Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Beth Tweddle Interview - 2010

Last year after the world championships, I was lucky enough to interview multiple time World and European champion Beth Tweddle for the student paper at my University. The following is the resulant article.


Ridiculous as it sounds, a part of me was shocked to see Beth Tweddle dressed the way she was. Having seen nothing but footage of her performing in a leotard, hand guards and a facelift ponytail, the smart, professional woman approaching the union didn’t quite fit the gymnast stereotype. Gone were the scrunchie, trademark braces and stern competitive pokerface of the serious athlete, and before me was a young, friendly and confident woman. And this athlete has a lot to be confident about. The union posters stated that “Beth is considered to be one of the most successful British gymnasts of all time”. The tone of this sentence is incorrect, as there is nothing subjective about the facts. Beth is THE British gymnast. With over 16 world and European stage medals, she has single handedly changed the fortune of the Brits in this intricate sport. In the past our presence alone at any championship was considered a big achievement. She is not only present, she is a threat. And she is winning.
At the time of the interview, it is less than a week since Beth defended her double European title. “This year was always going to be a lot more challenging just because obviously the pressure is on. it’s always easier to chase the champion than it is to be the champion because people are always trying to hunt you down and pull your routines down. And obviously the judges know my routines, they know exactly what to deduct”. Despite any modesty, however, Beth’s routines are pretty unbeatable at the European level, as she some of the hardest elements in the entire world. But she sounds as though she never sets her sights too high: “I kind of went in with the mentality of “I’ve got nothing to lose”, it was the home crowd I wanted to enjoy it”.
Beth’s success is by no means just on the European stage. She has two world championship gold medals. In 2006 she beat Nastia Liukin, the American gymnastics superstar who Beth quoted as her biggest competitor, into second place on her specialist apparatus, the uneven bars. Then in 2009, at London’s O2 arena, she gained her second gold. But this time it was on floor, a piece Beth is not quite as renowned for. I asked her which meant more to her. “A lot of people have asked me this, and I think the answer is definitely that floor meant a lot more. Over my career everyone has kind of known me for being a bar worker and sort of put me down as a one trick pony, and I’ve been trying to prove over and over again over the years that I’m not just a bar worker, I do have other elements to my gymnastics. And I guess also at the O2 having fallen off bars, I thought my world championships was over [Beth fell from her signature piece in the qualifying round]. But then I realised I had qualified for floor and it was like, I’ve got nothing to lose, there is a silver lining in every cloud”
The 2007 world championship was Beth’s last international all around competition, which in gymnastics means that it was the last time she competed on all four apparatus (vault, beam, uneven bars and floor). She opted to become a floor and bars specialist. “When I look at the all around competition, I do miss participating in it. It’s one competition less to get involved in. But I don’t miss all the training for it, especially beam; it hurt my feet so much. That’s the reason I took away the all around”. This in no way means that Beth lightened her training schedule. She trains over 30 hours a week and Sunday is the only day she spends out of the gym. “Sunday is the best day”, she said, “shopping and Hollyoaks in bed”.
Having originally set her retirement date as the end of the 2006 commonwealth games, 25 year old Beth says that she is working towards the 2012 games, an event which will be the “END end” of her career. If she makes it, she will become one of an incredibly small elite who have made it to 3 Olympics in their career. The thing is, gymnastics is not like football. It is completely dominated by young (some would say underdeveloped) teenagers. And if you make a mistake, there are not many chances to put it right. “There have been occasional times when I wanted to stop; when you’re injured it is very hard. But you never remember the bad times when you look over your career, only the good times, and when you get the results like at the weekend or at the world championships and you have the medal round your neck and you have achieved your target, it puts away the fears”. When asked how she would like to be remembered, she calmly replied: “Someone who won’t give up after one setback, which I think I have proved time and time again. Yeah, definitely, as a fighter”.
So what is Beth’s dream before the end? “I’ve achieved a lot more than I ever thought I would. I think I’ve won something like 18 world and European stage medals, but there is one missing and that’s an Olympic one. If I can get to 2012 and be part of that team that will definitely be an ambition. But if not, I’ve got a lot to look back at across my career. But I think to myself “I can’t retire now because otherwise I will look back and think it was only two years away, why did I retire?! I don’t want to hang up the guards before I’ve given it a go.”

