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Five “older” female gymnasts to watch in Tokyo.

In Tokyo, I’ll be rooting for Team Everybody Over 21. 

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Watch Sanne Wevers on balance beam where she won gold in Rio back in 2016.

When she won for that routine (a surprise win over both Laurie Hernandez and Simone Biles), Wevers became the oldest woman — 24 years old — to win Olympic gold in gymnastics since 1968. By comparison, the average age of the US Men’s Gymnastics team in Rio was 25 years old. There are a lot of reasons why female gymnasts at the elite level are younger and retire earlier than their male counterparts. Some coaches say younger girls are lighter and more fearless, which makes it easier for them to do high flying stunts and tumbling passes on a 4-inch wide beam 4 feet above the ground. Others say girls typically start training earlier than boys, 3 or 4 years old versus 8 or 9 years old, so they have a five year head start and hit their peak sooner. Additionally, many elite level skills for men’s gymnastics can only be perfected with a particular kind of upper body strength that men don’t develop until college or later. (x)

Whatever the reasons, female gymnasts in their mid-twenties or older are a rarity and many retire in their late teens.

Mary Lou Retton, who won the individual all-around gold at the 1984 Olympics, retired in 1986 at the age of 18. Carly Patterson, who competed in Athens in 2004, was the first American woman to win the all-around gold since Retton’s win. Patterson was 16 when she competed at the Olympics and 18 years old when she retired from the sport because of back problems. Jordyn Wieber, who competed in the 2012 Olympics, announced her retirement in 2015 at the age of 19. The laundry list of young retirees could go on and on.

(cont. Bustle)

When Chellsie Memmel came out of retirement to compete at this year’s US Classic and US Nationals after two kids at the age of 32, it was a great moment, not only for moms inspired to keep pursuing their passion, but for women in gymnastics who want to compete past typical retirement age. What started as a way to get back in shape after children quickly turned into serious training again when she realized she could still do many of the elements she performed at the height of her elite career. She came back to elite gymnastics and her joy after a solid routine was palpable.

While Chellsie hasn’t had quite enough time to get into peak form to compete with the world’s best, there are other gymnasts above the typical 21/22 cutoff that you should look out for, starting with the GOAT herself.

Simone Biles, 24

There’s not much you can say about the greatest gymnast of all time that hasn’t already been said, but I find it interesting that her age never comes up in conversation since she’s a full 5 to 8 years older than most of her strongest competitors.

I’m not privy to Simone’s training regimen and I don’t know enough about gymnastics to make any sort of informed hypothesis, but considering Simone is past the typical cutoff and still performing so far out of anyone’s league that no one can touch her in an all-around competition (she hasn’t lost one since 2013), I don’t see any reason why she wouldn’t be able to go for a third Olympics if that’s what she wants to do. Typically gymnasts retire after a series of injuries where their body takes longer and longer to bounce back, but Simone is relatively injury free for such a powerful performer who has been punishing their body for a decade. She’s recently started taping her ankles before floor exercise (the most physically taxing event), but she hasn’t had to take weeks off for major surgeries.  The only thing standing in the way of Simone and another ten years of elite competition is whether she wants to do it or not.

MyKayla Skinner, 24

MyKayla is a polarizing presence in women’s gymnastics but I love her fight and I’m rooting for her to make this year’s Olympic team.

Back in 2016, she finished 4th at the Olympic trials, but she was passed over for the final lineup in favor of Gabby Douglas, 2012’s All-Around champ who had a much better bar routine, and Madison Kocian, another bars specialist. Uneven bars was a weak spot for team USA and MyKayla’s strengths on floor and vault were well represented with Simone and Aly Raisman.

She retired from elite gymnastics and competed at the college level instead — much lower difficulty with a higher emphasis on execution. In 2019 she made an almost unheard of return from college gymnastics to elite, and she’s been pushing herself to make the 2021 team. Unlike Simone, MyKayla has been plagued with injuries (she’s currently competing on a bone spur) and though she excels at vault (coming second to Simone in most competitions), Team USA already has Simone and Jordan Chiles. If MyKayla can pull more consistency across all four events, she could make it to Tokyo.

