valeri liukin

Oh, Becca.

At last year’s Visa’s, I stopped to chat with Valorie Kondos-Field, head coach at UCLA. She said that although she respects Valeri Liukin and the adversity he’s been through as a coach and a father (I must say that NCAA coaches WAY overuse the word adversity) she does not coach like Valeri, and she does not want to.

Awhile ago I wrote an essay, Who’s The Boss Of Rebecca Bross? in which I discussed Becca’s decision to compete at Worlds on a broken bone. More importantly, her parents, her coaches and Marta Karoyli’s decision to let her.

After the competition last year, I interviewed Becca. She was nice and quiet and shy and seemed utterly…well. She was not disenchanted with gymnastics, exactly, but she did not seem quite as engaged as some of the other girls did. And this year, watching her at Visa’s, I could see very clearly that she was not up to snuff. She looked tired and out of it and sad.

These three things flashed through my head as I watched Becca land badly on her DTY on the second day of Visa National Championships and do something to her knee. Watching Becca crumple to the floor howling in pain and clutching her knee was just stunning. Especially for such a tough cookie. As someone with a high pain threshold, who did nothing but wince when I was landed badly on a simple front tuck and snapped a bone, I cannot imagine how much pain she must have been in to react as strongly as she did. And I think there was more to it than pain. It seemed to me that Becca’s howl had at least as much to do with her anger and frustration and grief as it did with the physical pain.

I can see that going by results alone, Valeri Liukin is a good coach. Hard to argue with Nastia’s success. But I have now lost all respect for him, Obviously, freak injuries occur. This was not a freak injury. Anyone looking at Becca’s demeanor during the competition, at her uncharacteristic falls and mistakes, at her sadness, at the increasing number of injuries that have plagued her, could have guessed that something like this would happen. Obviously, Marta should have told Becca not to throw too much difficulty. Even more obviously, her parents should have stepped in long ago. And yes, Becca is 18 now, and she needs to start taking responsibility for her gymnastics. But Valeri is her coach. The ultimate responsibility lies with him. Even his reaction to her injury was telling: going up to her and saying “shh?” I mean, wtf is that?

I wonder if Valeri is rougher on Becca than he was on Nastia. I would think that he might be mentally tougher on Nastia but physically r tougher on Becca, if that makes sense.

Let’s contrast this to Chellsie Memmel. According to the Terrible Trip, Andy Memmel said that he was not going to push Chellsie to another injury, that he just could not live with himself if he did. Chellsie said that was planning to train smarter, be more careful. If only Beccan had been able to follow that plan, instead of the moronic one that her coach, her parents and her organization set out for her.

I also thought that Chellise’s headshake after Becca’s fall was both knowing and rueful. Everyone looked concerned, but Chellsie’s is the reaction that has stuck with me.

I have to wonder if somewhere inside her Becca is relieved. I am sure she is angry and frustrated and sad: however if I had to guess I would guess that relief is somewhere in there. I’m not sure how much Becca wanted gymnastics glory for herself, and that is the real tragedy of this situation.



Photographs: copyright VSteck/WildPrecious Photography 2010. Visa National Championships.

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Who’s The Boss of Rebecca Bross?


According to an article on IG, Rebecca Bross recently had surgery to her ankle, which according her was a “stress reaction” pre Worlds and was a “stress fracture” by the time Worlds was over (competing AA three times–prelims, TF, and AA–will do that you!)

There’s an interesting debate going on over at WWGym about whether or not Becca should have been allowed to compete. On the one hand, Becca is 17, and as one poster at WWGym pointed out, in most arguments with their parents, 17 year olds tend to win. They are not technically adults, but they are pretty damn close. And, after all, World Championships only come along once a year. The U.S. team did have a decent chance of winning the gold–they would have had NO chance if Russia hadn’t had three falls, but then again, they would have won if Russia’d had the falls and Mattie Larson hadn’t screwed up floor. But that’s all speculation. At any rate, it’s easy to see how Becca would want to compete. Last year, she blew Worlds on her last pass on her last event: otherwise she would have blown the rest of the field out of the water, becoming the World Champion. Obviously, she was hungry for redemption. Unfortunately for her (although not for the sport as whole) this year Aliya Mustafina and the rest of the Russians were in her way! And although Becca remains one the strongest competitors the U.S. has, that doesn’t make her a lock for future Worlds and more importantly Olympic teams: Jordyn Wieber turns senior next year, as do McKayla Maroney, Sabrina Vega, Mackenzie Wofford and Gabrielle Douglas, and 2o12 will see Kyla Ross, 2 time National Junior Champ, and others hit the senior ranks–not to mention the comeback efforts of 2008 Olympic medalists Shawn Johnson (at camp now!) and Nastia Liukin (apparently training laidout Jaegar from el-grip!) Several of these girls have Amanars: Becca has a DTY with no chance of upgrading. Her beam and floor sets are basically full. Her bars could be upgraded, it’s true, but regardless, Becca is going to have to be on the top of her game for the next two years to make these teams. And she probably knows this. Her coach, Valeri Liukin, certainly does. This may have been her last chance on the world stage.

