Friday, August 19, 2011

Thoughts on Women's National Championships, Day 1

Last evening I rushed home from yoga (thereby negating any relaxing effect the practice might've had) to watch the women's preliminaries at the national championships and boy, did they disappoint.

Well -- kindasortofmaybe.

It's hard for me to be truly disappointed when there is new, live gymnastics streaming on my computer. I am always grateful for the online resources because unlike some younger fans of the sport, I remember a time when prelims were never televised and gymnastics in general was broadcast only two times a year -- nationals and worlds. I lived for those two competitions and recorded them so I could relive them every other weekend of the year. The kids these days, they're all spoiled with their YouTube.

Anyway, I'm going to stop grousing like a curmudgeonly old man for a moment to give you some of my unorganized thoughts about Day 1:

Aly Raisman: very proud of this gymnast and her excellent floor set. She is not the most polished athlete (toes and knees could certainly use some work) but her difficulty is great on this apparatus and her new "Hava Nagila" routine really works for her. In fact, it was shockingly one of the better choreographed and performed floor routines of the meet. I say shocking because Aly herself has admitted that is not so comfortable dancing. But her routine, unlike most, includes real dance, real movement across the mat, instead of just a series of choppy poses that seem to pay no mind to the music. Oh, and she cutely mentioned her Jewish background when questioned about the music in the post meet interview. (She also mentioned that she has committed to the University of Florida for her NCAA career. I'm sure she will be very happy and successful there but this will certainly make her stand out among pretentious Northeast Jews should she choose to move to New York post-college.)

Shawn Johnson: I've always been a fan of hers. Though she may not have been elegant like Nastia, I appreciated her flawless technique and her consistency. Watching her reminded me of watching Shannon Miller -- you could relax and feel safe in the knowledge that she would hit.

Well, that Shawn is not back just yet. She seems to be nervous and jumpy, which is now how I feel watching her. But tonight she was uber consistent and showed signs of returning to her former consistent form (hopefully with a lot of added difficulty). And I must say, I've been so impressed with her interviews, which betray intelligence, good humor and humility. Even one friend, who admitted to favoring Nastia in 2004-2008 era has admitted that she is now really rooting for Shawn.

Jordyn Wieber: She had some uncharacteristic errors but I believe she will be fine. In fact, I'm glad to see she is not peaking here at nationals with worlds nearly 2 months away. And as the aforementioned friend said, "Jordyn's muscles have muscles." Madonna would be proud. Or jealous?

Favorite comment of the night: This one from John Roethlisberger (you know I had to cut and paste his last name from elsewhere), referring to Mackenzie Caquatto's heavily taped foot: "It looks like she's wearing an Ugg on her right foot." Well done sir. And if this competition were being held in Los Angeles, she'd pair that Ugg with a denim mini.

And finally...why nationals?

As I watched gymnast after gymnast fall and listened to the commentators (who incidentally didn't make me want to shoot myself in the face tonight -- I actually liked John and Elfi kept her inane comments to a minimum for once) talk about the need for good bar routines since the U.S. team is very weak on the event, I couldn't help but wonder -- why do we even bother holding national championships anymore?

With two months to go before the world championships in Tokyo, none of the gymnasts are really in peak condition (which is wise). This was obvious from the all of the falls. Nearly every gymnast had at least one major break. Several had more than one.

Furthermore, the results from nationals don't determine the team because straight all around results really don't matter that much anymore. We know that the U.S. needs a strong bar worker so in theory, a gymnast who had a disaster on floor or vault or beam but has a stellar uneven bar set can still make the team.

So if the gymnasts aren't in peak shape and the placements sort of don't matter other than to prove to Marta Karolyi that you can mentally hang tough then why are we still bothering with this whole shebang? After all, the worlds team going to get decided at a training camp at the Karolyi ranch in Texas behind closed doors. So what's with the big public display? When I asked this question to a knowledgeable party, she immediately responded, "$$$$$," which makes sense. They don't call it the Visa Championships because the gymnasts are trying to navigate the bureaucracy to get documents to travel to foreign country. (Sorry -- that pun took a bit too long to set up.)

But why do we not compete the girls internationally more in small meets and use their scores from those competitions to select teams, just as the Romanians did very successfully did in 2004? Why do we use this grueling system of competitions that don't matter and camps that usually result in at least one in injury to a top gymnast to select the team? Why are other teams smarter about their selection process?

In a word: depth. While other teams have lost their depth and need to train and compete their star athletes in a smarter fashion, the U.S., at least on the women's side, still has incredible depth, which allows Marta Karolyi to do what amounts to fraternity hazing in some instances and run the athletes through a grueling, pointless, secretive selection process.

Or maybe I'm just being bitter because the selection process is not televised and will never be shown on YouTube.

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