Thursday, October 21, 2010


Being on the floor taking photographs during a major competition is great in some respects. You get the great shots, up close with the action. But it certainly has its downsides too.  Jostling with other photographers for the reaction shots, or the right beam spot.  Being limited in your movements and watching the whole thing through the narrow confines of a viewfinder.

I only knew Nabieva fell because of the gasp of the crowd and the light thump of a body hitting the mat that you can always hear even from the other side of the arena.  I only knew she fell a second time because I had whisked my eyes away from the girl on beam to see her scramble back toward the chalk bowl after hearing the murmur of the crowd.  On the other hand, I was ready to get the shot of her face as she grimly marched to beam minutes later.

I only saw one of He Kexin's releases, but heard the crowd let out a unison 'Oh' of astonishment and knew it must be at her opening skills.  I only knew Lauren Mitchell hit her double Arabian into stag leap because the photographer next to me muttered 'Mitchell' to me.

It is a strange way to experience a competition, especially when unlike a lot of the photographers around you, you are actually invested in the outcome. 

But it certainly has its upsides too.  You can get a feel for team dynamics, witness the intimacies between competitors and coaches and hear the exchanges made between them.  These things are revealing in their own ways too, even when you are missing the big picture. I learned things I would never know.

I would never have become acquainted with the dynamic between Diana Chelaru, the more experienced international performer and her team mate Ana porgras.  Never would I have known that it would be Ana who would take Diana in hand and give her a grave and reassuring talking to before the girl, who was clearly a bunch of nerves went up on floor.  Until that moment I had always thought of Diana Chelaru as a serious, yet  blithe and unaffected little competitor.  But she too was feeling the heat like her junior counterparts.

I saw evidence of what I had always understood about team seniority.  It is the experienced ones who are hit hardest.

Before vaulting it was clear Sandra Izbasa was in quite a lot of pain in her ankle or foot. Enough to let her coaches know, enough for the usually animated team leader to stand there like stone and to brush away the jollying affections of her team mates until she had readied herself to vault.  And it was Sandra who, although she hit a great vault considering her size and the amount of pain she was in, that nearly cried as she walked away from the apparatus.  I would be hard pressed to guess whether it was because of her experience and expectations that no vault she did would ever be good enough for her, or because she already knew it wouldn't be good enough for Romania.

It was a similar case for Alicia Sacramone. Despite a near miss on her front pike, and the most miraculous beam save of the competition, the rest of her routine was as perfect as Sacramone gets, yet she came off beam like she had done Beijing all over again. With every year and every competition the bars raises and she will never live up to her own expectations.  

Watching the coaches is also revelatory of a team's performance. Amanda Kirby is nothing less than cheerful, no-nonsense and motivational.  Stick or fall, every gymnast is greeted with that warm, well-known smile from a woman who has been on the sidelines of major competition for many, many years.

"I just enjoy it, and try to make sure they enjoy it," she told me after the competition.

And her greatest pupil Beth Tweddle has learned a thing or two from this wonderful coach, taking on a similar role and more.  When her team members need anything, from a cue on what to do next, or even some help with the 'butt glue', it is Beth they go to, and Beth who always seems to have time for them.

"It is so different now.  She is my team mate, my friend and the best person in the world." Jenni Pinches, who was once featured in a documentary getting Beth's autograph as a young gymnast, told me. "Back then, she was a celebrity, now she is Beth."

You start to realise the work unseen by these coaches who orchestrate all that they can in making a good team.  When I asked Peggy Liddick about the astonishing solidity of the young Emily Little, she was less surprised.  

“She just hung around Lauren (Mitchell) and she doesn’t know any better. She just thinks that’s how you train, and that’s the advantage of having senior leaders, the juniors just go ‘Oh, that’s what you do’ and they don’t know any different."

This is all part of her plan.

"The struggle is just getting a couple of good leaders all around the country just has to pay off. That’s what I am thinking.”

  While Wu Jiani was practical and nervous, either pacing or doing what she could for the girls in terms off massages and finding what they needed, it was Mihai who took the helm with confidence and authority, telling each girl what she needed to hear when  the time came.  But it was with Alicia and Aly he was most tender, holding Aly by the shoulders with his big bear hands as he told her how great she had been, or giving Alicia what she needed, which was most often keeping her emotions and power check.

