Sunday, 19 August 2018

US Worlds Team

So after a very interesting Day 1 of Nationals and before Day 2, September camp and selection...it's definitely time to start picking the worlds team.

Simone Biles

Well, duhh. She was on this team when she announced her comeback. While I expected her to be at her typical level at Classics and Nationals, I didn't expect her to be better than Rio. Unlike others who make comebacks who might just do one or two apparatus at first at lower difficulty it was no surprise at all that she jumped in to the all-around but it's the difficulty that's shocking, to be doing more than in Rio right away. I've said this before but aside from being gobsmacked at seeing her stick a fabulous Cheng and land the best Moors there has or will ever be, it feels like a privilege to witness her in action, the greatest of all time. Especially that I have seen her live in Antwerp and Glasgow and hopefully again at Dortmund next year.

At worlds she will obviously do the AA in quals. If she can produce that same bars routine there as she did on Friday night then she should easily make bars finals. I'm very curious about where that routine would stand up internationally..it's smart and short so she doesn't stay up long enough to rack up a large amount of deductions while the upgrades will bring up her score. On the other hand, although she is not exactly a natural bars worker, the field is not at its strongest internationally so she could make inroads into the medals especially if there are mistakes. I would still be shocked if she took a medal there though unlike every other event where I'd be shocked if she did not get gold. She looks to be a sure bet for gold AA, floor gold, vault gold, very confident for beam gold, and a possible bet for a bars medal. Beyond impressive.

QF - VT, UB, BB, FX
TF- VT, UB, BB, FX

Morgan Hurd

Morgan looks better than she did in Montreal. I'm glad the Moors is shelved at least for now, as she said herself it is not worth the difficulty advantage if it's outweighed by execution deductions. Her floor is a joy to watch, she has a great connection to the music and sells it so well. On beam she took out the front pike which she will no doubt add back in in time. The reigning world champion is more sure of herself now, she has more confidence and poise in her routines and it shows especially on beam, very crisp in her movements. 3rd at Classics but it was clear once she hit to her ability she would be second and she will retain her position as second all-arounder to Simone. She is good bet as a potential beam medallist, with the added boost of knowing that she scored well under the severe Montreal judges on that event so her routine will serve her well this year too. Her bars are so clean but the difficulty is not quite up there with the top so although I could see her maybe making the final depending on how others do, it would be very hard to medal in it.

QF - VT, UB, BB, FX
TF - (VT maybe), UB, BB, FX

Jade Carey

Unlike the other two, Jade still has a bit to prove to make this team. The reigning silver vault and floor worlds medallist has not looked her true self this year on vault, possibly hindered by injury. Her floor is only a few tenths in difficulty behind Simone's with some seriously impressive tumbling and will score high even taking a hit on the artistry as her choreo is still fairly lacking. A good bet for silver/bronze in the floor and vault finals and can be relied upon to deliver in the team final. After struggling with the amanar, she did the DTY and Lopez on day 1. Unfortunately for her, Jordan Chiles has got the amanar. Both girls need the 2 events to be taken so both have work to do but Jade would be in the lead by a mile if she get a safe and consistent amanar back. I'm delighted she is making progress in the AA too, her bars and beam already look neater than before and it's always good to be a back-up.

QF - VT, FX
TF - VT, FX

Riley McCusker

Riley has made a remarkable comeback from injury after missing last year and is certainly doing well to place 2nd at Classics and 3rd so far in the AA rankings. Morgan is the stronger bet for AA at worlds so Riley would be a focus on beam and bars to complement Jade and try to make finals there as well as being a back-up AA gymnast if needed. Her bars have improved a lot form-wise but after some mistakes on day 1 she will want to hit it perfectly to prove her worth on that event.

QF - UB, BB
TF - UB

Trinity Thomas

The AA is covered, and TF is covered. All that remains is quals line-up to figure out - potentially giving someone else a shot at event finals. Ragan is too injured, Emma, Maile and Gabby are injured and unknown quantities at this point. Jordan's strengths are covered by Simone and Jade and there is enough back-up for the AA already included. There is no true standout gymnast they can bring for bars, and while they could bring Kara Eaker for beam her connections and leaps are sadly likely to be eaten alive by the Doha panel. Enter Trinity. She's got a fabulous beam with connections and leaps that should be able to score higher than Kara. Her floor and bars too are valuable routines to have up their sleeve.

