Prestigious Europeans to be Held in Brussels

Once upon a time, the European Championships were only secondary in prestige to the Olympic Games and World Championships in the artistic gymnastics world. In fact, a popular myth went that if you won the European Championships, you were destined to Olympic glory. Lilia Podkopayeva, the 1995 champion from Ukraine, went on to win the 1996 Olympics, and even back in the ’70s, Romanian star Nadia Comaneci won the Montreal Olympics shortly after topping the standings at the European Championships.

Starting in the mid-aughties, however, the United States established itself as a gymnastics superpower, and soon after, the Chinese team also became a factor in competition. Thus, the “Europeans”, as they are more commonly called, quickly became an event that hardly anybody paid attention to, save for some die-hard gymnastics fans.

The current European Championships logo, via International Gymnast magazine

This year promises to be different. Fans are buzzing with excitement: Perhaps the Championship could even return to its former glory. The competition will be held from May 9-13 in Brussels, Belgium, and some of the biggest names in gymnastics are expected to make an appearance: Russians Aliya Mustafina, Viktoria Komova, Anastasia Grishina; and Romanians and Olympic gold medalists Sandra Izbasa and Catalina Ponor, as well as Romania’s newest star, Larisa Iordache.

Komova, Mustafina, and Izabasa are also coming back from serious injuries at this competition (a broken foot, an ACL tear, and an Achilles tendon tear, respectively), so fans are anticipating how the three gymnasts will fare during their return to competition.

In addition to Russia and Romania, two traditional gymnastics superpowers, other countries to compete include Spain, France, Sweden, Israel, Great Britain, Greece, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, and many more. Brussels will also host the men’s European Championships, which, much like the women’s competition, have suffered a similar fate since the rise of the United States and China in the sport of gymnastics.

Will Komova Live Up To Senior Expectations?

Since she first arrived to the elite competitive scene in 2007, Russian gymnast Viktoria Komova, daughter of former Soviet great Vera Kolesnikova, became a favorite to win the 2012 Olympic all around gold medal, the most prestigious title in the sport of gymnastics. As a junior athlete, Komova won competition after competition, including the coveted European Youth Olympic Festival in 2009, the 2010 Russian National Championships (even beating 2010 world all around champion Aliya Mustafina), and the 2010 Youth Olympics, also earning the top spot on the uneven bars, vault, and placing third on the floor exercise.

Since 2007, Komova, along with Mustafina, has been considered Russia’s best chance at Olympic gold in 2012. As a junior gymnast, Komova performed incredibly difficult routines with artistry and, most importantly, consistency (a quality that many Russians have lacked over the years).

Unfortunately, just days prior to her senior competition debut, Komova sustained a nagging injury to her foot. Since then, the Russian star has been plagued with inconsistency at competitions, and many have written her out as another Russian “head case.” Although Komova placed second at the 2011 world championships, her performance was not up to par to her gymnastics as a junior gymnast.

As the Olympic Games draw nearer and nearer, with only 100 days to go until the opening ceremonies, it will be interesting to see whether Komova does actually live up to the expectations, not only from the Russian team but from fans worldwide that consider her a saving grace from a sport that has unfortunately shifted its emphasis from artistry to unbelievable – and sometimes dangerous – difficult skills. Komova, critics agree, has the ideal combination of both.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that Komova did not participate at the recent Russian national championships, something that has many of her fans nervous. Russian head coach Alexander Alexandrov claims that Komova is still very much in the running for the London team, and that she is simply giving her chronic foot injury some time to finally heal.

Mustafina Prepares For London

Despite the advantages of the internet, it is rare for fans to have access to gymnasts from different countries, especially when the nation’s native language is not English. For this reason, it was especially exciting to fans when 2010 world all around champion Aliya Mustafina, from Russia, was featured in a short English documentary for the BBC.

You can watch the video here.

Although Mustafina seriously injured her ACL at the 2011 European Championships and many have doubted her ability to come back as a real threat to other competitors at the Olympics, the short video indicates that things are looking good for her. She is working on several difficult new skills that she has never competed before, such as a sky-high double layout (on the trampoline; it will be interesting to see if she is capable of competing it on the real gymnastics floor), and looks confident and in shape.

Many fans have shown concern over Mustafina rushing her recovery, but it seems from the video that she is being as patient as she can while still preparing for the Olympics. Judging from experience, Alexandrov probably knows what he is talking about. He transformed the team from a weakening, crumbling group of athletes to a stellar threat on the podium. In fact, under Alexandrov’s watch, Russia won its first world team gold medal (this, of course, is not counting the numerous gold medals that the team won as the Soviet Union).