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Wednesday Whining – Vanessa Atler

The first video I ever saw of Vanessa Atler was a floor exercise on youtube. It was amazing. The dynamism, the power, the was truly brilliant. Having been too young to follow gymnastics religiously at the time of the 2000 olympics, when I first saw the video my first thought was simple: where the hell was she in Sydney? My question was soon answered.
The next video I saw of Vanessa was her bars routine at the 1999 worlds. It was painful to watch. Those laboured pirouettes, that bail-out swing. It was like every muscle in her body was tensed with the nervousness of the situation: a complete antithesis to everything she could do on floor.
The video evidence of Vanessa’s mental block is widespread, well watched and well known. The saddest to watch are those where her meltdowns extend beyond her demon apparatus and onto her good ones: a particular example being her beam at the 1999 team finals, where she runs tentatively into a skill and changes her mind.
The nervousness, embarrassment and failure Vanessa must have felt on all these occasions, owing to the huge pressure on her to succeed make this footage very difficult to watch. Even worse are the documentaries of her sadness and depression following her failure to make the 2000 Olympic team (a mistake, in my opinion, even with her inconsistencies) and her subsequent departure from the sport.
In considering Vanessa Atler, one also thinks of Catalina Ponor, Cheng Fei, Alicia Sacramone, and every other successful world level gymnast who cut bars out of their training and focused on the power events. Vanessa Atler is a classic example of a gymnast born at the “wrong” time and destined to compete in the “wrong” quad. In a time where being an all around gymnast was key to success and acceptance, Vanessa’s world gymnastics career was doomed to failure. After all, there is no point in being an all arounder, despite how good the gymnast may be on the other 3 events, if the 4th event is going to lose it for them anyway.  Had she trained 3 events only, her story may have ended in a completely different way.
Despite the way things ended, I will always remember Vanessa as a wonderful gymnast, and forever associate her with that beautiful DLO, punch front, double stag. Breathtaking.


Sadly, since the 2011 VISA championships ended a few days ago, this is the lasting memory which reverberates round my head. Not the sound of cheers, not the creak of the bars, not the smack of a stuck dismount and not even (somewhat thankfully) the grating idiocy of the NBC trio. Instead it is the sound of Rebecca Bross’ right kneecap being crunched out of position by a bombed double twisting yurchenko. This was the devastating end to a championships that, although filled with the joy and anticipation of Olympic comebacks, was marred by a previously unparalleled number of errors and falls.

The questions that remain now are various. Is there blame to be laid for poor Rebecca’s injury? If so, where does it lie? In the wake of this splatfest championship, what hope now for the USA in Tokyo?
If one was so inclined, a case could definitely be made for this injury as part of a turning point in gymnastics history, when coupled with the unfortunate demise of Aliya Mustafina at this year’s Europeans. Is the code of points to blame? For years people have speculated that the open ended scoring system encourages gymnasts to become circus like tricksters, slamming out highly rated acrobatic elements to beef up a D-score. However, the key difference here is not necessarily the difficulty: Tatiana Gutsu was throwing a standing full back in 1991 (to use but one of many, many examples). Rather, the issue is that with the current coding gymnasts are rewarded for competing skills that they clearly cannot complete to a high enough standard for top level athletes. Back in the 10 system, taking a fall or a wobble on a very difficult skill was less preferable to nailing an easier one, hence we saw less inaccuracy and hence the new code hailed the rise of “skill chucking”.
One struggles to find a better example of this than Aliya Mustafina’s yurchenko 2.5, her performance of which is only rivalled in terms of sloppiness, poor form and terrible blocking by her teammate Tatiana Nabieva. On that day back in April when slow motion cameras captured Aliya landing with bent, messy legs and landing shock ricocheting through her right leg and tearing her ACL, many gymnastics fans around the world new that it had been a question of when, and not if. Aliya should not have been competing that Amanar, not just because she wasn’t good at the skill but also because at the European championships, she did not need to. However, she and her coaches were encouraged by a code which was rewarding a messy, unsightly and frankly dangerous piece of gymnastics.
In similar fashion, Rebecca Bross did not need to complete a DTY at the VISA championships. It was clear to everyone watching from the very beginning that for Rebecca’s health and safety, a vault downgrade was needed (and arguably also on her beam dismount, a twice incomplete and scarily landed Patterson). However,  it was competed regardless and as a result, one of the most talented and promising gymnasts in the world is now recovering from a serious knee injury, when she could have been in the gym getting her skills back at a sensible pace.
Let’s hope the American’s, and the world, learn something from vaulting this year. After all, what true gymnastics fan would prefer a career threatening Amanar to a pencil straight, beautifully executed 1.5 yurchenko? Those who are unsure should take a look at Tatiana Nabieva 2009 vs Nastia Liukin 2008. There really is no contest.