QF - UB, BB,
TF -BB, FX if needed to rest another gymnast, UB if needed

Alternate - Grace McCallum

This team barely even needs an alternate they have so many back-up routines as they are all all-arounders now even Jade. They've got the TF figured out beautifully, AA is sorted, and plenty of shots at EF medals - Simone for all, Jade for floor and vault, Riley for bars and beam attempts, Morgan for beam and possibly floor and Trinity to attempt primarily beam.
 
With no standout gymnast on bars, it makes sense to bring someone for beam when the power events vault and floor are more than adequately covered already. Kara's beam is very dodgy in terms of international scoring and Riley is quite stiff and slow on some of her connections at the moment so if anyone is to challenge Morgan and Simone for a place in the final while also providing solid AA cover if needed, Trinity is the best bet.

For alternate, Grace is super impressive with her consistency and ability to deliver a clean, solid routine on all events. Ideal.

Of course, there are a lot of variables with this team other than the two all-arounders. If Jade does not get the amanar back and Jordan gets her floor under control, I'd bring her. If Trinity decides not to attend selection camp, I'd bring Kara. There are so many amazing gymnasts - even without all those out with injury - that would be snatched in a second by any other team, but who unfortunately do not fit into this one.

Who's on your team? Or will the vicious subteweeting bring down this team before they even get to team finals? 
 

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Why you should root for China

Much of the reason why I love Chinese gymnastics boils down to amplitude and extension. Thankfully these days we are seeing more expressive floor routines and much more effort being put into choreography. This is a direct and welcome result of the heavy artistry deductions in the code. Likewise the skill cap (i.e the exact opposite of the bars and beam routines from 2005-2008 giving these gymnasts a weighted advantage) and the devaluing of vault (goodbye 6.5 amanar of the following quad after that giving USA a huge boost) has meant that execution is more important now in holding on to valuable tenths. Not that the race for higher d-scores or racking up connection bonus are no longer things, but certainly there is a greater emphasis now on cleaning up routines than there has been in the past under this code. You tend to hear a lot more 'getting back into the gym to clean up my routines' now than 'I'm so happy I hit 4 for 4'. Several countries such as Netherlands, Belgium etc. are making names for themselves for expressive, intricate choreography and there is beautiful execution to be found in abundance in every federation, even the *gasp* power gymnast strongholds of the USA and the UK. But amplitude and full extension as a trait is harder to find. Thankfully, that's where China step in.

Of course, there are several gymnasts with great amplitude on vault. And floor. Simone Biles exemplifies this, driven from the technical perfection she displays. And there are gymnasts with flighty bars elements and nice, high beam layouts. McKayla Maroney of all people had an extremely high and flighty geinger which was a thing of beauty. But many powerhouse gyms and gymnasts fall flat when it comes to amplitude on beam and bars. Too often we are seeing beams with difficult tumbling ruined by weak leaps, low landings and bad toepoint. Bars with release moves and difficult transitions in combination can often suffer from flexed feet and legs apart that quickly destroy the overall beauty. A routine that has it all is to be prized.

Back to beam; there are many beam layouts in particular as a skill example worthy of devaluing. If it's not piked down and legs are together I'll like it but if it flairs or opens out I LOVE it. Similarly, I'll take a springy well-executed leap series with a wobble than a perfectly landed one with anaemic leaps. BHS-LOSO-LOSO is one of my favourite beam series and its popularity and popularity in the past does not in any way diminish it for me. If the legs are straight and toes pointed I am delighted but it's so much better if the chest is upright between landing skills and if a split or near-split is achieved. It seems that these days the emphasis in a series like that is solely on keeping it clean and in line with the beam and quick enough for credit but that the emphasis on making those skills individually beautiful or noteworthy is gone.

