December 31, 2008

Healthy Baby Boy for Kryukov and Kovalyova

Turns out there's more to report about Nikolai Kryukov than his plan to stick around for another year! According to the Novgorod site, the 1999 world champion has just become a father. Kryukov's wife, former Russian national team member Anna Kovalyova (aged 25), gave birth to a healthy boy on December 27. Mother and son are reported to be in good health. Kovalyova was quoted as saying that the boy will be "yet another gymnast in our family." He'll have the genes to go far...

Former Russian national team member Anna Kovalyova, now mother to a healthy baby boy (photo:

Nikolai Kryukov to Compete for Russia for One More Year

Back in 1999, Russia's Nikolai Kryukov unexpectedly won the men's all-around competition at the Tianjin World Championships. Nine years later, the former world champ again turned in a good performance in China, almost single-handedly saving his team from major embarrassment in the Olympic team final. Competing on pommel horse, vault, and parallel bars, Kryukov obtained some of Russia's highest scores (16+ in two cases), but they weren't enough to help his team win a medal. Russia finished a dismal sixth, nearly twelve points behind the unstoppable Chinese team.

Two very similar stories about Kryukov appeared in Sport Gymnastics and Moskovskiy Komsomoletz Mikru at the time of the Voronin Cup, nearly two weeks ago. The article below is an adaptation of these two articles.

Veteran Nikolai Kryukov (right) with young pretender Fabian Hambuchen (photo: Anja Niedringhaus/AP Photo)

Grandfather on the Floor

The World Cup Final is contested only on individual apparatus events, and the names of the best eight athletes are determined once every two years. Nikolai Kryukov qualified for Madrid, but did not go. Instead he decided to look after himself with an eye to the future. Several months ago, in Beijing, Nikolai was very upset that neither he personally nor the Russian team were able to show the maximum of which they were capable.

"When I won the World Championships in 1999, they called me a dark horse," Kryukov said. "Now, presumably, they call me 'the team grandfather.' I even heard this name at last year's World Championships. I don't know if, as many say, I carried the team in Beijing. Did I or did I not? I simply went out there and did my job. Something somewhere didn't work out, but at least I didn't give up. [This may be a veiled attack on Maksim Devyatovsky, who did give up in Beijing when things didn't go according to plan. IG wrote a scathing article about it at the time, to which we sadly can't link as IG's site is currently down.] I kept going. That's sport for you. It may be a cliché, but it's true. One day you can do everything, and the next day you are simply no one. But it left a bad taste in my mouth. If I had won a medal, the future probably would already have been determined [meaning: I would already have retired by now]. But still... I didn't like it at all that the competitions started at 10 in the morning, as it meant that we had to get up before 6."

In Moscow [at the Voronin Cup], Nikolai did not need to get up at 6am, on this occasion because he was judging. He has obtained his first work experience next to the apparatus rather than on it. Fortunately, this doesn't mean anything yet. Steadfast Kolya represents the experience of the Russian team and its core, and is not leaving actual gymnastics to take up a place at the judges' table.

"For now I'm still an active athlete. I could, by the way, have competed at the World Cup Final in Madrid, where I had qualified, but you probably noticed the abundance of injuries which the gymnasts suffered after the Olympics. People gave their all there, and afterward they tried to maintain their form, even boosting it in order to continue to compete, and they simply broke. For this reason I decided to pass up the final, to take care of my joints and muscles. I want to switch off from it all and simply get ready and train in pleasure," Kryukov said.

Kryukov giving his all for Russia (photo: Reuters)

Kryukov said he would continue competing for another year, i.e. until the end of the 2009 season. He also said that in his future professional life he'd like to be connected to gymnastics, to the national team. So we'll probably continue to see him around...

Jade Barbosa to Sue Federation, and Considering Leaving the National Team

Things are getting nasty in Brazil. A few days after the announcement that Jade Barbosa's right hand is not healing as hoped, UOL Esporte confirmed that the Barbosas are going to sue the Federation, as her father has been threatening to do for some time. More worrying, it seems that the Barbosas were serious when they said a while ago that Jade would not return to the national team unless the Federation radically changed its leadership and conditions at the national training center in Curitiba. UOL Esporte has the details...

The most infamous right hand in Brazil (photo: Reuters)

Jade will sue the Federation for damages and is considering leaving the national team

The quarrel between Jade Barbosa and the Brazilian Gymnastics Federation [CBG] keeps getting worse. With her hand no closer to recovery, the gymnast's family has now confirmed that she is going to sue the CBG for restitution of the expenses incurred for her medical treatment. Furthermore, the family is implying that the athlete may leave the Brazilian team.

Jade's stepmother, Elisete Chagas, declared to O Globo on Tuesday that the family has decided that the athlete will not show up for the national team's presentation in January, an act of protest against Maria Luciene Resende's appointment as the new President of the CBG.

"Everything will remain the same, since the same people will be in charge," said Elisete, referring to the fact that the newly elected President served as the Vice-President under former President Vicélia Florenzano.

Jade's stepmother also said that the gymnast might abandon the national team forever. "Jade has been invited to become a gymnast in the United States. She'd be a professional there. She'd live of her gymnastics," Elisete said.

Jade's family alleges a lack of interest on the part of the CBG in relation to the gymnast's hand injury, discovered in the runup to the Beijing Olympics. Also on Tuesday, the athlete's doctor, Ricarco Laranjeira, admitted to the periodical O Estado de Sao Paulo that Jade's break from training had not sorted any effect recoverywise.

"The bone is dead and there is nothing we can do about that," stated Laranjeira, referring to the necrosis in the capitate bone of Jade's right hand. The doctor does not rule out surgery, but explains that Jade may be treated with physical therapy and remedies.

"The idea is to arrive at a consensus on the form of treatment to be followed, since, this being such a rare case, there is no unamimity on how to proceed," explained Laranjeira, who intends to consult a specialist in Miami, in the United States.

Behind the scenes, Jade's stepmother points out that the CBG did not offer any [financial] support. "Everything [all the medical examinations] is being financed by Jade's father [Cesar Barbosa], and nothing could be more just than for us to take the matter to Court. We've already appointed a lawyer, and once the end-of-year festivities are over, we'll take steps," stated Elisete.

A Happy New Year from All of Us

We were hoping to mark the end of 2008 with a series of non-newsy posts. We were planning to post a number of top-10s: greatest moments of the year, greatest tragedies of the year, most worrying new trends, most interesting routines you might have missed, most fervent wishes for the new year, best and worst changes in the 2009 Code, and so on. But in the end, we spectacularly ran out of time, meaning you're not going to get any of the top-10s we were contemplating. Not from us, anyway. Other blogs have been doing a good job of reviewing the year that was. We particularly recommend The Couch Gymnast's year-in-review post, which very much echoes what we ourselves would have said, had we had time to write such a post. Good job, Couchie! We agree with most of your choices.

As for what we'll be writing about over the next few weeks, well, we have a back log you wouldn't believe. We have a ton of recent and less recent interviews we hope to translate for you at some point, plus some profiles we'd like to write, and on top of that we expect the news stories to keep pouring in despite the fact that the season is over. Because if there's one thing we've learned over the last few months, it's that there's always something going on in the gymnastics world, even when it seems all should be quiet. We're already wondering where our next scandal will come from. Bets, anyone?

Anyhow, enough of all that. We'd like to take this opportunity to wish you all a Very Happy New Year. Thank you for reading our blog in 2008, and see you around in 2009!

Leap into the new year with us...

... and have a safe landing!

December 30, 2008

Liu Xuan to Release Second Single

We have a ton of Chinese news to catch up on, and catch up we will over the next few weeks. Here's a tiny little update on 2000 Olympic beam champ Liu Xuan for starters.


A while ago we reported that Liu Xuan had released a single entitled "Setting Out," an Olympics-themed song meant to describe an athlete's feelings just before the Games. (The original post contains a link to the song.)

