Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Crazy Eights: Appealing Incentives to go “Ape Shit” over the Upcoming Olympics

Chances are, unless you’re a “number nerd”, your calendar isn’t counting down to 8.08.08, when the summer Olympic Games blast off at Beijing National Stadium. Props if you knew the Olympics were in China or knew they were approaching at all. Given that the United States biggest “frenemy” is hosting, chances are you’ll be forced to take notice.

The Basics
China’s excitement over hosting their first Olympiad is palpable. The opening ceremonies, historically a four-hour snoozefest, figure to usher in the games with a campy, over-the-top extravaganza. [Think The Sound of Music meets The Brady Bunch Variety Hour] Organizers are commencing the ceremony at precisely 8:08 p.m. and eight seconds (on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008).
The Chinese, all 1.3 billion of them, are a proud people. Hosting the games provides them with the perfect propaganda opportunity to kick American ass in front of billions.

Who gives a crap about the Olympics anymore?

Medal counts and endorsement deals aren’t supposed to matter at the Olympics, an idealistic fortnight bringing together the world’s best and brightest. If you think the Olympic Oath is taken seriously, google “Olympics” and “controversy.” Despite being ethically questionable, the Olympics are the ultimate television event; a two-week-long Real World where game faces are on and the only smiles are the fake ones flashed at television cameras or given during interviews on The Today Show.

American athletes are taught to display “good sportsmanship” at all times. Michelle Kwan is an international icon for integrity and classy behavior. The figure skating legend has made a career out of attaining levels of political correctness political strategists salivate over. But Kwan is a boring soundbyte; and probably fake. Like the rest of America, Kwan hopefully dropped a few f-bombs after Tara Lipinski (known as “Terror” among the skating world) ear-piercingly screeched her way to the top of the media stand.

Luckily for NBC, international athletes are shipped to the games minus the shrink-wrap and prepared sound bytes. Female Russian athletes are notorious divas who never fail to maximize their fifteen minutes of fame. Unfortunately, Svetlana Khorkina no longer competes in gymnastics. The infamous “girl who looks like a duck” knew what viewers craved, and she certainly delivered. Khorkina announced at her 2003 Worlds post-victory press conference that silver medalist Carly Patterson did not worry her because she would “run to fat.” Patterson did gain weight, but only after emerging victorious in their close Olympic All-Around battle.

Khorkina symbolizes what is best about the games: Arrogant athletes being tested, vetted and humiliated before billions of viewers, while being followed by relentless paparazzi eager for the games to be their launching pad. (One can only imagine how much CBS paid the undisclosed cameraman who managed catching an exhausted and agitated Nancy Kerrigan mocking Oksana Baiul, the Ukrainian orphan who usurped her position as beloved ice princess.) Wide World of Sports began 30 years of weekly sporting broadcasts with the clichéd “thrill of victory and agony of defeat.” No one embodies this excitement better than Khorkina, who posed for Playboy, tore off her team silver medal on the award stand in Sydney, wept when organizers set the vault incorrectly, and draped the uneven bars with the Russian flag following her final Olympic performance.

NBC may be missing its Katarina Witt, but the peacock never fails to provide sensationalism to viewers. You probably stopped watching the games a long time ago; without trailer park ice queens clubbing competitors, you lack the urge to “TiVo.” Tonya and Nancy might’ve moved on, but that doesn’t mean you should. The Olympics are the ultimate reality show, with more cat-fighting divas, dramatic situations and unique personalities than can be accorded due media attention.

The Beauty of It All?
The Olympics, Jack MacFarland’s sports-watching heaven, inundate the media with stories of glitter, tears, confetti and corruption, and then vacate pop-culture faster than Britney Spears leaving rehab. So indulge! Need more convincing? Here are eight sinfully-delicious arguments for complete submission to the campiest two weeks to be encountered this decade (and some excuses to tell your friends).

