Alexa

Talkin' about practice _ except in gymnastics, where it counts

Talkin' about practice _ except in gymnastics, where it counts

The Chinese were taking pictures, the South Koreans were oohing and aahing and even judges on the other side of the arena were craning their heads to sneak peeks at the Americans.
This was no regular old practice session. Podium training is the meet within the meet at the world gymnastics championships, the only time gymnasts get to train on the competition floor before the event starts. Do well, and you've earned some bonus points with the judges. Do poorly and, well, you could be starting from behind.
"Judges are not supposed to make up their minds because routines can change," Martha Karolyi, coordinator of the U.S. women's team, said Wednesday. "But it is important, and we teach the girls that they have to do their best at this. First, it's to build self-confidence and second, to make a good impression."
Especially for a team so young.
The Americans came to worlds as one of the favorites, their roster stocked with two former world champions (Nastia Liukin and Alicia Sacramone) and the winner of the Pan American Games (new national champion Shawn Johnson). But they also are inexperienced. Liukin and Sacramone are the only Americans who've been to a world championships before, so the rest are learning the ways of the worlds on the fly.
A maze of warm-up gyms, podium training in front of half the world _ it's all a new experience for the rest of the gang.
"I had no idea you only get to work out on the (competition floor) one time," Shayla Worley said. "I was so surprised. Like, 'What?'"
If it's any consolation, the Americans aren't the only ones new at this. China only brought three members of the team that won gold last year, leaving Zhou Zhuoru and Olympic bronze medalist Zhang Nan behind. Russia's team includes its junior champion, Daria Elizarova, and a 15-year-old, Ksenia Semenova.
"I hope my team will do their best. But it's much too young in gymnastics," said Elena Zamolodchikova, Russia's only veteran and a two-time Olympic gold medalist.
Romania's team also has a different look than it did last year _ though its newest member is actually its oldest. Catalina Ponor, who won three gold medals at the Athens Olympics, is back after deciding retirement didn't suit her.
The women's competition begins Saturday with the preliminaries. The Americans don't go until Sunday, but there was plenty on the line Wednesday. And not only with the judges.
The Americans brought seven women, and Karolyi must decide which six will compete and who will be the alternate. Though Liukin, Johnson and Sacramone are considered locks, Karolyi said she still hasn't settled on a roster. Wednesday's practice session will weigh heavily in her decision.
This lineup can't just be built for Sunday's prelims, either.
Gymnastics uses two very different scoring formats for preliminaries and finals. In prelims, a team uses five of its six gymnasts on every event and counts the four best scores. In finals, three gymnasts compete on each event, and every score counts. So if a gymnast falters, a team might as well kiss its hopes for gold goodbye.
Look at last year. The Americans cruised through prelims almost four points ahead of everybody else, yet had to settle for the silver medal behind China after two falls.
"We're looking at the finals moreso, who we can make the strongest team with," Karolyi said. "That's a big part of what we'll consider when we decide. We consider it more important. We always considered it, but now it's of even greater importance."
So just as the judges were watching every routine with a careful eye, so was Karolyi. She nodded her head and clapped when someone did something well _ she was a big fan of Sacramone's powerful and acrobatic floor routine _ and winced when things didn't go quite as planned. Karolyi watched stone-faced as Sam Peszek struggled on the balance beam and wasn't thrilled when Bridget Sloan did a belly flop off the uneven bars.
It's not always major mistakes, either. A bobbled pirouette on bars, a wobble on floor _ the little things add up, too.
"I'm very happy, but like always, there are places we can improve," Karolyi said. "We have three more days."
And if the Americans do perform their best, they're confident they'll be the team everyone's watching when the gold medals are handed out.
"If we all go out there and hit our routines to the best of our ability," Worley said, "I don't think anybody can beat us."
ROPES AND MATS:@ Liukin, who struggled with consistency at nationals two weeks ago because of an ankle injury that's bothered her all year, is still hoping to compete in the all-around. The injury cost the two-time U.S. champ a shot at a world title last year. "I don't push very hard for that," her father and coach, Valeri, said of doing the all-around here, acknowledging their real focus is on the Beijing Olympics. ... Liang Chow, Johnson's personal coach, is the head coach of the U.S. women's team. Armine Barutyan, who coaches Ivana Hong, was named the assistant.


Updated : 2021-01-19 12:26 GMT+08:00