Friday, January 18, 2008

Media Darlings

The One

“All she needs to do is hit this exercise; this should be her championship,” says Elfi Schlegel, NBC’s gymnastics commentator at the 1997 American Cup.

Schlegel was referring to Vanessa Atler, the 15-year-old reigning junior national champion competing in her first international meet as a senior competitor. Atler had filled in for Shannon Miller on Floor Exercise at the 1996 USA vs. The World, a made-for-TV event which aired on FOX the previous September, but this was her first time competing before real senior- international judges.

Despite falling on her first tumbling pass the day before, Atler managed to land the tumbling pass this time. Her only noticeable fault in the exercise was an obvious step out of bounds on her first skill, a double front somersault. The title looked to be Atler’s until Elvire Teza, a 1996 Olympian from France, managed to squeeze out the title by .006, despite questionable landings on her first two tumbling passes.

Earning a silver medal at one’s international debut is a formidable achievement, but Beth Ruyak, NBC’s on-the-floor interviewer, was already asking Atler how it felt to just miss the title.

“I know in your heart, you were wondering if you could win it,” said Ruyak to the gymnastics rookie.

The United States had just earned the Team Gold Medal at the 1996 Olympics and the media was quick to anoint Atler as ‘the one’. Unfortunately for Atler, .006 made the difference between earning the crown and ending a sixteen-year-streak of American dominance at the American Cup, the most prestigious gymnastics event held annually in the United States.

Losing the cup did not hurt Atler’s popularity in the least. Earlier in the broadcast, Ruyak presented a glowing profile on the California native, introducing her as an ‘All-American girl’, showing her writing her online diary for her official website, discussing her grades while riding to the gym with her parents, and answering fan mail.

Never one to avoid the saccharine, Ruyak included Atler talking about her recently deceased grandfather’s birthday occurring right before the meet.

“When you told me you’d be there watching me in Sydney, I didn’t realize it would be in spirit. Happy birthday Grandpa, you always told me I’d be on the greatest gymnasts,” wrote Atler to her online readers.

“Isn’t she charming?’ interjected Ruyak at the piece’s conclusion.

A love affair was born.

The ‘It Factor’

Kristie Phillips can relate to Atler. Phillips was featured on a September 1986 cover of Sports Illustrated that touted her as ‘The New Mary Lou.’ Phillips had yet to compete at a senior national championship.

Phillips’ star grew over the next 16 months; she had a sparking personality, a famous Romanian coach [Bela Karolyi] and a unique flexibility move on the balance beam, a back bend where she bent and then flexed her back to the amazement of judges and fans alike.

Johnny Carson featured her on his talk show in 1987. Journalists clamored Karolyi’s Houston training center to get a glimpse of her. The media machine waited for Phillips to continue where Mary Lou Retton left off at the 1984 Olympics.

“I actually toured in ’84 with the ’84 team,” remembers Phillips. “I was at Bela’s then and that’s when my crowd appeal started. I just have an energy and a presence that people want to watch when I’m on the floor or on the beam. I was a born entertainer.”

Sheryl Shade, who began representing Atler in 1997, found her client to possess equally appealing qualities.

“It is the personality; it is the smile,” says Shade, who is President of Shade Global, a New York based athlete-marketing agency. “You can’t take things too seriously. Everyone felt comfortable with her. She lit up a room with her personality. There was a confidence with her, but there wasn’t arrogance.”

Shade was acutely aware of the unique level of media interest in Atler and advised her to go professional in order to capitalize on the opportunities readily available to her.

Turning professional meant Atler was giving up her ability to earn a scholarship on an NCAA gymnastics team. It wasn’t a very difficult decision to make in the summer of 1997; Atler tied for the top prize at the 1997 National Gymnastics Championships and needing something to be excited about after being ineligible to compete at that year’s World Championships due to gymnastics’ international governing body’s new policy that required an athlete to become 16 years old in order to participate in a World Championships or Olympic Games. Atler had already been six weeks too young to compete in the 1996 Olympics and was now missing out yet again.

