’t like that.

From the Salt Lake Tribune gymnastics reporter extraordinaire Lya Wodraska:

In the letter obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, Slive requests the format undergo no changes based out of concern a reduction in the number of teams advancing to the finals “would not only decrease opportunities, but could significantly decrease the attendance for the final night of team competition,” the letter states. “This would also have a negative impact on an institution’s decision to bid to host this event,” Slive writes.

While the SEC certainly has the most to lose if the new rules are implemented, this blogger wonders what the conference feels so threatened by. Attendance at the 2009 NCAA Championships was dismal. Decreasing attendance isn’t the problem; the problem is how to keep it from decreasing further, and the solution to that is a) don’t hold these things in Nebraska, b) do something to make it more understandable and exciting and c) give non-SEC schools reason to bid for — and attend — these championships.

Decreased opportunities? If the new rules were implemented, 12 schools would still advance to the first round. OK, so two teams (approximately 16-18 gymnasts) would be left out on the second night. But if they want to increase opportunities, why not compensate by having the top 10 in each event advance to event finals?

No, the only reason the SEC would move to block the proposed changes is that the new rules could reduce its strangehold on the sport. But do the new rules really give non-SEC schools a tangible advantage? Even with the new rules, the SEC (along with UCLA and Stanford) will still have a disproportionate share of the very best recruits for the next few years. They’ll still have lots of funding, great training facilities and huge campus fan bases. All this does is give less prestigious gymnastics schools — Illinois, Michigan, Washington, Penn State, Oregon State, etc. — an outside chance at winning meets if the traditionally stronger schools make big mistakes. Which they should be held accountable for.

Frankly, Georgia’s been on top for so long that I’m surprised other SEC schools are trying to block these changes. After all, Alabama would have won this year’s NCAA Championship if the six-up, six-count rule had been in place. Yet Patterson and the Tide contingent don’t want these changes.

This SEC power play is provoking semi-outraged comments from people like UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field, who told The Tribune bluntly, “”I’ve been a head coach for 19 years and an assistant before then and I’ve always heard there could be behind-the-scene maneuverings by specific individuals in the SEC, but I never believed a few could have that much power until now…I don’t know why I spent thousands as a coach to sit in our meetings, put a lot of thought into decisions and vote, then come back and have a very select few turn our decision on its heels.”

The NCAA committee should announce any rule changes this week. Stay tuned.

A few thoughts on event finals

September 4, 2008
He Kexins uneven bars win was controversial, but perhaps for the wrong reasons.

He Kexin's uneven bars win was controversial, but perhaps for the wrong reasons.

Belatedly posted due to post-Olympic hangover, I think.

It was an improvement over 2004 (almost anything would be), but in this blogger’s opinion only, the judges still got a few things wrong during the three nights of Olympic event finals.

Namely…

Women’s Vault: It was blatant partisanship, giving Cheng Fei the bronze after she fell on the vault named after her. Or that’s what I thought at first. One has to remember, however, that the Cheng vault has a much higher start value than Sacramone’s double-twisting Yurchenko; high enough that Cheng can fall and still place higher than Sacramone. Add in the fact that Cheng’s start value on her first vault, which was beautiful, was 0.2 higher than Sacramone’s.

So although I don’t think a gymnast should fall and get a medal, the judges didn’t mess that one up — the code of points is to blame.

Women’s Uneven Bars: Some will say Nastia Liukin should have won it. Some will defend He Kexin’s gold. I say this: Bronze medalist Yang Yilin should have won. It’s gymnastics scoring 101: If all routines are valued as having equal difficulty, the one that has the least visible errors should win. He went over on one of her handstand pirouettes and took a step on her dismount.

Liukin went over on one of her low bar handstands and had the perennial form issues, as always, on her dismount. Yang’s routine, though less spectacular than either Liukin’s or He’s, had none of those errors. Andrew Thornton on Gymnast.com agrees.

