Sunday, January 20, 2008

Separating "Good" from "Great"

Watching Friday’s showdown between the University of Florida and the University of Georgia brought me back to the 1991 World Championships that were held in Indianapolis, Indiana. The 1991 Worlds typify what is known as “home court advantage” and the “magic of Karolyi.”

For years, Bela Karolyi was thought of as a gymnastics svengali who turned lazy American kids into competitive machines capable of competing neck-and-neck with the Soviet Sports Machine. Ask any of Karolyi’s former pupils who taught them their skills and you’ll like to hear the names of Rick Newman, Jackie Blake or a former coach from their home gym. Karolyi’s gymnasts weren’t particularly known for competing difficult skills, but they were immensely prepared for every competition.

“Nadia’s success was a combination of Nadia’s desire and intelligence with Bela’s system of preparation,” says Bart Conner, Comaneci’s husband. “What Bela did was develop a conditioning program that was more intense than anywhere else in world.”

Karolyi’s other strength was being a master campaigner and deft politician among the international judges. Florida head coach Rhonda Faehn learned from the best in this area, but she also is influenced by the keen media persona of her collegiate coach, Valorie Kondos Field. The combination of Karolyi and Kondos can be attributed to the successful 2007 season experienced by the Florida gators. Rhonda Faehn’s greatest accomplishment as an NCAA coach last season was not the SEC title, it was masterminding a momentum among the media (and ultimately the judges) that Florida would inevitably be the next university to crack the Georgia-UCLA-Utah-Alabama stronghold and win an NCAA crown. While Karolyi could be seen shouting, towering over judges, and threatening to remove his gymnasts for competitions, Faehn’s meet presence is more comparable to Kondos’ silent, yet confident demeanor. Faehn has also adopted Kondos’ prepared press conference statements about honesty, accountability and buzz words (i.e. calm confidence).

The actual gymnastics performed by Florida does not have the same dynamic quality or theatrical presence characteristic of the Bruins. Unfortunately, Karolyi’s influence pervades when it comes to actual gymnastics. Friday’s meet and the entirety of the 2007 NCAA season proved that Florida is a consistent and well-prepared team. Preparation often equals victories during the regular season while other teams are still counting falls, but it doesn’t usually translate into NCAA victories among powerhouses like Georgia and UCLA. Home scoring, over-scoring and away-scoring don’t matter much when the teams compete head-to-head-to-head in peak form.

When the Soviet gymnasts arrived in Indy for their final world championship as team members, they brought a level of difficulty and sophistication that was light years beyond the Romanian and American teams. Unless the injury bug strikes the Bruins or the Gym Dogs, the Gators will likely be outclassed in the Super Six finals. The NCAA “super teams” will feature rosters with six gymnasts capable of earn 9.9’s on every event.

While Florida’s roster features superb gymnastics from Corey Hartung and Melanie Sinclair, their other gymnasts are far less impressive when compared side-by-side with gymnasts from Utah, Stanford, UCLA, Alabama and Georgia this season. Faehn named Amanda Castillo next to Melanie Sinclair at every available opportunity in 2007. Castillo may be the most noticeable product of political maneuvering from a Karolyi-ite since Betty Okino became synonymous with “international look.” Top international gymnasts used to perform leaps with impeccable form, amplitude and flexibility. Karolyi’s athletes were not known for delivering beam routines with an aesthetic sensibility until Alexander Alexandrov developed Dominique Moceanu as a junior. The Florida Gators (aside from Hartung and Sinclair) do their best to carry on the Karolyi legacy of mundane routine construction, sub-par leaps (that would rack up deductions for teams with less “name” gymnasts) and inflated judging. On one hand, Friday’s judging of the balance beam should shock me. Unfortunately, I was alive to see Kim Zmeskal become champion of the world on the event and know that anything and everything is possible behind the scenes.

Luckily, this argument can be made after Georgia defeated Florida in the “O Dome.” Kudos to Courtney McCool for rocking the rest of her beam routine after the Florida fans cheered when they realized how close the competition was after her fall from the apparatus. Kudos needs to also be given to Faehn for igniting interest and crowd attendance in Gainsville. With four NCAA teams now able to attract 10,000 fans, it is time for USAG to hire Yoculan to deliver an interesting meet atmosphere and attract media interest when she retires in 2009.