Though she watched Worlds on television, Atler involved herself with a series of interesting projects. Atler and her training mate, Jamie Dantzscher, worked as stunt doubles for the Lifetime movie, Little Girls In Pretty Boxes, which aired later that year. There was an international competition in Australia and new skills to perfect. Soon, Atler flipped across a balance beam, showing exactly how she ate a Reese’s. Multiple media appearances and a commercial for the USOC followed.

Atler and Phillips are two examples of “the one”, an individual chosen by a marketing machine that is consistently churning out advertising personality products.

No singular individual is to blame for “the one” phenomenon. Coach Bela Karolyi picks athletes to be “the one”, but newspaper editors, television directors, marketing executives, columnists, agents, stage-parents, and zealous athletes all look for the next “one”. Those who bear the distinction reap the rewards (financial, score-wise, attention, et al) and suffer the consequences of pressure and false concept when the dream of being “the one” turns into a nightmare.


Agents are as common in elite sports as coaches. Nastia Liukin, Chellsie Memmel, Shawn Johnson, Jana Bieger and Alicia Sacramone have all signed with agencies in order to participate in the unique opportunities available to them in the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Liukin, daughter of former soviet gymnastics legends Valeri Liukin and Anna Kotchneva, is the biggest name in international gymnastics. Her long bodyline and inherent grace reminds viewers of Svetlana Khorkina, the Russian ‘Queen of Gymnastics’ who passed the torch to Liukin after the 2004 Olympics.

Khorkina, who many feel was robbed of the 2000 Olympic All-Around title when the vault was set at an incorrect height, finished a close second to Carly Patterson, who trained alongside Liukin at the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Plano, TX, one of three gyms owned by Liukin’s parents.

Patterson appeared effervescent on NBC’s broadcast of the 2003 Worlds. She jokingly uttered an “Oh, that’s too bad,” as a fall by a Romanian cemented the team’s victory. Her personality was perfect, but Patterson clammed up in her post-Olympic interviews and her biggest endorsement deal wound up being Tyson chicken.

Patterson trained with Liukin, who now benefits from watching the dedication it took to be a star and the mistakes one can make when overwhelmed. One shouldn’t expect Liukin to instantly jump towards an acting career the way Patterson announced her intentions to become a singer shortly after earning Olympic gold. Nastia Liukin’s agent is experienced—already announcing her intention to compete until 2012 in order to avoid any Patterson-style advertising blunders.

Evan Morganstein, Liukin’s agent from the Premier Marketing Group, anticipates cashing in big when the Olympics are aired live from Beijing on NBC. Liukin reportedly earns seven figures a year, but her unique personality, looks and style figure to net PMG substantial paychecks in the future. The women’s team final may prove to be the closest Olympic team competition since the USA-USSR hockey match in Lake Placid. Morganstein expects his client to dominate the games.

“She is already tied with Shannon [Miller] for the most World Championship medals,” says the president of PMG. “It’s very realistic. You can come and have success as a one-off, or you can compete over a long period of time. “Gymnastics is a subjective sport. When you’ve had success over a number of years like Nastia has, the judges get what you’re doing and like it.”

Liukin recently added gold medals from the team and balance beam events at the 2007 World Gymnastics Championships, along with silver on the uneven bars. The two-time national All-Around champion likely would’ve passed Miller’s world medal haul, if her training hadn’t been hampered for the past year by a harrowing ankle injury.

Viewers may not know Liukin yet, but the fierce competitor will likely be everywhere in the coming months.

“She has a substantial relationship with AT&T; she has the only signature line of AAI gymnastics equipment, including a starter beam and gymnastics mat, all of which she helped create,” tours Morganstein. “Nastia has a global relationship with VISA, which may result in a global TV campaign. It is to be determined at this point. We have a relationship with a head writer at a magazine to write her autobiography if it makes sense.”

Morganstein does not expect Liukin’s corporate contracts to disrupt her training.

“We are not doing a ton of endorsements right before the Olympics. We did deals with industry leaders six months ago so she wouldn’t have eight sponsorships to interrupt her focus on her success.”

What’s At Stake? (Side-bar)

Members of the 1996 Women’s Gymnastics Team earned more than $300,000 each for their participation in a post-Olympic tour. In addition, the golden girls signed a group book deal, participated in made-for-TV competitions, and each fulfilled contracts of their own.

