Saturday, 24 December 2011

Born This Way

It is Christmas Eve, and time to do what I do best: write an article about what happens to be on my mind and awkwardly shoehorn it into a relevant theme suitable for the times. Let’s have a go then.

This past week I have been thinking about luck of the draw. About the extraneous factors which hugely influence a gymnast’s chance for success on the world stage but are not directly related to their talent and are not things that can be helped. The main thread of this thought is as follows: the code changes each quad. Each new code is bound to favour a certain type of gymnast more than another (in the 05-08 and 09-12 quads, it favoured those who could do an amanar, whereas in 89-92 it favoured those who could stick an FTY, as a simple example). Whilst this gives some gymnasts a right-place-right-time advantage, it also puts some at an instant disadvantage: you could say they were born into the “wrong quad”.

Christmas is a story of a birth. SEAMLESS, right?

Below are the gymnasts that stick out most obviously to me as being born at such a time to put them in a quad which didn’t play to their strengths.


For me, this girl had one of the best flight series on beam of all time. If not THE best. It is one of the most exciting, original and difficult combinations I have ever seen (BHS-LO 2 feet-BHS-LOSO). On a side note, she also had some pretty cool little extras: it was hugely refreshing to see that mount, which I had forgotten about, as I searched for this video. As was the forgotten second acro combination: a cartwheel through to two layout stepouts. Now THESE are beam connections. Fast, flighted and difficult.

So why, then, does this fantastic gymnast not even have her own Wikipedia page? Stella Umeh went on to find success in the NCAA program, where she was the two time floor exercise champion (1995, 1998) for UCLA. Her elite career was no failure: at the 1994 commonwealth games she took the all around title, and followed this with a vault gold and UB silver in events finals. However, on the world stage, recognition of her talent was less forthcoming and Stella has no world level medals to her name.

I do not contest the scores that Stella received: the code at the time valued stuck landings and polished leaps over acrobatic difficulty, and sadly Stella was not great at sticking her double back cold and her leaps were less than ideal for the time. But one has to ask the question: does this not sound similar to Shawn Johnson, the current Olympic beam champion? I think so, a powerful compact gymnast who excels at acrobatics and big tricks over the finer details of leaps and stuck landings. If Stella had trained such a difficult and original flight series as her routine highlight back in 1991 before the code really required such difficulty, it is fun to imagine what she might have managed today had she been rewarded for her difficulty.

Quads competed in: 89-92; 93-96
Quads more suited to: 05-08


The beautifully uncharacteristic Romanian who had a brilliant world debut at the 2009 world championships. Ana is everything that Romania is not known for: long graceful lines, originality, artistry, nice bars; and the inconsistency that often comes with these abilities.

Many may think of Ana as a strange choice: she is certainly not lacking in the recognition department: she has plenty of fans and is a well known gymnast, and is the possessor of a world championship bronze and a world title on the balance beam. Her debut world championships in 2009 could have been far more fruitful for her had it not been for a few silly mistakes: she could have made the AA podium and been a two time balance beam champion.

So as you can see, Ana is not without her success. However, she has a big problem: the vault.
Unfortunately Ana cannot seem to upgrade from an FTY, and although there have been rumours and the odd video of her training an unsure looking DTY into a pit over the years, nothing has ever surfaced in competition. This poses a problem for her: she is fantastic elsewhere. Her beam is wonderful and her bars and floor are not half bad either (could do with quite a few bars upgrades but she is far from terrible).
Factoring into the AA in the 09-12 quad with a paltry vault is even harder than before. Nastia Liukin took the Olympic AA title in 2008 with a comparatively simple 1.5 twisting yurchenko (which also happened to be one of the most beautiful vaults of the quad in my opinion). She was able to do this because of the code of points at the time: the 10 elements rule meant that she could form monstrous D scores on other apparatus to compensate. Ana is less able to receive this luxury: 8 elements per apparatus mean that scores on bars, beam and floor are lower than they were this time 4 years ago (for example, the highest bars score of the 05-08 quad was 16.900, in this quad it currently stands at around 16.133). Sadly, the Amanar is more of a necessaity to win than ever.

Ana has qualities that match her very well to a much earlier time. Her lack of modern difficulty on vault would not have been a problem for her and she would have excelled in terms of her difficulty in other areas (in a very similar way to Tatiana Gutsu). At the very least, she would have benefitted from being one quad behind: the 05-08 rules would have at least given her more of a chance to build difficulty elsewhere to reduce the pressure on her vaulting.

Were this the case, she may have been respected as a true AA gymnast and have enjoyed success as such, as opposed to being considered a specialist with a weak vault.

Quads competed in: 09-12
Quads more suited to: 05-08


Kristen Maloney has the unfortunate pleasure of being one of the most famous American gymnasts of what was perhaps the USA’s darkest gymnastics period in the modern history of the sport. The 1997-2000 quad was not a good time for the American’s, and the magnificence of the 7 could not seem to be transferred to a new crowd.