While Friday’s meet was billed as No.1 v. No.2, it is UCLA who is likely to keep Yoculan up at night.

The “Super Teams”

Prior to 2002, vault used to separate the good teams from the great teams. Balance Beam will likely be the equalizer in April. Inflating the start value of the Yurchenko Full from 9.9 to 10.0 meant greater parity nation-wide, but it also prompted “Big Four” teams to improve their routine construction and execution. Florida’s routines on the four-inch-wide apparatus are reminiscent of the routines constructed and performed by “Bela’s girls.” Performing the bare minimum (sometimes with a highlight skill for the stars, i.e. Zmeskal’s back pike) usually means staying on the apparatus. Mediocre routine construction is passable when one powerhouse competes, but the restocked Bruins will make April’s NCAA Championships the most competitive event in four years.

While the Gym Dogs have counted falls on balance beam in two of their three meets this year, Yoculan’s competitive personality should drive their “beam team” to greater competitive excellence. The team has the athletes and routine construction to outclass the rest of the SEC.

UGA’s Projected NCAA Beam Line-up:

1. Katie Heenan Heenan served as the anchor for three years, leading the senior to develop a mental toughness when championships and undefeated records were on the line. While her routine is not the flashiest, Heenan’s routine scores well because her skills are performed with amplitude, consistency and solid execution.

2. Nikki Childs WOGA’s most successful NCAA gymnast is demonstrating a keener mental prowess than usual for this early in the season. By April, Childs’ difficult leaps and creativity will stand out among the also-rans attempting to earn a berth in the Super Six finals. Finally rid of her gainer back pike dismount, the routine should keep the momentum going.

3. Tiffany Tolnay As a level 10, Tolnay earn a “perfect 10” on the apparatus. While she has yet to repeat the accomplishment in college, the junior has become more mentally confident since entering the collegiate ranks. Strong competition in the gym keeps Tolnay on her toes. Hilary Mauro, Cassidy McComb and Megan Dowlen are itching for lineup positions, which is a bit of a status symbol for a Georgia gymnast. The 1998 Gym Dogs featured five first-team All-Americans and a second-team honor for squad’s sixth competitor. The 2008 squad features four first-team All-Americans (Childs, Kupets, Taylor and Tolnay), one second-team (Heenan) and Courtney McCool, who earned a 9.95 on the event during 2007’s Super Six finals.

4. Grace Taylor One of the many great leadoff beam workers in Georgia history, moving Taylor from first to fourth in the lineup will allow Taylor to earn the higher scores that she deserves on the event. Her routine construction is among the best in the country, while her execution is among the best in the world (thanks to the horrors that have befallen elite gymnastics).

5.Courtney Kupets Already known for performing extreme difficulty on all events, Kupets’ new mount sequence is something Kupets could’ve competed internationally had Martha Karolyi not insisted that the Americans perform “safe” (aka lame) maneuvers to get on the beam without deductions. By the end of 2008, Kupets’ experience executing the routine will leave USA Gymnastics committing an egregious error if they don’t sweet talk the 2004 Olympian to lending her experience to the 2008 Olympic Team.

  1. Courtney McCool Although she fell on her side somi on Friday night, one needs to give McCool credit for including such a dangerous skill in her exercise. While Martha Karolyi made the mistake of not believing in McCool for the 2004 Olympic Team Finals, Yoculan believes in her enough to develop her into a supreme anchor.

While Yoculan’s press conference statements are often controversial, her team’s gymnastics and her own deftness at lineup selections are not. Once rid of the first meet jitters, expect the Gym Dogs to achieve tremendous success on the apparatus. This lineup should result in strings of 9.9’s on the event and quite possibly, 10’s for Taylor, Kupets and McCool.

UCLA’s roster will feature Tasha and Jordan Schwikert, Anna Li, Kristina Comforte, and a choice between Ashley Jenkins, Melissa Chan, Brittani McCullough, Marcia Bernholtz and Ariana Berlin for the remaining two spots. While Berlin’s steady demeanor has led Kondos to place Berlin in the leadoff role, her execution may not refined enough to make the lineup. While Georgia is hoping the Olympic-year buzz will recreate the Atlanta ’96 magic in Athens this April, the Bruins are hoping to repeat the magic of 2001 when they were able to average a 9.9 on beam to earn the NCAA title.