The Magnificent Seven’s male counterparts earned $100,000 each for appearing in the 1996 tour.

USA Gymnastics corporate sponsor pays Paul Hamm $20,000 a year for winning the 2004 Olympic All-Around title. With the contract expiring in 2008, Hamm is back for more glory after being absent from competition for the last three years.

The lead-up to Olympic glory is also lucrative.

Atler earned $10,000 for flipping across a balance beam and proclaiming to the world how she likes to eat a Reese’s. Patterson was featured in commercials for VISA and her picture was used on McDonald’s bags across the United States during the lead-up to Athens.

Dominique Moceanu scored a book deal in 1995 after becoming the youngest-national-champion in history. Media and marketer’s jumped on Karolyi’s Romanian-American protégé who was labeled part Nadia, part Mary Lou. Annie Leibovitz photographed her for Vanity Fair, clothing lines developed deals with her and agents signed her at the age of 10.

Moceanu later emancipated herself from her parents after her father emptied her $4.5 million trust fund to build a training center to keep cashing in on her success.

Talent as the Ultimate Curse

With great promise comes great expectations. Realizations of that promise in magazines and commercials only add to the burden.

Atler’s dazzling abilities on vault, balance beam and floor exercise came with one hitch: the uneven bars provided her a mental block.

Time after time, Atler performed with near perfection on three events, only to crash on the bars, often on the same skill.

Nadia Comaneci earned a perfect 10.0 with her ‘Comaneci’ salto, a move where she released from the bar, flipped forward in the straddle position, and then re-grabbed.

“I actually asked my coach to teach it to me after watching old videos of Nadia,” remembers Atler, whose failings with the skill caused her to lose countless titles.

NBC picked up on the trend and built its storylines around the obvious drama.

“If she’s ever going to be Olympic Champion, she’s going to have to get her confidence back and conquer the uneven bars,” announced Ruyak during the 1999 American Cup.

To Ruyak’s chagrin, Atler went as far as to refer to uneven bars as ‘the devil’ in her online diary. Atler’s coach, Steve Ryabcki, remained determined to prove that she could complete the skill. His insistence lasted three years and resulted in a nationally-televised explosion at the 1999 Nationals. Even though NBC muted most of Rybaki’s comments, the damage was done.

“Steve cursed me out at the meet and then refused to talk to me for days,” says Atler. “To his credit, it was the only time he ever did anything like that. Unfortunately, I was devastated. I was the perfect student and worked so hard for them for so long, but still got screamed at.”

Bela Karolyi sensed Atler might quit the sport and phoned her agent, Sheryl Shade, immediately. Karolyi, Shade and Atler’s mother, Nanette, met several times throughout the championship to discuss Karolyi coming out of retirement to coach Atler. This was unprecedented; Karolyi had refused a substantial salary from Dimitru Moceanu to continue coaching Dominique following the Atlanta Games. With their plan in place, Atler promptly left the Rybakis.

It was not to be.

“We couldn’t get in touch with Bela for weeks,” recalls Atler. “I got a call from the women’s elite program director, Kathy Kelly, who told me that Bela didn’t want me and had never agreed to coach me.”

Shade received a similar call from then-USA Gymnastics President Bob Collarassi.

“I was told by Bob Collarassi that Bela Karolyi would not be coaching Vanessa,” says Shade, whose heart still breaks eight years later. “Bela [Karolyi] wanted to coach Vanessa. He contacted me at the 1999 Nationals and we met there several times about the arrangement. Mrs. Atler, Bela and I went to dinner and discussed it. It was USAG. They had purse strings with Bela. We never heard what happened, but USAG made it not happen. We will never know what happened exactly, but Bela felt so bad that he got her [Vanessa] set up to train with Valeri Liukin. He was an up and coming coach and he felt she should train there.” [with Liukin]

USAG named Karolyi its National Team Coordinator and assigned him the task of rallying the USA women’s team after disappointing sixth-place finishes at the 1997 and 1999 Worlds.