Jordyn Wieber BHS -
Deng Linlin BHS - from decencybedamned tumblr
Deng Linlin layout - copyright inside gymnastics
Ragan Smith layout - copyright ocregister
Tan Sixin YOG 2010 is poetry in motion. Beautiful leap miles above the beam and what a line on bars. Taken from pinterest
Seeing Kui Yuanyuan lose sight of the beam and wobble slightly on a layout full in combination because she had flown into the rafters with it is an absolute joy to me. That is a skill that to this day is rare and even then with questionable body position. And of course, the beam of the 80's and 90's was less springy than it is now. Think about the hype that Nia Dennis, Morgan Hurd, Gabby Douglas and Viktoria Komova get/got for landing their standing fulls/arabians in an upright position. It just looks so much more impressive. But it's not just the acro, I live to see leap series, straddles especially, with big amplitude. Leaps are of course where things like extension become more noticeable too.


Yep, the beam final that Gina Gogean won
 
  
There are pretty layouts and then there's this

Russian gymnasts can show some beautiful extension but pale in comparison to the overall extension-amplitude-form-execution of China. Flexed feet are not as glaringly obvious as they have been in quads gone by, existing for the most part on bars and mid-leap. Certainly some countries who are the worst offenders are placing emphasis on toepoint and maintaining it throughout the routine which is obviously great as flexed feet are very jarring and break the line. But true and proper extension cannot be tacked on at a later stage and must be cultivated from a young age. i.e programmes must incorporate it from the very beginning.

copyright - getty images
Olga Mostepanova had extension in spades. The reason why her split handstand sequence at the beginning of her beam stands out so much and also looks markedly different to other variations of it we have seen since is because it is perfect. Her toes are not just pointed, they are in a perfect line extending from the hips and through the knee. This is of course most often seen in ballet where it is essentially a requirement but was gloriously common in gymnastics throughout the 80's and 90's. Olga fully deserved that perfect 40 for the sublime perfection she brought to the sport.

Fan Ye extension for days - copyright getty images
Extension extends (haha..) itself to bars too. A perfect bodyline is most obvious in handstand with the dead straight line going from wrists through shoulders, hips and knees to toes. It should stay the same throughout giants excepting clearing the bar or tap swings and pirouetting skills. Most gymnasts have a straight upper body by the virtue of being in the handstand position at all and straight legs/toes but the vast majority are not fully extended at the hips. This can sometimes be obvious as a slight pike position is seen in profile or less so in that the position seems straight but is nevertheless not fully extended so the line isn't as good as it could be. Note the 2008 bars final as a classic example. He Kexin and Yang Yilin had perfectly extended pencil-like straight form throughout their routines. Liukin also exhibited a beautiful bodyline and showed it especially through her pirouettes just like the other two but her line is lacking the tension and total core tightness of the others.

He Kexin - copyright intlgymnast
Nastia Liukin - taken from alibaba
The extension is what makes sets Chinese barwork apart. It will always have that edge over Russian or any other standout routine as a result even if it has other flaws (we all really love dead hangs). It adds a cleanness, precision and sharpness to each skill. Watching a shaposhnikova with arms extended regrasp and turn precisely into the next skill is thrilling, as is seeing a pirouette snap back into position after the rotation. It's as noticeable to me compared to a less-tight routine as the difference between Madison Kocian's and Viktoria Komova's inbars i.e. they look like different skills.

It's not that I don't see the absolutely massive flaws and problems Team China is dealing with. They overemphasise bars and beam to the detriment of other events, they are still dealing with filtering for body type, they don't have the conditioning of certain other federations and they will never challenge for gold without being able to field solid DTY's and strong floors. There are no Cheng Fei's climbing through the ranks and although they do have talent on vault/floor it's not enough and it's not present in their AA gymnasts. I will enjoy watching a floor routine with beautiful leaps, turns and execution but if it's coming from a top 4 nation and it's another triple full-double tuck-2.5 twist derivative....I have no patience for that. I can't root for 5.3 or worse floors being fielded as some of the best on offer and never will.