Balance Beam: This one I agree with. Shawn Johnson was cleanest and performed her tons of difficulty flawlessly, even if Liukin has the artistry and extension. She deserves a gold medal for consistency alone, for having performed that routine virtually flawlessly in every competition since the 2007 American Cup (2007 Worlds event finals notwithstanding.)

Might have been different had not Liukin had the big hop on her dismount. Too bad Li Shanshan had another meltdown — I’d like to see her win a World Championship. When she’s on, she deserves it.

Women’s Floor Exercise:The multitalented Sandra Izbaza, a championship handball player before she dedicated herself to gymnastics, proved that tradition dies hard. So, consequently, did Gabriela Dragoi on balance beam.

The Romanians really need to embrace the artistic component of this code, and perhaps add some more ballet to their training, which was obviously a component of their gymnastics regimens during the 1980s but seemed to disappear during the mid-90s.

Zou Kai displays form that could be improved on floor exercise.

Zou Kai displays form that could be improved on floor exercise.

Men’s High Bar: This one actually made me kind of mad. Seems like overnight Jonathan Horton has turned from an amateur into a professional gymnast — the sort who points his toes at all times, who can deliver in the clutch and whose extension has improved dramatically. In the space of literally one Olympics, he’s matured from the X Games kid to an adult gymnast. From here on out, it could be a whole new world for him.

Which brings me to the point: He should have been the Trent Dimas of Beijing. He had the tricks and he had the form. Nice as his laid-out Jaeger full was, Zou Kai’s extension and swing were a lot poorer than Horton’s, and he wasn’t penalized for it. If a gymnast from France or Italy or the U.S. had done the same routine as Zou, I can’t help feeling that his B score would have been much lower. Horton deserved the gold here.

In praise of Patrascu

July 3, 2008

Never mind that she’s not doing full-difficulty dismounts — Cerasela Patrascu belongs on the 2008 Romanian Olympic team.

Videos from the 2008 Romanian Nationals show that Patrascu, despite a knee injury at this spring’s European Championships, could have a positive impact on Romania’s fight for what will likely be a bronze medal in the team competition.

Cerasela Patrascu, 2008 Romanian Championships, Uneven Bars:

Cerasela Patrascu, 2008 Romanian Championships, Balance Beam:

Several months ago I picked the impressive Patrascu as the one to lead the Romanians in Beijing, ahead of Steliana Nistor or Sandra Izbasa. She, Izbasa and Nistor would be formidable on balance beam in team finals, for example. Sub in Gabriela Dragoi for Izbasa on uneven bars, and put Anamaria Tamarjan in for Patrascu on floor.

Beyond all that, Patrascu possesses an elegance, maturity and style rarely seen in Romanian gymnastics. To put it the way the American commentators might, Patrascu’s lines, knees and toepoint are indicators of the “international look” that appeals to World Championship/Olympic judges.

That’s been a rarity in Romanians in general since the early 1990s, and includes the Romanian gymnastics of this quad, where the beam and floor choreography has been more minimal and more cookie-cutter than ever.

Pacific Rim redux

April 13, 2008

Al TrautwigThanks NBC, for broadcasting the women’s team competiton (and three half-performances from Paul Hamm.)

Many gymnastics fans don’t agree with everything NBC commentators say, particularly color commentator Al Trautwig, a basketball/hockey expert who often comes off as a buffoon in his attempts to translate the sport for the couch-potato watching public.

But they do slip interesting tidbits into their talk when not reminding viewers that the balance beam is only four inches wide (which, to their credit, I don’t believe they did in this broadcast.)

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Pressure’s on, Shawn

March 10, 2008

Shawn Johnson appears to be back on track.

After her first senior international defeat at last weekend’s American Cup, the Des Moines, Iowa native bounced back by winning her first all-around title of 2008 as the U.S. defeated Italy, Spain and Poland in a “fun” meet this weekend in Jesolo, Italy, about 20 miles northeast of Venice.