1. Political Rivalries Turn Ugly

Utter ignorance aside, you’re probably familiar with a Lake Placid hockey team that crushed America’s cold-war rival in the ultimate international grudge match. China’s been a thorn in America’s economic arse since the mid-‘90s, and their government is gunning to kick American ass. Their government-sponsored sports system, modeled after the Soviet sports machine, is upping investments in order to ensure that the world will be “seeing red.” NBC, eager for a ratings slam-dunk, will exploit and over-plug all encounters between the U.S. and China when golden Olympic hardware is at stake. GE’s television suits want viewers to be cheering and jeering when gymnasts are bobbling on the beam. Does ”Battle of the Brians” ring a bell? How about “Battle of the Carmens?’ Try: gymnastics grudge-match of the century. China, the 2006 World Gymnastics Team Champions, are eager to rip the gold medals off the necks of the Americans who bested them this past summer. Think Kerri Strug ending four decades of communist gymnastics reign on American soil was a big deal? Imagine sucker punching the sport’s most talented team. The Chinese high five their way to victory, but it remains to be seen whether three-time world vault champion Cheng Fei will shed some serious tears.

Must See TV: A team showdown has not been this intense since the “Miracle on Ice.” China’s government expects gold and applies unyielding political pressure, but it’s been known to backfire. Their gymnasts are known for either delivering insurmountable performances, or for hemorrhaging when a team member manages the slightest crack. The Chinese men’s team has won all but one world title since 1994, but has only achieved victory at one of the past three Olympics during their reign. America’s top gymnast, Nastia Liukin, is the daughter of two soviet gymnastics legends and sports a bone-chilling “bitch face.” The American girls barely like their own teammates, so imagine the tension during team finals, when rowdy Chinese crowds want payback. Luckily for viewers, gymnastics’ MTV generation is much more attractive and socially aware than their wet-towel “Magnificent Seven” ancestors.

Tidbit: In the gymnastics community, “to Chinese” is a verb describing a type of mistake made by a stellar athlete who invariably cracks under pressure.
E.g.,: Paul Hamm had the title within his grasp until he “chinesed” his release move and ate the high bar. (To be used as a small side-bar next to the first bullet point’s justification)

2. Amanda Beard: Good Girl Gone Bad

At fourteen, the Atlanta Olympian brought her teddy bear atop the medal stand. Beard’s sultry spreads in Playboy, Maxim and FHM expunge any remaining visions of the animal-loving teenaged breast stroke dynamo. Following an Athens layoff, Amanda’s awaited answer to critics and jealous female onlookers will be center stage among Howard Stern’s cult following. Don’t expect Beard to shy away if Stern requests appearances. The wannabe model, who dates a photographer, is an unwavering attention whore.

Voice of Reason: Attractiveness aside, Beard’s affability wanes when you account for what an opportunist she is. Following the last two Olympic Games, Beard took two years off each time to pursue her burgeoning popular appeal. Her face will be everywhere, but make a mental note of any story about her that actually focuses on her breast stroke. Although her hubris has swelled, recent late night talk show appearances show her to be in good athletic shape. Beard now talks about staying in until 2012 because she “loves competing.” The Heff may be able to buy her implants, but can he buy her another gold medal? Defense of her 2004 world record is at stake.

3. Buzz worthy: Phelps Renews Quest for Record Gold Medal Haul

Second-string preliminary round-swimming pawns beware: don’t bother slipping into your Speedo if you’re susceptible to cracking under pressure. Michael Phelps means business. His 2004 quest to surpass Mark Spitz’s ’72-seven-gold-medal-haul ended because a preliminary round placeholder carelessly false started; disqualifying the Americans before their first stringers ever had a chance. Phelps’ recent stash of golden medals earned at world championships (six in ’05; seven in ’07) raises reasonable expectations that he’ll surpass Spitz. If that isn’t offering enough reasons for Phelps to lose sleep over, Speedo is once again dangling a $1 million reward.

Sports-broadcasting “Porn”: Forget the usual tape delays, NBC is airing
Phelps’ quest LIVE in primetime. NBC perpetuated international perceptions of
Americans by strong-arming the Beijing Olympic Committee to hold swimming
finals during the wee-morning hours. Be prepared for vociferous complaints
should Phelps be successful.

4. Recent Gymnastics Controversies Loom
Gymnastics’ “esteemed” governing body, in conjunction with the International Olympic Committee, manages to muck-up every Olympics. Whether the vault is set at the wrong height, or a beloved champion is stripped of her titles for being given a Sudafed by her doctor, reporters will be all over it. Paul Hamm is still trying to justify whether he rightfully won the 2004 Olympic All-Around title. News broadcasts had viewers debating whether or not “the Korean” had too many hand-holds on parallel bars.

