Saturday, October 23, 2010
ABOUT LAST NIGHT: THE ALL AROUND
We know all those well-worn cliches about the all-around competition. It is now every gymnast against herself, against the apparatus, against the best in the world, against the cream of the crop etc etc etc.....
The thing is, they are mostly true.
The all-around competition is such a different beast from the team final. It is a quieter battle and, cliche or not, it is a battle maybe not against yourself, but a battle to do what each of these gymnasts knows she is capable of doing, hit each and every apparatus one by one.
For some gymnasts it can never be certain. For some this fight is against the oldest devil- the usual follies of getting past beam. For some, it is a duel against their own personal nemesis- that release on bars that you could do last week but seem to be beyond you now, that twist that likes to call itself a triple but is not always finished, or the looming specter of your time with a certain apparatus, a rotation or two away- a relationship that you can never, could never quite trust.
For some it is the weakness of their own bodies, that bandage ankle, that aching back or bleeding rip. Will it hold up? Can it be ignored?
For many it is psychological. Can I contain my nerves?
Frankly, there was one girl out there who could trust herself, her body and her relationship with the apparatus from the outset. Aside from a few checks on beam, there was nothing in Aliya Mustafina's face, in her manner, or her relaxed talk to her team mates and coaches, or certainly in her performance that betrayed a moment of doubt in her own ability to win this competition. She had routines that she could do and that she would do without significant error and she knew it from the beginning.
There was faith in preparation, but there was also a quiet self-certainty- a confidence that no other gymnast showed throughout her entire performance.
No other gymnast had that air about her last night. Unlike the regal Russian, there was a timorous expectancy for the Chinese girls as they awaited their turns on beam. And when they wobbled, or failed to make connections there was no surprise, but a quiet look of resignation that the worst they had expected had happened. Luckily for the Chinese, a missed connection is a drop in the water of their start scores. For others it was betrayed in the relentless pacing, the nervous stare at the scoreboard, the tightness of the mouth or the eyes squeezed shut against the scene.
For some it got the better of them. I defy anyone not to feel even a slight combination of sadness and admiration for Rebecca Bross. She probably could never have won this competition, but to fight the way she fought through that classic fall and that epic, upside down battle to stay on the beam- a battle that seemed to last minutes- was an undeniable testament to her toughness and self-discipline.
Rebecca Bross has never had the words in her to talk to media about her experiences. The lights go up, the cameras go on and the eyes glaze over. She has no means yet to intellectualise or to describe the feelings of, yes, I am sure, misery and self-reproach she was feeling. Maybe it will come later, with age, with distance. Instead she relied on the worn cliches to describe her tumultuous experience on competition floor.
"I am just happy I came back and did the best floor routine I could do and am happy I won a medal in the end."
She perhaps needed to borrow Jonathan Horton's word from yesterday.
"Of course there are no words to describe how happy I am to win a medal, but I am definitely not satisfied. I am NEVER satisfied."
There has always been conjecture about Valeri Liukin's reactions to his gymnasts failing in competition. And I witnessed first hand the desperate, disappointed swipe of the hand over the face and the quick flash of frustration and disappointment as she struggled to stay on beam. But why not? He know she can do better.
And when he is criticized for not talking to his girls after they make a mistake during a competition, it is because there is nothing he can say to girls like Luikin or Bross that they don't already know, that can't wait until they get back to the gym to correct. She knew what was technically wrong with her beam set. She knew why she fell. What good would being told that do now?
To say it wouldn't make a difference now in the big picture of a World AA final. A gymnast like Aly Raiman is still young enough and uncertain enough that this kind of feedback has its place on the floor. It is a sort of reassurance. It retains the feeling of the safety of the gym back home. For Rebecca bross, it means nothing. She knows exactly where she is and the immensity of what she is doing.
The three small, quiet words Valeri did give her, "leave it behind", were all that he could give her that she could use right in that moment. And she did. And for that, I give her full and utter credit, just as I do to Aly Raisman for coming back from bars.
Gymnasts go into battle so differently. One look at the relaxed smile of Ana Porgras, and the way she took her near-miss result on the chin, chatting and nibbling at the ever- present chocolate and you would never think she was participating in the same competition as Jessica Lopez, a gymnast with enough age and experience to know that her biggest demon is her own self-belief, who spent most of the competition with her eyes shut tight to the experience of the night, lost to frantic visualizations of her own routines.
Like anyone, I love the all-around competition, but sometimes the result means very little to me. So often I find the result is not about who is the best in the world, but more a question for me of wether the person with the gold in their hands measures up to what I believe should be representative of the winner. There have been so many years where I do not believe the winner was the best- maybe the best on the night- but not the best in the world. But last night we truly were rewarded with gymnastics from the best gymnast currently competing in the world, and for that I am grateful even if she is by no means a favorite of mine.
But I am also grateful for so many other little moments, the moments that don't end in medals. The blatant self-satisfaction of Vanessa Ferrari after she nailed a beam set. Who can begrudge the woman who was once the reigning queen taking pleasure in the smaller triumphs?
I take pride in the disappointed but always gracious smile of Lauren Mitchell as she found herself on the bubble again- in the soft words of Peggy Liddick reminding her, "At least now you know you can hit four routines when it counts." I take sincere pride in her ability to say to me that yes, she is frustrated that she keeps just missing out. I take pride in having a gymnast from my nation who is not just among the best in the world, but who has the maturity and candor to say what she wants out loud and know it being frustrated but happy doesn't make her any less of a gymnast.
I felt relief and joy in the indubitable stick of a bars landing by Georgia Bonora, a stick that signaled a four-for-four for a young woman who has fought the slow disintegration of her ankles to come to another, her fourth, World Championships. The girl is a legend.
I laughed with joy at the fist-pumping leap into the air of Nilson Savage as his adult protege Jessica Lopez pulled of the fourth routine of her life for the night to dispel her memories of disappointment in London and to enter, at age twenty-four, the ranks of the top ten gymnasts in the world. She is very, very special.
I smiled at the bemused but almost grateful expression on Rebecca Bross's face as one of the Russian coaches cupped a tender hand around her cheek, spoke some quiet words and enfolded her in a bear hug as if she was his own gymnast at the end of the competition.
I took pleasure in the relaxed smile of Danielle Hypolito, a gymnast just happy to find herself still among the ranks at the top, as she watches the final routines of the night, and in the excited smile of Elisabeth Seitz as she pulls off another great Def and in the feverish, ecstatic chatter of Rie Tanaka to Alina Kozich as she did just the same.
I laugh at the relentless yo-yo of Nabieva's moods from tragedy, to pride, to frustration and eventually, always, to comedy. As trite as it sounds, these moments are as worth it as anything that happens on the medal podium.
As we watch a new and undisputed queen take the throne, as we hear last year's champion shout from the sidelines, as we pass through the emptying training halls to see this year's newly crowned Queen of Elegance, Rie Tanaka posing for photos for her many team mates, the new female pride of Japan, while last year's heroine Koko Tsurumi trots off prize-less and alone to fill her water bottle, we have to think, 'How quickly thing change'.
(Okay, I have to stop now, Coach Rick of Gymnastics Coaching has been watching me type for hours and just called me the Dovstoyevsky of blogging!)