Elite gymnasts focus on height of the matter

Des Moines Register

In the summer of 1993, gymnast Shannon Miller’s body stomped the growth accelerator — shooting up four inches.

The 16-year-old who had won five Olympic medals just months earlier in Barcelona found herself quickly scrambling back to the drawing board.

“Everything was a little bit off,” said Miller, 37. “Things I’d been doing for five years, suddenly I was having trouble with. It’s important to communicate with your coach and just kind of take a breath, stay calm and understand that it happens and work with it. You can actually become a better gymnast throughout those changes.

“At the end of day, it’s taking your body type and saying, ‘This is what I’ve got and I’m going to do the best I can with it.’ “

The strategy of size is considered by all gymnasts, including four elite competitors who train at Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute in West Des Moines. Rachel Gowey, Norah Flatley, Victoria Nguyen and Alexis Vasquez will compete Saturday at the Secret U.S. Classic in Hoffman Estates, Ill.

The event is a tune-up for the P&G Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 21-24 in Pittsburgh. The P&G serves as the U.S. national championship and part of the road Chow protégés Shawn Johnson and Gabby Douglas traveled on the way to Olympic gold medals.

Miller and coach Steve Nunno adjusted to a transformation that ultimately added six inches and 30 pounds to produce two Olympic gold medals in Atlanta.

“It can make it more challenging,” Miller said. “It certainly doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It just means you have to use a little more strategy.”

Gowey is the tallest of the top Olympic contenders competing for Liang Chow, at 5-foot — or three inches taller than Johnson and an inch more than Douglas.

A story on the Boston Globe’s Boston.com website published during the 2012 Games reported that 78 percent of medals in Olympic all-around since 1956 were awarded to gymnasts within three inches of 5 feet.

“Since I’m bigger, I probably have more power on vault,” said Gowey, a member of the U.S. senior national team who attends Johnston High School. “I can get a bigger punch off the springboard. On (uneven) bars, it’s probably easier for them because they don’t have to worry about (hitting) the low bar — but I do.”

Bela Karolyi, the former U.S. and Romanian Olympic coach who molded gold medalist such as Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, told the Des Moines Register earlier this year that he considers Gowey and Flatley contenders for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Gowey finished fifth in the senior division all-around at the prestigious City of Jesolo Trophy event in late March against a field packed with four of the top eight team finishers at the last Olympics — including bronze medal-winning Romania.

Flatley won the junior division balance beam and finished third in the all-around at the same event. Karolyi said Flatley is the best junior athlete on balance beam in the United States.

“(Height matters) maybe on vault more, because you need a lot of power for that,” said Flatley, who is 4-8. “If you’re bigger, you can punch the board more and get more height and speed. In bars, being smaller definitely helps because you’re not worried about kicking the low bar as much.”

The height of gymnasts also can affect other areas, such as the center of gravity on balance beam.

“It kind of comes down to simple physics,” Miller said.

There is a limit to what works, however.

“Like most sports, it kind of requires a general body type,” Miller said. “If you’re 6-foot-5, you’re probably not going to make the best gymnast. But growing can help in some cases. My coach, he would remind me, ‘Hey, this is a good thing. Now you can actually bend the springboard down’ on vault.

“So there’s an adjustment.”

Olympic and world champions, however, can come in a range of shapes and sizes, though.

Miller pointed out that Russia’s Svetlana Khorkina — a seven-time Olympic medalist — shined on the biggest stage at 5-5, while Johnson and Retton (both 4-9) also climbed to the top of the medal stand.

At the 2008 Olympics, debate flowed about how the more compact and powerful Johnson was judged against U.S. teammate Nastia Liukin. At 5-3 and nearly the same weight as Johnson, Luikin was characterized as more fluid, artistic and angular.

Liukin won all-around gold as Johnson, the balance beam gold medalist, finished with the silver.

“You take Khorkina against a Shawn Johnson — two completely different body types,” Miller said. “Or a Mary Lou Retton. But they all can excel at the sport. They just have to be strategic about it.”

