New plan works for U.S. gymnasts
Less taxing lead-in to Games helps propel Americans to unprecedented success
Timing is everything.
For the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team, the naming of its five-member squad at the Olympic trials in August could have as much to do with its success at these London Games as those Yurchenko two-and-a-half vaults.
In recent Olympics, national team coordinator Martha Karolyi opted to select the team after a two-week, post-trials selection camp held at the Karolyi ranch outside of Houston. Trials was simply a means of gauging which athletes were competing well and narrowing down the list of women who would be invited to the camp. But instead of the gymnasts peaking for trials and then using the time between trials and the Olympics to polish routines and take care of injuries before gearing up for the Games, Karolyi asked her athletes to follow trials with another competition. For two weeks and behind closed doors, they competed against one another, performing routines full-out, over and over again. That took a toll on their bodies, and on their minds.
In 2008, for example, Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin finished 1-2 at trials, were invited to the selection camp and named to the Olympic team with the caveat that they still needed to prove themselves during those two weeks. At the USOC Media Summit in Dallas in May, Shawn Johnson called that camp "the longest, most stressful process of my life. I felt like I was run into the ground," she said. "After trials, I was like, 'Ahh, I made the team. Oh wait, no I didn't. I still have to compete.'"
During the 2008 Olympics, Chellsie Memmel broke her ankle during a training session at the practice center in Beijing. A few days later, Samantha Peszek injured her ankle minutes before the women's qualifier and was unable to compete on the uneven bars. The team was the hands-down favorite to win the team all-around, but finished second to China. Johnson admitted to struggling with confidence issues in Beijing and feeling beat down throughout the Games.
It is impossible to discount the effect that the additional mental and physical stress of those selection camps had on the team. When asked if she believed the change would be a positive one, Johnson, who at the time was still in the running for a spot on this year's team, said, "Absolutely."
"This way, it will preserve me more and hopefully do the same for the entire team," Johnson said. "It's one less meet you have to be on your A-game for. If you look back at 2008, our entire team was at its strongest at trials and then we slowly started to break down. I think they learned from 2008, and this time, I think will peak at the right time."
Call her a clairvoyant. This team is peaking better than any U.S. team in history. With three days of competition remaining, it is already the most successful. No U.S. team has won both the team and individual all-around titles in the same Olympics. Since arriving in London, there have been no injuries, no major breaks in confidence.
Jordyn Wieber, the current world champion, failed to make the individual all-around final essentially because too many of her teammates were peaking at the perfect time (and a rules change that allows for only two athletes from each team to make the final), a problem any national team coordinator should be happy to have.
But when the announcement was made earlier this year that the team would be named on the final day of trials, instead of in her usual fashion, Martha Karolyi expressed concern. "I always said I would prefer to wait to the end," Karolyi said Thursday night, moments after watching Gabby Douglas become the fifth American woman to win the individual all-around title, and two days after watching her team win the team all-around gold. "But I think it turned out great. This was a good selection. I was happy with it, and everything proved that they were ready to do the job that was expected."
Even Aly Raisman, the team captain who finished just off the podium in the individual all-around competition after falling on the wrong side of the tiebreaker rule, performed the meet of her life in qualifiers and led her team to only its second team all-around gold in U.S. history.
"I like this way a lot better. I like competing in front of a crowd instead of vying for a spot at training camp," Raisman said. "It's easier on our bodies and helps us peak at the right time."
And in front of the world.