After a nervous vault warm-up, he spoke as she waited like a raging bull at the end of the runway, "Don't throw yourself at it- just hit it and it will come!"  She nodded and did exactly what he said.  And exactly what he said happened.  And she walked away, nearly in tears from the emotional release, once again bearing the weight of seniority and the knowledge that it was too late.  As she was enveloped by her team mates, he turned to her with a pointed fingers and a snarl, "And no tears, we won't have any tears!"

"Okay," She shot back with a glare, but did exactly what she was told and instead the team joined together in an embrace. Then he told them, 

"Okay, we pray now." 

It is impossible to know what was said in that tight huddle of anxious gymnasts, but it was surprising enough to see Rebecca Bross was leading them.

Rebecca Bross is a fascinating competitor.  When she came off beam she sat straight in a chair and was tended to by Wu Jiani, Bridget Sloan and Mackenzie Caquatto, treated to a fierce rubbing down, as she sat there and succumbed to it like a sick, sleepy child.  But when it came time for vault, she fell into the support role like she was born to it- though she has rarely been in it- bringing things back and forth, talking Macko through her vault and even being the one to hold Alicia as she tried to keep it together for her vault.  She did all the things I thought Bridget Sloan might do, but did them with such an unimposing and quiet presence, it seemed just right.

The Russians, of course, seem to always be enclosed in drama, most of it of their own making.  Nabieva surprised by recovering from her bars disaster to smiles in only minutes- less Khorkina-like than expected.

Despite an obviously close relationship among most of them, there are definitely some petty jealousies and outcasts.  Anna Dementieva is very much the little sister, often on her own, in a dream, but when it come time to perform, her 'sisters' Aliya and Nabieva moves straight to the podium to talk the little girl through her routine, to not give her a moment as she waits for the green light to get scared, because the voices she knows from home are right there beside her as always.

There is also a price to pay for receiving more attention than the others on this team.  As Ksenia Semeonova returned form her moment in the spotlight, as the announcers wished her a happy eighteenth birthday and she curtsied, grinning and blushing on the podium, she was greeted with silence.  When Aliya Mustafina returned from yet another near-flawless beam routine, no one said a word, too taken up with other business.  There are certainly undercurrents in this team, like any team, and the more you get to observe, the more you see of these things below the surface.  When the moment came to celebrate, however, the friendships are very much back in place and love is found between them again.

And then there are the other tiny little moments that make you smile.  The grumpy gymnast unwilling to take off her track suit for the march to the next podium.  The shy grinning exchange between Alicia Sacramone and Romanian beam coach Lili Cosma as they wait to march to the next event.  The incessant joking of team clowns Yang Yilin and Sandra Izbasa.  The small, surprising smile of baby Dementieva as she approaches the beam for her routine.  The grinning thumbs up of Raluca Haidu to a team mate twice her size.  Ekaterina hissing at the screaming Chinese girls as they watch their final competitor and them laughing at her own bad-tempered behavior.  The sneaking of chocolate from her bag of Ana Porgras between rotations.  The ever-present smile of Mackenzie Caquatto.

And finally, Deng Linlin marching back to the training hall and bestowing her bouquet of flowers on poor Wu Liufuang, once again relegated to carrying the mats and bags for her team as reserve. My favorite moment of the night.

Only now I can't wait to watch the competition on television! 


  1. Perfect. You captured the rhythm of covering/photographing a major competition beautifully. I think this is the best piece of writing I've seen from you. Well played.

    Also, I think Bross has a kind of quiet power...we'll have to see!
    What was the rest of the team's reaction after Mattie bombed on floor?

  2. Awesome. Like I was there with you. Thank you for all you do to bring the sport to us. Thank you so so much.


  4. What exactly do you mean by: "The sneaking of chocolate from her bag of Ana Porgras between rotations" ? Thank you.

  5. Fascinating glimpses and wonderful photographs. Loved this essay!

  6. What an incredible article - really, that was unreal. You write beautifully. I watched it live on BBC, and so many of the things you mention I can recall or imagine, even if just hints of them were apparent through the TV screen. This is the most imaginative and perceptive piece on gymnastics I have read in a VERY long time. Thank you.