So it is easy to see why Becca would want–would demand, even–to compete. It’s easy to see why she would ignore whatever nagging pain she felt in her ankle and fight through it. Especially if it wasn’t actually broken, I can even see how she did it: I know all *I’ve* done on a broken ankle is walk on it for a week, but Bross is of course roughly 10,000,000,000 times tougher than me. And stronger. And in better shape. So there’s that.

And there are rumors that Becca’s dad is a crazy gym dad, so perhaps that has something to do with it. Not to mention the whole being coached by Valeri thing, which I think might have something to do with it.

On the other hand.

No one is denying that Becca got an x-ray before she left for Worlds. And there is no way that she competed on an injured ankle without the full knowledge of not only her coach and her parents but Marta Karolyi and USA Gymnastics as a whole. And the question then becomes: is it worth it?

For Team USA, who knows? Chelsea Davis could have been great on bars and floor, but she blew out a knee (rats!) in training. Who knows who Marta would’ve chosen instead? Kytra Hunter, probably, who would have been useful on 3 events, but again–all speculation.

AA wise, Bross did worse than last year. I actually think it was a better performance on her part–she fell last year, too, but last year she didn’t have a chance to redeem herself. This year, on the other hand, she came off the beam on her arabian and attempted a truly heroic save, and then came back to perform the best floor routine I’ve ever seen her do. That was a strong, and very cool, performance.

So she may regret it. She may, in retrospect, have been better off taking the time off to heal properly, work on her Start Values, and come back stronger, with much greater bars and possibly a few tenths here and there on floor and beam, next year. But of course it wouldn’t seem like that, at home in Texas or at the Ranch. It would feel, to Becca, like she had to keep going no matter the cost.

And of course only Becca will be able to tell us if it worth it–and I doubt she can tell us now. She’ll need to wait and see how her ankle heals. It will heal, I’m sure, enough for her to compete and attempt to make the 2011 Worlds Team and 2012 Olympic Team, and possibly the American Cup as well. And then who knows? Maybe she’ll do NCAA. Maybe her body will just collapse because she’s been pushing it so far, so fast, for so long.

This is the question–and the problem–with gymnastics, and I suppose with sports as a whole. How far is too far? Rebecca Bross, and many other gymnasts, are not yet adults. It’s one thing for, say, Alicia Sacramone to make a decision to compete injured: Alicia is 23 (nearly 24!) and has been around for awhile. She is an adult with all the responsibilities and, hopefully, knowledge that that implies. Adult athletes have earned the right to make decisions about their bodies and when they should and should not compete on injuries. Younger athletes, (Wieber, Ross, etc) decidedly have not. They are far too young, in their early teens, to be making decisions that will likely effect them for the rest of their lives. That is why they need parents and coaches: it’s among the reasons parents need to be so very careful about the coaches they select (as for crazy parents, I got nothing). But athletes like Becca are just on the verge: they are not quite adults, but neither are they children.

And so the best thing that we can do, I think, is to teach young gymnasts as they come up through the ranks the very things that we try to teach other children, especially girls, especially teenagers: to take agency and ownership over their bodies. To know when to say when. So that Becca Bross can make the right choice for herself.



Last night I had the pleasure of chatting with Chris Burdette of Texas Dreams Gymnastics. I’ve spoken to Chris in person before, at Visas last month: you can read the full story about that over at the Couch Gymnast Magazine. I was impressed with him then because he was personable and funny, and he also seemed gentle with his gymnasts. So I was quite pleased that he was willing to be interviewed, via facebook chat, for this blog.

