What we learned
U.S. women amazingly deep; men aren't bad, either
Posted: Sunday September 9, 2007 1:28PM; Updated: Sunday September 9, 2007 10:01PM
Here are the key takeaways from this week's World Gymnastics championships in Stuttgart:
1) The U.S. women are better than the Chinese women. There wasn't anything fluky about the U.S. women's team gold medal. It shouldn't have been as close as the final margin of victory, a razor thin .95 of a point. Out of eight rotations in the qualifying round and the finals, the U.S. outscored the Chinese women in six. They were dominant. The qualifying scores aren't carried over, however, and in the finals all three performances on each apparatus count. The U.S. seriously botched the balanced beam, normally one of its best rotations, and it nearly cost them the Gold. It will be the same format at the Olympics, so one miserable showing in one event could cost a dominant team a medal. At Beijing, it will not necessarily be the best team that wins, but the best team that avoids a major breakdown.
2) The U.S. women are astonishingly deep. Several of the top American gymnasts weren't even in Stuttgart because of injuries, among them Jana Bieger, the 2006 world silver medalist in the All-Around, and Chellsie Memmel, the 2005 All-Around world champion. The toughest women's gymnastics competition of 2008 may be the U.S. Olympic trials. A lot can change in a year -- a growth spurt, an injury, a bad night at the trials -- so it's impossible to predict which of this year's Gold medal winning team will NOT be in Beijing. But the odds are there will be some new faces.
One face who unquestionably deserves to be there is the oldest member of Stuttgart contingent, Alicia Sacramone. A sophomore at Brown University, Sacramone was the emotionall leader of the team in Stuttgart, the rock who righted the ship when the two stars, Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin, messed up their beam routines in the next-to-last rotation of the team finals. A specialist in vault and floor, and a steady performer on beam, Sacramone will turn 20 in December -- long of tooth by women's gymnastics' standards. But she feels her experience enables her to perform under pressure better than she did when she was younger. "My maturity has settled me down and made me a better gymnast," she says.
Sacramone had her heart broken in 2004 when she had a bad week at the Olympic trials and wasn't named to the team. She came close to giving up the sport. "It was like a death in the family," says her mother, Gail, who introduced Alicia to gymnastics at the relatively advanced age of eight. "You couldn't talk about it. She'd be watching the Olympics with her friends and have to leave the room. 'I'm reliving my nightmare,' she'd say. It took awhile to get her back to the gym." Sacramone, who trains in Burlington, Mass. under Mihai Brestyan, a former coach for the Romanian National Team, decided to stick it out and see if she could make the 2008 Olympic team. Last season she competed both at the elite level and for her college team at Brown, determined to prove to younger gymnasts that you did not have to give up a college experience to do gymnastics at the highest level. But there were sacrifices. She turned down a full scholarship at UCLA so she could be close enough to train with Brestyan, and the Sacramone's are now paying full freight at Brown. Plus the daily hour and a half commute from Providence, RI to Brestyan's gym in Burlington was exhausting both mentally and physically last year. Brestyan thought it affected her training, and U.S. Women's Team Coordinator Marta Karolyi has made it clear that if Sacramone wants to be on the Olympic team, she should forget doing gymnastics in college this year. So Sacramone, who will continue to take a full course load this fall, is reluctantly dropping off the Brown team and has given up her NCAA eligibility by signing with an agent. "Her dream wasn't to do college gymnastics," says her father, Fred, an orthodontist from Winchester, Mass. "Her dream is to do the Olympics." Let's hope it comes true, although Sacramone, who is also taking home a bronze medal in the vault and a silver in the floor from Stuttgart, has seen enough during her years in gymnastics to know there are no guarantees. "You have to keep proving yourself in this sport," she says.