Sohu now reports that Liu is about to release her second single, entitled "Like a Baby," written and produced by Xiao Ke. Described as a fresh, cheerful popular ballad (or is that a fresh, cheerful folk rhyme? We're not sure about the translation...), the song is said to be in line with the kind of music Liu Xuan herself likes. According to Sohu, Liu's only goal is "to sing songs I actually like myself."

The article also mentions that the production team was surprised at how "non-mainstream" Liu Xuan's tastes in music are. Reportedly Liu will bravely try her hand at "modern folk rhymes" (or "modern popular ballads" - again, we're not sure of the translation) and "modern rock 'n' roll" in 2009.

As far as we know, "Like a Baby" hasn't been posted on YouTube yet, but if anyone has a link, we'll be happy to post it!

Liu Xuan tells more about her experiences in the music world and her gymnastics career in this interesting recentish English-language interview from the Air Macau Inflight Magazine (yes, we get our information from all the place).

Nine Gymnasts Go on Strike in Belgium

Things are getting ugly at the Ghent training center, which is the de-facto Belgian national training center. Nieuwsblad reports that nine gymnasts are refusing to train under the new head coach, Yves Kieffer. Here's the (short) article, followed by some comments.

Nine Gymnasts Are Refusing to Train After Gymfed "Blackmail Call"

Nine of the fourteen female gymnasts currently attending the Ghent School for Elite Athletes will not be allowed by their parents to resume training today, a decision related to the fact that head coach Gerrit Beltman was previously fired in favor of Frenchman Yves Kieffer. The gymnasts' parents have written a letter to Gymfed [the Flemish Gymnastics Federation], the Ministries of Education and Sport and two organizations representing athletes, stating, among other things: "Gymfed threatened to revoke the gymnasts' elite athlete status [which entitles them to funding and to attending the special athletes' school] if they didn't decide in favor of working with Kieffer by twelve o'clock yesterday. Without any kind of psychological support, you [Gymfed] are holding a knife to these girls' throats. This constitutes blackmail."


The parents also said in the letter that their children are so upset about the current situation that they are currently unable to decide on their future. Therefore, the girls will train on an individual basis for the time being.

It should be noted that whether or not an athlete is granted elite athlete status is not entirely up to Gymfed; it is a decision made by a committee which also encompasses the two organizations to which the parents also addressed their letter, plus the Ministry of Sport.

Meanwhile, Gymfed is denying that it is exerting pressure on the gymnasts. "At no point have we threatened to revoke anyone's elite athlete status. However, now that we're getting a new coach, we must make sure our system is effective."

Our analysis:

We're no longer sure what to make of the Belgian crisis. On the one hand, it's obvious that there is a problem, and it's bigger than the Gymfed President, Rik Dombrecht, would have others believe. (Dombrecht previously stated that "less than a handful, which is to say fewer than five" gymnasts had protested Kieffer's appointment, when in fact it seems two-thirds of them oppose the new arrangements.) On the other hand, we're wondering if the gymnasts and their parents know what they're doing. Training on an individual basis certainly isn't going to help the gymnasts in any way. Also, it seems a bit unreasonable to us that the girls are not giving the new coaches any chance whatsoever. Sure, Kieffer has an unpleasant reputation, but by all accounts, he is a good coach. He has definitely obtained some good results. Moreover, we have by now been informed that both of the Russian coaches appointed to the Ghent center to assist Kieffer and his wife, Valentina Soldentakova and Iouri Kiritchenko, speak some Dutch, so the linguistic situation at the center won't be as dire as Aagje Vanwalleghem has made it out to be, although it's true that there won't be any native or fluent Dutch speakers on the coaching staff.

Meanwhile, there is much speculation in the Belgian gymnastics world as to the identities of the nine protesters and the five gymnasts who will report for duty today. National champion Aagje Vanwalleghem is known to oppose Kieffer's appointment; she has more or less become the spokeswoman for the rebelling gymnasts. On the other hand, Gaelle Mys, who represented Belgium at the 2008 Olympics and has one of the coolest floor exercises in the world, is believed to be among the gymnasts who will resume training in Ghent today, mainly because her long-time coach, Valentina Soldentakova, is among the coaches appointed to assist Kieffer. In any case, it sounds like there will be five gymnasts vying for four coaches' attention, which must constitute the highest athlete-to-coach ratio in the world.

Aagje Vanwalleghem (photo: Jasmin Schneebeli-Wochner/Gymbox)

We're wondering what Yves Kieffer is making of the situation. We know Kieffer previously broke off negotiations with Gymfed because of the "hostile environment" and all the negative press he was getting. The environment definitely hasn't become any less hostile since then. We wonder if he will report for duty today.

December 29, 2008

More on the Romanian Girls' Training Camp

Yesterday we posted a very short update from ProSport saying that the Romanian girls had returned from their training camp in the mountains. It was a two-line report without any details about the training camp, which kind of baffled us, as we were expecting stories and photos of the girls in the snow.

Turns out we were looking in the wrong direction. While ProSport more or less ignored the girls' training camp, other papers were devoting ample attention to it.

Cerasela Pătraşcu and Diana Chelaru (photo: Libertatea)

This article was posted by Libertatea ("Freedom") on December 27.

Attack in the snow!

Thanks to the snow, which has fallen in abundance over the last few days at the mountain resort of Poiana Braşov, the scenery looks like a fairy-tale. In this dreamscape, at less than five minutes' distance from Hotel Olimpic, a group of little girls is doing its best to plow its way through the 30-centimeter [one-foot] layer of snow in the middle of the path, each morning and each afternoon.

They are the members of the national gymnastics team, who are on a restorative training camp. Well wrapped up, with hats drawn over their foreheads and leg warmers like footballers', coach Nicolae Forminte's pupils have red cheeks because of the cold, but they are in excellent spirits. But even here, far away from the "laboratory" in Deva, the girls maintain a strict discipline. Standing in a perfect line, like they do at the beginning of each workout in the gym, the girls respond in unison to their coaches' greeting, "Bună ziua" (Hello).

Sandra Izbaşa, leader of the platoon

After that, with a smile on their lips, they listen to the short and precise instructions given by coach Lili Cosma: "You'll run six laps. You'll go up to the pillar of the cable car and come down close to the hotel." The girls quickly move off, after a light warmup where Cerasela Pătraşcu is the center of attention. Sandra Izbaşa, the Beijing Olympic champion, encourages the recent additions to the team: "Come on, girls! We still have a long way to go. Let's keep the momentum going!" Sandra goes at the head of the platoon of running girls.

Here the article ends, rather abruptly in our opinion.

Cerasela Pătraşcu (left) and Ana Porgras (photo: Libertatea)

Meanwhile, local newspaper Bra
şovul Tau ("Your Braşov") posted this article on December 28.

Romania's Female Gymnasts Spent Christmas in Poiana

The most prolific Romanian national team ever, which is to say the national women's gymnastics team, actually trained during the holidays. Nicolae Forminte's golden girls celebrated Christmas together at a training camp in Poiana Braşov.

"I think this is the first Christmas we've spent together at a training camp," Olympic gold medalist Sandra Izbaşa said. "It was really nice. We were together and felt like a family. Mr. Forminte and the Romanian Gymnastics Federation gave us presents and we thank them very much for those."

Sandra Izbaşa and Nicolae Forminte (photo: Libertatea)

"The girls sang Christmas carols for us and we spent a very nice evening together. We gave the girls presents and we felt like one great family. And on St. Nicholas [December 6] the girls surprised us with tiny gift parcels they had prepared for us, which we found in front of our rooms in Deva," said Nicolae Forminte.

A great year

For Romanian women's gymnastics, 2008 was a great year. "It was a good year. It was the year that ended the Olympic cycle, the year for which we had worked four years, and the year in which we demonstrated that our country's new national team can still command a place among the top nations in international women's gymnastics," said the coach of the national team, Nicolae Forminte.

For the leader of the current crop of gymnasts, Sandra Izbaşa, 2008 was a very good year too. "It was a fabulous year in which I made my greatest dream come true and had other valuable experiences. The medal I won at the Beijing Olympics after so much work was just extraordinary. It was the crowning glory of a perfect season," Sandra said.