Chow said the perception of Gowey’s size is part optical and ability-based illusion.

“You feel like she’s taller, because she’s skinnier and she’s got long legs,” Chow said. “I think she’s a very beautiful gymnast … She’s a very powerful gymnast with lots of power in her legs, which is pretty rare, to have the flexibility and quickness and the power.”

Nastia Liukin With Her Gold Medal Dream Fulfilled, The Former Gymnast Strives To Live A Balanced Life In New York City


To win an Olympic Gold Medal, to be the very best in your sport at age 19 is a daunting challenge. With so much of your life left to live, it’s harrowing to think that no matter what else you accomplish, the first line of your obituary has already been written.

At the 2012 US Olympic Trials for gymnastics, Nastia Liukin, the 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist in the women’s all-around, was preparing to qualify for a return trip to the Games in London.

“I was doing the bars, which is my best event,” she remembers. “There’s always more pressure on me for bars, because I usually have a point-and-a-half advantage over everyone else. As I was going through my routine, I face-planted in front of 20,000 people. For the first time in my career, I had a standing ovation. I thought to myself, ‘Why are these people cheering for me?’ That was a special moment. I started to realize that there is something inside of me besides Nastia Liukin: Gymnast. I was beginning to realize that not everything in my life was going to be defined by these moments in gymnastics. There was going to be more to my life than that.”

Liukin’s parents are a big part of the reason why she became the best gymnast in the world. Liukin’s father, Valeri, was a legendary gymnast himself, winning Gold at the 1988 Olympics in the team gymnastics competition and individual Gold in the horizontal bar. He also won Olympic Silver that year in both the all-around competition and the parallel bars. Nastia’s mother, Anna Kotchneva was an elite Soviet rhythmic gymnast, winning a Gold and two Bronze Medals at the 1987 World Championships before an untimely illness prevented her from qualifying for the 1988 Olympic Games. After the couple had their only child, Nastia, they wanted to open a gym to teach gymnastics to kids. Because many of the gyms in the Soviet Union were run by the government, the couple decided to emigrate to the United States to pursue their dream.

“My parents moved over to this country with nothing,” Liukin says. “They had a few suitcases, a baby (me), hardly any money and just a dream. We moved to New Orleans on the week of Mardi Gras. They didn’t speak any English. There was a moment when they got to New Orleans and saw Mardi Gras and said, ‘What are we doing here? This country is crazy!’”

After a year of coaching in New Orleans, the Liukin family was able to move to Dallas and open up a gym in Plano, Texas. “The gym in Plano would ultimately become my home,” Liukin says. “I spent more time there than I spent at home, because my parents couldn’t afford babysitters. They were in the gym 10 hours a day, seven days a week. I would play around on the side, trying to copy the older girls. I wanted to be like them. But my dad noticed that I was doing the things he was teaching better than the other girls were. He realized that I had this God-given talent at an early age.”

“But my parents talked and they didn’t want me to do gymnastics. They knew how hard it was on so many levels—injuries, sacrifices, commitments, failures, and disappointments. I was their only child, and they just wanted me to be happy. But for me, being happy was being in that gym, being in a leotard, spending as many hours as I could in that gym. They knew I had talent, but once they realized how much passion I had for the sport, they said, ’OK, we’re not going to take this away from her. She was given this talent for a reason. And if she wants to do it, she’ll do it, but we’ll never push her into it.’”

At age nine, Liukin won the all-around state championship in Texas. By 12, she was a member of the Junior National Team. After winning back-to-back junior titles and back-to-back senior titles, the 2008 Olympics seemed within reach. “My teammate, Carly Patterson, who I trained with, won the all-around at the Games in 2004. I was like, ‘OK, this is possible.’ You see one of your best friends do it. You train in the same events, the same hours, the same gym. It really made me believe.”

