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Some general thoughts on last weekend’s U.S. Championships…

I really enjoyed this year’s nationals. It was great to see so many of the faces from the last quadrennium finally grace our television screens again, and there are definitely some exciting new challengers on the horizon on both the men’s and women’s sides. Now having said that, I also want to point out just how much more impressed I am with our men’s team than our women’s team. As I watched both sides, it occurred to me that our women have had considerably greater success on the world and Olympic stage than our men have in the last 25 years, but I found our men’s team to be considerably deeper, more prepared, and honestly more exciting to watch than our women’s team. But then again, that’s exactly the way it is around the world right now…men’s elite gymnastics is thriving much more than women’s. I never thought I would see the day, but amazingly, that is what is happening right before our eyes.
This tells me that something is not right in women’s gymnastics right now – and something needs to be done FAST. If you look at our country alone, how can it possibly make sense that more than twice as many men than women would be competing in the senior national championships, when so many more young girls participate in gymnastics than young boys? In other words, what is happening to all of our female gymnasts? Although I used our country as an example, this trend is happening all around the world as well. I guarantee you that if you asked all of the countries around the world to put together a team of six senior gymnasts right now, the women’s side would be pathetic. China would put together a strong team, the U.S. and Russia would be pretty good, and everyone else would practically be pulling girls out of the stands to compete. The men’s side would be COMPLETELY different. I can assure you that we would see extremely strong six-member squads of world-class athletes from China, Japan, Germany, Korea, Russia, the United States, and probably even some others like Romania, France, and Ukraine. So what in the world is going on?
I think the age rule has quite a bit to do with it. No matter how much people try to transform gymnastics into a woman’s sport, I’m afraid it’s not. Of course there are exceptions, and I for one love seeing the girls in their 20’s (and even 30’s in Chusovitina’s case) continue in the sport at an international level. It’s very inspiring to see and makes for some incredibly heroic and touching stories. Let’s face it – we all pull for the older athletes because no matter how successful they were in their teens, they eventually become the underdogs – and everyone loves a clash of generations. But these are the EXCEPTIONS. In general, this sport – and particularly with the difficulty being encouraged nowadays – is designed for young girls whose bodies haven’t yet fully matured. Their smaller, younger bodies are LESS susceptible to injury, not more susceptible. When was the last time you saw a 14-year-old girl tear her Achilles tendon? It doesn’t happen at that age…it happens later on when they’ve gained a little more weight and had time to wear out their tissues and joints more. It might sound harsh, but it’s reality.
This is exactly why it’s ridiculous to not let these girls compete as a senior until they are 16 years old – it’s blatantly obvious that it isn’t working. Let me show you what I mean. Let’s take a look at the total number of gymnasts who competed in the all-around as well as how many competed on anything in the senior men’s, senior women’s, and junior women’s competitions at our national championships:
Total All-Arounders
Total Gymnasts
Senior Men
31
42
Senior Women
16
19
Junior Women
29
31
Huh??? Isn’t the junior women’s division supposed to prepare the gymnasts for the senior division? Looks like it scares them away instead! Wouldn’t it make sense to simply COMBINE the junior and senior women into one division so that we would actually have a REAL COMPETITION??? We would have had exactly 50 total gymnasts, with 45 of them competing in the all-around. You could have a preliminary round with two sessions, and then a certain number from the prelims could advance to the finals, which would be one session. That sounds a whole lot more like a national championship than the joke of a senior meet we have now. But they can’t do it that way because of the age rule, so we end up having to play all of these ridiculous “what-if” games and hypothetically place the junior girls’ scores into the senior standings. Junior champ Kyla Ross would have been 4th in the seniors, by the way, and Bridgette Caquatto would have outscored her older sister. Jordyn Wieber would have beaten them all.
If we allowed 13, 14, and 15 year-olds into the mix, we’d have a whole lot more amazing gymnasts to watch compete for spots on our world and Olympic teams – and they’d actually be healthy enough to do four events! Instead, the women’s senior division nowadays ends up being a dwindling number of “wounded warriors” who were much more ready for the real battle two, three, or even four years ago, but have hung on to try to recover a dream they should have attained back when their bodies could still do it. They now become forced to either squeeze their entire senior career into the two years before going to college, or try to salvage it in their twenties while fighting desperately against Mother Nature’s desire to make them into “normal” women.
The nonsensical nature of this rule just absolutely amazes me. And amidst an ever-shrinking international field of healthy and capable female gymnasts, the deductions in women’s gymnastics have become harsher than ever…enforcing outrageous deductions on the most intricate pirouetting and invert combinations ever done on bars, taking full points off of vaults that are nearly flawless, and requiring the women to stick tumbling passes without moving – which has done nothing but produce hops and awkward landings all over the place and a lack of artistic finishing touches. I’ll get into a bit more of this in my analysis of the women’s competition, which is still to come…
Now that I’ve gotten some of that off of my chest…next I’ll give some of my specific observations and impressions from the men’s competition!