Melissa Chan’s spectacular performance at the Super Six should warrant her future opportunities on the event. McCullough is likely to earn numerous All-Around victories throughout the preseason, which means she’ll likely compete on beam in April.

While the Bruins were able to get away with watering down their dismounts to back fulls in 2001, the level of gymnastics has evolved too much to get away with a similar tactic seven years later. Aside from Alabama’s win at home in 2002, it has taken immensely sophisticated routines to become NCAA Champions 10 of the last 11 years.

Tasha Schwikert’s greatest strength on beam is her Dominique Dawes-style leaps. Anna Li and Kristina Comforte’s combination of difficulty, execution and experience should translate into high scores. Jordan Schwikert’s solidity as a competitor has come through time after time for the Bruins. It has taken four years to recreate the magic achieved by the Bruins from 1997-2004, but the team is deep, talented, and considered extremely dangerous by head coaches across the nation.

March’s dual meet between UCLA and Georgia is expected to be a fight to death, and both teams are likely to channel the experience into a level of intensity that has been absent over the past few years. Competition brings out the best in both teams, win or lose. Both teams aim to compete their optimal lineups at the meet. (Heenan and Taylor on floor, McCool on bars)

Vault and Floor will need to be at a 49.5 level for a team that hopes to be the nation’s best. With the Yurchenko full still valued at a 10.0, earning high scores will be dependent upon a team having a variety of vaults, explosive height and distance, clean execution, and stuck landings. Florida has shown that they can stick their vaults, but Hartung’s 9.975 for a tucked Yurchenko 1 ½ for a vault with average explosion and a leg separation throughout is unlikely to outscore Kupets’ vault from Friday night in the post season.

Georgia’s vaulting has been a known strength for 25 years.

Doug McGavin breaks down areas of the vault to stress throughout the year, peaking at the NCAA Championships. Although her vault was aesthetically weak on Friday, Paige Burns competed at Stanford and Florida despite undergoing an emergency appendectomy on New Year’s Eve. Burns delivered clutch vaults last April and the team is looking to her for similar performances this season. McComb may also struggle at times during the regular season with her Yurchenko 1 ½, but the tradeoff will be worth it if she’s able to stick in the post season. Georgia’s Yurchenko 1 ½’s by Tolnay and McComb are more explosive and better-executed than those performed by Florida (both Friday and last season). Tolnay’s 1 ½ typically scores 9.95+ when she sticks and 9.875-9.925 when she doesn’t. Newby is vaulting better than she did last season despite having surgery to redo the rod in her leg over the summer. Kupets is sticking her vaults much earlier than she did in 2006 or 2007.

Floor was a weak point for both UCLA and Georgia in 2007, but both teams should outshine the field again. Anna Li is expected to upgrade to a Double Layout and Jordan Schwikert is finally expected to compete her Double Arabian in college. On the Georgia front, Abby Stack’s change from a piked full in to a triple twist should result in much bigger scores in the future. Judges may have expected Stack to perform the same ‘ol on Friday, but word of mouth is known to travel at lightning speeds among NCAA judges. Valorie Kondos Field and Russel Warfield design rousing choreography to package both teams.

Bars has long been the Bruins’ key event, although they may be better on other events this season. Tasha Schwikert and Anna Li delivered back-to-back 9.95’s in 2007 and will anchor the lineup in 2008. Comforte’s well-executed routine should set them up for even higher scores. The first three positions remain open for Melissa Chan, Ashley Jenkins, Marci Bernholtz, Allison Taylor, Jordan Schwikert, Ariana Berlin, and Brittani McCullough to claim.

Georgia’s bar roster is well-positioned for post season success. Childs’ execution and difficulty throughout her exercise should start the team off well. Tolnay and Heenan’s experience and clean execution will set up big scores from Grace Taylor, Courtney McCool and Courtney Kupets.

When the nation gathers to name the top team in collegiate gymnastics, the names may be the same (Georgia, UCLA, Utah, Stanford, Florida and Alabama), but the level of gymnastics will not be. It will take great gymnastics to win in 2008.

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