The year before the Olympics in Beijing, Liukin had one of her toughest seasons to date.  “At Nationals, we competed in eight routines, and I think I fell six times,” Liukin remembers. “A few days before New Year’s in 2008, my dad was driving me home from the gym and said, ’You know what? Whatever happens, let’s not have any regrets. Let’s give it all we’ve got.’ So he completely changed my training program and my strength and conditioning plan. I was dying. I was training harder than ever. My dad was such a planner; we had put these routines together that he compared to everyone else’s routines—their scores, their start values. He told me, ‘If you just do these four routines, you don’t have to do them amazing, just stay on the beam, stay on the bars, and there’s no way you can lose.’ The first half of 2008, I wasn’t at my best. I had a fall here, a fall there. But he kept showing me the scores. ‘Look! If you don’t fall, you win!’ So he made me believe it was possible.”

The night before her all-around competition at the 2008 Games, Liukin dreamed that she performed without a fall. She even stuck her landing on the vault, something she consistently had trouble with in competition. As she dreamt of hugging her dad in victory, her eyes opened with her arms extended in that embrace. “I couldn’t believe it,” Liukin said. “I wanted it to be real.” Later that evening, it became real. Liukin hit every routine just the way she had dreamt the night before. She won the Gold Medal for Team USA, becoming only the third American woman in history to win the all-around Olympic Gold.  That moment would change her life forever.

After not qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Team, Liukin was eager to begin the next chapter of her life. She decided even before the Olympic Trials that she would move to New York City in 2013 to attend New York University and pursue a degree in sports management. She joined NBC’s broadcast team to work on the Olympics coverage from London in 2012, and repeated her broadcast role in Sochi at the 2014 Winter Games. And, in addition to making the many appearances she does for the sport of gymnastics, she’s looking forward to working on producing more lifestyle segments for television.

“I’m willing to start from the ground up in broadcasting,” Liukin says. “I know that you don’t just walk in and be a co-host on the TODAY show. It takes years of preparation, something I think I know well. But once you’ve achieved a status in sports, people are like, ‘Are you sure you want to start at the bottom?’ But I’m willing to do what it takes to succeed.”

“I love gymnastics and all the amazing opportunities it has given me,” Liukin says. “The difficult part is that often times, people want you to continue to live in the past, to be the Gold Medalist. I’m so proud of what I’ve accomplished. But there’s so much more I want to do. I don’t want to be defined by gymnastics. I don’t define myself that way at all. But winning the Gold Medal has taught me something. If you set goals for yourself and work hard, you can achieve them. Now it’s time for a new set of goals.”

Boudia and Johnson win World Cup bronze in 10-meter synchro

USA Diving

David Boudia (Noblesville, Ind./West Lafayette, Ind.) and Steele Johnson (Carmel, Ind./West Lafayette, Ind.) won the bronze medal in men’s synchronized 10-meter Wednesday at the FINA Diving World Cup, the top international meet of the 2014 season.

Boudia and Johnson scored 414.12 points to finish third behind China’s Lin Yue and Cao Yuan (494.46) and Germany’s Patrick Hausding and Sascha Klein (444.78).

It was the first international competition together for Boudia and Johnson.

“We’re a new synchro team. Steele and I have never done 10-meter synchro together at a major competition before. I thought we dove solid, and this is a good stepping stone for the next two years,” said Boudia, who won Olympic bronze in 10-meter synchro with Nick McCrory two years ago in London.

The Americans were in a close contest for the bronze medal, sitting in fourth place behind China, Germany and Mexico through four rounds, but just 2.31 points separated third from fifth with two rounds to go.

Boudia and Johnson scored 79.92 points on their front 4 ½ tuck in round five, while Mexico’s German Sanchez and Ivan Garcia went for the difficult inward 4 ½ tuck but came up with just 63.96 points to allow the U.S. pair to move into the bronze medal position. The Americans closed out their list with 77.76 points on a back 2 ½ with 2 ½ twists to finish with 414.12 points, edging Cubans Jose Guerra and Jeinkler Aguirre by 3.36 points for the spot on the podium.

“This was a good milestone for us. I’m super excited to be partnered with David. I just want to do the best I can every time I dive with him,” said the 18-year-old Johnson, who is competing in his first World Cup.