Johnson reportedly did not throw her Amanar vault, which she fell on at the Cup.

Not that she needed to. Her closest competition, 2006 World Champion Vanessa Ferrari, performed only a full-twisting Yurchenko and finished more than one and a half points behind Johnson, who apparently had some kind of stumble on floor exercise (15.0). Up-and-coming American Samantha Peszek, third at the American Cup, was third at this meet as well. Complete results are on International Gymnast Magazine’s website

More thoughts on Johnson’s performance at the American Cup, previously unposted:

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Eight 2008 American Cup observations

March 4, 2008

Shawn Johnson1. Shawn Johnson looked far more nervous at this event than she did in any meet in 2007. Even before her fall on vault during the first rotation, the big smiles were gone, and she often looked strained saluting the judges. By all indications, the pressure seems to be getting to her a little. Nonetheless, better to fall on an Amanar at the American Cup than in Beijing.

2. The judges seem to be finally loosening up on giving high execution scores. Still, a 9.525 B-score for a 1.5-twisting Yurchenko with a step to the side from Nastia Liukin? Her form, which is impeccable about everywhere else, did not likely deserve a 9.525. And above a 15 for that vault? Has that happened yet this quad? Maybe they were rewarding her for just standing it up.
 
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Gymnastics as choreography

February 1, 2008

International Gymnast Magazine editor Dwight Normile posted a list of “Skills and Combinations I’d Rather Not See (Anymore)” on the magazine’s website last week.

I agree with almost everything he’s written, particuarly his critique of side somie on beam, which he characterizes as “better suited for the circus, where an acrobat does about 10 of them in a row as he circles the ring.” Amen.

Not too long ago, Normile also posted a list of skills and combinations he’d love to see more of. Among them: Full-twisting Arabian dive rolls on floor exercise (think Soviet great Oksana Omelienchik), an Ono to an immediate full pirouette to elgrip on uneven bars and dismounts directly after release skills on high bar.

Oksana Omelienchik, 1985 World Championships Event Finals, Floor Exercise:

What I feel is most lacking in women’s gymnastics today is real choreography on floor exercise. A twisting jump is not choreography. Nor is a roundoff, double full side pass.

Granted, not everyone has the balletic acumen of a Nastia Liukin.

But these non-balletic gymnasts have in the past made better use of simple gymnastics moves for choreography. A back handspring is unexpected, crowd-pleasing and fits very well into a lot of routines. Kim Zmeskal, for one, used it to great effect in her lively floor routines. So did Gina Gogean.

Kim Zmeskal, 1990 Goodwill Games All-Around, Floor Exercise:

Gina Gogean, 1997 World Championships Event Finals, Floor Exercise:

And who could forget Chellsie Memmel’s back-extension roll to headspring, or the showstopping finish to her 2003 floor routine?

Chellsie Memmel, 2003 World Championships Team Finals, Floor Exercise:

None of these three were exactly ballerinas. But their choreogprahers found gymnastics elements that fit the music. More of that, please.

Even Shannon Miller, who was something of a dancer, used a back handspring in the floor routine she used form 1992 to 1994. She also had a lovely (and fairly unnecessary) roundoff, full-twisting back handspring.

Shannon Miller, 1992 Olympics Event Finals, Floor Exercise:

In the NCAA, where pleasing the crowd and showing personality are given much more attention, flips that land on the belly are popular. Also understandable — even the most seasoned gymanstics-watcher can’t help but go “Wow!” when they fit the music.

Elizarova: Beijing spoiler?

November 21, 2007

Of all the Russian juniors who seem to have disappeared off the face of the Earth, I wonder most about 16-year-old Daria Elizarova, who was on the start list for the 2007 World Championships but did not compete.

Elizarova’s toepoint and presentation are reminiscent of the great Lilia Podkopayeva’s.

