US gymnasts fly to new heights

The USA women on the podium after landing their first team gold since 1996

I am going to be honest about this one. Although I used to enjoy watching gymnastics, I was never what you might want to call a fan. I fell in love with Olga Korbut when I was nine and admired – without falling in love with – Nadia Comineci four year later…but since then I have looked on at arm’s length.

That began to change last summer when I met up a couple of times with Ioannis Melissanidis, the exuberant Greek, who won gold on the floor at the Atlanta Olympics of 1996.

I was working on a book for the Olympics – sadly dumped at late notice by the publisher – and we were chatting about the pressures and experiences of preparing for and taking part in the Olympics.

It was only then that I fully began to realise the pressure and strain on a gymnast’s body, the attention to detail, the hours of work and the lack of beer in the gymnast’s diet. One line, in particular, stayed with me.

“Before I went out in the final, my coach said to me; ‘Today, you are not going out there to do a routine – you are going out there to fly’.”

And boy did he fly. His routine is a wonderful mix of muscular gymnastics and Nureyevesque ballet.

And that is pretty much what we saw from the USA women as they cleaned up the gold medal in the team event today (July 31), beating second-placed Russia by a whopping five points.

It began on Sunday when they drilled the bejaysus out of everyone else in qualifying. Already world champions, they were undoubtedly the team to beat.
The Russians had the best chance but the US were flying, almost literally, from the start, some wondrous vaulting on the first apparatus immediately giving them the initiative.

Jordyn Wieber, surprisingly eliminated from the individual all-round final by two of her teammates, led the way with a vault that earned her a score of 15.933 before Gabby Douglas lived up to her nickname of the Flying Squirrel with a 15.966.

McKayla Maroney then ignored her injured ankle to fire in another Amanar and log a 16.233 – an echo of Kerri Strug’s limping vault securing the US their only other women’s team gold back in 1996.

“Starting out on vault was really good for us,” said Wieber. “Just kind of kickstarting the competition like that was really good for us, and we just carried everything through to the next three events.”

It was poetry in motion and there was to be much more of it. Not just from the Americans. The Russians, Romanians and Chinese all had their moments but the Americans were too consistent in their brilliance to be troubled.

At 37, Oksana Chusovitina proves there is no reason why female gymnasts should not last beyond their teens

The one perturbing thing about the competition is the youth of the gymnasts – they are girls rather than women – and the burnout. Four years ago, we were all talking about Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson…now aged 22 and 20 respectively, they are has-beens, listed as retired gymnasts. It hardly encourages parents to put their daughters on the beam.

Three cheers then for the likes of Beth Tweddle anc Catalina Ponor, both in the mid to late 20s, and the extraordinary Oksana Chusovitina who is still going strong at 37, in her sixth Olympics.

I was lucky enough to be commentating the final with David Crossan – you should follow him on Twitter for Eurosport in 3D. It is a wonderful way to watch, the gymnasts bursting through the screen. Well, okay, not actually bursting through the screen but giving you a sharp little wake-up call as they hurtle off the vault.

An added bonus, incidentally, is Dave’s supreme efficiency at naming every song used by the women in the floor exercises – tonight he even picked up on Jude Law’s musical contribution to The Talented Mr Ripley.

You can join us on Wednesday for the men’s individual all-round final. Sadly, I will lose my Mr Statto to the athletics track next week although the blow has been cushioned by the news that the aforementioned Ioannis Melissanidis will be joining me in the box for the individual apparatus finals.

Incidentally, if you have never seen his gold-medal wining performance from the Atlanta Games of 1996, then spare a couple of minutes now to take a peek.


©Barney Spender 2012