Expectant father Boudia relishes competing in China


David Boudia is becoming a new father and trying new events. Although it can be tedious to bide time in between Olympic Games, the Noblesville diver says that is not the case.

“I have had such a fresh perspective change this year in training and a new-found passion for this sport, which has a lot to do with my amazing wife and now soon-to-be daughter,” Boudia said via e-mail from a training camp in Shantou, China. “They both make me want to go into training and work hard for them.”

Boudia, 25, and wife Sonnie are expecting their first child in September. In Shanghai, he is competing in three events at the World Cup; individual and synchronized 3-meter, plus synchro 10-meter with Carmel 18-year-old Steele Johnson.

The year’s most important diving meet opened Tuesday with Johnson and Murphy Bromberg, Bexley, Ohio, finishing fourth in the mixed-gender team event.

Oddly, what Boudia is not doing is his signature event, individual 10-meter, in which he won Olympic gold in 2012. He also won a bronze in synchro 10-meter with teammate Nick McCrory in London. But Boudia said he intends to continue synchro training with Johnson at Purdue.

McCrory has relocated to Bloomington to train under Indiana University’s Drew Johansen, who coached him at Duke. Boudia said he is receptive to training with McCory in synchro 3-meter.

Boudia won the national title on 3-meter but doesn’t plan to compete in that event leading up to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

“This year is more so the ‘off’ year in diving and a very good time to experiment with new dives and/or new events, and we are taking full advantage of that,” he said.

He withdrew from the last two legs of the World Series, a six-meet format featuring prize money, so he could concentrate on the World Cup. He referred to a question about a possible injury as “minor tweaks” and said he was “taking a step back and training smarter rather than train through it.”

He loves competing in China, where he won a World Cup bronze medal in 2008 and a World Championships silver in 2011. His popularity is such that he is approaching 900,000 followers on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter.

“We always have a packed house at competitions, which is not always the case in the States,” Boudia said. “I think that is why I have been able to do so well on my biggest opponents’ turf. The fans love the sport and respect the beauty that diving is, and you can tell by the amount of support they give the other divers.”

Team USA set for 2014 FINA Diving World Cup

USA Diving

Olympic medalists David Boudia, Abby Johnston and Nick McCrory are among the 12 divers set to compete for Team USA at the FINA Diving World Cup, set for July 15-20 in Shanghai. The World Cup is the top international meet of the 2014 season and is the last major world competition before Olympic qualifying begins next summer.

Boudia will have a busy schedule as he’s slated to compete in three events. He’ll dive synchronized 10-meter with 18-year-old World Cup rookie Steele Johnson, and for the first time at a World Cup or World Championships, he’ll add individual 3-meter and synchronized 3-meter (with first-time World Cup team member Sam Dorman, who paired with Boudia for synchro wins at the 2013 USA Diving Winter Nationals and 2014 World Cup Synchro Trials) to his schedule. The only event Boudia won’t dive is his specialty, the individual 10-meter. He didn’t compete that event at winter nationals, where the individual World Cup spots were determined.

Returning for his first international competition since the London Olympic Games is McCrory, who won Olympic bronze in synchronized 10-meter with Boudia in 2012. He won’t be on the platforms in Shanghai though, as he’s shifted his focus to the springboard. He’ll compete on individual 3-meter for the first time in his senior international career; the last time he dove this event in an international meet was back in 2006, when he won silver at the Junior World Championships.

Johnston won the silver medal in synchronized 3-meter at the London 2012 Olympics, and that’s the event she’ll compete in Shanghai, albeit with a new partner. After missing the 2013 season due to shoulder surgery, Johnston returned to competition in April and won the World Cup synchro trials with Laura Ryan. The pair went on to win bronze together at a FINA Grand Prix meet in Mexico in May.