Mustafina’s coach, Alexander Alexandrov (also the national team coach for the Russian women’s team) says that Mustafina is in good shape and is capable of really impressing at the Olympics.

The documentary also mentioned that Olympic glory is practically in Mustafina’s blood. Her father, Fahed Mustafin was a Greco-Roman wrestler and competed at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, winning the bronze medal. Undoubtedly, Mustafina will want to follow in her father’s footsteps, although knowing her character and demeanor, she will not shoot for anything less than gold.

Shawn Johnson Chats With Fans

American gymnast Shawn Johnson, 2008 Olympic all around silver and balance beam gold medalist and author of a new blog for ESPNW, took part in an online live chat on Thursday on the United States Olympic Committee’s live stream. She answered questions from fans via Twitter regarding the status of her knee, which she injured during a skiing accident around two years ago, her Olympic aspirations for 2012, new skills she is working on, and others.

Shawn Johnson at the 2008 Olympic Games. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images.

When asked about her knee, Johnson admitted that “it has a mind of its own,” and that while it is generally doing well, sometimes it still hurts her and affects her performance. For a while, many of her fans have been concerned that her knee will hold her back from making the Olympic team this year.

Johnson also put an end to the speculation about the status of her all around career, saying that she hopes to compete in the all around in London. Numerous fans online have pointed out that this is not the smartest training move, as she does not have much time left to prepare and would be better off just focusing on her strong events like the balance beam, floor exercise, and vault. It is true that Johnson would most likely be better off in terms of making the Olympic team by capitalizing on her strengths because the United States team has many talented younger, up-and-coming gymnasts like 2011 world all around champion Jordyn Weiber that are simply stronger all around gymnasts that are stronger on the four apparatuses than Johnson is.

“That is suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuch a bad idea,” a fan wrote online right after the live chat.

Johnson hinted that she is working on several new more difficult skills on the balance beam and floor exercise but said that she “can’t tell” what they are just yet and that “you will just have to wait and see.” Johnson also mentioned that she has a new floor routine. “I hope you guys like it,” she said. However, since Johnson has never been a very strong dancer (ironically, she did win Dancing With The Stars in 2009 with partner Mark Ballas, who she mentioned she has not talked to lately), it will be more interesting to see what new tumbling skills she has got up her sleeve. After all, tumbling has always been one of Johnson’s greatest strengths.

Regarding her plans after the Olympic Games, Johnson said that she needs a break and plans to retire. She did retire briefly after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, so we will see. She also says that she hopes to major in some type of business in Stanford. Johnson, 20, has put her college education on hold for the past couple of years in order to better prepare for London.

Gymnasts Compete in Zibo

Some of the world’s top gymnasts competed in today’s first qualifying round at the Zibo Cup un China, part of the International Gymnastics Federation World Cup series circuit. The lineup included fan favorites like Australian Lauren Mitchell, Chinese veteran Cheng Fei, and Yao Jinnan. The competition is also being live streamed online, a relatively rare occurrence for a World Cup event until recently, although Internet users outside of China are having trouble watching the competition.

Fans online have already tallied up the qualification results for the top four gymnasts in each apparatus that get to compete in the final round. The floor exercise and balance beam qualification rounds will take place tomorrow.

China’s Cheng Fei performed a relatively impressive double twisting Yurchenko on vault on her return to international competition, placing second only to the Dominican Republican’s Yamilet Pena, a rare vault powerhouse and one of the few gymnasts in the world to have ever competed a Produnova vault – an impossibly difficult handspring double front. Not surprisingly, Pena rarely lands the vault on her feet, but its high difficulty value allows her to place well in competition.

On the uneven bars, China’s young Yao Jinnan unveiled a new original skill, a Shaposhnikova with a half twist. Since the Zibo Cup is part the International Gymnastics Federation’s World Cup series, the element will most likely be named after her (in order for a skill to be named after a gymnast, it must be submitted prior to competition and the gymnast must complete it correctly during the meet). Yao placed first in the uneven bar qualifications with an impressive routine.

It is rumored that despite the hype around her recent comeback, Cheng has opted out of competing in the floor exercise event, much to the disappointment of her fans.

Gymnasts Injured At Japanese Nationals

The Japanese National Championships are being held this weekend, from April 6-8. For the team, this is considered the first trial on the way to the 2012 Olympic Games. Many fans of the sport believe that it is too early to start selecting the team for London, especially considering that so many athletes are injured and could potentially be back in shape in time for the Games.