Oksana Chusovitina, 46

You can’t talk about vault specialists without mentioning Oksana Chusovitina.

With nine medals on vault, Oksana has more World Championship medals on a single event than any other gymnast and in 2016 she became the first female gymnast to compete at seven Olympics Games. Oksana already had five World Championship medals and an Olympic gold by the time Simone Biles was born and, coming of age during the political upheavals of the 90s, she has competed under three different flags at the Olympics: The Unified Team, Uzbekistan, and Germany. When she competes at her eighth (and final) Olympics this year, she will be looking to translate her recent international success into Olympic Gold, recently winning five silver and two gold since 2017 on the World Cup circuit.

This was a 41-year-old mother launching off a vault table on the world’s most competitive stage.

And she’s about to do it again in just a few weeks.

Vanessa Ferrari, 30

Vanessa Ferrari is back in peak form and she’s coming to finally get that Olympic medal she keeps missing out on.

In 2006, Vanessa won Silver on Floor Exercise at the European Championships. In 2014, she won Gold at that competition on the same apparatus. Since then she hadn’t medaled at the European Championship until April of this year when she took bronze on Floor, 15 years after her first one and 7 years after her last one. She didn’t have a great showing at the Olympic Games in 2008, but she got 4th on Floor Exercise in 2012 and 2016, just missing out on a medal.

Sanne Wevers, 29

Sanne is the reason I wanted to write this real quick because I got a Google alert about her earlier today.

In 2016, Simone’s Olympic haul consisted of Team Gold, Gold in the All-Around, Gold on Vault and Floor, and a Bronze on Beam. She was bested by Laurie Hernandez (silver) and Sanne Wevers who won gold with a routine that was unlike most of her competition. Whereas most gymnasts on beam count on a higher difficulty score by connecting acrobatic elements and tumbling, Sanne went heavy on turns and pirouettes. When she won gold, she became the oldest woman to win gold in gymnastics at the Olympics since 1968. If her preparation leading up to 2021 is any indication, she may make it a repeat in Tokyo: during lockdown she had a balance beam delivered through the 2nd story window of her home so she could practice.

The Google alert I got today wasn’t about beam though. Instead, I got an alert because, at 29 years old, Sanne Wevers is still creating skills. She’s working a skill on uneven bars that will be named after her if she competes it in international competition and it will have the highest difficulty of any uneven bars element.

Not bad for an athlete on her worst event past typical retirement age!

Women’s gymnastics will always favor the younger athletes because the training is so physically demanding and there’s not much you can do once your body starts to sustain injuries. With athletes like Sanne continuing to compete at the top of the field and other athletes like Chellsie possibly returning to the competition floor, it’s exciting to think this could be the beginning of a trend where athletes don’t retire as early and instead train different skills as their body changes. In Tokyo, I’ll be rooting for Team Everybody Over 21.

 

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Why do female gymnasts wear leotards?

Unitards may become more commonplace in the near future.

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Less than three months after the Olympics, the 2021 World Championships took place in Kitakyushu, Japan last week. At the Worlds following an Olympic Games, you would expect to see the next crop of athletes to look for over the next four year cycle. In some cases we did. Leanne Wong and Kayla DiCello missed out on competing at Tokyo but took home Silver and Bronze, respectively, in the All-Around. Since this competition was so close to the Games due to the COVID delay for the Olympics, a lot of the athletes who ended up on the podium were holdovers from August. All-Around winner Angelina Melnikova finished third in Tokyo. The Floor Exercise winner Mai Murakami also finished third in Tokyo.

One new bright spot of particular note: There was a full unitard on the podium.

Germany’s Pauline Schäfer placed second on beam at the 2021 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, and she did so while dressed in something rarely seen at women’s gymnastics meets: a unitard. Earlier this year, German gymnasts debuted these long-sleeved, long-legged leotards at the 2021 European Gymnastics Championships, and they wore them in other competitions such as the Tokyo Games.