How Much Can Go Wrong In A Year?

Kristie Phillips and Vanessa Atler share similar tales; pressure, injuries and coaching changes all contributed to spectacular downfalls for both athletes.

Phillips’ wrist bugged her in late 1987, as she struggled with burn out at the most inopportune time. Phillips left home at eight-years-old to chase her Olympic dream. Terri Phillips, Kristie’s mom, realized drastic change was necessary and packed up the family’s van [adorned with a mural of Kristie] and headed to a gym in California. The new gym failed to provide Phillips with the same intensity; puberty and weight gain were postponed by Karolyi’s 40-plus hour work weeks, but they soon caused Phillips to struggle through the routines that made her a star.

Weeks before the 1988 Nationals, Phillips returned to Karolyi and was placed on a crash diet of tuna, boiled eggs and water. She almost pulled it off, but missed making the Olympic team by thousandths of a point.

Phillips’ was named the 2nd alternate and continued training with the Olympic Team. Phillips’ improved and surpassed five teammates at a pre-Olympic dual meet only to be asked to be return home in order to avoid a sticky situation.

Terri Phillips comforted Kristie in private; Vanessa Atler was not as lucky.

Atler and Shade signed numerous endorsement deals a year out from Sydney, when Atler was ranked 2nd in the country after the 1999 Nationals. There would be a book deal with Disney, trips to Disneyland with fans, and an appearance on the Wheaties box in the lead-up to Sydney. Her case was so unique that a medal wasn’t required; the plans were only contingent on Atler being named to the Olympic team, a virtual no-brainer.

The 1999 World Championships, an international event she waited three years for, did not go as planned.

“I didn’t have a coach going into Worlds,” says Atler. “I gained a few pounds, which caused my ankle injury to flare.”

The injury occurred at the 1999 French International, where Atler landed out of bounds on a floor exercise mat that failed to meet regulations. Landing on wood instead of padding, Atler’s left ankle chipped off pieces of bone. A USAG doctor misdiagnosed it as a sprain, but x-rays after the World Championships required two surgeries to remove the bone chips.

“When I arrived in Texas after worlds, Bela picked me up at the airport,” recalls Atler. “He saw me on crutches and was pissed that I had surgery.”

New coach Valeri Liukin was equally upset, especially when Atler gained four pounds during her recovery. Liukin’s gym weighs its gymnasts three times per day; the coach instructed his athlete not to drink water.

“I am the type of person who eats when I’m stressed,” admits Atler. “Valeri had his wife take me to a sauna for a half-hour after each work out. I became bulimic and binged for comfort. My weight kept going up and down, and my conditioning suffered.”

For a time, the coaching situation appeared to be working. Atler won the competition held at the June 2000 Olympic Training Camp at Karolyi’s ranch and followed with a victory at the U.S. Classic, the precursor to the Nationals.

With the Olympic Trials approaching, Atler’s older brother, Teddy, joined his sister and mother in Plano, TX and sensed something was seriously wrong.

“Teddy started hugging me and we just broke down,” remembers Atler, who points out how bloated she appeared that summer.

Valeri Liukin designed a new bar routine for Atler, which she hit for a time. A disastrous performance at Nationals resulted in a fourth place finish in the All-Around, her lowest ever.

Karolyi sensed Atler’s difficulties weeks later at trials and pulled her aside.

“Bela took me into a tunnel and told me that I shouldn’t worry, he’d put me on the team no matter what,” says Atler. “Was it fair? Probably not, but he told me that this is why they were having a committee select the team instead of relying on results.”

Night one of trials proved disastrous. Atler’s up-and-down weight led to a lack of conditioning, which hindered her performances. Slight errors crept in, but disaster loomed. With Karolyi watching feet away, her foot slipped on her beam dismount and resulted in a fall that could’ve caused paralysis.

Following the competition, Karolyi phoned Atler.

“Bela called me at the hotel and told me the committee didn’t want me on the team anymore. His hands were tied; they didn’t want me.”

Nanette Atler suggested Vanessa give it her best shot on night two, but the deflation was obvious.