Sandra Izbaşa (photo: Libertatea)

Santa was generous

Because they achieved such very good results, Santa Claus was generous toward the girls on the national team. But both for them and for the national team coaches, the results obtained at the Olympics were the most valuable present.

"I think Santa came very early for me, when we won the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics. That was the most beautiful present," said Forminte, while Sandra Izbaşa considered her gold medal in Beijing to be both a birthday present and a Christmas present. "You could say it was both a birthday present and a gift from Santa Claus, because I've had such a successful year."

And that concludes our Poiana Braşov coverage for this year!

Meanwhile, Over in Romania...

ProSport reports that the Romanian national women's team will resume training at Deva today. The girls are returning from a ten-day training camp in the mountain resort of Poiana Braşov. "We've put emphasis on physical preparation [conditioning drills] and on the cumulative effect. The results will have to be seen in training in the next few months," coach Nicolae Forminte told ProSport.

And yes, that's all there is to that report, so we're not even going to dignify it with a photo!

December 28, 2008

Dutch Gymnastics World Worries About Van de Leur

A while ago (to be exact, here and here), we reported on former Dutch star Verona van de Leur, who was airing her dirty laundry in public, accusing her parents of stealing her money and opposing her relationship with her much older and frankly rather dodgy-sounding boyfriend. For a while, Verona was everywhere, giving magazine interviews, appearing on talk shows, and airing her grievances on her website. Then she more or less disappeared, not even bothering to show up at the Dutch Gymnastics Federation's traditional end-of-year gala, where she was to be honored for her achievements. Her failure to show up at the gala sent tongues wagging, not just in the tabloids, but in the serious media. The following story is a translation of an alarming article published by Volkskrant, a Dutch quality paper.

(photo: Thomas Schreyer)

"Call Me If You Need Me"

The Gym Gala, with which the Dutch Gymnastics Federation traditionally closes off its year, should have been her evening. Last Saturday evening [December 20] in Almere, the Federation was going to publicly say goodbye to former gymnastics diva Verona van de Leur, named Dutch Female Athlete of the Year in 2002. But it wasn't to be.

Last summer Van de Leur severed all ties with the gymnastics world and her family. In November she told a spectacular story about it in Revu magazine. To Van de Leur, gymnastics – that fermenting mix of youth, envy and ambition – had become an open sewer. In April, after the European Championships in France, she left the team following an almighty row.

Frans Koffrie, pater familias of the Dutch gymnastics community, tried for months to contact the gymnast. The President of the Federation, who is about to retire, was hoping his personal appeal would entice Van de Leur to make one more appearance at the gala. After all, there was a sponsor (Univé) who wanted to give her a farewell present after six years' loyal service. Koffrie was counting on the friendly ties he had built up over the years with one of his most prominent gymnasts to persuade Van de Leur to come.

It wasn't enough. According to the gymnastics community, Van de Leur is at the mercy of her boyfriend, who is seventeen years her senior. Some even fear she has fallen into the hands of a pimp.

Verona and her boyfriend (photo taken from Verona's website)

Van de Leur responded only once to the invitations the President of the Federation texted her, her answer being a resolute no.

According to Koffrie, the Federation had reserved a seat for the former gymnast on row 6 at the Tuesday gala. Gymnast Yuri van Gelder, Dutch Male Athlete of the Year 2005, was also sitting there. Van Gelder used to be quite close to Van de Leur, but has lately lost touch with her. "And I have no wish to discuss the matter," he said shortly before performing on the rings in Almere. Apparently the subject is too painful for him.

Suzanne Harmes, a gymnast equally celebrated as Van de Leur, says she used to be on friendly terms with Van de Leur. They shared the same clubs and coaches. "But she never responds to my text messages. She wants nothing to do with us, the gymnastics world."

It was obvious in Almere that the gymnastics world has lost Verona van de Leur and is ashamed of it. With ten-year-olds training thirty-three hours a week, gymnastics is a socially demanding sport. Many girls suffer a delayed transition into womanhood, including menstruation. Therefore, the rise of the Dutch women's gymnastics team has not been without its detractors.

Van de Leur, who won a silver medal at the 2002 World Championships, used to embody that rise. She had gone through the tricky transition into womanhood and risen to become captain of the Dutch team. The shy child had become a talkative young lady.

(photo: Iris van den Broek/Gymnasticsphotography)

That new Verona van de Leur had almost become a friend, Federation Doctor Liesbeth Lim said last Saturday in Almere. They had gone through much together over the years, and discussed many things.

Lim, who provides retired gymnasts with follow-up care, stayed in close touch with Van de Leur for quite a while after the April European Championships. However, in September the gymnast told Lim she no longer required her services.

Said Lim: "Verona wanted a clean break from the world she had been living in. On the one hand, that's understandable. She clearly wants to be left alone for a while while she figures things out for herself, which is normal. On the other hand it has turned into a worrying situation. Lately I've been hearing a lot about [boyfriends who turn their girlfriends into prostitutes, whose modus operandi is to isolate their girlfriends from their loved ones]. I've told her again and again, 'Call me if you need me.' She can call me any time. Any time."

On December 27, just after Christmas, Verona van de Leur will turn 23. Neither her friends from the gymnastics world nor her family will be there to celebrate her birthday with her.

Barbosa's Injury Serious After All

Hello everyone. We hope you all had a good Christmas. We certainly did, and we expect good things from the new year too.

Unfortunately, things aren't going so well in the gymnastics world. Nearly all the stories we've come across over the last few days are about strife, injuries and other reasons for concern. We'll share them with you, but don't expect them to cheer you up. It's not that time of year. Or is it?

Anyhow. On to our first story of the day, which concerns none other than Triple Full regular Jade Barbosa.

(photo: Reuters)

A while ago we reported that Jade was doing well. The Brazilian superstar was said to be recovering well from her hand injury, and quoted as saying she hoped to resume serious training soon.

Turns out that that diagnosis was a bit premature.

According to her official site, Jade was recently submitted to a new examination of her right hand, and the results were not favourable. According to the doctor treating Barbosa, Ricardo Laranjeira, the gymnast's injury has improved from a clinical point of view, but is in a critical state from a radiological point of view. Apparently the necrosis in the capitate bone, a small bone in the middle of the hand, has not recently bothered Jade, who has been given the green light to resume training. However, Dr. Laranjeira confirmed that the pain may return any minute.

"At the moment she has little pain and is free to resume physical activity," Laranjeira said in an interview with Régis Rösing of TV Globo, summarized by Globoesporte. "But the injury may get painful again. We can't say for sure when the injury will be healed; it's possible that it will never heal. We'll see how it goes, but it could be an irreversible injury."

Laranjeira went on to say that he couldn't give a prognosis in terms of performance. "What may or may not keep her from competing is pain."

He also said, "It's a degenerative injury which causes pain. Therefore, it is being reevaluated. I examined her 2 months ago and 15 days ago. Furthermore, we will seek a second opinion from a foreign colleague so as to establish a more definitive path of Jade."

Jade's hands (photo: Reuters)

Given the gravity of the injury, the case will be reviewed by a medical team from the United States and studied at medical conferences and clinics. Jade will probably have to leave the country to continue her treatment.

December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Just so as you know, we're going to try and make a concerted effort to stay away from the Internet for a few days. Being the Internet junkies we are, we'll probably start suffering withdrawal symptoms by the time our respective Christmas lunches are served, and be busy scouring news sites and forums for hot stories for the rest of the day, but all the same we expect our updates to be few and far between over the next few days, as we'll be too busy reminding ourselves that there is in fact life outside gymnastics.

We'd like to take this opportunity to wish you all a Merry Christmas and all that. Have a great holiday and talk to you soon!