In a home setting though, Kristen was well known and successful. A two time national AA champion is not an accolade that comes easily and is certainly one to be proud of. However, international success was never forthcoming for Kristen and hence her international medal cabinet contains only the dubious bronze awarded late due to the age falsifications of Dong Fangxiao.

One thing to be said for Kristen: she had some fantastic skills. Although her presentation was often scrappy and she seemed to never be 100% healthy throughout her entire career, she could pull some very, very impressive tricks out of the bag. Her floor routine at the 2000 Olympics was, and is, one of the most difficult ever to be performed. It included a full twisting double layout, a whip through to double layout and a pike punch through to triple full (as well as some really interesting artistry). It’s the kind of routine that makes you feel exhausted just watching it.

I cannot help but feel that Kristen would have been right at home in 05-08, the trickster quad. Then again, it could successfully be argued that Kristen’s downfall was simply inconsistency. After all, had she not stepped out of the floor area during qualifying she would have made the floor finals. Had she performed in these hypothetical finals to the same standard as her team final performance, she would have received a 9.737. This would have been enough to take the bronze over Simona Amanar = Kristen Maloney would be an OLYMPIC medallist. Crazy, right?

So whether it was the coding climate that held back Kristen, or indeed herself, is a matter of opinion. Yet I still believe she would have found greater success in the quad of the code overhaul. As would a fellow Sydney competitor below....

Quad competed in: 97-00
Quad more suited to: 05-08


I know virtually nothing about this gymnast. I stumbled upon her beam work whilst absent mindedly half-watching the sub divisions of the 2000 Olympics WAG qualifications last year. Out of knowhere came this statuesque and hugely talented gymnast I has never heard of before. It is very rare that I watch something and am genuinely surprised by what I see: usually when we watch footage we know a lot about the competitors and have most often seen the routines several times before. But this was something entirely different. An unknown Korean gymnast at the Sydney Olympics competing a routine containing a BHS-BHS-LO2F connection AND a roundoff layout full?! Insanity.

It is times like this when you realise why the code needed to change. I am usually such a modern code hater, and totally unforgiving of wobbles, but the fact is that this routine obviously did not receive the recognition it deserved. The guidelines of the time were blind to its huge difficulty. And yes I am well aware that a lot of it was messy and wobbly and not as fluent to watch as many others, but even so, it’s very impressive. With everything that is wrong with the sport today, at least we can say that gymnasts, most of the time, are rewarded adequately for the hard skills they learn.

There are undoubtedly many more names that will come to me post writing, but time constrains me. I always love to hear feedback and differing opinions particularly on something as abstract and speculative as this.

Merry Christmas!


  1. Wonderful, love this :)

    Yea many of the less perfect tricksters would have benefitted from the new code. Gina Gogean VS Kui Yuan Yuan in Beam EF Worlds 1997. The code was much less forgiving on bobbles then. Mo Huilan missed both BB and UB EFs in Atlanta, while in 2008 both Nastia and He Kexin made UB EF with a fall. Strange, while people complain about how the code values difficulty too much now, it was equally frustrating when the old code didn't care about difficulty much.

    I would also add Vanessa Atler to the list. Bars were her nemesis, but her quad valued AAers. She could have been really successful like ASac.

    Lauren Mitchell. For being a BB and FX specialist in a quad where UB and VT scores high. Dunno where she will fit in though.

    Pretty much the entire romanian gymnastics program got screwed with the new code. Well they were always weak on bars, but they used to lose maybe 0.2 in difficulty/scores. Right now, they lose 3 points, which is much harder to make up, especially since bars is still a higher scoring apparatus.

    /rant/ Merry Christmas :)

  2. Definitely, Vanessa Atler would have been incredibly more successful in a code that favored the use of specialist. She is virtually ASac. Rudi vault, great beam, powerful floor but dismal bars.

  3. Definitely Atler. That girl was just amazing and rather than be recognized for is she spent her entire career being punished for her weakness. Its frustrating because there is literally no reason for it. I didn't mention her here though because I wrote about her not long ago (about her DLO-punch-stag combination).

    Lauren Mitchell and Romania are great examples that I hadn't thought of. Its weird that with Romania is is clearly to do with their program and coaching - why not just concentrate on bars a little more? (I realise it will be vastly more complicated than that, but it seems so simple).

    "equally frustrating when the old code didn't care about difficulty much" - exactly. I am one of the biggest whiners ever but I still appreciate why it had to happen. I feel like towards the end of the 10 system there were some scores that just made no sense, particularly in Sydney. This is an example I have used recently but I keep thinking about it and getting riled: Khorkina outscored Lobaz on floor in the TF. This would make sense if Lobaz's routine was tricky but wobbly, but it was, I think, the superior routine in every aspect.

    I always think it is such a shame about Mo, she could have been the star of those Olympics. Sad, really.

    There obv needs to be a balance that we have yet to find. One that prevents code whoring but doesn't reward difficulty to a chucking level.