In addition to her own struggles, Atler witnessed her old training mate, Jamie Dantzscher, performing to her signature floor exercise music at the trials, along with her hallmark opening tumbling pass.

“The Rybakis were hurt and I know they joked with Jamie about how great it would be to do it.”

NBC’s coverage of night one aired the day between prelims and finals. The coverage included a fluff piece on the Atler-Rybacki-Dantzscher situation.

“I went along with my mom’s plan of being P.C. and saying that they’re not bad people and I still love them, but Beth and Steve were honest when interviewed. I remember hearing Steve talk about how they could sense that I wasn’t okay and just bursting into tears. I would’ve given anything to apologize and go back at that point.”

Emotionally spent, Atler had no fight to draw upon on the final night of the Olympic Trials. After making mistakes on all four events, Atler sat amongst the other hopefuls, waiting for the axe to fall.

Live, on national TV, the clock ticked as the selection committee met behind closed doors. While many had performed successfully, NBC’s camera crews remained fixated on Atler.

“They just stayed there, waiting for me to cry,” remembers Atler.

She didn’t give them the satisfaction, but it didn’t ease the pain of not making it. Dantzscher and the Rybackis celebrated feet away, while the former protégé waited for the hell to end.

“Valeri came up to me the second the cameras went off and told me I didn’t make it because I was fat. He can be a great coach, unless you embarrass him. There was a lot of pressure on him and he’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met.”

Shade got Atler on the next flight home to avoid the press, while her parents emptied the condo in Texas.


Christine Brennan, USA Today’s Olympic columnist, makes no apologies for the media’s treatment of athletes.

“If they [the athletes] step off the sidewalk and join the parade, as Tara Lipinski did at a young age or Sasha Cohen, then they will be examined differently in the National Spotlight than if they had remained on the sidewalk. The choice is made by the parents and the child, and if they are big time players on the National stage, then they are going to get the scrutiny that goes along with that. I have no apologies there; that’s what we do. I don’t want to tear them down. It would be wonderful to continue talking about them in good ways, but if Sasha Cohen can’t do a clean short and long program, as much as I love Sasha, I have to point that out. It is my job and I will continue to do that, as I’m sure will most other journalists.”

While Brennan is referring to figure skating media coverage, Olympic analysts such as Brennan shift gears once every four years to cover gymnastics—the figure skating of the summer games.

Atler no longer blames the media for her personal troubles. She appeared on the Reality Series Starting Over in 2005 and now is the head coach of a gym in California. Steve Rybacki now mentors Atler and serves as a member of the three-person elite selection committee.

“I realize that the media has a job to do,” says Atler. “Watching the drama surrounding Kim Zmeskal is the reason I wanted to be an elite gymnast in the first place.”

Phillips, who now judges at National competitions, concurs.

I’m extremely ecstatic in what happened and they way it did. I’m a better, stronger person for it.”

Moving Forward

Shade represents Chellsie Memmel, Shawn Johnson and Morgan and Paul Hamm, all of whom are expected to represent the USA in Beijing.

“I want it to be a great competition. I think it will. Let’s just hope the athletes will acclimate to the time. They will; they’re professionals. The athletes will arrive with enough time to adjust properly.”

As for whom the next media darling will be?

“It all depends on what the climate of the world is next summer. It depends on who is the girl that the media is watching. There is no set formula. Anything can happen in gymnastics; that is what makes it exciting.”

Recent success by USA Gymnastics as the 2007 World Championships left with USA Gymnastics puzzled over who to anoint the next “one”. There were too many riches. Nastia Liukin and Alicia Sacramone own numerous gold medals from world championship competition; Shawn Johnson earned the 2007 World All-Around title, and Sam Peszek and Shayla Worley ooze charisma.

The solution: members of the 2007 gold medal team from the World Championships are now referred to as “The Super Six.” They’ve been featured on the Today Show, are shown shopping on AT&T’s website and are recognized by NBC as a proven commodity for when their Olympic coverage rolls around.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that six girls will bear the burden of being “the one.” While the riches may not be quite the same, will it be better for these girls to share the burden rather than do it alone?


GymFan92 said...