Yours in festive cheer,

The Gym Girls

December 23, 2008

Vanwalleghem Asks Flemish Federation President to Resign

The Belgian saga goes on. Just days before Christmas, national champion Aagje Vanwalleghem accused the Flemish Gymnastics Federation of ignoring its gymnasts' wishes on national TV, and asked the President of the Federation, Rik Dombrecht, to resign. Dombrecht responded by saying that his resigning from his position wouldn't solve any problems, and that Vanwalleghem's opinions didn't reflect those of the majority of Gymfed's gymnasts. As for us, we're baffled by what's going on in Belgium, and thinking that the good people at Gymfed need a bit of a reality check. They seem awfully ambitious, and not particularly interested in their gymnasts' well-being.

Allow us to explain.

Firstly, you should (and probably do) know that Belgium is intensely internally divided. The northern half of the country, Flanders, speaks Flemish (Dutch); the southern half of the country, Wallonia, speaks French. The two parts of the country don't get on particularly well. To illustrate this, they each have their own gymnastics federation. As far as we know, there is no Belgian Gymnastics Federation; just a Flemish federation, popularly known as Gymfed, and a Walloon one, the Federation Francophone de Gymnastique. Most of Belgium's top gymnasts are from Flanders. They train together in Ghent, where the team was steadily improving, earning praise for its attention to detail, until its head coach, Dutchman Gerrit Beltman, was fired - mainly, it seemed, because he felt the Federation was asking too much from its gymnasts. The remaining coaches and national champion Vanwalleghem clamored for his reinstatement until Gymfed got sick of it and fired the entire Ghent coaching staff, replacing it with two French coaches who don't speak a word of Dutch and two Russian coaches who have been in Belgium for some time but apparently aren't all that fluent in Dutch either. And all this in a part of Belgium which is fiercely Flemish, and involving gymnasts who are too young to have learned much French in school.

Aagje Vanwalleghem during her Sporza TV interview (photo: Sporza)

Needless to say, Aagje Vanwalleghem, who has been extremely vocal about her recent disagreements with Gymfed, spoke up about the situation. Two days ago she was interviewed by Flemish sports show Sporza. In the interview she added fuel to the conflict by demanding that the President of the Flemish Gymnastics Federation, Rik Dombrecht, step down, as he was obviously "destroying everything."

"If he really loves gymnastics, he should really resign," Vanwalleghem told Sporza.

Vanwalleghem wasn't merely speaking in her own interests. She's looking into a way to continue working with Gerrit Beltman on an individual basis (in Belgium, it would seem), and it seems Gymfed is actually supporting her in this. However, she spoke up on behalf of her younger teammates, many of whom, she says, are so frustrated with the current situation that they're considering quitting the sport. Vanwalleghem told Sporza many of the younger girls are considering not showing up for training when Yves Kieffer and his crew start work in January. However, they're in a precarious situation, because they are dependent on Gymfed, not just for their training but for their education. "They could say, 'No, we're not going to train [with Kieffer],' but they're still attending a Gymfed-funded school. So in a way they're being forced to go on training there."

21-year-old Vanwalleghem herself is lucky. She's old enough not to be dependent on Gymfed arrangements. She's a university student who is living with her boyfriend, a promising pole vaulter, and has her own sponsorship contract, independent of Gymfed. But she's concerned about her younger teammates. "The juniors don't want to work with coaches they don't know, least of all because the coaches they used to have were very good. They don't want to switch coaches. It's really bad, and nobody is listening to them." She went on to say that Gymfed was playing with many gymnasts' futures. "They wish to start building something from scratch, but why destroy something that was working well?"

One of the main reasons why Vanwalleghem and her younger teammates object to the four coaches newly appointed to the Ghent training center is because none of them is fluent in Dutch, Flanders' official language and the mother tongue of all the Flemish gymnasts. "So we're now getting a team of four coaches, none of whom speaks perfect Dutch. But when you're working with 12- and 13-year-old gymnasts, it's vital that you understand each other well. I don't understand why the Federation isn't taking this problem more seriously."

It seems to Vanwalleghem that the Federation doesn't overly care about good communication between coaches and athletes. "The Federation says: 'Gerrit Beltman isn't the only good coach out there. It doesn't matter with whom you work, does it?' But it's a matter of trust. Why fire coaches whom the girls know well and trust, and who were obtaining good results?"

Gerrit Beltman (photo: Belga)

Vanwalleghem is convinced that Gymfed's stance in the conflict has nothing to do with gymnastics, but has been prompted by honor and loss of face. "It's all about power. Beltman didn't get along with Gymfed's Board of Directors, so they fired him. The three other coaches supported him, so they fired them too."

For his part, Gymfed President Rik Dombrecht denies that Beltman was fired because he didn't get on with the Federation's officials. "Beltman failed to meet the targets we set at the beginning of the Olympic cycle. He's not denying that. And then he refused to accept our targets for the 2010 World Championships and the 2012 Olympics."

Dombrecht refused to specify what these targets were, but according to the Gymfed website, the Federation hopes that Yves Kieffer's appointment will help the Belgian women's team qualify for the 2012 Olympics. If that is indeed Gymfed's target, we can understand why Beltman didn't want to accept it. It seems an unrealistic goal for the promising but largely unproven Belgian squad to aspire to.

In his interview (which, along with Vanwalleghem's, can be found on the Sporza site), Dombrecht was quick to play down the threat of gymnasts protesting the loss of their coaches and rebelling against their newly appointed coaches. "I can't deny we're having a minor problem with a few gymnasts and their parents," Dombrecht said. "It's a very fanatical group, but it's small - less than a handful of gymnasts, which is to say fewer than five gymnasts. The majority of the gymnasts and parents do support us, and do want to work with Kieffer. They're just less vocal, less inclined to talk to the media."

Vanwalleghem in happier days (photo: Belga)

However, according to Vanwalleghem, many gymnasts are complaining. She says quite a few gymnasts (including some very talented juniors) are considering quitting the sport if they can't go on working with the team of coaches they know and trust. "They [the Federation] are destroying our 2010 team."

Confronted with that argument, Dombrecht said that actually, large numbers of retirements were another reason why Beltman was fired. "Over the last few years, while Beltman was in charge, we've lost over 30 gymnasts who had invested heavily into the sport, and into whom we had invested quite heavily ourselves. We want to turn that situation around, and we're convinced it will improve under Yves Kieffer."

And this is where the story gets weird. You see, according to Dombrecht, Kieffer was quick to identify the reason why so many Flemish gymnasts were quitting. "He immediately said they were training too hard and competing too often. This puts a lot of pressure on the girls, which is why they're quitting."

Pardon us, but isn't that exactly what Gerrit Beltman has been saying all along? Wasn't Beltman fired because he indicated that the girls were training too hard, had too many school hours and needed more time to rest between school and training? Didn't the other coaches at the Ghent training center agree with him? And haven't Aagje Vanwalleghem and other Flemish gymnasts been complaining for months (if not years) about the Gymfed-imposed work load at the Ghent academy? It's bizarre that Gymfed should fire Beltman and his team for wanting to give the girls more rest, only to accept a newcomer's assessment that the girls are working too hard. Particularly since that newcomer isn't exactly known for going easy on his girls himself. Even Yves Kieffer's supporters (such as Isabelle Severino) admit that he's a very demanding coach. Dombrecht admitted as much in the Sporza interview, but repeated that he believed fewer gymnasts would quit under Kieffer, and that the team's chances of success would be "many times greater" with Kieffer in charge.

Gaelle Mys, who represented Belgium at the 2008 Olympics (photo: Reuters)

Our take on the situation? We think Dombrecht and his cronies are suffering from mild delusions of grandeur. We applaud Gymfed for being ambitious, for wanting to take Belgium into the top-12, but frankly we think they're being a tad overambitious, and possibly blinded by dreams of success. Clearly their targets are unrealistic; that would explain why Beltman refused to accept them. Also, it seems the Federation is putting success before its gymnasts' well-being. We couldn't help noticing that the words "achievements" and "targets" popped up an awful lot of times in Dombrecht's interview. It seems to us that the Federation is determined to achieve success at any cost, without much regard for the gymnasts who are supposed to obtain those successes. They overworked their gymnasts for years, then fired four coaches who had the nerve to complain about this. And now they've appointed four coaches who don't even speak the gymnasts' own language. None of this strikes us as being indicative of great concern for the gymnasts' well-being. Success is great, but at what cost?

