Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Aly Raisman, Romanian Gymnast?

Aly Raisman has more than one identity. For most fans, she's the powerful American gymnast who won two Olympic gold medals in London. For followers of the nichier Jewish media, she's a Jewish gymnast who performed her winning floor routine to the quintessentially Jewish niggun, Hava Nagalia. (This is why she was given the honor of lighting the flame at the Maccabiah Games in Israel and will be performing an exhibition routine at the competition.) But perhaps we need to add one more identity: Romanian gymnast. Yes, Raisman is essentially a Romanian gymnast from Boston.

Now I know that some Romanian gymnastics fans probably had a heart attack/broke out in apoplectic rage at the thought of Raisman, who for fans of "artistic" gymnastics is Public Enemy #1. (As I type this, I'm all of the sudden struck with the desire to see Raisman perform a PE song cause that's how my mind works.)

What makes Raisman Romanian? Her coaches.

Her coaches hail from Romania and have molded her in their homeland's style: high level of difficulty on beam and floor with choppy choreography, workman-like vaults, and a terrible set of uneven bars. Her form is "loose" like many Romanians such as Larisa Iordache. She is slimmer than Raisman and a bit more flexible and so appears to have better form, but both athletes never really extend fully and lock out their knees or point their toes very hard. It's kind of lazy or rushed or both. If Raisman had a body type more similar to Iordache's, she'd probably appear to maintain better form, too. (I'll concede that Iordache's form is still better than Raisman's.)

Vault stopped being a strong event for Romania a long time ago--right around the time Monica Rosu won the event in Athens. But even back then, the rest of the team showed some pretty careless form on the apparatus, something that continues to this day. While Raisman showed good technique and form on double twisting Yurchenko, it went a bit downhill when she upgraded to an Amanar. It wasn't Paseka 2012 bad (Paseka in 2013 seems to have improved marginally), but it was unsightly at times.

Here is Ponor in 2004 on vault:



And here she is in 2012--improved somewhat:



Now these vault are not bad at all, just a little loose and sloppy in places. The word I keep using (and will use again) is careless. It just all seems kind of careless.

A flexed foot here, a bent knee there. Nothing to get too upset about but nothing to get too excited about either. No frills gymnastics. Ho hum. She simply gets the job done.

And then there's bars. The Romanian inadequacies on the uneven bars are well known. I'm not even going to bother to post Romanian or Raisman routines. Both contain missed handstands galore, flexed feet, leg separations, and labored swing. While some like to attribute the Romanian deficiencies on this event to lack of grips, I disagree. (Many Chinese gymnasts in recent years have competed without grips and they seem to do just fine.) It's bad coaching. If we accept that Raisman is a sleeper Romanian gymnast (WHO WANTS TO HELP PRODUCE THE MOVIE, "SLEEPER ROMANIAN GYMNAST"?) especially on bars, then it's no surprise that this . Bars hasn't been the best apparatus for the American team but many of the U.S. gymnasts can swing decently, keep their toes pointed, and legs together through a routine while performing an adequate level of difficulty.

Raisman's former training partner, while having much cleaner execution, was similarly bars challenged. Alicia Sacramone gave up on the event in 2006, an apparatus she admits she was actually afraid of. But Sacramone doesn't fit the Romanian mold as well as Raisman--her vaulting was a key strength whereas the Romanians and Aly get by on serviceable vaulting while really loading up on difficulty on beam and floor. But Sacramone and Ponor share one big thing in common on floor--janky form/execution on their full-twisting double back. Is it a pike? Is it a tuck? It's both! A miracle!

My point isn't to denigrate either Raisman (you know I'm a fan) or Romanian gymnastics (god, I miss Ana Porgras). It's just to demonstrate that perhaps more than anything, the instruction a gymnast receives is the most important thing and that similar coaching, regardless of athlete, yields similar results. 

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