Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Most Important Relationship in Gymnastics....

A lot of blogs over the years have done their favorite coaches list.
I haven't yet.
It is surprising considering how fiercely i tend to agree or disagree with their choices.
I still remember one blogger put Elvira Saadi on their list and I was practically hollering at the screen in disgust for that particular choice!
The relationship between coach and athlete is intense, and the deisre to win on both side plays a very powerful part. The coach that can want their gymnasts to succeed, while always keeping in their mind what is best and healthiest for them, both physically and psychologically, is the coach that succeeds in my book.  
There are so many i have been so very doubtful about over the years given what has been said about them by various gymnasts and what I have seen of their behaviour.

Suspicious stories about coaches like Nunno, Fong, Ostapenko, Saadi, Belu and Bitang have always left me feeling uneasy about their methods, though I always try and maintain a healthy level level of open-mindedness about them because of what the media and bitter athletes can say and have been known to say.

But there are some coaches I have always admired for various reasons. Sometimes it is for their particular work with one athlete. Sometimes it is for their methods more than their outcomes. Sometimes it's for everything they do as a coach and everything it entails in being successful in the multi-faceted role as a gymnast's trainer, stand-in parent, guide and example.

So anyway, here is a list of coaches i have really admired over the years, in no particular order and, of course, why.

Coach: Galina Marinova
Gym: All Olympia
Gymnast: Mohini Bhardwaj, Sam Shapiro, Mattie Larson
Why?: Simply because this ex-Bulgarian gymnast produces lovely, lovely gymnasts with gorgeous lines and interesting choreography. 
But most of all, I admire her because she was the woman who brought the somewhat tired and injured Mohini Bhardwaj, at the ripe old age of 26- finished with her stellar college career-back to a level in the sport where she could make it to the 2004 Olympic Games. And she only started to train the out-of-shape Mohini in late 2003! Not even the time limitations put her off.

She told Anne Phillips for Gymnastike; "I would like to help anyone who has that desire to go to the Olympics to have that experience."
She also said that when Mohini injured her achilles and couldn't do anything on her feet for a month, Galina saw it as an opportunity to make Mohini a better dancer (Mohini hated dancing!). And it has to be considered a successful move considering Mohini made it to the floor finals!

Coach: Mihai Brestyan
Gym: Brestyan's
Gymnast: Alicia Sacramone
Why?: Ah god love him. I just love this guy! Maybe it is just because this former Romanian National team coach looks so dang cuddly!
No, really, I think he did a marvellous job with Alicia,teachng her from the tender age of eight. I admire not only his ability in harnessing her ridiculous power, but molding her in the last four years to become an even more rounded gymnast. He helped prove that she should be on an Olympic team (and any haters who want to bring up the team competition, hush now. She is still amazing!) and on more events than before.

He also managed to get her on to that Olympic team while allowing time and energy for her college education and the training time she needed to be doing at Brown. He worked around it.

Given Alicia's irrepressible energy and personality, she would have been a challenge to keep focussed and disciplined too. "Look at my hair" Mihai told reporters once, pointing to his grey hair, "three quarters of that is her!"

Coach: Cassie Rice
Gym: Gymcats, Nevada
Gymnast: The Schwikerts, Cassidy McComb
Why?: I like Cassie Rice. I really, really do. She trained three very spunky well-known gymnasts. She was produced an Olympian and two-time National Champion. She was always insanely enthusiastic at meets when her gymnasts did well and gave them space when they needed it too.

I also love that she started a program at her gym where the gymnasts teach free classes to Autisitc kids because she wants her gymnasts to stop thinking only about themselves and figured this was the only way to "make a teenager reach out and help others and really like doing it."

But most of all I like Cassie Rice because she PUT UP WITH Tasha Schwikert!! A lot of lesser coaches probably would not have been able to handle Tasha, especially her lack of discipline and her ego. It was glaringly obvious during televised contests that sometimes Tasha gave her hell. But who would give up on that raw, raw talent she clearly exhibited from such a young age? 