Undoubtedly to be continued.

December 22, 2008

Yves Kieffer to Coach Flemish Girls After All

A few weeks ago we reported on the coaching scandal that was brewing in Belgium. Quick recap for those of you who missed it: last September, the Flemish Gymnastics Federation, Gymfed, fired its Dutch head coach, Gerrit Beltman, for being too nice to the girls (he agreed with his gymnasts that they needed more time off from school and training), then invited controversial French coach Yves Kieffer (who coached Emilie Lepennec and Isabelle Severino to their respective Olympic and European titles) to take his position. In the end, their negotiations with Kieffer came to nothing because a pro-Beltman journalist started raking up mud on the former French head coach, who had been accused of mental cruelty by a couple of French gymnasts and been the subject of a large investigation by the FFG, the French Gymnastics Federation. After a quick investigation and a consultation with the FFG, Gymfed announced that it still wanted to work with Kieffer, but the flamboyant Frenchman himself declined the offer, citing a "hostile environment." Exit Kieffer, or so it seemed.

Yves Kieffer

Not so. Gymfed just announced that Kieffer will become their head coach after all. The three remaining coaches at the Ghent training center (Marja Beltman, Rene Poutsma and Sofie Naert, all of whom wanted Gerrit Beltman to be reinstated) have been sacked, and Kieffer and his wife Marjorie Heuls will take over in January, with two Russian coaches who have been in Belgium for a while, Iouri Kiritchenko and Valentina Soldatenkova (Gaelle Mys's coach). Gymfed hopes they will help the Belgian team qualify to the 2012 Olympics.

It is uncertain what national champion Aagje Vanwalleghem will do now that Kieffer has been appointed head coach of the Flemish team. Vanwalleghem previously stated in no uncertain terms that she did not want to work under Kieffer. There are those who believe that Vanwalleghem, who recently won the bronze on vault at the Madrid World Cup Final, will start training at Dutch club Bosan TON, where her former coach Gerrit Beltman (to whom she is very close) is coaching now and where she would be surrounded by the cream of Dutch gymnastics, but our sources tell us Gymfed is trying hard to keep Vanwalleghem in Belgium in some way or another. We'll be interested to see what solution they come up with.

Aagje Vanwalleghem

Steliana Nistor: "Afterward No One Cares About You"

Remember Steliana Nistor? Of course you do. For a few years, she was Romania's most successful representative at international competitions, winning all-around medals as well as medals on several events, including (gasp!) bars. She retired after the Olympics at age 19 because she was suffering from several injuries, most notably bad backaches. For a few weeks after she announced her retirement, she was the center of attention. Then there was silence, until ProSport (who else) caught up with her and asked her a few questions about her new life. This is what Steliana told them.

(photo: ProSport)

Doubled Agony

After her retirement from competitive sports, 19-year-old Steliana Nistor went home, to Sibiu, to be close to her family. "She's dividing her time between college, her apartment, and her family. All I want for her is to be healthy and find some peace," Steliana Dovlecel, Steliana's mother, confessed. Stela, a double World silver medalist in 2007 and bronze medalist with the team in Beijing, told ProSport what her life is like these days, how she is going to spend her first family Christmas, and what operations she is going to undergo in the future.

Her life after gymnastics: "It's very different. You have a lot of freedom, in the sense that you know you don't have that strict a schedule. You have to learn how to manage your own time and life."

University: "I'm a freshman studying Physical Education and Sport in Sibiu. The courses are interesting. I try to attend all my classes, because I just love the atmosphere. I'm also doing some gymnastics here. Admittedly, not on the same level as before, but it works for me."

Her fellow students: "They received me with open arms. They didn't wait for me; they welcomed me [of their own accord]. They're great people. I've learned a lot from them."

Pastimes: "I still go out with my classmates. [Note: The Romanian says "colleagues," which could refer to either her classmates or her former teammates. We think she's talking about her classmates rather than her former teammates, as she uses the masculine version of the word rather than the feminine one she'd probably use if she were referring to her teammates, but we're not sure.] It was strange at first, because I had the feeling I didn't know how to behave or what to say, but now it's okay."

Fame: "When you're on the team and competing, everyone wants you. Afterward no one cares about you. During the first month after I'd retired, I still received a few phone calls. People were still interested in me. After that there was absolutely no sign of interest. Just quiet and people forgetting about me."

Bitang helps her

Her health: "My back still hurts. It's as painful now as it was when I was a gymnast. I also seem to have developed a problem with the joint of one of my hands. I now have a 'liquid fist.' Sometimes I can't even lift a pitcher of water."

Steliana wearing several braces that indicate the full extent of her injuries (photo: ProSport)

Surgery: "I'm currently awaiting an answer from Mrs. Mariana Bitang, who is helping me a lot. She's very supportive and she's told me she'll try to help me. I'll first undergo surgery on my hand next year, and after that we'll see what to do about my back."

The gym: "I can't tell you how much I miss the gym. I wish I could be there now, but I can't anymore. I miss the whole atmosphere and everything."

Competitions: "I watch competitions on TV and my heart breaks when I think that I too could have been there. But no matter how much I'd like to be there, I can't go on. My injuries just hurt too much."

Coaches: "I still talk to my coaches. I keep in touch with them because I know they helped me and I wouldn't have gotten anywhere without them. I greatly respect them and I'm grateful to them. So it seems normal to me that they should want to see how I'm doing."

She lives on her own

Family: "The best thing that has happened to me is that I've been reunited with my family. I'm closer to my dear family now, making up for all the years during which I was away from them."

Her own apartment: "It's all done up. I moved in 2 days ago. I've furnished it and decorated it. It was team work; my mother and I did it together. I love the way it has turned out."

Housekeeping: "It's a bit harder, living on your own, but I like it. I have responsibilities I've never had before. I love absolutely everything that's happening to me right now."

The holidays: "I'm celebrating Christmas with my family, in my apartment. It will be a kind of housewarming party, with my beloved family. I don't know what I'll be doing on New Year's Eve. I don't have any plans yet."

Steliana in her hometown, Sibiu (photo: Gazeta Sporturilor)

Our response? We're sorry to hear Steliana is still suffering the injuries that caused her to retire so early, but we're glad to hear that Mariana Bitang seems so supportive. That's wonderful news. We hope the operations will improve Steliana's quality of life.

We're also somewhat relieved to hear that Steliana does in fact miss gymnastics. We were a bit concerned when she said just after retiring that she didn't miss the sport at all, as if her heart hadn't been in it for the past 14 years or so. Turns out it was, and she does miss the sport. Phew.

All the best, Steliana. Rest assured you're not forgotten.

December 21, 2008

Now About That Ukrainian Story...

We've been informed that the Ukrainian national training center at Koncha-Zaspa (which apparently hosts training facilities for a number of sports, not just gymnastics) hasn't actually been closed. There's just no money for the gymnasts to continue having training camps there. As far as we're concerned, that's almost as bad as the center being closed, but it leaves a spark of hope for the future. A tiny one.

For what it's worth, our translator (Kristina) is not to blame for the misunderstanding. She got it right in her translation. We simply misinterpreted her translation when we posted the story. We're sorry about that.

The tenor of the story remains the same. The Ukrainian gymnasts are not training together. They've been sent back to clubs which by all accounts are seriously underequipped and understaffed. That's bad news however you interpret the news about there not being any money for training camps.

We hope one day to see new Oksana Omelianchiks, Lilia Podkopayevas, Viktoria Karpenkos, Irina Krasnyanskas and Alina Koziches emerge from Ukraine, but the way things are going there, we're not holding our breath.

Lilia Podkopayeva in a 2004 photo, wearing the Olympic medals she won in Atlanta 8 years earlier. Hopefully she won't be Ukraine's last great champion.

New Changes to the 2009 Code of Points

The FIG just announced an update to the 2009 Code of Points, all of 10 days before the new code goes into effect. We were going to write an article about it, but Jess at The C Score beat us to it, and did an excellent job of it too. Check out her summary of the new changes here.

