Thursday, June 28, 2012

Spotting Nastia

If you've been following the internet chatter surrounding the women's podium training for the Olympic Trials, you might've heard several variations on this dialogue in connection to Nastia Liukin's uneven bar routine. (In case you didn't know, Nastia Liukin had a fairly disastrous performance on the uneven bars at the National Championships, one of the two events she returned on in her comeback journey.)

"It was only a light tap."

"No, he totally lifted her up into the dismount."

I'm not particularly interested in the strength of the tap--light as a feather or baseball bat strength whack to the backside. My question is far more general--how have we come to this?

It's the Olympic Trials. Each and every one of these girls is an elite athlete. How has the conversation around the defending Olympic champion come down to spotting. We're no longer worried about whether she will hit her routines in competition or has the requisite difficulty to make a meaningful contribution to the team on the apparatus, but whether she is even capable of doing the individual elements in the practice sessions without some major help. Never before in my years of obsessive fandom and closely monitoring competitions have I come across this phenomenon. I've never seen such focused discussion on whether an athlete at this level can do her routines without help. Frankly, I feel bad for her. This would be embarrassing for any high level athlete.

I'm sure she is also quite unhappy about the nature of the conversation that has sprung up around her. Liukin is a fierce competitor and before Nationals, she asserted that she hoped to contend for the team and a gold medal. Now it seems like a "win" for her will be doing full sets without running out of steam. (An "A" for effort?)

Nastia always talks about how she puts her faith in Valeri's plan, which begs the question--what is plan? What we're seeing cannot be it. His plan cannot have her come to pre-Olympic competitions woefully underprepared, unable to finish her routines, and possibly damage her hard earned reputation in the process. Yes, she will always be the 2008 Olympic Champion, a title she won in beautiful fashion four years ago, but these past few weeks will be an unfortunate postscript to her illustrious career. (As a huge Shannon Miller fan, I always cringe at the memory of her very late comeback in 2000 and the results.)

Unless of course she surprises basically everyone and hits her bar routines spectacularly during the meet. Can this happen? Sure. Why not? Stranger, more wonderful things have already happened, such as the Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of the healthcare bill with Chief Justice Roberts of all people being the swing vote and writing the (winning!) majority's opinion. It is surely a time of miracles. Maybe Liukin can ride the SCOTUS wave and nail her bar set twice.

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