(cont. Yahoo, UK Style)

This is her routine from podium training, but if I see the scored routine uploaded, I’ll edit the post.

I couldn’t find any other instance of a female gymnast winning a medal wearing a full unitard and I hope this marks a turning point in women’s gymnastics where the athletes feel more comfortable bucking the trend of a leotard and choosing more coverage if that makes them feel more comfortable.

Men’s gymnastics made its debut at the 1896 Olympics, but there was no women’s event for the sport for another 40 years. In 1936, women got their chance to show off their athletic prowess in the sport, but the qualities looked for in judging greatly differed from their male counterparts. Georgia Cervin, former gymnast and author of Degrees of Difficulty: How Women’s Gymnastics Rose to Prominence and Fell from Grace, says, “When the sport was developed for women, they adapted the men’s sport to make it ‘appropriate’ for women. Women were expected to do soft, rhythmic, flowing, graceful movements that emphasized beauty and flexibility. [Men] were expected to emphasize strength instead.” This was a time when intense physical activity was discouraged for women, because their primary job was to bear children and run a household. Medical science of the day thought strenuous exercise negatively impacted fertility.

The remnants of that graceful, feminine requirement are most evident in beam, with its many flourishes, and floor exercise, where women perform to music and men do not. Women were expected to dance and show grace and poise, while men were expected to tumble. After a marked shift in gymnastics in the 1970s, women too are focused on tumbling. Simone Biles performs acrobatics that many men will not attempt, yet she’s expected to smile, dance around, and show how graceful she is in addition to the athletic tumbling now required.

(This is me saying men should be able to perform artistically to music if they want, and women should be able to just do a straight out tumbling routine like the men if they want.)

Anyway, if your job, as an athlete, is to show how graceful and feminine you are, you are performing marriageability and attractiveness. Part of that will be a competition outfit as revealing as cultural norms will allow while also being able to move about.

Material science has progressed and norms have allowed for higher cuts, so now the standard attire for a female gymnast is a high cut leotard that you aren’t even allowed to adjust. (Seriously — there’s a deduction for adjusting your leo, so you can’t even pick a wedgie out of your butt.) I’ve watched gymnastics my entire life and I’ve always known deep in my spirit that if I was a 16-year-old girl, I would not want to be on worldwide television in what amounts to skintight underwear. My best friend was a gymnast growing up and she basically said the same thing — she was uncomfortable wearing them.

The leo isn’t required though. There’s nothing in the code of points that says you have to wear one, so why is it the standard? I asked Bestie this morning if the girls weren’t aware they could opt for a full unitard and this is what she had to say.

Me: I wanna write something about the women’s gymnastics unitards. Did you know back when you were doing gymnastics that you didn’t have to wear a leotard? I feel like most gymnasts don’t even realize it’s an option, or if they do know, it’s so far in the back of their mind they wouldn’t even consider it, because everybody else is wearing a leo.

Bestie: It was never an option to not wear a leotard. Even during practice, like now some can wear the small shorts and such, we weren’t allowed to do that. (But that was all pre and up to 2001 for me.)

I think the hard thing is that when you’re representing the team you have to wear the team leo, and if they don’t even make the unitard version you’re in a tough place. So if you’re on a team, you’d have to run it up the flag pole very early that you want a unitard because I assume it will be more expensive (you pay for your own leos—unless you’re sponsored, I think—and they probably will take longer to make/need to be made custom plus use more material). This could all have changed since though.

I hadn’t thought about the team aspect and that makes perfect sense. You need to look like a unit and, even if you’re uncomfortable in the leo, you might not raise that objection because then you wouldn’t look like a team. The German team all wears the same unitard, because they decided as a unit to eschew the leo, but some gymnasts prefer it. Have you ever wondered why some gymnasts have chalk on their legs, particularly before floor exercise? It’s for the grip. You want to be as tight as possible to complete your rotations in a piked position and the chalk helps you grab your legs. Getting that same grip on a leg covered in fabric takes some adjustment.