A few quick notes:

--- We guess the judges must have gotten really fed up with seeing all those piked double backs on floor to be upgrading the double tuck from a C to a D. Seriously, a D? That's bizarre.

--- On the other hand, we're glad to see that the requirement that dance passages on floor consist of 3 elements has been removed. Those 3-part passages tend to be eyesores - an ugly disruption of what little dance there is in modern floor routines. Two-leap passages will do very nicely, thank you very much. Now stop counting them among the 8 counting elements, and who knows, those dance passages may actually become pretty again.

--- We know at least one team which will be happy with this update. Memmel turns (pirouettes with one leg held high) on floor, which used to be a C, have just been upgraded to D. That's got to be good news for the Italian team, which has more gymnasts doing Memmel turns than any other nation on earth. Forza Italia!

We were hoping to post our take on the 2009 Code this week, but this new upgrade means we'll have to study the code a bit longer. Ah well. We'll get back to you eventually. Before the first major competition of the 2009 season, anyway.

More Voronin Cup Videos

New videos of the Voronin Cup (to go with the incredible Viktoria Komova video we posted earlier) have indeed been uploaded. YouTube user Igorgymn1 has tons of them. We thought we'd post a few to show you just how exciting Russian gymnastics currently is...

This is Viktoria Komova's excellent bar routine. Check out her form and swing - very promising stuff!

And this is Komova's floor routine, still with the amazing 1.5 twist through to Arabian opening pass and strange landings. Somebody please tell us - are Komova's ankles all right? She's not wearing any bandages around them, but we wonder about those landings.

Viktoria Komova (photo: Bernard Garau)

This is Anna Myzdrikova's very hard floor routine, featuring a great triple twist to immediate back tuck (that'll be useful under the new code); whip to immediate double Arabian; 2.5 twist to barani to stag leap; double tuck; double pike. Myzdrikova needs more dance, but she seems graceful enough. It should be a treat watching her floor routine come the next quad.

These are Myzdrikova's vaults, a sloppy but promising double-twisting Yurchenko and an arched but powerful half on, layout front off. Nice!

This is senior AA winner Kristina Goryunova's beam routine, featuring a nice pike front to sheep jump and one of the best front somis to scale we've seen. Now that's how you perform that skill.

And this is Goryunova's floor routine, featuring, among other things, a very nice double layout. Goryunova is an interesting gymnast. She's not naturally elegant (she moves a tad heavily), but she does an excellent job hiding that fact. She's living proof that non-elegant gymnasts can be taught to comport themselves gracefully, given the right coach and/or choreographer.

Kristina Goryunova (photo: Stefan Wurzer/Gymnasticsunited)

This is Alyona Zmeu's beam routine. Zmeu is very elegant and does some of the best leaps this side of China. She has gorgeous legs. Love this girl.

This is Diana Sapronova on beam. Sapronova is nothing special, but she's stable and elegant enough. It must be very reassuring for the Russians to have this kind of gymnast to fall back on when all their great stars are injured.

Also, for those of you who like watching gymnasts in plain clothes, here is a video of Yulia Lozhechko, Elena Zamolodchikova and Anna Pavlova standing around and giggling at the Voronin Cup. Pavlova is shown limping around with a huge brace around her right knee, over her pants. Reportedly she told someone who attended the competition that she expects to be back in 8 months' time. We don't know whether that means back in training or back in competition, but either way, it means she's optimistic about her return to the sport. Excellent news!


A new YouTube video has been uploaded that proves that Viktoria Komova, who won the Voronin Cup just a few days ago, is still working the incredible ff - layout stepout - Arabian beam series that we saw her do earlier this year. Apparently she did it at the Voronin Cup (in the event finals, we guess, since she didn't do it in the video from the all-around competition that was posted earlier). She fell on the Arabian, but came closer to nailing it than she did in the older video in which she's shown performing the series. We can't wait to see her hit that combination in competition.

Check out the routine including the phenomenal Arabian series for yourself here and say it with us: WOW.

(photo: Stefan Wurzer/Gymnasticsunited)

Komova's vault from the same competition, a decent but unspectacular Omelianchik, has also surfaced on YouTube. Check it out here.

We're hoping her other routines from the Voronin Cup will be posted soon.

December 20, 2008

The Death of Ukrainian Gymnastics: Why Ostapenko Went to Russia Instead

Over the last few days, the Internet has been ablaze with gossip about why Oleg Ostapenko turned down the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation to start working with the Russian juniors instead. It was rumored Russia offered him more money, which is undoubtedly true. It was also assumed Ostapenko had found working conditions much better in Russia than in his native Ukraine, where many gyms are woefully unprepared for the exigencies of modern gymnastics.

Turns out there's more to the story than that. According to the article below, which was posted on a Ukrainian gymnastics site yesterday, Ukraine doesn't even have a national training center anymore. The national training center at Koncha-Zaspa has been closed. No wonder Ostapenko went to Russia, where many clubs (and, one would assume, the national training centers at Round Lake and Malakhovka) have just been re-equipped with state-of-the-art equipment.

Irina Krasnyanska (photo: Jasmin Schneebeli-Wochner/Gymbox)

Anyhow, here's the article - the Ukrainian perspective on the whole affair, which is bitter and incredibly pessimistic. Rightfully so, we fear.

Oleg Ostapenko is appointed senior coach of the women's junior team of... Russia!

So here it is. Just a few weeks ago, Victor Korzh, President of the [Ukrainian] Artistic Gymnastics Federation, told us the happy news about Oleg Ostapenko's return to Ukraine. Yes, Korzh had succeeded in interesting the experienced coach and persuading him to work with the Ukrainian gymnasts. Oleg Vasilyevich [Ostapenko] had foregone other, more advantageous proposals. He undertook the work with enthusiasm, all the more so because even while training the Brazilian team, his soul had always kept pining for Ukraine. Everyone was excited and revived. Hope dawned for the revival of bygone glory. But no sooner had Oleg Vasilyevich been introduced to those under his care than the terrible news (you can't call it anything else) came – there would be no training camp for the gymnasts. Everybody is going home. The gymnasts will train in their own towns. That shouldn't have to be a problem, but in which towns can you find gyms with up-to-date equipment? Yes, and where can you get good, experienced coaches? For the first time in our years of independence, our gymnasts don't have a training camp. Even in the more difficult 90s, the country found the necessary means for the development of this beautiful sport. And results were forthcoming!

Alina Kozich (photo: Vladimir Rys/Bongarts)

I cannot imagine what is going on now in the hearts of the girls and boys who have dedicated their whole conscious lives to gymnastics. They dreamed of medals, they dreamed of singing the Ukrainian national anthem while standing on pedestals all over the world. But our country does not care about them. You can say there is a crisis, that it is difficult for everyone... But at the same time, the Supreme Council has proposed a law providing additional tens of millions to support the Ukrainian national football [soccer] team. On the eve of the 2012 European Football Championships [which will be hosted by Poland and Ukraine], any sacrifice is deemed acceptable. It's always football; football is everywhere! Only how many medals have our football players won at World Championships, European Championships, or the Olympics? [The answer is none.] Their wage levels and training facilities have always been many times better than those for gymnasts. When gymnasts from other countries arrive at our Koncha-Zaspa training center for an exchange, they are always surprised that it is possible to obtain such good results under such conditions. But now our gymnasts have been deprived even of this bare minimum.

Vote in our poll for the best Ukrainian gymnast! It's possible that there won't be anybody to vote for next year.

We don't know about you, but that article just ruined our weekend. Sad, isn't it, to see such an illustrious program crumble like that? "Tragedy" seems to be an understatement to describe what's going on in Ukraine. "Death bells" is more like it, by the sound of it.

We'll be dressed in black and mourning for the rest of the weekend if this news is true.

