What gymnastics worlds mean for the Olympics
The gymnastics world championships concluded Sunday in Tokyo after more than a week of competition. The U.S. and Russia were the dominant players, with the Americans winning gold in both the team and all-around, and Russia taking silver in both events. What does it all mean for the London Olympics, less than a year away? Here are five stories that came out of worlds, and their Olympic implications:
Jordyn Wieber has nerves of steel. The U.S. national champ led the American team to gold, competing in every event in the all-scores-count, pressure-packed team finals without a hitch. Then, two days later, she brought her mental A-game again in the all-around competition. After making a mistake on uneven bars, she nailed her beam set in the next rotation, completing top-difficulty combinations like a back flip full twist to back handspring without a wobble. In the end, she edged Russia's Viktoria Komova for the all-around title. Wieber qualified to three event finals as well, and though she earned only one medal (a bronze on beam), every routine was solid. In Tokyo, she competed 15 routines and never fell. She came in as the favorite to win the all-around and did exactly that. Jordyn Wieber is a machine.
The Russians need their Amanars back. The American women won the team title, beating the Russians by a little more than two points on vault alone. Why? The U.S. did much harder vaults -- two vaulters (Wieber and McKayla Maroney) threw the Amanar, a Yurchenko with a 2½-twist flip. No Russian did an Amanar, but at least three are capable of it: Komova, Tatiana Nabieva and the currently injured Aliya Mustafina. If the Russian women sub in those vaults at the Olympics, they'll increase their difficulty score on vault by 2.1 -- and the gap between the two teams will narrow considerably.
The U.S. has the deepest team in the world. And it's a good thing that's true, since athletes fell by the wayside leading up to worlds. Rebecca Bross, Chellsie Memmel, Mackenzie Caquatto, Anna Li and Alicia Sacramone all might have competed in Tokyo, yet each was injured in the six weeks before worlds. It's almost unbelievable that the Americans still won after rolling through that many top athletes that quickly. It's fantastic that the talent pool is seemingly bottomless, but the injuries should also serve as a warning sign. The arduous team training camps, along with the current scoring system, which pushes extreme difficulty, may have made injuries a given this year. While the U.S. program can't control the scoring, it might be time to rework the team training process for next year, so the Americans can choose their team, not have it chosen for them by unfortunate injuries.
Everyone will be better next year. The U.S. women were missing many of their top-tier gymnasts, and four of the five who ended up competing were in their first year on the senior level. The young team excelled, and they'll only improve in 2012. Nastia Liukin, the 2008 Olympic all-around champion, has announced she'll be making a comeback for London, and could bring in a substantial bar score if she's back to top form.
Many of the other countries were also without key gymnasts. Russia's Mustafina, last year's world all-around champion, is at home rehabbing an ACL tear. She'll be a big help to the Russians' team score. So will Komova. She won the all-around silver and bar gold in Tokyo, but is still recovering from an ankle injury that limited her difficulty on most events. The Romanians will have Larisa Iordache, a junior gymnast turning senior next year, who has already received all-around scores on par with what Wieber and Komova achieved in Tokyo. Sandra Izbasa, the 2008 Olympic floor champion, should be back for Romania, as well. China's Cheng Fei, a five-time world gold medalist, is competing again, and was once the best in the world on both floor and vault. The defending Olympic champs may also make different lineup choices than they did in Tokyo: Wu Liufang was the alternate this year, but is probably a better pick for London than He Kexin, the Olympic bar champion who has now been off her game two years in a row.
The gold medalists at worlds almost never repeat. In 2003, Russian Svetlana Khorkina won the all-around at worlds, and then was the runner-up at the 2004 Olympics. At the 2007 worlds, Shawn Johnson took the all-around title, and she too earned the silver one year later at the Olympics. The U.S. women won the world team gold in both 2003 and 2007, but couldn't match that feat either time at the Olympics; they ended up winning silver in both 2004 and 2008. It's easy to look at the world champions who've just been crowned and say they're the front-runners for gold next year. Yes, many of them will be favorites again in 2012. But following up a world title with an Olympic one happens rarely: Gymnastics is a fickle sport, and so much depends on one day's performance. In short, the Olympics should be a very exciting, wide-open competition, with no guaranteed favorites.