BUT...by god do they do the other events in such style. I can't not be excited at seeing such dedication to the form and the finesse of the skill that they have always and continue to show in their work. Not that there aren't form issues amongst their ranks but as a whole they are carried by beautiful extension, amplitude and execution. China need to go more mainstream. We know the names of the top gymnasts in the rest of the top 4/5 countries and it's not just language barrier/different social media that's the issue. There's a general lack of interest or some inherent dislike and when these gymnasts are performing such beautiful gymnastics it's a crying shame. The age scandals (which I absolutely could not care less about as they only rear their head when there's a significant threat of the US being beaten) seem to have cast a lingering shadow over Team China. More accessible than ever on youtube, these girls need to be celebrated more. GO CHINA!!


Monday, 30 April 2018

Things

Okay, I have a major issue with blogging and working full-time. Plenty manage it but I struggle to find the motivation and energy. There's a reason why a lot of this blog was written while I was unemployed. Anyway, my passion for the sport is the same. I am recovering from wisdom teeth surgery at the moment but I aim not to need to be post-op to actually blog.

Anyway, Pac Rims! Nice of Flo Gymnastics to allow USAG to upload videos of their athletes 24 hours later I suppose, much better than trying to find secret uploads somewhere. Morgan Hurd debuted a fabulous floor routine, I feel it's a great match for her and she really gets into the music and sells the choreography well. Although it was always something she's been good at, it's great to see her develop and I'm excited to see what her routine will be like in 2020 as her potential continues to grow. Beam aside, (which USAG have not uploaded) I don't feel she was as sharp here as she was at American Cup. Which is no bad thing, she doesn't need to be and shouldn't be at the top of her game in April with the summer competitions ahead of her and worlds several months away. Her double-double landing on floor was lower than normal but it's one of the few American ones that are fully secure and not too low so that's fine. Bars seemed to me to be not as crisp and flowy as normal although still very clean and technically good, just some of the ease was missing. Again, fine for this time of year. It's the beam dismount that's worrying, I hope they scrap it immediately and go back to the double pike or try a twisting dismount. It's incredibly dangerous to have a gymnast compete a dismount that they cannot land properly as it means they have a much smaller margin of error were something to go wrong on take-off, which by all accounts it did in the team/AA, although I have not seen it.






Here it is from podium training. This just screams 'NO', it's so not worth the landing deductions. Her face is miles below waist level and her knees are taking a huge strain with her body that bent over.





And here it is from American Cup. A disaster waiting to happen, thankfully Morgan is fine and managed floor right after her scary fall at Pac Rims and withdrawing from EF was just a precaution but I hope this is a lesson learnt for her coaches. Impressively hard dismounts need to be landed safely to be impressive.

She is not the only gymnast, nor even the only American gymnast with a low landing on her beam dismount or a non-textbook set on take-off, but the difficulty of the dismount and the amount that's packed into it makes it far scarier.

Moving on. All in all, Pac Rims to me fell completely flat without the participation of China and Japan. A great pity Brooklyn Moors withdrew at the last minute but there were what sounds like (maybe I might get to see them at some stage?) standout performances from plenty of gymnasts such as Marcia Videaux of Cuba on vault, Nicolle Castro of Mexico on floor and Zoe Allaire-Bourgie of Canada on bars.

Jordan Chiles is going to have a very tough time fitting into a team line-up this quad. A vault/floor specialist when the likes of Jade Carey and of course Simone Biles will be in the picture is not ideal. Still, she's very enjoyable to watch on both events and is a good alternate option perhaps, although Grace McCallum is very strong also with incredible ease in her vaulting and tumbling. I don't know enough about Kayla DiCello and Jordan Bowers although the latter in particular is intriguing, anyone who keeps their legs and knees and feet together throughout a double front and a tucked full-in gets my attention. Super clean and light tumbler, and although she came to grief on beam and isn't quite as clean there, there were a LOT of beam falls anyway and her beam structure is fascinating and seems well within her grasp. Sunisa Lee on the other hand seems to be doing too much difficulty, I don't really get the point of stacking her bars and beam that high when she struggles to hit them consistently and gets sloppy in the effort. Dump the Nabieva, taper down all of her beam connections and re-focus on the basics and she could be amazing.