And Cassie wasn't afraid to just chuck her out of the gym when she felt it necessary (even though, as I have mentioned before, Tasha would sometimes hold onto the door or the apparatus and have to be literally dragged from the gym when she was a young 'un!).

Cassie did exactly that not long before the 2003 Nationals Championships and look where it got them? Her "get to work or get out" ethic got Tasha, who had been injured for a long time, whipped into enough shape that she climbed back up to 2nd in the Nat Champs AA and found her being a reserve at her second Olympic Games. I say Go Cassie!

Coach: Nicolae Forminte
Gym: Deva
Gymnast: All those up and coming Romanians and a few who came before!
Why?: Because I love this funny little brute of a man! Also, I intensely admire him for his ability to see things as they are. Unlike many inside the sport in Romania, he is a realist. He understands that gymnastics has changed in Romania and that gymnasts have changed in Romania. There are a lot more options out there than a career in sport. He also knows that fear is no longer a strong enough incentive to train hard.

I love that he understands, and actually notes that it is hard for his girls, doing what they do in a far less advantageous country than other gymnasts. He is sympathetic to them at times. "It's not easy for Sandra to see that other Olympic Champions are modeling on the runway, conducting interviews, have a variety of other activities other than entering a gym," he told Prosport during the Europeans this year. He takes them on holidays!!

And besides, yes, Romania ain't what it used to be.  But that is because a lot less money, a lot less coaches and a far smaller talent pool coming up the junior ranks for him to work with. And yet, he has maintained a program that has produced several absolutely fabulously talented gymnasts like Nistor, Tamirjan, Dragoi and Izbasa and more, and managed to create a team that could win the Euros last year (with only four gymnasts I might add).

That is why, when Sandra won that gold at Beijing, I was welling up for him as well as for her(yes I am that much of a sap it nearly makes me cry. Every time. Sometimes, when I am feeling bad, I just watch Sandra win the gold and I feel better. I am a sad, sad individual!).

He is utterly devoted to the task too. He goes home to Constanta once every six weeks and claims he spends the whole time thinking about training plans. He told "Adevarul" "All you can do as a coach is bring the gymnast as close as you can to the medals."
And let's not forget he was responsible for the young Simona Amanar.

Coach: Ju Ping Tian
Gym: AIS
Gymnast: Monique Allen, Kylie Shadbolt, Julieanne Monico and many, many more
Why?: Because before Peggy Liddick, there was Ju Ping Tian, the woman who made it possible for the Australian girls to qualify their first Olympic team in 1992 after moving from 26th place to sixth at the World Championships in 1991 in the U.S.A. She produced our very first world event finalist.

Ju Ping Tian moved to Australia from China in 1983 and brought with her a wealth of knowledge about the discipline, skill and presentation needed to compete amongst the best in gymnastics. The Australian women's team improved massively under her watch. I also believe the elegance for which the Australian gymnasts became known for can only be attributed to the ground laid by her.

Thanks to the work she put in on a bureaucratic level, Australia has better training facilities, better trained coaches and more opportunities for international experience. When Liddick, who I also debated putting on this list,took over, some of the hardest work, in terms of making sure talented young gymnasts were moving steadily up the ranks for Peggy's appraisal, was already in place. There was, however, much opposition to her desire to centralise all gymnasts at the AIS, perhaps most famously by Joanna Hughes, claimed to be Australia's most talented gymnast at the time, who refused to leave her coach and her home in Victoria. But still, she made change happen.

Coach: Yevgeny Marchenko
Gymnast: Carly Patterson, Hollie Vise, Nikki Childs.
Why?: Well, it's pretty obvious WOGA knows how to whip gymnasts into shape! In some ways I could have done Yegeny or Valeri here, but there is something I particularly like about Yevgeny's style. For one, I really liked the attitude he maintained about Carly Patterson as she rose through the ranks of gymnastics, that nothing is certain. 

I like the quiet, patient coaching we saw in the Gymnastike vids of him training the girls on bars.