The following are the results after the first two days of competition, via the International Gymnast Forum:

1 Rie Tanaka 56.200
2 Yuu Minobe 56.150
3 Asuka Teramoto 55.550
4 Yuko Shintake 55.200
5 Natsumi Sasada 53.750
6 Yumi Iizuka 53.400
7 Wakana Inoue 53.150
8 Mai Yamagishi 53.050
9 Koko Tsurumi 52.850
The results are somewhat surprising because Koko Tsurumi has traditionally been the top-scoring Japanese gymnast. In 2008, she even qualified to the Olympic event final on the balance beam. Although she counted a fall and lost the chance to medal, it was a major accomplishment for the Japanese women, as historically, they have never been considered a real threat in the sport.
Tsurumi has been recovering from wrist surgery in January, so this may account for her underwhelming results. Fans hope that she will not be taken out of the running for an Olympic spot in London. They hope that she will show improvement, especially because for the past five months, she trained under 2008 Olympic silver medalist Shawn Johnson’s coach in Iowa.
According to sources at the competition, Tsurumi is unfortunately not the only Japanese gymnast nursing an injury this weekend. Frequently injured national team member Natsumi Sasada had some sort of accident in training and ripped her nail completely off her toe. Because of her injuries, she seems to be having trouble performing lately and had a rough meet at the high school championships last weekend. She placed fifth overall in this competition.
Bronze medal winner Asuka Teramoto, recently pulled out of the high school championships because of a foot injury. Although she still seemed in pain at this competition, she managed to do relatively well considering the circumstances.
First-year senior gymnast Mai Murakami had to deal with an elbow injury for most of 2011. Photo via her Facebook fan page.
Mai Murakami was expected to make an impact in her first year of senior competition but was held back by an elbow injury and a growth spurt.

Cheng Fei Returns To Competition

China’s star gymnastics veteran Cheng Fei stunned millions at the 2008 Olympic Games when she failed to bring home the gold on the vault and the floor exercise in front of her home country’s audience. Cheng had been the undisputed favorite all along but buckled under the pressure and exhaustion after having led her team to its first ever Olympic gold medal in the team final.

Photo by Getty Images/Bloomberg Businessweek

After the Games, Cheng kept a low profile, but recently, she decided to come out of retirement and fight for a spot on the 2012 Chinese Olympic team. She is also most likely thinking about finally grabbing those gold medals on the vault and floor (Cheng also missed out on floor gold in 2004, which devastated many of her fans that thought she possessed the perfect mix of artistry, power, and grace).

This weekend, Cheng will return to competition at the Zibo Cup, part of the World Cup series of events prior to the Olympic Games. In a short Chinese Chanel TV news segment, Cheng looks strong and in admirable shape. She does not appear to have her signature two-and-a-half twisting Yurchenko vault back, but she performed a few decent double twisting Yurchenkos in training and seemed to have plenty of extra power to bring her old vault back.

Shawn Johnson Blogs For ESPN, Gives Inside Peek To Training Camps

In early 2000, on the cusp of the Sydney Olympics and as a response to disappointing seasons in 1997, 1998, and 1999, USA Gymnastics completely changed its Olympic selection process. In came Bela Karolyi, coach of past stars such as Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug, and Dominique Moceanu, and the controversial national team training camps.

Although Karolyi was replaced by his wife Marta in 2001 after rumors that he mistreated gymnasts, the training camps were there to stay. Undeniably, the American team showed outstanding improvement, winning the 2003, 2007, and 2011 world team titles and placing second at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games. Yet, many have questioned the effect of the training camps on the gymnasts’ physical and emotional health, blaming them for overuse injuries and burnout. Fans of the sport call the camps “death camps.”

Recently, 2008 Olympic silver all around medalist and 2012 hopeful Shawn Johnson started blogging for ESPNW about her road to the Games, and this Thursday, she gave her readers and fans an inside peek on what life “at the ranch” – the camps are held on the Karolyis’ ranch in Texas – is like.

Johnson and US national team coordinator Marty Karolyi. Photo by AP Photo/David J. Phillip

“When we’re there, we wake up around 6:45 a.m. and head straight for breakfast,” she wrote. “Most of the girls grab eggs and coffee before we go back to our cabins and get ready to hit the gym.”

This raises a popular concern among fans: that the gymnasts are not eating enough to fuel nine hours of intense workouts a day. Johnson tried to set the skeptics straight. “…Straight to lunch, which is usually some sort of chicken dish, or occasionally salmon, with salad and bread and more fruit. People often ask if we’re on a strict diet. It is super-healthy — there’s definitely no dessert — but we’re fed good food and we’re taken care of,” she said.

As for the workouts themselves, they are intense, but for Johnson, now that she is “older” at 20, they are not as tough as they used to be. In her blog, she explained that younger gymnasts at the ranch are under much more pressure to prove themselves to Karolyi and to the National Selection Committee (Johnson first attended a training camp at 12 years old and was completely in awe of the older, more famous gymnasts).

