Prioritizing culture over gold medals — Other gym news — Thoughts from @jordynsleftbrow
The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, July 23, 2022
This week, American women’s junior and senior teams competed at the Pan Am Championships in Rio de Janeiro. For the seniors, this was a worlds qualifier; for the juniors, it represented their biggest international assignment of the year because there will be no junior worlds until 2023.
So the stakes were pretty high. And the Americans showed up. The juniors won their team competition, and Dulcy Caylor won the junior all-around title (I mentioned Caylor’s success last week).
The seniors qualified a team for worlds.
But here’s where things get off balance. The seniors did not win their team competition; they finished second to Brazil.
During qualifications, where the individual medals were also determined, Flavia Saraiva of Brazil had a heroic performance when it counted. She won the all-around title, with Lexi Zeiss and Skye Blakely of the U.S. earning silver and bronze, respectively.
The only gold medal by the U.S. seniors was won by Kayla DiCello, last year’s world all-around bronze medalist, who debuted a beautiful floor routine and won the title there. Zoe Miller won silver on bars, Zeiss won bronze on beam, and Blakely won bronze on floor.
And these results — six medals, one gold — have prompted some hand-wringing and pearl-clutching by certain members of the gymnastics media and the gymternet, some of whom seem to think fewer gold medals spells doom for the U.S. WAG program.
My question is: So what if it does? Do we want a culture that prioritizes gold medals, or do we want a culture that prioritizes healthy, happy gymnasts? Because history has shown that the U.S. cannot have both simultaneously.
Sure, the U.S. has a new regime now, but it’s far too early to say whether it will create the lasting culture change that would allow for world dominance and positive experiences in the sport. But it’s also too early to say that it’s led the country’s gymnastics into ruin.
It was a tweet by my Five at The IX interviewee this week, Jamie, who uses the handle @jordynsleftbrow, that got me thinking about how utterly absurd it is to put this much pressure on the incoming leaders of the national team, and on the gymnasts themselves, to earn golds and only golds.
Jamie went after journalist Nancy Armour, who tweeted that the U.S. should be hearing “five-alarm bells” after the Pan Am results. “Quit painting a doomsday narrative that doesn’t exist,” Jamie wrote. Subreddit r/Gymnastics also let Armour have it.
[Full disclosure: I, too, have publicly taken on Armour for her questionable gymnastics takes.]
When sports become only about winning, everyone loses. No one knows this more keenly than USA Gymnastics, whose nearsighted pursuit of gold medals over the years has left it bankrupt, with one sponsor who only came on board this past week, a rotating cast of leadership including many who have stayed just months or even days, and counting hundreds of sexual abuse victims among its alumnae.
The U.S. had enough confidence in its athletes securing a berth to worlds that it sent a group of gymnasts with less international experience than the crew who went to the Tokyo Olympics last year, many of whom sat out of this selection process with an eye on making the worlds team itself. (Call the Pam Am team the B team if you wish, but I think that label downplays their success. They achieved because they are great athletes, not in spite of having less experience.) The goal here was making worlds as a team. It was not winning individual medals, but four out of the five did that anyway.
Brazil, competing on home soil, had the dual luxuries of sending its top athletes to Pan Ams and having those athletes in fighting shape. Rebeca Andrade, the Tokyo all-around silver medalist who also became the first Brazilian female gymnast to win Olympic gold, on the vault, did not compete in the all-around at Pan Ams but won the bars gold and silver on beam. Saraiva finally got the all-around gold we knew she had in her as well as a long-elusive beam title.
It feels like when we are not in season, everyone agrees that, of course, we just want healthy gymnasts. But when the competitions start, the fangs are bared.
Does the U.S. have work to do? Sure. But we must decide what our goals truly are. If a culture change is to happen, let’s work toward that, even if the U.S. wins less often — not work toward the obsolete idea that only gold medals decide gymnasts’ worth.
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Other gym news
Lauren Hopkins over at The Gymternet compiled all of the Pan Am Championships results here.
Remember when I said we should focus more on creating good people than golds? Lexi Zeiss won the Sportsmanship Award for Excellence, Respect, and Friendship at Pan Ams. Her coach, Sarah Jantzi, said she was “more proud than any medal won.”
USAG revealed the fields for the 2022 U.S. Classic, which will be held July 28-31 in Utah. Of note: This will mark the return to elite gymnastics for Leanne Wong.
Inside Gymnastics showcased four gymnasts — Jordan Chiles, Olivia Dunne, Aly Raisman and Suni Lee — in its ESPYs formalwear roundup on its IG. We love to see it.
Courtney Kupets Carter received a three-year contract extension at Georgia. She will continue to earn $200K annually. Let’s hope this is motivational? I’ll leave it at that.
Speaking of Georgia, though, this oral history of Gymdog star Karin Lichey’s perfect 40 in 1996 is worth a read.
Kyana George, a former Cal standout, will join the staff at Alabama as a volunteer assistant coach.
Arkansas added former Temple athlete Jackie Terpak to its coaching roster as a volunteer assistant coach and choreographer.
And Robert Ladanyi moves from Nebraska to Utah State as the new USU assistant coach.
The Canadian government will freeze funding for Gymnastics Canada following the release of an open letter signed by more than 500 gymnasts alleging abuse that they said the national organization should have prevented.
Shilese Jones is a star. That’s it; that’s the newsletter.
Five at The IX: Jamie a.k.a. @jordynsleftbrow
I can’t say for sure, but I think my first gymternet follow who was not a fellow journalist was @jordynsleftbrow. Jamie, the woman behind the handle, has delivered a steady stream of sharp, witty gymnastics commentary on Twitter, and Tumblr before that, for years. Jamie lives in West Virginia and works online from home. In her free time, she designs and sells gymnastics merch, including T-shirts, stickers, and phone cases. She began this side hustle in February 2016. Five months later, Jamie saw Laurie Hernandez’s entire family on TV wearing her designs at the Olympic trials. And she’s still going strong; as you read above, Jamie’s tweet this week inspired my newsletter topic. I was delighted when she responded to a DM and agreed to be interviewed! This interview has been edited for clarity.
What’s your most controversial gymnastics hot take?
J: Even if Simone [Biles] had participated in 2021 team finals, I think Russia still would have won. They were untouchable that night!
If you were on a team selection committee and also a time traveler, which U.S. team would you change first and why?
J: I would replace Brenna Dowell with Bailie Key. I love Brenna, but her consistency just wasn’t there, and while the U.S. was going to dominate with either one of them, I think Bailie’s performances that year earned her a spot.
Which gymnast would you next award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to, and why?
J: Definitely Aly Raisman. She hasn’t stopped fighting for the future generation of gymnasts and is still working tirelessly to raise awareness and give a voice to victims.
How did you get into gymnastics, and when did you start writing/posting about it?
J: I’ve always been involved in gymnastics. But in middle school, I started posting video montages on YouTube (FYI, they were very bad) and while tweeting about the 2012 Olympic trials, I accidentally discovered the gymternet.
What is your favorite skill to watch and favorite apparatus to watch?
J: I love standing fulls on beam! They don’t seem like that big of a deal on TV, but the first time I watched one in person I was mind-blown.
My favorite event is definitely beam. I have a love-hate relationship with how harshly it’s judged these days, but it’s what separates the good from the great.
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