Ryan, the 2014 NCAA diver of the year after winning NCAA titles on 1-meter and 3-meter and finishing third at NCAAs on platform for the University of Georgia, will also compete individually on 3-meter at the World Cup. Joining her on that event will be Maren Taylor, who finished 11th on 3-meter at the 2013 FINA World Championships in her first international competition. She won the event at the 2013 USA Diving Winter National Championships and claimed 3-meter bronze at a FINA Grand Prix meet in Puerto Rico in May.

Two-time 10-meter national champion Samantha “Murphy” Bromberg will compete individually for the first time at a major senior-level world meet after competing in synchronized 10-meter at last year’s World Championships. Jessica Parratto will also dive 10-meter in her return to Shanghai, where she was 15th on 10-meter at the 2011 World Championships.

National team veteran Amy Cozad will pair with Katrina Young in synchronized 10-meter. Cozad has competed for Team USA at the 2013 World Championships, the 2012 World Cup and the 2011 Pan American Games and had previously won four national titles in synchronized events, but Young had never competed in a synchro event until the World Cup trials in April when she and Cozad paired together for the victory. The two went on to win silver at a FINA Grand Prix meet in Puerto Rico in May.

In addition to diving synchronized 10-meter with Boudia, Johnson will compete individually on 10-meter. He’s won the national title on the event at the last three national championships and won his first senior international medal after taking bronze on 10-meter at the FINA Grand Prix Canada Cup competition in May. Also diving 10-meter is 17-year-old David Dinsmore, who won bronze on platform at the 2012 Junior World Championships and made his senior national debut in 2013 by finishing second at the AT&T National Diving Championships.

Johnson and Bromberg will also take part in the “team” event, which features one male and one female diver from each country. Each diver must do three dives, with at least one apiece on 3-meter and 10-meter.

Competition Schedule (Times are local to Shanghai, which is 12 hours ahead of ET)
July 15
4 p.m. – Team Event

July 16
10 a.m. – Women’s 3-meter synchro prelims, men’s 10-meter synchro prelims
3:10 p.m. – Women’s 3-meter synchro final
7:40 p.m. – Men’s 10-meter synchro final

July 17
10 a.m. – Women’s 10-meter synchro prelims, men’s 3-meter synchro prelims
3:10 p.m. – Women’s 10-meter synchro finals
7:40 p.m. – Men’s 3-meter synchro finals

July 18
10 a.m. – Women’s 10-meter prelims, semis
2 p.m.  – Men’s 3-meter prelims, semis
7:40 p.m. – Women’s 10-meter finals

July 19
10 a.m. – Women’s 3-meter prelims, semis
6:35 p.m. – Men’s 3-meter finals

July 20
10 a.m. – Men’s 10-meter prelims, semis
3:10 p.m. – Women’s 3-meter finals
7:40 p.m. – Men’s 10-meter finals

Universal Sports Network will provide television and online coverage at 8 p.m. each day from July 16-20.

Team USA Roster
David Boudia (Noblesville, Ind./West Lafayette, Ind.) – 3-meter, synchronized 3-meter, synchronized 10-meter
Samantha “Murphy” Bromberg (Bexley, Ohio/Austin, Texas) – 10-meter, team event
Amy Cozad (Indianapolis, Ind./Tallahassee, Fla.) – synchronized 10-meter
David Dinsmore (New Albany, Ohio) – 10-meter
Sam Dorman (Tempe, Ariz./Coral Gables, Fla.) – synchronized 3-meter
Steele Johnson (Carmel, Ind./West Lafayette, Ind.) – 10-meter, synchronized 10-meter, team event
Abby Johnston (Upper Arlington, Ohio/Bloomington, Ind.) – synchronized 3-meter
Nick McCrory (Chapel Hill, N.C./Bloomington, Ind.) – 3-meter
Jessica Parratto (Dover, N.H./Bloomington, Ind.) – 10-meter
Laura Ryan (Elk River, Minn./Athens, Ga.) – 3-meter, synchronized 3-meter
Maren Taylor (Arlington, Va./Austin, Texas) – 3-meter
Katrina Young (Shoreline, Wash./Tallahassee, Fla.) – synchronized 10-meter