Future Suspects: Results are going to be bitched about, so know your facts for the water cooler debates you’ll be having with coworkers. Note: The FIG, gymnastics’ governing body, is run by Bruno Grandi, friend and countryman of Ottavio Cinquanta. Ottavio, a.k.a. “Speedy”, is the speed skater turned International Skating Union president who engineered the “anonymous judging system” adopted by figure skating as a means of jettisoning future media scandals. The FIG followed suit, leaving casual viewers more confused than ever Grandi’s countrywoman, Vanessa Ferrari, benefits from the new judging system. Ferrari frequently finds herself a medalist in international events, despite ghastly form and execution. Ferrari was injured in ’07, but be on the lookout for suspect successes in the Olympic year..

5. Admit It, You’re a Sucker for Fluff Pieces

“Look into her eyes; she is the face of a nation.” NBC’s army of melodramatic commentators are being deployed early to prepare those gripping human interest stories about children being ripped from their parents to be sacrificed to a socialized sports machine. Russian breadlines are also popular backdrops for them. John Tesh is still a media punching bag for announcing “little girls are dancing for gold” in Atlanta.
Tissue Alert: Expect Yekatarina Kramarenko to weep on-screen about costing the Russian women’s gymnastics team a medal at the 2007 Worlds due to a careless error. Teammates aren’t very forgiving when a medal is the difference between a comfortable life for your family or starving.

6. FCC and NAACP Nightmares

Summer Olympic fortnights present embarrassingly-accurate stereotypes: white men still can’t jump and they’re not great at running either. Country-club divisions among the U.S. Sports Teams continually entertain viewers. How many Chinese names will be slaughtered by commentators? Janet Jackson’s legacy lives on: expect serious FCC complaints by the Parents Television Council should any divers sport skimpy Speedos.

Visual Train Wrecks: The Chinese women’s gymnastics team received a penalty for offensive leotards in Barcelona. 2004 Olympic Champion, Catalina Ponor, briefly returned to competition bigger and bustier than ever before. Ponor’s high-cut leotards and perpetual wedgies were visual eye sores, with her recent retirement making her a likely candidate to continue her Romanian teammates’ legacy of Japanese Adult Film Superstardom.

7. Torch Lighting Mysteries
Who will light the torch and how will they do it? Barcelona trumped everyone by lighting the torch using a bow and arrow, so using Olympic heroes is preferable. Mohammad Ali caused a stir when he visually shook as he lit the Atlanta torch.

Prediction: Expect the Chinese to out-do Parkinson’s. Sang Lan, the Chinese gymnast paralyzed in New York at the 1998 Goodwill Games, is a top candidate to light the torch. Salt Lake City’s ceremony showed Dick Button running the torch into the arena months after suffering a fractured skull. Torch lighting is on the verge of achieving Lifetime Movie status.

8. International Redemption?

Going against the U.N. didn’t engender any global American support. NBC’s arrogant strong-arming doesn’t help. Marion Jones’s admission that her “Drive for Five” was a sham further damns American credibility. With scandals plaguing every major-league sport in America, Jones’ is notable because of her insistent, angry denials of steroid use. Jones faces sentencing and the expunging of her name from books, but it remains unclear whether Jones’ relay teammates will also be forced to relinquish their Olympic hardware.

Enter: The Dream Team
The U.S. Men’s Basketball Team is going for gold the old fashion way: by recruiting multimillionaire NBA stars to slam dunk the competition. Ethics seemed important at the time, when criticisms arose of the ’92 Dreamers Harlem-Globetrotting all over the Barcelona event. Jordan won’t be back, but Kobe expects to be the USA’s hit man. Given Kobe’s experience with the law, perhaps he can recommend a lawyer for Marion. Alleged rapists make the best role models.

Final Thoughts on Figure Skating Nationals

1. Kimmie Meissner is a fighter. The country needs to be supporting her and egging her on to figure out her slump and to regain her confidence. The press (especially Phil Hersh) has been extremely critical of Meissner all year and has been waiting to hand over her reign to one of the younger skaters. Unfortunately for Meissner, she won the 2006 World Championship when she wasn’t at the level of the best in the world. Had everything gone as planned, Sasha Cohen or Fumie Suguri would’ve won, Meissner would’ve medaled, and then Meissner could’ve continued to develop without being expected to deliver a world champion performance in every competition. Kimmie Meissner performed with improved artistry and palpable fire and intensity at Skate America. It appears that the press and the downgrades by the technical callers have shaken her confidence. Hopefully now that the worst has happened (a weak Grand Prix Final and a poor showing at Nationals), the former world champion will get angry, get tough and skate with belief again. Meissner and Wagner should both finish in the top 7 if they skate solid performances.