Information about how Chris got into gymnastics is quite difficult to find. Luckily, he was willing to tell me himself. He was a “north Texas traditional sports guy,” playing soccer, football and track until, at 16, he drove over to the YMCA that had produced Jennie Thompson and gave up his other sports. As it happened, their entire team of coaches moved away after a year, and Chris started working with some of the lower level teams.

One of his coaches had worked for a summer on the Ranch and had recommended Chris for a job there. So, somewhere around ’91-92 Chris got a call from Bela Karolyi.

Let’s pause here to picture getting a call from Bela Karolyi.

Chris informed that “that’s when it got real.” I bet.

I’m also still a little stuck on getting a call from Bela.

At any rate, of course I asked Chris what the Ranch was actually like. He said that as it happens the Ranch and the Karolyis aren’t “really that controversial…just a lot of hype” and that furthermore, “there [were] always ‘rumors’ [about how things were at the Ranch] but it was NEVER as dramatic as people thought.” When he arrived, he did Bela’s grunt work: lifting and spotting conditioning. He says that, as the only one in the gym aside from coaches and kids, it was “very calm, very quiet.
Very inspirational and very technical. Not the hard-ass workouts that everyone hyped them up to be.”

Inspirational, it turns out, because at the time Kim Zmeskal, Dominique Moceanu, Svetlana BoginskayaKerri Strug, April Burkholder and Brittany Smith were training for the 96 Olympics . “Very awesome” was the phrase he used to describe the atmosphere, and although awesome doesn’t usually require a modifier, I must say that in this case I agree.

So he and Kim met at this time, only she was dating his roommate and he was dating her best friend. As Chris said, awkward. Eventually, though, both became “free agents” and finally got together. And the rest, as they say, is history.

They started Texas Dreams in 2001. Chris informed that they rarely disagree about coaching, although they disagree about everything else! He coaches bars and vault. Kim coaches beam and floor, and they split conditioning evenly.Chris will also spot floor if Kim needs him to, but interestingly, they don’t spot beam. Apparently, Kim doesn’t use spotters on beam, except very occasionally on landing a new dismount. Otherwise, they use loose foam to resi to landing mats. This makes me wonder if other gyms do the same thing or if they spot beam. Anyone know?

Good coaching, Chris says, is about the “ability to coach multiple personality types.” He says that while motivation is a big part of the job, it’s not because the girls are exhausted, which was my first guess. “Once they are in the system, it’s [workouts are] pretty normal.” Only the new girls get exhausted. Motivating comes into play more  “because they are paying more attention to other kid stuff, just goofing off, not paying attention, etc.”

He and Kim currently train 18 kids, 4 under 10 and the rest 12+. They have so many girls, he says, because they have a “solid system” that people can “believe in” and that is proven to work. They qualified eight athletes to Visas this year, although their only senior is Chelsea Davis. I asked him how he felt about how Chelsea did this year at Visas. At the time, I wrote of Davis that she

looked pretty solid, coming in fifth. Alas she fell on bars, the one event that the US is severely lacking. She made the National Team again but might be better served going straight to UGA, although later she told me that she is still trying for Worlds and isn’t sure when she will start college—but she is still excited about Georgia, despite their lackluster year.

Chris told me that he was “very happy with Chelsea’s performance… bummed about the fall on bars, but it’s all good.
It’s just great to have her back out there, [it] makes us very happy.” (Davis has been riddled with injuries for much of her career).

I tried to get him to tell me what coaches he looks up to and where he would send daughter Riven if she wanted to be an elite gymnast. He’s very grateful that the Karoylis took him under their wing, and “thrilled that Mary Lee (Tracy) took me in for three years and helped me learn so much.”

MLT is controversial herself, which I mentioned. Chris said that she is, in fact, nice–which I noticed myself, oddly. (scroll past C.B. for MLT report). She also has a “good eye for sport.”

As for Valeri, he is the “real deal,” very reputable and knowledgeable.

As for Riven, well, he doesn’t know that he could send her anywhere, and furthermore, it would depend on what type of little girl he raises. He doesn’t know who she’ll be yet, and thus, as much as he admires certain coaches and gyms, he wouldn’t commit to one for his daughter. Rats.