December 19, 2008

Marina Nazarova on Ksenia Semyonova and Ksenia Afanasyeva

Russian blog Moskovskiy Komsomoletz posted this article after the Mikhail Voronin Cup. It's mostly about veteran Nikolai Kryukov, who was judging at the competition but says he has not retired from competitive gymnastics. We'll post the Kryukov part of the story later, but for now we'd like to focus on some tidbits about Ksenia Semyonova and Ksenia Afanasyeva. You see, the Voronin Cup was attended by Marina Nazarova, who coaches both Semyonova and Afanasyeva, and she was kind enough to answer a few questions about her gymnasts' health.

Ksenia Semyonova (photo: Stefan Wurzer/Gymnasticsunited)

This is what Nazarova had to say about Ksenia Semyonova, who is indeed, as we reported earlier, suffering from bad growing pains:

"How shall I describe this? The workload in gymnastics is absolutely colossal. We were prepared for the World Cup Final, but, for example, during her bar routines Ksyusha had constant pains in her left wrist. She had a thorough checkup in Germany, and now she's constantly consulting specialists. But the fact is that there's only one thing we can do: wait until it's over. The girl continues to grow fast. Last year she grew seven centimeters [nearly three inches]. Lately she's added three more [over an inch], and she feels pain in her growth zones when training hard. This doesn't mean Ksyusha has stopped training; it simply means we've reduced her training load as far as possible to take care of her wrists."

Ten centimeters in one year is a lot. We can imagine it must be a painful experience for Semyonova.

Ksenia Afanasyeva (photo: Stefan Wurzer/Gymnasticsunited)

Meanwhile, this is what Nazarova had to say about Ksenia Afanasyeva, who sustained an unspecified injury in November:

"She's aiming for the American Cup in February. She has undergone treatment, and it seems everything is OK, but we'll know more about her condition just before the tournament."

Finally, Nazarova said she considers the European Championships in April to be the official start of the 2009 competitive year, and hopes to have her girls ready for battle by that time. "Let's just hope those growth zones will play along..."

So there you have it. Another name to add to the American Cup roster: Ksenia Afanasyeva. Cool. Looks like it's going to be a good competition!

Russian News

A few days ago, IG published the results of the Mikhail Voronin Cup, the final top-level competition of the 2008 season. As you can see here, Kristina Goryunova won the senior women's title in Moscow, but it was precocious junior Viktoria Komova, fresh from a successful appearance at the Massilia Cup, who impressed most, outscoring Goryunova by 1.3.

Kristina Goryunova, senior AA winner (photo: Stefan Wurzer/Gymnasticsunited)

For those of you who haven't seen it yet, this is the beam routine Viktoria Komova performed at the Voronin Cup. Check it out - she's a very stylish gymnast (like her mother, 1986 Goodwill Games champion Vera Kolesnikova) with great form on her layout stepouts, an excellent standing Arabian, and a very difficult Patterson (double Arabian) dismount. Sadly the cool combination of flipflop, layout stepout and Arabian that she was practicing last year seems to have fallen by the wayside, but there's enough yumminess left.

Also, this is the floor routine Komova recently performed at the Massilia Cup. She has a very abrupt way of landing her tumbles (we're wondering if she's suffering from an ankle injury), but she's promising all right - check out that 1.5 twist through to double Arabian mount!

Viktoria Komova (photo: Stefan Wurzer/Gymnasticsunited)

Other Russian news

Firstly, the Russian Gymnastics Federation has announced that Oleg Ostapenko will assume the position of head coach of the Russian juniors at the national junior training center at Malakhovka on January 8th.

Secondly, MKRU confirms that the Russian Artistic Gymnastics Federation is indeed investing heavily in its competitive program. Not content with bringing experienced coaches back from abroad, the Federation is trying to train its younger coaches by letting them take part in practical training sessions under the leadership of the best coaches at the Round Lake national training center. In addition, the Federation recently completely re-equipped 18 gymnastics schools with state-of-the-art apparatus. All this, it is said, with an eye not just to the future, but to the present. Sounds like the Russians mean business, doesn't it? We can't wait to see what will come of this all-out attempt to restore Russian gymnastics to its former glory.

Corina Ungureanu to Make a Comeback?

One of the very few ways in which present-day gymnastics is an improvement over 70s and 80s gymnastics is the way gymnasts stay in the sport forever. Once upon a time, female gymnasts were bumped from the team once they reached the venerable age of eighteen; their places were invariably taken by fourteen-year-olds. Not so anymore. These days, older gymnasts abound. Oksana Chusovitina is of course the most famous example of a gymnast who just refuses to give up, but there have been other notable gymnasts who defied age. Svetlana Boginskaya, Svetlana Khorkina, Lisa Skinner, and Annia Hatch all did it. And today, Ludmilla Ezhova, Elena Zamolodchikova, Monica Bergamelli, Suzanne Harmes, Daniele Hypolito, and Daiane dos Santos are giving it a good go.

Occasionally a former gymnast will attempt to make a comeback several years after retiring. It didn't really work for Kim Zmeskal and Dominique Moceanu, although both gave it a good try. However, it did work for Isabelle Severino, until a torn Achilles tendon tragically cut her career short.

Now former Romanian great Corina Ungureanu is having a go at it. Libertatea reports that elegant Ungureanu, a member of two victorious World Championships teams, 1998 European champion on floor (tied with Khorkina), and equally well known for taking her clothes off in front of a camera on a few occasions, is back on the apparatus.

Here's the Libertatea article...

Corina Ungureanu (photo: Gymbox)

She's back!

After a nine-year break during which she posed for two adult magazines and tried to open a business [in this case, a coffee house] in Ploieşti [her hometown], former double world champion Corina Ungureanu would like to become a gymnast again.

28-year-old Corina Ungureanu, world champion with the Romanian team in 1997 and 1999, has moved to England, but not before having posed once more for [the Romanian edition of] Playboy [in March 2008].

"I think the shoot was extremely professional. But this will be the last time I've appeared in an adult magazine," Corina stated.

(photo: Playboy)

In September the former gymnast, who coaches a group of kids at the Ellan Vanyn club on the Isle of Man, thought it wouldn't be amiss for her to make a comeback in the sport.

"After you retire, you keep wishing you could make a comeback. [After I started training again] I was having a difficult time at first. I'm doing beam, floor, and bars, but not vault. On my first few days back in the gym, I thought I was going to die, but after that things began to get better. Two weeks ago I took part in a competition with gymnasts from many English clubs. I competed on floor and beam. To my delight, I managed to do the same floor exercise I did at the World Championships," said Ungureanu.

Speaking of her current "sentimental relations," Corina said she had nothing to hide. "I've been together with a guy whose parents were born in Germany and South-Africa, respectively, for four months now. I hope the relationship will last, because we really understand each other," Corina told us.

(photo: Gymbox)

So there it is. Nine years after retiring from the sport, Corina says she's doing the same floor exercise she did at the World Championships. That's impressive, if it's true. We'd like to see that! That said, we doubt Corina will ever be on the Romanian team again. Even if she regains her old level and the current Romanian team continues to suffer bad injuries, the fact remains that her relationship with the Romanian Gymnastics Federation is acrimonious at best (or so at least it used to be, after her first forays into nude posing). But wouldn't it be great to see her perform again? Corina was a beautiful gymnast, one of the more graceful ones Romania had in the 90s. She could even somewhat swing bars, although her casts to handstands left a lot to be desired. With some added maturity, we'd definitely like to see her back on the stage.

A couple of Corina's old routines for the sake of nostalgia:

December 18, 2008

One More Sandra Izbasa Interview to Finish Things Off

Here's the other Sandra Izbasa article we promised you a few days ago, this time from the Romanian magazine Flacara (The Flame). It's a long article, but very interesting - well worth the read.

Quick summary for those of you who don't have time to read the whole thing: Sandra suffered a serious injury before Beijing, hates Romanian folk music, used to be into rollerblading, and intends to go on until the 2012 Olympics. Needless to say we're very happy to hear the latter piece of news. Find out the rest for yourself below!