2. Tanith Belin and Ben Agosto have the programs to win at worlds. They will need to convincingly out-skate Domnina and Shabalin and hope the non-Russian judges lobby their support behind them. Their free dance is intricate and performed with speed and passion. This could be their year. If Belbin and Agosto are able to win in Vancouver, Ice Dancing could become perceived as a legitimate discipline in the US. The duo has the skating, the looks and the personalities to become media darlings in 2010.
3. The fact that Bebe Liang has qualified for a world team is proof that the country may be in jeopardy of not having three ladies qualify to the 2009 World Championships. Skaters are not usually given infinite chances to prove their legitimacy. Bebe has never finished higher than fourth in eight trips to senior nationals. The USFSA has sent Liang to seven Grand Prix events, but the world team member has failed to home a medal. Inconsistency continues to plague the California native; she popped her combination jump in the short program at nationals and popped two jumps in her long program. Liang is too inconsistent to be relied upon to deliver three spots for worlds next season.

4. Ryan Bradley and Emily Hughes should join SOI next fall so they can develop into fan favorites by the Olympic season. Both would be naturals on the professional circuit and would likely find their niche skating on tour. (They could also recoup funds and heal their beat-up bodies.) This hip injury could be a blessing in disguise, providing Hughes with a graceful exit from the senior ranks. The 2006 Olympian performed well at Skate America, but the writing was on the wall when she finished behind Caroline Zhang in both portions of the competition. Her programs were more subtle and nuanced than ever before. Hughes’ body type just doesn’t appear to be built to handle several Triple-Triple combinations.
5. It may be better for Caroline Zhang to skip Junior Worlds. Meissner has been under attack from the press all year. Will Zhang be hounded if she is unable to defend her title? Will it affect her world status? With extra training time, Zhang can make significant improvements in her speed of skating, presentation, jump rotations, takeoff edges and can learn useful combinations for the 2009 and 2010 seasons. With some luck, Zhang will grow a few inches over the summer. A few added inches and pounds will help Zhang develop speed and power. Working with arm weights could also help Zhang fix her Lutz technique.
6. Weir and Lysacek are both capable of medaling at worlds. Instead of lobbying for Wagner or Meissner to medal, the USFSA should try to put both men on the podium at worlds.
7. If Alissa Czisny wants to have a future in the sport, she’ll need to break her “nice girl” image and leave Julie Berlin in favor or working full-time with Linda Leaver and Brian Boitano. Coach Julie Berlin's promised jump improvements have failed to materialize for the past three seasons. Czisny's spins, spirals and artistry are competitive with the best in the world, but her jumps continue to hold her back. If she is in the middle of relearning her technique, practicing with Leaver and Boitano everyday gives her a much better chance of implementing the changes successfully. It would be ideal if Kimmie Meissner transferred to work with Leaver and Boitano as well. Czisny and Meissner’s opposite strengths and weaknesses could help push each other to improve. Having a training partner pushed Jill Trenary and Caryn Kadavy to be much better skaters.

8. One of the ladies needs to beg Sandra Bezic to choreograph their programs. With so many skaters going to Nichol, Wilson and Morozov for choreography, Bezic could provide a fresh look that helps the skater stand out. Zhang may be the best candidate, as she has been looking to show more passion and better presentation. Li Minzghu worked with Sandra Bezic when Lu Chen was competing and the results were legendary.