Obligatory question about the direction the sport is going:

” I trust that we have enough ambassadors that will keep the sport going the right direction. There is always controversial chat, but ultimately, we are part of a dynamic sport… one that changes every four years. It’s like politics… every four years, depending on which side you’re on, it’s either going to be the Savior of humanity or Armageddon.”

As for a gymnast to watch, Chris suggests you take a look at this girl, who is now 10. She trains with 2 others and they are all fantastic. It will be, he assured me, a fun race.

It always is.

Chelsea Davis of Texas Dreams, coached by Chris Burdette and Kim Zmeskal Burdette, Visas 2010.

Make It Or Break It–the absurdity!

SO! Last night was the AMAZINGNESS that was the season finale of MIOBI, and may I say, OH.MY.GOD.
The Chinese team–who don’t look anything like the Chinese team, they look like the girls from Madelin-come to visit the Rock. The coach and Sasha have a face off while grinning at the camera. I feel like that’s what would happen if MLT’s minions faced off against the WOGAettes. Can’t you see Valeri and MLT sniping at each other while making nice for the press?
Speaking of which, why is the press covering this with such intensity? Its’ not a meet sanctioned by the National Team Committee and even if it were, the press wouldn’t care *that* much.
I’m ignoring all the boy drama bullshit in this episode because I really don’t care, but the basic rundown is something like Emily decided to get back together with The Boy Who Doesn’t Sing in Public when she hears him singing in public, but then he’s gone when she gets there, boo hoo. Kaylie and Lauren make up somewhat and then Carter comes in and kisses Lauren, whoops. Anyway. back to the “gymnastics”.
So after Kaylie finally decides she’ll compete because she pulled her head out of her ass/her dad told her to, she comes back to the gym and gives the girls a Suzanne style pep talk about how they are all a family and they are leaving crap in the office and bringing passion out, whatevs. Emily and Payson are all about trust instead of fear and I guess now about passion, so Emily manages to throw her Y1.5. It’s no Nastia in AA finals Y 1.5 but at least it isn’t as horribly tucked. Somehow she gets a bronze on vault. With a 1.5? Although of course Nastia won the AA and Koko did just a FTY and got bronze at Worlds, so OK, I’ll buy it for now.
Lauren appears to have taken out her front tuck beam mount, which makes me sad because at least it was a REAL MOUNT. But she does a good job on the beam, for MIOBI, and medals. Then she twists her ankle on the dismount and mutters DAMN! when she falls down. This made me laugh, because I am nice like that. She doesn’t pull a Memmel, either, and land on it for a bars dismount. Seriously, this would’ve been waaaay more believable if her next event had been floor or vault. What the fuck kind of elite can’t just grin and bear it for one dismount? Marta would never stand for it.
So of course Sasha decides that sending Payson up on bars would be wise because she’ll inspire the other girls. Not if she falls and breaks her back again, bud. But of course she doesn’t. In a moment that actually (*gasp*) gave me VERY SMALL goosebumps she goes and throws a routine that would have looked right at home and Scam, and probably scored a 17 (bad form? American? SCORE HIGH!). But of course the other girls are all super stoked. Kaylie’s done floor and her routine is ooookkaaaayyy I suppose, but what’s with the weird ass choreo? She pulls a Hunter and dismounts with a double arabian which I agree is totally badass, but she doesn’t so much have Kytra’s spunk. Anyway, she and Lauren are for some reason up at the same time and Sasha makes them hold hands before they go and do a terrorist fist jab, which amused me. On beam, Kaylie dismounts with a triple twist that of course doesn’t actually go around three times, because her stunt double can’t handle it, and does really well. Blah blah blah.
Oh, the Chinese superstar, who looks a little older than He Kexin, does well too. Etc.
In the end the Rock girls get 5 medals, which is better than the other US team did in China. Sasha’s all WE SCHOOLED YOU! and the national team woman says it isn’t over. What, because his gymnasts actually did something? Fuck you, lady.
In adult news, Sasha still hasn’t fucked DJ Tanner, which is kinda sad, but I find her character annoying–she’s like a grown up Grace Taylor–so maybe he ought to hold off. Ma Keeler is all happy that her bay-bee can still do gymnastics. Ma Kmetko is gonna get back together with the TanMan. Kaylie’s parents…who knows?
And thus ends season one of Make It Or Break It, among the most absurd shows ever to grace the air. Of course, if this was about anything other them gymnastics my standards would indicate I could never watch it, so for all I know there is way worse stuff out there.