(photo: Reuters)

Sandra Izbasa, Romania's Golden Gymnast

She walks on the beam as if it were a road, and when she has to perform a floor exercise, she does it like a true maestro. At first sight she looks like a frail girl, but in reality she's quite strong, somehow capable of focusing on what she has to do and seeing a routine through to the end, even when she is injured.

This year, at the Beijing Olympics, she showed the whole world that she is the queen of the floor, obtaining the Olympic gold medal. Sandra Raluca Izbasa dreams of gold at the 2009 Worlds and promises to take part in the 2012 Olympics.

We visited Sandra Izbasa at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Complex at Izvorani, where she had just finished training. It was just before she went to Japan to compete at the Toyota Cup, where she was to take first place on floor and second place on beam. She was taking driving lessons under the guidance of the head coach of the national team, Nicolae Forminte.

Open-hearted, calm and friendly, Sandra spoke to us about herself, about the rigors of the life of a champion, and about how to do a piked full-in and a tucked one, a triple turn, a 2.5 twist followed by a full twist, a 1.5 twist backward followed by a 1.5 twist forward, a full-twisting split leap, and a triple twist.

So many turns, so many rotations, all without getting confused, without getting dizzy. "When I learned my first difficult elements at age seven, I would get dizzy, because I didn't really know how to rotate, but at the time I was only experimenting. Now we know exactly how to land and how to avoid problems that may arise while we're in the air. That means hard work, repetitions and technique. Now I never feel dizzy anymore," Sandra stated.

(photo: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Sandra also needs choreography for her floor routine (her favorite event, followed by beam). This is where choreographer Valer Puia comes in, but also Sandra herself. "Mr. Puia is the one who suggests the music, but I'm the one who decides whether it's OK for me and whether I can perform a routine to that particular tune. If not, I tell him to make small adjustments, either because it's too slow, or because it's too dynamic. Mr. Puia and I created the floor exercise I performed at the Olympics together. He came up with ideas, so did I. My father used to take piano lessons, and I think I've inherited some of his ear for music. Only I chose to focus more on gymnastics."

From the time of our interview until the end of 2008, Sandra will have had to compete in three more international competitions (on top of the one in Japan) - in Italy, Spain and Belgium. She will only compete in individual competitions, on floor and beam.

Sandra first set foot in a gym in 1994, at Bucharest's Steaua club, when she was four years old. Since then, gymnastics has become her second nature. Her first coaches were Eliza Stoica, Elena Ceampelea, Angela Cacovean, Mariana Ristea, G. Neagu and M. Vintila.

On top of gymnastics, Sandra played handball for a while, but the dice rolled in favor of gymnastics. The results she has obtained so far prove that she made the right choice. "People who say that you lose your childhood if you practice sport all the time are wrong. I don't know how many children have had the opportunity to see as many countries as I have, least of all at my age. When I was young, I had time to train, to go to school and to play. Later, when I grew older, I obviously didn't have so much time to go out with the other kids anymore. But all in all, I had a great childhood," says Sandra Izbasa.

In 2003, Sandra joined the national junior team at Onesti. In 2005, she joined the national team at Deva.

So how are the routines she does created?

"On beam, for instance, Mrs. Liliana Cosma and I have put together a set of required and highly rated artistic and technical elements. We have a whole series of technical words that normal people don't understand. For example, when I say that I'm going to do a 540 with a 540, it means I'm going to do a 1.5 rotation [twist] backward followed by a 1.5 rotation forward. A switch leap is a split leap in which you open up, and a wolf jump is a jump with one bent knee and one straight knee," the gymnast explains enthusiastically.

(photo: Reuters)

What does a day in the life of the girl who brought numerous victories to Romanian gymnastics at a time when naysayers were questioning the quality of the new generation of gymnasts that had emerged after Catalina Ponor look like?

"I get up, I'm weighed, I have breakfast, and I go to school from 8.00am to 10.15am. Then we train, eat, sleep, train and get treatment [massage and physical therapy] if we need it. Then we sleep. I like school. I especially enjoy Romanian literature, history, geography and English. English is very useful to me. When I was young, I took German lessons, but since we don't have German lessons in Deva, I'm taking French lessons instead." Next year she'll sit her exams: Sport (practice and theory), English, Romanian, geography, and history.

"I want to go to the National Academic of Physical Education and Sport, but I'd like to study something else as well. I haven't made up my mind about my second course yet. Anyhow, until then, I'll focus on next year's World Championships, and obviously, I'd like to make it to the 2012 London Olympics."

Gymnastics doesn't only mean hard work and success. Often it means tears of pain following injuries, when you realize that you're capable of more, but can't continue your fight for a medal because of some stupid accident. Sandra Izbasa has not been spared such moments. She suffered a few of them over the last year, before the Olympics.

"I was having a very difficult time. I went from one injury to the next. First I had problems with my foot, then with my back. I injured my foot because I was training without properly having warmed up. My foot was in a cast for two months, after which I had three weeks to come back and compete at the Worlds. After the World Championships, I had a short break, and after that I had to start working hard again. I also had back problems, so bad that I had to stop training for two and half months. At the European Championships in Clermont-Ferrand, this year, I took gold on floor and with the team, and bronze on beam. So I came back strongly. I got injured in the beam final, when I banged my two feet together, which resulted in a small fracture. My parents and coaches encouraged me and told me not to give up, that I could get through the Olympics. I never allowed myself to be affected by the voices that said: 'Sandra is injured, she cannot be counted on.' Maybe I sometimes gave the impression that I was about to give up, but that wasn't the case. I don't give up easily. I kept telling myself: 'I am, am, am capable of more!' I'm a fighter. I'm not interested in the bad things people say. Even though many people felt others would shine at the Olympics, I just minded my own work and kept on fighting for a medal," Sandra Izbasa recounts.

(photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Beyond her sufferings and her happiness about her success, Sandra is an 18-year-old girl (she turned eighteen on June 18) with many dreams, aspirations and ideals. In her spare time she listens to music, takes walks, surfs the web, reads and never has time to get bored.

"I listen to all kinds of music, except manele [gypsy-inspired folk ballads]. I'm allergic to those. They make me break out in boils!" She laughs. "I listen to dance, R&B, rock, rock ballads, hip hop and, generally, every tune I like. I don't really have a favorite band. Sometimes I like one song by a band, but not the rest of their album, so I'm going by individual songs rather than by bands in general. When I have time, I read magazines. At the moment I'm reading The Law of Attraction by Kate Corbin, about wisdom. Obviously I also read Cosbuc and Eminescu [Romania's most famous poets], but partly because I have to do so at school, because I'm sitting my exams this year. I don't really have time to watch movies. Sometimes I like to go shopping when I'm in Bucharest, but only if I can get someone to come with me, because I don't like to go shopping on my own."

Back in the old days, one would occasionally come across Sandra on rollerblades in Herastrau [a large park in Bucharest], but these days she doesn't have time for that. She doesn't visit her grandparents very often anymore either, not because she doesn't want to, but because she simply doesn't have time anymore.

These days Sandra gets recognized in the street. "Just after the Olympics a lot of people recognized me in the street. It made me happy, but also a little embarrassed. I realize that people now look at me a bit differently. It calls for different behaviour. The whole world now looks at what Izbasa is doing, so I have to be careful about what I say and do. I also have to pay attention to how I behave in the gym, because the younger girls now look up to me as a role model."

Sandra doesn't worry about not having a boyfriend. "It's no use having a boyfriend now. Especially since I spend a lot of time in Deva and this is not the right time. I want to be a child for a bit longer and to take pleasure in everything I do. My time for a boyfriend will come later."

Her girlfriends are mostly teammates from Deva with whom she laughs off bad times and has an excellent time.

She stays in touch with her old school friends from Bucharest on line. She also stays in touch with the friend she made in Beijing, Cheng Fei, who was the first person to congratulate her after her floor routine at the Olympics.

(photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Just to confirm the latter, it seems Sandra spends a bit of time on Facebook. Her list of Facebook friends reads like a veritable Who's Who of gymnastics. Check back every now and then and you'll see she's befriended the entire gymnastics community. One more reason to love the girl!