He told a reporter once, that he believed that if the coach was clam and professional, it naturally followed that the gymnast would be that way too. Carl leland, a coach for the University of Denver told a reporter once, that he was hoping for Patterson's success at the Olympics, not just for her, but for the fact that someone like Marchenko's kinder, calmer coaching methods would get the attention it deserved, rather than the heavy-handed "master with the whip" style coaches that get all the attention.

I love how he worked at a pizza restaurant for years to raise the money to buy WOGA with Liukin. That shows a true dedication to wanting to coach on your own terms and in your own style. Both Liukin and Marchenko could have been earning good money training gymnasts in someone else's gym, but they didn't.

"He pushes us hard," Nikki Childs told a reporter once, "But he's like a father. I can tell him anything."

Coach: Kim Zmeskal Burdette and Chris Burdette
Gym: Texas dreams
Gymnast: Chelsea Davis
Why?: I love this pair coaching together. I love that they are both products, one as athlete, one as coach, of the Karolyis. And if their interviews with Gymnastike are testament to anything, it is that they have both come away with anything from their time with those indomitable Romanians, it is the strengths of a good gymnastics coaching strategy and an eye to the detail of what makes good gymnastics. They have the wealth of the know-how of the Karolyis, and of Kim's personal elite experience. They are warm, encouraging and if the Texas Prime is anything to go by, they know how to make gymnastics fun, inspiring and exciting for their athletes.

And I am truly hoping I live to see the day Kim is the National coach for the U.S.A. I am not kidding. She IS THE ONE in my books.

Coach: Carol Angela Orchard
Gym: Sports Seneca
Gymnast: Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs, Peng Peng Lee
Why?: I love, love, love this woman. What is not to love? She is warm.  She is kind.  She thinks of the gymnast as much as she thinks of the gymnastics. 

Why else would she train a girl to a level where she can earn Canada's first Word Championship medal and garner worldwide attention for her gymnastics, and all the while pave the future in the form of a college career? It is because Carol-Angela knows that no matter how successful, gymnastics careers are short- and she wanted Hopfner-Hibbs to know that there were others ways to learn and grow when her elite career was over.

And then who can forget the work she did with the brilliant junior Peng Peng lee? Not only did she rear this spectacular young gymnast, she ensured that Lee had all the skills she would need in place for 2012 before leaving Sports Seneca to marry her fiancee and settle in England.
This woman has such a generous soul and you can see it in the way she talks about her gymnasts.

"Children will become whatever you tell them so I'm constantly talking to them about how special they are, how talented they are, how worldly." She told the Toronto Star "Positive yes, but not in a frivolous way. It's done in a way that can make them grow as people. I will never tell them something is good if it is not good. So they can trust you also. Otherwise they totally lose respect for you."

And who can not respect she and her partner McVey when they know that by the end of the Sport Seneca run, McVey was coaching FOR FREE and Orchard was earning barely anything before the Beijing Olympics. It was pure passion.

Coach: Boris Pilkin
Gym: Round Lake
Gymnast: Svetlana Khorkina
Why?: Well, how can you not admire the one man who saw the potential in Svetlana Khorkina, the man who saw her outrageously (for a gymnast) long, lanky form and preternatural elegance and decide that it wasn't a handicap, but an opportunity to capitalise on difference?

He took a chance and look where it got both of them?

And you have to admire his ability to design routines that not only used her length to her advantage, but were clever, original and even when performed less well than they should have been, always looked good.

Then of course, there is the fact that he put up with Khorkina! I mean, she can't have been the easiest gymnast to train, with her self-proclaimed tendency for stubbornness, mood swings and all-round princes-sy behaviour!

Seeing them on the competition floor was a great thing. He knew when to leave her alone and he knew when to be a father. And you could always see, when she succeeded, that while she was being congratulted by Arkayev or her team mates after a win, it was Boris she was looking for, Boris who knew what it meant. I read a rather sweet dedication to their coach/gymnast partnership in a forum once, that said,

"There is a real affection between the two of them. She calls him "Grandpa" and he treats her and her sister Yulia with love and respect. I am always touched when I see how Svetlana looks out for him. When someone gives her photos of herself or issues of IG or Gym Stars, she often asks for extra copies for Pilkin. At Russian meets, the coaches of the gold medal winners are presented with certificates during the awards ceremonies, Khorkina often looks happier for him that she does for herself. When she won the Russian Cup in July, she got down off the award stand to give him a hug. I'd never seen a gymnast do that and it was very moving. When he is publicly honoured, her eyes often well up with tears. They have the best coach-pupil relationship I have ever seen."