  7. lovely writing! really made this team finals feel real to me (: thanks!!

  8. This set of observations was incredibly moving. You have me in near tears sitting in my office! Thank you so much for all your wonderful coverage.

  9. "watching the whole thing through the narrow confines of a viewfinder."
    ^ This is so true..
    Now you know what us photogs go through. ;-)

    Great article!! , throughly enjoyed reading it.
    thanks for all the updates and the hard work to bring them to us.

  10. I agree completely with Vanessa, best piece ever. You're better and better by the minute :) And this "And no tears, we won't have any tears!" is my favorite quote ever, this is why I love Alicia.

  11. Ups, seems I misunderstood your post :S lol, scrap the last part about Alicia (but I still love her)

  12. PolyisTCOandbannedOctober 21, 2010 at 7:43 AM

    Nice essay, Bridge.

    (Of course, I wonder what your take will be of the men, if you help with that as well!)

  13. Great insight! I also love the sneaking of the chocolate by Porgas. Classic.

  14. Amazing! Thank you!

  15. This was SO lovely. Wow. I don't even know what to say.

  16. This was a fantastic essay, and I believe the best I have ever read from you. As someone who has been on the floor at major competitions, I have to say you really managed to take your readers out on the floor with you. Thank you for sharing your experience with us, it was a fascinating read. Enjoy the next few days! It's so odd to have to pack up and leave behind that amazingly world that forms behind the scenes and on the floor at long meets.

  17. Before reading the comments, I was going to say: "Best article you have ever wrote".

  18. I started reading this blog along with other gymnastics blogs not long before Beijing and this has been the best piece I think I've read on any of them in that time frame. Thank you for that insight into the competition.

    Anonymous 1 - We know that's you Octavian. Leave Ana alone. :p

  19. I had tears in my eyes when I finished reading this. Thank you!

  20. Such a great blog! Thank you for your insight, I too had tears in my eyes when I read this. Love the comment about DLL, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this kid!

  21. Truely a spectacular piece of literature! They should pay you for this!!

  22. This has got to be the best gymnastics piece I've ever read. Rather poignant though. Poor Liufang, I was really gunning for her to get a spot on the team.

  23. Beautifully written! I'm almost made me cry.

  24. Oh, this is wonderful. Thank you so much for this.

  25. Amazing post! I loved your insight into the competition, and I agree with everyone else: it was beautifully written. Thank you.

  26. That was absolutely beautiful.

    I can just imagine Deng Linlin, with her quiet and steady repose, giving her flowers to Wu Liufang. I would love to have witnessed that; it sounds magical even when i'm just reading it.

  27. Best gymnastics blog ever. Period. All hail Couch Gymnast!

  28. This is such a great rendering of the competition - it is brilliant to hear such a candid account. And the photos (here and on fbook) have been great too!

  29. "Anna Dementieva is very much the little sister, often on her own, in a dream, but when it come time to perform, her 'sisters' Aliya and Nabieva moves straight to the podium to talk the little girl through her routine, to not give her a moment as she waits for the green light to get scared, because the voices she knows from home are right there beside her as always."

    This is my favorite line. Beautiful post. :)

  30. What would we do without you? Most of us can only admire international elite level gymnastics from a far, but you make us feel like we are right there. I personally am greatful for your amazing coverage of these World Championships. Keep up the great work.

  31. this is wonderful.

  32. Such a utterly beautiful post
    So descriptive and interesting, reminds me of competing myself :)
    Makes me feel like I was actually there (whilst sitting at home in Aus)
    Thankyou very much <3

    Also I was wondering, how did the Aussie girls go? I know they came 6th (which is excellent!) but is there any more info you can share with us?

  33. You have a real talent, I felt like I was there witnessing all this alongside you. Thankyou so much xx

  34. Thank you so much. You make everyone realize the gymnasts are so human and so lively, with small sparks here and there. And you totally capture their team spirit. I even started to like the USA team now, because they are so cute! haha