9. It is doubtful that either Cohen or Kwan will make comebacks to the international scene. It is very possible that Kwan could be offered a salary she can’t refuse and finally skate with Stars On Ice now that SOI and COI will merge. Cohen has never performed better or appeared as confident as she does on tour this season. The Olympic Silver Medalist is finally performing exhibitions with innovative choreography, instead of merely showcasing her trademark spirals and spins.
10. It is exciting that Pasha Grishuk now coaches and choreographs for Inoue and Baldwin. Grishuk could give the pair pizzazz and help the skaters receive better marks from the Russian judges.
11. With ABC covering worlds, it would be fantastic if NBC and IMG co-produced a professional skating event. Sasha Cohen, Michelle Kwan, Emily Hughes, Irina Slutskaya and Shizuka Arakawa would deliver huge ratings around the world if they were provided with big enough incentives (appearance fees and prize money) to face off in World Pro-type event. Eldredge, Weiss, Yagudin, Kulik , Sandhu and Plushenko could deliver big ratings on the men’s side. With so many skaters from North America having strong medal chances in Vancouver, pro skating could be revitalized if enough skaters move on. Buttle, Weir and Lysacek could provide a pro scene with strong rivalries post-Vancouver.
12. Is anyone sad we haven’t seen any typical-Zmeivskaya vamping in any of Weir’s routines? Perhaps Johnny Weir and Oksana Baiul can perform a duet in a TV Special where they each performed the other’s signature routines. Perhaps Baiul could be persuaded to lend skaters her artistic expertise? The Olympic Champion is creative and a natural choreographer.
13. He may have joked about being the voice of Ice Network, but does anyone know if Brain Boitano will be joining Nancy Kerrigan next season? Their friendship could enable them to develop strong on-air chemistry. Kerrigan has improved tremendously over the course of the season, and Boitano already has a wealth of experience. It would be amusing to hear the two friends banter back and forth.
14. Christine Brennan's recent column mentioned that the USFSA didn't fight to petition a change in the age requirement back in 2006, when they knew our junior ranks were developing considerable depth. Isn't it time that the USFSA, the federation who pays the ISU its highest broadcasting fee, stands up for its skaters? It isn't surprising that the federation hasn't, given that Phyllis Howard is on the ISU Technical Committee and Ron Hershberger is President of the USFSA. According to Jon Jackson's book, Howard refused to file a protest with the court of arbitration after learning that Tamara Moskvina made deals against Ina and Zimmerman in order to assure the Chinese of the bronze and the Chinese judge's vote for the Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze. (Jackson, On Edge 190-209) It is time for the USFSA to take an aggressive stand and fight for the best interests of the sport: fairness in judging, a repeal of the new judging system, and new age requirements. If the ISU council continues to bow to Cinquanta's wishes, the sport may alienate remaining viewers and rob the sport of the joy and artistry that has attracted fans and participants for decades.
15. Tracy Wilson's voice could soothe a nation amidst a nuclear attack. It has been wonderful to hear her commentating for American TV again this season.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Men's Event

Skating results shouldn’t shock me, but they never fail to. One is naïve if they believe an extra double loop or double toe loop by Weir would’ve made a difference. Results are still controlled by the judges, who discuss placements during practice sessions and nightly cocktail parties. Lysacek’s victory had little to do with his skating. He surely wasn’t awarded personal bests for his scratchy landings on 5-6 jumping passes. This narrow victory is a result of Lysacek being the USFSA’s “yes” man. When one listens to Evan Lysacek in interviews or reads his quotes, they should be able to discern a disingenuous quality. When the national champion mentions how “masculine” skating is or how skating “is like the X Games”, he is playing up to the USFSA and how they prefer to market the sport. While fans, judges, skaters and coaches have accepted the fact that the majority of male skaters are gay, the powers that be are uncomfortable with letting it be known that nationals are a bigger gay dating convention than all state choir.

From reading competitors’ Q+A’s, journals and seeing their numerous photo ops on television, Evan Lysacek and Tanith Belbin’s romance appears as believable as Rock Hudson and Doris Day. While I am not labeling either skater one way or the other, several skaters have been known to chuckle at their relationship, with the most common response being, “Tanith is a smart girl. She knows what she’s doing.” During the opening of NBC’s broadcast of the men’s program, it takes a few moments to realize when the image shifts from Weir to Lysacek due to their wardrobe similarities. Perhaps we should put them on “The Newlywed Game” and see exactly how much they know about one another.
When it comes to judging the actual skating, why aren’t the judges supporting a skater who has gotten in the best shape of career, is skating to brilliant, original music with innovative choreography? Weir actually went for a Quad Toe, which was cleaner than Lysacek’s attempt, and most of Weir's jumping passes were completed with long flowing edges, while Lysacek landed extremely forward on both Triple Axels and hung on to his Triple Salchow and Triple Toe. The international judges love Weir and awarded him two Grand Prix victories, while Lysacek couldn’t even win Skate America (Figure Skating’s version of the American Cup a.k.a. SCAM Cup) Remember the days when Frank Carroll and Lori Nichol wouldn’t allow Michelle Kwan to skate to music that had been previously used by anyone? Why have they insisted on playing the “paint by numbers” approach to Lysacek’s music and choreography? We’ve see him skate to Zorro, Tosca, Carmen and Malaguena, with each overused piece of music being expressed by extraneous overwrought arm movements from his previous year’s program. This is not innovate “artistry.” Perhaps is Lysacek spent less time creating an image preferable to the USFSA, we might see his true personality come out and feel more of a connection. When I watch Lysacek’s free program, I often wonder if I’d prefer watching Irina Slutskaya grab her head with fake angst. Luckily, the rest of the USFSA senior men have given up the country’s tradition of portraying soldiers or something equally farfetched and “masculine.”