Karolyi supervises the national team members during training. Photo by Brian Peterson for The Star Tribune.

It is, of course, entirely possible that Johnson is censoring herself. After all, she would not want to get herself in trouble so close to London (it seems that a few years back, fans would get reports on the “verification meets” that happened at the ranch, but Karolyi did not like that, and so now the gymnasts and coaches stay mum).

It is also entirely possible and probable that Karolyi goes easier on Johnson and veteran gymnasts like Alicia Sacramone, who often rooms with Johnson at the ranch, because of their achievements in the sport. If the past is any indication, younger gymnasts are much more prone to injury at the training camps, usually because they are expected to perform an unnecessary amount of repetitions to prove themselves to Karolyi.

“We see these young girls running around, and they’re throwing 10 routines a day and doing 20 of each skill,” Johnson wrote. “But when we go up, we do five. It’s just about being smarter; we don’t have the same energy level, so we compensate by making sure that what we do really counts.”

Of course, even the most skeptical fans know that the camps are not all evil. The US gymnastics team is closer than it has ever been before, especially because the girls’ home gyms are so spread out across the country, from Dallas to Pennsylvania and everywhere in between. Now, the gymnasts get to see their teammates – and rivals – once every few months at the Karolyis’ ranch.

When all is said and done, it seems that the camps are not going anywhere. USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny certainly attributes the team’s recent successes to Karolyi and the ranch.  “I don’t think we would have seen the collective success we’ve seen, and I don’t think our medal count would have outnumbered the other countries at the level that it does, if we hadn’t done this 10 years ago,” he told The Star Tribune in 2011.

As Olympics Come Closer, Veterans Dominate

Once thought of as outsiders in a sport that many considered exclusively for underaged, underweight pixies, gymnastics veterans worldwide are dominating the podium so far this season. Today, two-time Olympian Beth Tweddle, 26, from Great Britain won the uneven bars gold medal at the Doha Cup in Qatar. Days earlier, Romanian 2004 Olympic medalist Catalina Ponor, 24, topped the qualification standings on the balance beam and placed second in qualification on the floor. The finals on those two events have not been held yet.

In Russia, older gymnasts also dominated the scene at their national championships, held on March 25. Anna Pavlova, 24, a two-time Olympian that many had written out after a series of injuries, won the gold medal on vault.

“Oksana [Chusovitina, 36] was born in [1975] and continues to vault brilliantly and earn medals at worlds, Europeans and the Olympic Games,” Pavlova said to International Gymnast magazine. “I believe age is not an obstacle. And Oksana has had plenty of injuries.”

Oksana Chusovitina, originally from Uzbekistan/the Soviet Union but now competing for Germany, has been at every Olympic Games since 1992 and is still going strong. Older gymnasts, like Pavlova, look to her as inspiration. Photo via

At the same championship, Aliya Mustafina, 18, a World Championship veteran recovering from an ACL knee injury, easily won the uneven bars title by almost two full points. Ksenia Afanasyeva, 20, a 2008 Olympian, captured the balance beam gold.

As the Olympic Games draw nearer, other veterans, many coming back from serious injuries, are expected to be major contenders in competition. The USA’s 2008 Olympian Alicia Sacramone, 24, who is recovering from an Achilles tendon injury, has announced her return to competition for this year’s Visa National Championships. Two other American 2008 Olympians, Shawn Johnson, 20, and Nastia Liukin, 22, also came out of retirement and are fighting for spots in the 2012 Olympic team.

Weiber Takes American Cup, Douglas Scores The Highest

Last year’s world all around champion, American gymnast Jordyn Wieber, defended her AT&T American Cup title this past weekend in New York City. Ironically, she was not the highest scorer of the competition – up-and-comer Gabrielle Douglas was. Since Douglas, who trains under the same coaches as 2008 Olympic silver medalist Shawn Johnson, only competed for exhibition, Wieber officially took the title.

the final standings, via International Gymnast magazine

The American Cup is now part of a series of competitions that comprise the International Gymnastics Federation’s World Cup series, a string of high-level meets held all over the globe on an invitation-only basis. As per World Cup rules, only two gymnasts are allowed to compete for a given country, which is why Douglas was never included on the competitive roster.

Gabrielle Douglas on the uneven bars, via BCK

Young Romanian gymnast Larisa Iordache won the bronze medal, via RomGym

Alexandra Raisman, Douglas and Wieber’s teammate, came in second, unofficially placing all three American gymnasts in the top three spots. Romania’s Larisa Iordache, new to the senior elite scene, won the bronze medal and brought in the highest score on the balance beam that night.