Will we see more winners in full coverage like Pauline Schäfer? I think so! Gymnastics as a sport (in the USA particularly) is having a reckoning with sexual assault, and while a leotard doesn’t keep you safe (you can be assaulted in anything, this is not a “well, what was she wearing?” moment), it does put you more firmly on a path of bodily autonomy. Being able to say you’re not comfortable in a garment is an exercise in asserting yourself and claiming ownership over your own physicality. The more we see unitards on the winners podium, the more young girls will opt to train in them, and the more we will see elite athletes who are used to (and more comfortable) competing in them.

It’s all about choice, and Pauline Schäfer’s win is a reminder to female gymnasts that they do actually have a choice in what they wear.

 

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Hot Takes: Untold – Malice at the Palace

Racism really just shows up everywhere doesn’t it?

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1. Just like The Last Dance from last year, you don’t have to be basketball fan to enjoy this excellent — excellent — hour of television.

2. From what I understand, Untold is a new sports documentary series by Netflix (by the same guys who did Wild, Wild Country which is my favorite Netflix doc) focused on changing the narrative or exploring the details of major sports dramas and controversies. I’ve only seen the first episode and it exceeded my expectations. I thought I knew about the Pacers-Pistons brawl from 2004, because I grew up watching basketball with my parents and my dad was a huge Reggie Miller fan. From what I remembered, the Baller Formerly Known as Ron Artest started a fight with a Pistons player which spilled into the stands. After that, some fans got into it and a whole bunch of people got suspended. Artest was a loose cannon (who was eventually booked for domestic violence and had a malnourished dog taken away from him) and nobody was surprised he started a riot at a game. That’s not exactly what happened. Watch the documentary to see what actually went down and how it transpired.

3. If there is an opportunity for white people to use the word “thug” they will do so frequently, loudly, and with great relish. My pulse was up watching the news clips included in the documentary, and that’s not hyperbole. I was so angry at watching the narrative being created immediately after the fight and it felt (as it typically does) like the largest part of White America was just waiting for a reason to punish Black people for something. They had to put these players in their place. They had to characterize the NBA as hip-hop loving gangster wannabes (their actual words!!) who showed their true colors by beating up on innocent fans.

4. Everything I know about Metta Sandiford-Artest (formerly Metta World Peace and Ron Artest) is negative for the most part. He was an aggressive player who always had a chip on his shoulder. He abused his wife and his dogs. He got suspended for a riot. The Metta in this documentary openly talking about his mental health reminded me that we don’t know the people behind the antics. We see celebrities and athletes acting out or behaving badly, but we have no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing. I remember laughing at the jokes when he changed his name to Metta World Peace. Now I’m embarrassed for thinking it was funny.

5. Reggie Miller participating in this documentary and not being bitter just shows how nice Reggie Miller is. I would probably still be pissed if my last shot at a championship was ruined by some hotheads on my team.

6. When I tell you this is an excellent hour of television, I mean that! I can’t vouch for the series as a whole (they have an upcoming episode about Caitlyn Jenner that I am 100000% uninterested in), but these guys know how to make compelling television. Everything from the pacing to the score is placed perfectly to enhance the tension of the moment. You know what’s going to happen (I did at least) and you’re still on the edge of your seat. If you like sports, drama, correcting a narrative, or quick documentaries, pull this one up sometime.

7. After you watch, you can read this little article about Metta being friends with John Green now. I’m more of the Stephen Jackson school of thought: “Give me my $3 million back and maybe we can talk about being friends.”

Score: 9/10

Edit:

The Christy Martin episode is also a solid 9. Excellent series so far.

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Simone Biles and the Twisties.

If Simone Biles could compete, she absolutely would. She’s SIMONE BILES okay?

