Two turns

As a former gymnast, I’ve always been frustrated with what passes for television coverage of the sport. The announcers always point out what everyone can plainly see: “Oops, didn’t stick the landing.” But they never tell you anything about the real subtleties of the sport. When I’m watching on TV with friends and family I try to explain things, but it all goes by too quickly. Even when replaying a recorded show in slow motion, it can be really hard to pinpoint what goes on.

Here’s an example from a competition I saw tonight. In these parallel frames of video, Nastia Liukin on the left and Shayla Worley on the right are at exactly the same point in a back giant swing:

One second later they’ve both done a half turn to what appears to be exactly the same point in a front giant swing:

But although Elfi Schlegel and Tim Daggett never mention this, there’s a huge difference between what those two women did in the intervening second, and also in the positions they came to.

I captured the two sequences side by side in this video. You may have to drag the slider back and forth a few times to catch what’s going on. Here’s a guide.

They both release their left hands and begin to turn.

Worley on the right turns her back away from the camera and ends in an ordinary undergrip. You know that one. Extend your arms forward, palms up and thumbs out, lay a broomstick across your palms, and grasp. It’s easy and natural.

Liukin on the left turns her back toward the camera, and ends in an eagle grip. You don’t know that one. Release one hand from the broomstick, rotate your thumb inwards and then outwards again through 180 degrees, and regrasp. Now do the same with the other hand. It’s hard and unnatural. Unless you have extremely flexible forearms and shoulders, you won’t even be able to do it.

This intermediate frame shows the difference most clearly. You can see their ponytails flying in opposite directions:

When I was in high school, my coach used to take Super 8 movies of the top competitors — in that era, in men’s gymnastics, it was the Japanese — and we would analyze their performances frame by frame. It’s so cool to be able to make and share that kind of analysis on the web. If we could get Elfi and Tim to do some of that, televised gymnastics would be so much better.

By the way, Nastia Liukin’s set was one of the most fabulous bar routines that I’ve ever seen performed by a woman or a man. Not just because of that crazy eagle grip, which she uses in several places, but in every way: flow, extension, flight, timing, power, flexibility, daring, and style.

4 Comments

  1. John, my wife refuses to sit with me as I watch gymnastics. As a former competitor, International level judge and State level coach, I’m too critical of the performance and WAY too critical of the lack of commentary depth.

    You’ve got to love a female gymnast with the guts to do eagles. Just so much more technique that a straight undergrip. Of course, the bars are set much further apart these days than they used to be, so for the shorter girls, an eagle becomes very possible. I’m yet to see a girl get to eagle the way we used to do it, though – stoop through and jam so the shoulders pop to eagle from undergrip.

    BTW, you’re the only other ex-gymnast geek I know.

  2. And I should add that the jaggies on the intermediate still frame make it very difficult for me to see anything clearly, let alone the eagle grip or the ponytails–but the slo-mo video makes the difference quite clear. A much more elegant transfer of power in the eagle grip. It’s a subtlety that becomes glaringly obvious to me after a couple of viewings.

    Great broomstick explanation as well. Easily imagined and enacted.

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