The international judges have proven that they are not necessarily looking to see who the most “masculine” skater is. John Curry was not punished for being himself when he won the gold medal in 1976; neither was Urmanov in 1994. Weir is beloved around the world for being true to himself on and off the ice. Now training under Galina Zmeivskaya, Weir has the skating and the political force to challenge for the World Title. When it comes time for Vancouver, I’d rather be Johnny than Evan. Galina Zmievskaya has pulled off two difficult victories, while Frank Carroll has been on the losing end twice. It will be inconsequential whether the USFSA backs Johnny or Evan, because Weir’s alliances with Galina Zmeivskaya, Tatiana Tarasova, Marina Anissina, Viktor Petrenko, Oksana Baiul, Evgeny Platov, Irina Slutskaya, and countless others should give him the support of the former Soviet Bloc. The Russians do not have a top contender this year, which means it is likely the Russians will put their vote behind a skater whom recently was an award titled “For Love of Russia.” Weir may prove to be the USA’s best chance for gold at Worlds (Belbin and Agosto are ready, but they face a Russian dance team who possess Russia’s only serious chance at winning a world title this season).

Friday, January 25, 2008

Weekend Goodies

(I'll be posting more hard-news artlces within the next few days. I've had the flu.

Oksana Baiul was made for reality television. This would only happen to Oksana on the day of the Olympic Long Program.

Way to spit out your gum while being interviewed!

Back when only the Japanese media was crazy... Oh, how things would be so different two years later.

1992 Olympios Ladies Preview and Yamaguchi Profile:

1992 Olympics Ladies SP Practice and Draw.

If throwing (and landing) a triple axel at 3:30 in her long program didn't win you over, Midori will be sure sure to wow you with her infinite charm.

This is what happens when choreography, music, natural presentation ability, sex appeal and one hot cat suit work perfectly together. Thank you, Sandra and Katarina!

The making of Carmen On Ice. (Katarina won an emmy for this performance.)

When a government ruins a skating career:

Ratings Gold: Someone needs to pay these two to compete in Vancouver. Where are the Russian divas when we need them?!?!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Assorted Gems

Oksana Baiul Fluff from 1993 and 1994:

Kudos to whomever knows what song she's dancing to.

Baiul's 1993 Nations Cup LP.

Paul Wylie's LP from the 1992 Olympics.

Janet Lynn Fluff from the 1998 Olympics.

Someone who didn't take the bronze quite as well:

(I love how blunt Katarina Witt is.)

The Block Judging Fiasco

Best. Flower. Girls. Ever.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Worth Watching

I love their dynamic.

I miss that fire from Sasha. She lost confidence and hid that part of herself between 2002-2006.

Fluff on the Weir/Lysacek rivalry at the 2001 Junior Worlds. This is only going to get more intense and more heated between now and Vancouver.

Jenny's program always puts a smile on my face when I'm having a bad day.

It is wonderful to see Sasha Cohen be so comfortable with herself during an interview.

I hope she writes an adult memoir in 20 years or so. She must have so much to share.

This interview is fabulously awkward. It is so much fun to see Michelle's facial expressions when he asks her some of those questions. She must be a riot when she is allowed to let her guard down.

The Comeback Trail

Why am I the only one who thinks Ashley Preiss still has a shot at making the Olympic Team? She has only been training for two months and looks like she's on schedule to have a Morgan White-like performance at Olympic Trials.

The USA could use her consistency.

She has nothing to lose. Even if she doesn't make the team, she is almost assured to be a star in college. I think the "bubble girls" who are professional (e.g. Memmel, Bieger, etc) will feel much more pressure about making/not making the team.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Sunday, January 20, 2008

My Favorite Things

Let The Cat fights Begin

It is officially skating week. Let the cat fights begin.

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.

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?