Coach: Valorie Kondos Field
Gymnast: Too many to count!
Why?: I just think this woman is marvelous. To start as a ballerina, and to find her way to coaching such a high level college team that has had so much success during her reign, is just amazing. And you know, one of the reasons I admire her so much more than say, Suzanne Yoculan, who is clearly a brilliant coach and motivator, is because of the gymnasts VKF works with. 

She is not afraid to take 'difficult' gymnasts like Bhardwaj and Schwikert were when they came to her. And yet, she brings out the best in them. 
But mostly it is about the originality and artistry she creates and demands from the girls she trains.  The floor routines she designs flatter every single gymnast, innately graceful or not, no matter what, and yet, still retains an essence of the character of the girl she is designing them for. Her gymnasts are interesting and intelligent (they have to be to get into UCLA and in fact, that is a restricting factor in her recruiting) and it shows.

Honorable Mentions

Kelli Hill- the most quotable coach on the competition floor by far!
"Well, it's always better to land on your feet!"
"You're an animal!!"
The woman always makes me laugh. And she raised Kupets.

Amanda Kirby for maintaining the excellence and the longevity in the performance of an oft-injured gymnast like Beth Tweddle.

Liang Chow for shortening a gymnasts training hours and proving she can still be the best in the world.

Enrico Casello- Well he must be doing something right! But also for protecting Ferrari from the media she hated, particularly when things were not going right for her.

Lili Cosma: coach and mother. And for being the only person in the Romanian delegation to give Steli Nistor, relegated to the crowds, the time of day in Milan.

Nataliya Pavlova for, well, the gymnastcs gift that is Pavlova!

Natalya Marakova for making her gymnasts line up and give her a hug after her rigorous ballet and chorey classes. Sweet!

Valeri Liukin for coaching his own kin so successfully, and because I don't think Nastia is ever going to turn around and divorce him or write a tell-all book about what a madman he was!

Suzanne Yoculan- Who can argue with results and the power of motivational speech (well me, but it works for her and her lambs!)?!!


  1. I am a big fan of Andy Memmel, too. "Here's your training schedule, and I love you."

  2. Do you know all these coaches personally to be able to make those judgements?

  3. Not only is Carol Angela Orchard a great coach, but she was a fantastic commentator on CBC for years. I miss her.

    Also, wasn't it Donna Stauss who said "you're an animal" in reference to Kristen Maloney? Then again, I guess more than one person could have used this line!!

  4. Love your site!
    I actually had Valerie Kondos as a dance coach at a summer gymnastics camp in Orange County in California (1986-1989). Jerry Tomlinson was the head coach of UCLA and she was the assisstant coach. Um anyway, she was grouchy, all the time with us kids and extremely impatient. I really didn't like her I believe coaching us must of been horribly "beneath" her high calling. She seems to get along fine with her college athletes though (which never ceases to amaze me) so I would assume that she is practically a different person while coaching them.
    Jerry by the way was way cool!

  5. love your website
    personally i think you should have included coaches octavian belu and mariana bitang in your examples of strong coach-gymnast relationships
    in spite of the outrageous rumours and ex-gymnasts'confessions (marinescu) they did deliver an amazing line of gymnasts and one can easily notice the great relationship romanian gymnasts had with their coaches (kissing and hugging eachother during the competitions). perhaps the key to succes and a way to show one's care is a bit of tough love and most champions (such as amanar, gogean, raducan, ponor etc)did pretty well for themselves and never complained ... anyways, since they stopped coaching the romanian team, romanian gymnastics stopped shining
    sorry for my mistakes, english is not my first language