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Months of preparation was to be put on stage for the entire world to see October 8, 2011. The process is long but we made it to the starting gate. In this sport that is never a foregone conclusion, it is never a given. Perseverance had better be etched in the core of your character, otherwise chose another path. Team USA 2011 has character to spare.
Our Preliminary competition draw had us starting on Beam. This is often a coaches nightmare (starting on the toughest event, and then finishing on the 2nd toughest- Bars). My opinion has always been the order doesn’t matter cause you have to do em all anyway. From selection camp forward we rehearsed training in competition order with a tentative line up. (Tentative line up was Makayla, Sabrina, Alicia, Ali, Jordyn). We used a 1 minute skill warm up, followed by a 30 second touch rehearsal, then 3-4 routines. Martha emphasized the importance of that first routine after the 30 second touch. “That is your competition routine and the most important”, she would say.
Coaches on the Floor
Due to the rules at Worlds only 2 coaches can be on the floor at a time and one has to be female. Jiani Wu (former Olympian for China and head coach at Legacy Elite Gymnastics in Chicago) was our lone female coach. Part of the rehearsal training included assigning specific coaches to the 30 second touch. Jiani and I handled Vault and Floor, Serin and Jiani (Former Romanian Olympian and Coach of Sabrina Vega) was assigned to bars. Mihi and Jiani for beam. After the 30 second touch there would be time for the male coaches to tag team in and out of the field of play (the competitive floor), but during the 30 second touch this was not an option. The athletes needed to be prepared to handle things on their own IF their coach was not assigned. This was something that was discussed several times so that the athletes were prepared for this abnormal situation. They all handled it well.
The tentative floor line up was Alicia, Jordyn, Sabrina, Makayla, Ali. Floor routines were trained every other day so as to rest the legs. On the days assigned as non routine days we would do dance through routines but coaches could add a tumbling pass of two if they deemed it necessary for their athlete.
Our strongest event was going to be Vaulting with USA boasting 2 Amanars and the rest of the world 1 or 2, we were going to be tough to beat on this event. Our line up was Sabrina, Ali, Alicia, Jordyn, Makayla. Vault training was normally 1-2-3 good competition vaults and done. Martha was very leery of this event and the potential for a bad landing so the numbers are minimal.
Our tentative bar line up coming out of verification was Ali, Sabrina, Makayla, Jordyn and Anna Li. Anna aggravated a stomach injury (nothing majorly serious but enough to keep her from being productive in training) so she was replaced by Gabby Douglas. Gabby was very solid in training so this trade off would have minimal impact on our team score. Gabby replaced Anna in the line-up position. Bar numbers in training were normally 2 routines in the AM and PM. If there was only one training session in a day, then 3 bar routines was suggested.
A Day of Disaster
Thursday, October 6th was official disaster day for the USA. During training Ali Raisman (who is normally a machine) was obviously having an off day. She missed a foot on a dismount off beam and jammed both ankles. 5 minutes later Alicia injured her achilles and was deemed out of the competition. It was as if that day was a dream, moving in slow motion. The helpless feeling cannot be put into words. Ali was our rock of consistency, and Alicia was the inspirational leader with experience to help this young team. We were in a state of shock.
One thing that is for certain about athletes on the USA National Team, they are well trained physically and mentally. Using Alicia’s mishap as motivation, they simply marched forward with a greater determination and focus. Alicia inspired that in them.
A New Lineup
The next day at training Ali was 100% fine and the rest of the team stepped it up a few notches. Gabby Douglas was inserted into the line up on Vault (Sabrina, Gabby, Ali, Jordyn, Makayla), Beam (Makayla, Sabrina, Ali, Jordyn, Gabby) and Floor (Gabby, Sabrina, Jordyn, Makayla, Ali), thus giving the USA 5 complete all around competitors to carry the team on their shoulders. The strategy of putting Gabby up last on beam was simply to take the pressure off.
If there were any game day jitters the girls kept them well hidden. From the onset, they were relaxed and confident. Warm up is conducted in the warm up gym using the traditional format (starting on your second competition event). There is plenty of time given, so much so that we did not use the entire allotment on any of the events. The warm up prior to competition progressed without any complications, issues, drama or melt downs. These girls were like corralled stallions just wanting to run!
After the completion of warm ups I was assigned to make sure the vault tape measure was put down and the girls board setting marked. FIG supplies a metric tape measure so USA has to provide their own in international competitions (either that or get or kids accustom to converting feet to meters). This has to be done prior to march in as there simply would not be enough time in between events once the competition was started.
We waited for what seemed like hours for the march in ceremony. The girls tried to stay loose and relaxed but the wait started to get to Sabrina. She calmed her nerves and was fine within seconds.
Mihi and Jiani lead the group to beam and conducted the 30 second touch. All went well. Makayla had the toughest job of the day and that was getting the USA off to a good start. Although her beam performance was not one of her best, she did fight to stay on the equipment and that became contagious. They all fought! 5 for 5 hit routines is a great start for any squad, but for a young inexperienced team it is crucial for momentum.
Jiani and I conducted the 30 second touch. Makayla was having issues with her 2.5 punch front full so I immediately did an unplanned tag team to get her coach Arthur Okopian in to help her. Floor went well, with the USA displaying some very difficult tumbling runs and better than the norm artistry presentation. Both Jordyn and Makayla did have issues with their 2.5 twist combination pass but ALL stayed on their feet. It is a tough transition getting used to the timing in the warm up gym and then transitioning to the podium for competition. The podium has a very different feel and bounce thus making the timing of combination passes very tough to fine tune in a 30 second touch. Note to self: work on this.
The USA marched to Vault and put on a clinic for the world. They were by far the best vaulting team in Tokyo. Not only in terms of difficulty but also the amount of dynamic amplitude. Sabrina opened with a strong 1.5 twist, followed by Gabby and Ali underscored double twists and then Jordyn’s and Makayla’s severely underscored 2.5 twists (Amanar). The judging feedback that we received after the competition verified our concerns in that it was said that the execution panels were far too severe in the application of the deductions … especially on the top end vaults. Regardless of the scores, vaulting launched us into contention for finishing the day in the top spot.
All we had to do was hit bars. Bars is the weaker of our events but we have the potential to hang strong provided, as Martha puts it, “we don’t loose our minds” (try that with a Romanian accent). 5 for 5 bars and the top spot was ours.
The media was doubtful as to our potential as a team without our team captain Alicia. Well this team would have certainly been stronger, but the tell tale sign of a great program is depth. With all the knocks and controversy surrounding the over analyzed and scrutinized USA National Team Program, one thing stands clear. It fosters team depth and the ability to deliver results. Is it perfect? NOPE, but “it is what it is”.
Exhilaration and excitement is short lived and you are only as good as your next performance, particularly when the next performance is for the World Championships Title. We were immediately put back on course and then re-established our focus on the task ahead …Team Finals!
…Stay tuned for that update.
-by John Geddert, 2011 World Team Head Coach