Lilia Podkopayeva, 1996 Olympic Games All-Around, Floor Exercise:

Daria Elizarova, 2006 Junior European Championships Team Final, Floor Exercise:

The obvious competitiors for all-around gold in Athens have presented themselves: Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin, Vanessa Ferrari, Jade Barbosa, Steliana Nistor and Pang Panpan if she’s in her 2006 form.

Gymnastics fans will now spend the winter months exhausting every possible upset scenario before the American Cup in March gives a better picture of how things stand.

Elizarova, who will be competing at the mini-Olympics that the Good Luck Beijing test event is turning into, should be scenario number one.

It’s over.

November 17, 2007

If she throws an Amanar, Shawn Johnson is likely to win the all-around competition in Beijing.

That’s right. The 2008 Olympic all-around competition is over.

An interview with Chow Liang by International Gymnast Magazine editor Dwight Normile affirmed that Chow’s prodigy, 2007 World Champion Shawn Johnson, will soon be back to full training following treatment for a stress reaction in her right shin.

“World champion gymnast suffers slight injury, gets better, returns to training” isn’t the news. What is, as Normile gently reminds readers, is that Johnson has and may continue working on her Amanar — a Yurchenko vault with 2.5 twists — which she came within a few seconds of performing at the U.S. Championships in August.

Chow couldn’t say what changes, if any, he would make in Johnson’s routines for 2008, but we might see her upgrade to a 2-1/2-twisting Yurchenko on vault. After all, she almost competed it at the Visa Championships last August. “We did it during the warm-up,” Chow said. “I almost had her do it — almost. I probably felt one month short (of preparation) back then. I didn’t want to take any risk.”

Johnson probably doesn’t need to do an Amanar to win the all-around in Beijing. But if she does, it would put everyone else nearly out of contention to catch her.

The 2008 all-around champ -- and this event is why.

At the 2007 Worlds, Johnson won by 1.25 points over Romanian Steliana Nistor and was 1.325 ahead of bronze medalists Jade Barbosa and Vanessa Ferrari, both of whom would have placed above Nistor had Barbosa not fallen on floor and Ferrari on bars.

But even crediting Barbosa and Ferrari with eight tenths by assuming their mistakes were flukes, Johnson is still pacing the field by more than half a point.

Risk of injury aside, Johnson has almost nothing to lose by competing this vault. Whether or not she stands it up, if she can get credit for attempting an Amanar, her start value on vault will balloon by seven-tenths of a point. If does stand it up, even with a huge hop or lunge backward, she’s going to get a score that’s out of this world. They might as well mail the gold to Iowa as soon as her feet hit the ground.

Recall Barbosa’s 15.9 for a decent Yuchenko 2.5 during the all-around final. Johnson got a 15.175 for a nice DTY.

Jade Barbosa, 2007 World Championships All-Around, Vault:

Shawn Johnson, 2007 World Championships All-Around, Vault:

We may see silver and bronze contenders attempting two-and-a-halfs just to get the start value boost. It’s almost surprising we haven’t seen it yet. Of the top 10 in Stuttgart, only Johnson, Barbosa and maybe Ferrari look as though they have what it takes to land that vault on their feet.

Barbosa would be a threat, as her tumbling is equally difficult, but she’s proven less consistent on her better events, and the small form breaks she gives away on bars and beam will likely keep her chasing Johnson. Although this might be selling the 2006 World champ a bit short, it doesn’t seem like Ferrari has quite enough power to do an Amanar.

Vanessa Ferrari, 2007 World Championships Team Finals, Vault:

Why is it that vault, arguably the least exciting event, always seems to decide these things? In 1984, it gave Mary Lou Retton the gold and enduring fame. In 2000, it cost Svetlana Khorkina what was basically presumed to be “her” victory. In 2008, it may well seal Shawn Johnson’s.

It’s almost funny — if either Alicia Sacramone or Cheng Fei threw a triple twisting Yurchenko, their scores would be so high as to put them in contention for the all-around gold, despite the deficiencies both have on bars.