Shannon Miller won two AA World titles against some of the toughest competition gymnastics has ever had. Shannon also had huge injuries and or the flu at every competition she ever competed at yet she won 9 world medals. (winning her 94 world AA title with a pulled stomach muscle where she could not practice at all before the competition)

Nastia has one AA medal and some UB and beam medals plus one floor medal against the weakest competition gymnastics has ever had.
It might have been nice if you mentioned these facts when saying Nastia would have passed Miller. Fact is Miller was never healthy for a single medal she has won. Her medal haul would be 2 times what it is now if she had been healthy. Miller missed both the 92 and 96 worlds with injuries, competed in 95 with a sprained ankle, (94 already mentioned, 96 with a pulled hamstring as well as tendinitis etc..)

Anonymous said...

I totally support gymfan92; Not sure if anyone can come close to Shannon Miller's career, as her AA titles spanned three different years, in addition to winning individual medals in two Olympics, which I think she is the first and only gymnast from USA to do.

But how come, after Atler's accusations about Valeri Luikin, no attention is brought to what he does to the athletes? And if Nastia stays around until 2012, I would be shocked. I can already see her fading out.

Patty P said...

Fantastic post. As an avid gymnastic/Olympic games fan, I've always been fascinated how media coverage affects athletes. I think of Kim Zmeskal in '92. Now there was a gymnast under the microscope.

Anonymous said...

What do you all expect from a sports agent? These people know nothing about the sport unfortunately. “She is already tied with Shannon [Miller] for the most World Championship medals,” says the president of PMG.

Lawfrog said...

I would be interested to know exactly what Rybacki had to say that was muted by NBC. The fact that he would say anything that had to be muted is pretty sad for a coach. It's not a reaction a good coach should have.

Also, why not take the damn skill out of the routine? Clearly, it wasn't something Vanessa could do consistently. There are many, many skills in gymnastics and gymnasts typically cannot do ALL of them well. Pick what they can do well and consistently and put that in the routine.

I would never entirely blame Vanessa's coach for her downfall, but I will say he had some of the responsibility for being so arrogant as to keep a skill to prove...what? That she could do it? That he could teach it well? Who knows, but whatever the reason, it wasn't a good one.

Dee Shrout said...

I agree that they should have taken the Comaneci salto out of her routine - she was way too inconsistent on it. Also, on the Miller vs Liukin note: they were not saying the Liukin is a better gymnast than Miller or that she has had a greater career than Miller. They were simply saying that she is tied with Miller for total number of world championship medals (a simple fact), and that she could possibly have surpassed Miller's world championship medal count if she hadn't been injured in 06-07 (a definite possibility). They're just talking about a statistic: Miller has 9 WC medals, Liukin has 9 WC medals. It doesn't mean that they have had equally successful careers. It's like if a quarterback breaks the record for most career touchdowns. It's amazing that he broke the record and he deserves to get recognition for it, but it doesn't necessarily mean that he's a better quarterback than the previous record holder. Acknowledging the achievement of breaking the record doesn't mean that you're automatically calling him the greatest QB ever.

GymFan92 said...

If they were going to be fair then they would have mentioned the worlds Miller missed due to injury. 92 and 96 as well as how injured she was at the worlds she won. How about 95 where she competed on an injured ankle worse then Nastia's.

Chellsie Memmel also could have more medals then Nastia and Shannon if she didn't miss the 06, 07 and 08 worlds and Olympics.

You can what if to death but Miller was more injured then Nastia and she still managed to win the medals she won. If the blog wanted to write a fair article it would have mentioned this also.

playinthesurf said...

Although I think it's definitely true that the competition in Miller's era was of an overall higher caliber, I think the article was pointing out that Liukin still has the opportunity to surpass Miller in the total WC medal count. Sure, Shannon could have won more medals under different circumstances, but she didn't, and she isn't ever going to. Nastia could (potentially) still surpass her, so I believe that's why her injuries were recounted in the article and Miller's weren't.

In any case, at this point, Sacramone has surpassed them both, and I think most people would wholeheartedly agree that she's not even in the same league as Miller and Liukin as far as mental toughness and competitive dominance, so the whole conversation is probably a moot point anyway.