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Simone Biles shouldn’t have to explain herself, but the Internet Age means there are a whole lot of people who get winded walking to the car giving big opinions on why she didn’t compete. When she pulled out of the Team competition, I hoped it was a very temporary setback and she would compete for the All Around and Individual medals. I wanted her to be the first woman to successfully defend her All Around title since 1968. When she didn’t compete again, I wasn’t really sure why, but I also didn’t really need the details.

Simone Biles is inarguably the most impressive athlete in the history of women’s gymnastics. She won a World Championship title with a kidney stone. She’s competed with fractures and strains over and over. She’s fallen completely off of an apparatus (sometimes more than one apparatus!) and still pushed forward to ultimately win the competition. Given her talent, work ethic, and determination, if Simone Biles says she cannot compete, then that’s the final word. If there was a way for her to push through, she would.

I was under the (misguided) impression that the pressure of the competition coupled with the blatantly discriminatory undervaluing of her skills alongside her status as the last of Nassar’s victims still in elite competition finally got to her. She was carrying the weight of the sport on her shoulders and it got to her at the worst moment. That was fine with me because she doesn’t owe me or anyone else anything. Watching her documentary on Facebook gave me fresh insight into who she is as a person, and I felt that if she reached her mental limit at the Olympics, then so be it.

Good job, Simone. You did your best and it must be devastating for you to have finally buckled a little  at the most inopportune moment.

But she didn’t buckle at all. She didn’t collapse under the moment. I’m sure she would be devastated if she couldn’t close out her career the way she wanted to because her nerves got to her, but the truth must be even more devastating: Simone Biles got The Twisties. I’ll let this thread from a former gymnast/diver explain.

A quick aside about that penultimate tweet: comparisons to Kerri Strug competing on a broken leg are not making the point you hope they are. Kerri Strug 1) didn’t even need to vault, because if the Karyolis could do math, they would’ve known the US had already won gold and 2) it ended her gymnastics career. Keri may have retired after Atlanta anyway, but the choice was no longer up to her. Is a gold medal really worth that kind of sacrifice? These young women don’t get any prize money. No trust funds, no scholarships, no pensions. They compete for a week and are largely relegated to the dustbin of history unless they find a way to become a meme or America’s Sweetheart for a few endorsements.

Athletes do not owe the US a medal. Bodies don’t get pushed to the breaking point so people on the couch can feel a burst of patriotism for thirty seconds. Athletes compete for themselves, not for you. You aren’t doing anything. It’s not your medal.

Simone chose not to compete because Simone could not compete safely. Kerri Strug was not given that choice. She told her coaches that she couldn’t feel her leg and they pushed her to vault anyway. Simone told her coaches that she couldn’t feel herself in the air and they respected her as an athlete and as a person who knows her own body.

Back to the twisties…

There hasn’t been enough explanation, in the coverage I’ve seen anyway, of what Simone is actually experiencing, so I wanted to pull that thread out for y’all. If you’ve been an athlete in any sport, you may already have a name to put to it (the yips in baseball, the yanks in golf). If you’re a musician, you may have experienced a similar phenomenon where your body just randomly forgets how to play a piece, and you have to re-train or re-practice to help your body remember what it’s supposed to do. The neurons just aren’t firing the way they’re supposed to, and after the Team and All Around competitions, Simone still can’t feel herself in the air.

If Simone landed that way in competition, she could die. I’m not sure people recognize how dangerous gymnastics is because the athletes make it look so effortless, but death is an actual risk anytime they compete. If your kinesthesia is off in golf, you might hit the ball too hard. If your kinesthesia is off in baseball, you might throw the ball too short. In both cases, the ball feels the effect. If your kinesthesia is off in gymnastics, you might land on your head and break your neck.

I’m proud of Simone Biles. I don’t know that I would have the mental fortitude or depth of spirit to work for something for five years, have my body fail in the 11th hour, and face the public with grace and positivity. She’s smiling, she’s cheering, she’s in Tokyo with her chin up as though she just won a gang of gold medals.

Oh wait — she already has.

 

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