In other news, Mai Murakami has won All Japan Nationals! It is heartwarming to see her this good and this consistent and this high-scoring and seemingly still improving, sooo many years into her career. In 2011 and 2012 she showed high difficulty but weakness and inconsistency. Seeing her gold-medal winning floor and her medal ceremony in person in Montreal is a real highlight of mine. Her scores here probably have some slight bias in them, but she remains a huge AA contender, creeping higher now every year. Thrilled to see her go out and hit her full floor difficulty as if it's nothing, showing no signs of slowing down. Japan really are great at holding on to their gymnasts for years. Asuka Teramoto, Aiko Sugihara and Sae Miyakawa (who badly needs to medal on floor this year) all show no signs of going anywhere either.



Speaking of veterans, it was great to see Aliya Mustafina, Viktoria Komova and Tatiana Nabieva at Russian Nationals recently. Aliya in particular, given that this is her competitive debut since giving birth, was particularly impressive and showed her DTY, full bars routine minus the inbars and her double arabian on floor. In an absolutely unsurprising twist, her beam is still relying on the same dodgy barely-an-acro-series for credit and is the event she was the weakest on. Understandably, she noticeably tired as the competition went on and had the greatest issues on vault where she scarily crashed a 1.5 intended to be a DTY but this lack of stamina is not a worry whatsoever at this point, she is extremely well versed in pacing herself and will no doubt steadily increase her ability to withstand competition until worlds itself. Recent news of her divorce makes her performances at Nationals even more impressive. What an athlete. Viktoria is that bit more together in her preparation and seems more equal overall in her AA effort, it will be fascinating to see how they progress. Against the backdrop of the two greats coming back, it was just amazing to witness the triumph of Angelina Melnikova, with such huge potential and so often such massive falls and flaws, hit every single routine and sweep the golds. I really hope she can continue the momentum and hit when it counts.

While never doubting the ability of Simone Biles to bounce back and have her Rio difficulty ready to go, it is mindblowing first to hear that she has it back, and then to witness further upgrades, including never-before-done crazy-Simone-level ones. Her coaching change was always going to be interesting in terms of her bars, as before although they were very smartly composed and kept deductions to a minimum, they were never a piece she was going to consistently make finals with. Now though, she presents with a shap-half, new Jaeger and a Fabrichnova dismount. Her form and technique, bolstered by new difficulty, could absolutely propel her into bars finals. Being coached now by the Landis who would have the WOGA-focus on bars is also going to have an impact on the ease and her swing in the routine. These are upgrades we will more than likely see in summer as her bars are going to need as much competitive repetition as they can get, as it's more than likely going to be significantly different than her old routine. Beam looked the same, still the same impressive skills with the casual addition of a double-double dismount which has of course, never been done. I would imagine that it's not going to replace her current full-in, but will be prepared so that she can throw it in sometimes. Podium training at all competitions, competitively at one day of Nationals, again at camp and worlds quals and EF but sticking to the full-in for AA and TF.

On floor we see two new passes as well as a gloriously easy and high double-double and double layout. The Moors looks all too easy for her, although not on a competition floor. The front full into full-in leap is a very fun pass, it looks incredible and is of course very impressive for what will surely be her last pass. For the other 3 she has a double-double, Biles, full-in DLO and now a Moors to play around with so even in an era of Jade Carey, Sae Miyakawa and Mai Murakami, her floor difficulty will still be ahead of the pack. Vault, ha. I would have thought having the Mustafina and amanar back would be impressive enough. She has a TTY and Cheng. Good god. I cannot wait to see her compete again. The sentiment of 'ugh it's so boring when she wins all the time and now she's going to come back and take all the golds away it's so unfair' to me is absolutely ridiculous. We saw the best of all time, and now we have the privilege to see her again with added difficulty. It is the kind of prospect that will see me at worlds next year.

Next week will see the start of Chinese Nationals. I am really hoping to see a possible worlds team with a good few options emerge. Chen Yile will be the most nervewracking one to watch due to her absolutely massive potential. Curious to see what Shang Chunsong looks like, although of course she is competing to help out her province and her appearance does not signal any international comeback. Depending on what platform videos end up on, I'll go through the competition here when it's over.