Saturday, August 13, 2016

Wendy Bruce | Finding Happiness

Wendy Bruce is no stranger to pressure. As a member of the 1989 World Championship team and the 1992 Olympic team, Wendy knows all to well what it's like to compete on the world's largest stage. Today, she shares her experiences with athletes as a mental toughness trainer and coach--a role that has brought her peace and happiness in her life after gymnastics. We caught up with Wendy to talk about her Olympic experience as well as her job as a motivational speaker and mental coach!

How did you get started in gymnastics? 
I started at a local club in Fort Lauderdale. Back then it was more about flipping and having fun. I didn't have any particular inspirations, just the girls in the gym, I always looked up to my older teammates. 

You were a member of the 1989 World Championship team, your first major international assignment, what was that experience like for you? 
I don't remember anything about the competition. I remember rooming with Chelle Stack, meeting the Canadian Team, wearing make-up for the first time, listening to Martin Gore, and bonding with my teammates. I remember the coaches cooking for us, because the cook wasn't there and we needed food. 

At what point in your career did the Olympics seem like a real possibility to you? 
I always had it as my dream. I would always answer everyone's questions of "are you going to the Olympics?" with a yes. I don't know if I was stupid or ridiculously smart, but that was just my plan as a kid. I didn't think about it everyday, I just knew that I was training to be better everyday. 

Can you talk a little bit about the selection process for the 1992 Olympic team? A lot of people believed the process was a bit unfair. [Note: Kim Kelly was named to the team after trials, and then taken off at a later camp in favor of a gymnast who didn't compete at the Trials.]

When I think back, I don't remember if I truly understood that the "camp" was a new selection process. I thought that it was for Michelle [Campi] and Betty [Okino] to show they were healthy enough to earn a spot. I thought it was between them, and one of them would make it. My coaches didn't tell me much about things. I knew I had to look good and hit, but I don't think I was ever worried about not making it. I am not sure if everyone was told exactly what the deal was, I just know that it was shocking that Kim Kelly was the one left behind. I didn't think her spot was in danger, I truly thought it was between Michelle and Betty. I thought everyone looked amazing at the selection camp, I just don't know if I truly understood that we all went in with a clean slate. After the camp, I realized it. 

I think the worst thing about the selection procedure was that I never saw Kim again after that day. We didn't know what was going on with all the media, we were kept pretty isolated. I know that it still haunts Kim every four years, but I wish she knew how much we love her. We were all kids, and just wanted to go to the Olympics. I do think our team did it's job and in the end, everything worked out. 

The team went on to win the bronze medal at the Olympics, were you satisfied with that result?
I was. I had no expectations on what I thought we we were going to do. I just wanted to hit my routines. It was different back then, we were six girls from four gyms, we were strangers competing together for the first time. I only really focused on myself. We only competed together one day as a team and then everyone split apart again. Me and my coaches and family were beyond excited, we couldn't have asked for anything more.  

What was the comradery like with the team? Nowadays, the girls have camps and the internet to keep in touch. Are you friends with any of your teammates today? 
We are now. I didn't know the girls on my team. I spent a month with them, but it wasn't a fun time. We trained, ate, and slept. The tour was strange too, I felt like a background dancer to the star. We left the tour with hugs and then we never really talked again. 

I didn't get back into gymnastics until 2009. My business partner David Benzel, Growing Champions for Life, and I started speaking at gyms across Florida. We talked about what parents, coaches, and athletes can do to compete with confidence. We started speaking at USA congress and it was the first time I had really met everyone again. It was wonderful. I had felt so isolated, unwanted, and obsolete in the world of gymnastics. Being back into the mix felt good, like I was at home, but not as a gymnast, but as a family member. I was able to meet all the coaches and competitors from back in the 1992 era. We told stories and it was great to have new relationships with everyone. I only really met Betty and Kim in November of 2015. Betty and I were at the Ranch for a Brevet course and Kim was there with Ragan [Smith]. We all connected like we were long lost sisters. The internet and the ranch is so important for the girls. They have very deep, meaningful relationships with their teammates, we literally had to send a letter by mail or call them on the phone to find out what they were up to. There was such a feeling of disconnect. When USAG brought us all together for trials, I was so happy. They gave us an opportunity to make these teammates our friends. I finally met Dom [Dawes], her kids and her husband. It was so important for me to know that they liked me. I know that is what the girls feel these days, they do love each other and respect their gymnastics. But us old timers never really knew our teammates. 

What was the atmosphere like at the games? Looking back, what are some of your favorite memories?
It was intense. We trained everyday, two times a day for a month. I wasn't used to that type of training and I was exhausted. We didn't get to experience the village much, we were super focused on training. After the team final, I didn't make any more finals, so then I walked around, went to some parties and enjoyed Spain. 

What was life after the Olympics like for you? 
Life after was not what I thought it was going to be. I had trained my entire life for this one moment, and then when I got it, I was lost. Now what? I was standing on top on my mountain looking out on my career and marveled in my accomplishments and then when it was time to move forward, I had no idea how to get down. I had no help, no directions, no plan. I didn't know what I wanted to do, who I was, or even what I was capable of. I knew I was a gymnast and won a medal, but didn't know that my medal wasn't going to provide me with any of my answers. I was lost, depressed, and bitter for a long time. 

Did you have any regrets? 
No regrets, not one. I tried to make a comeback in 94, mostly because I was lost and the only thing that I knew was gymnastics. So I went back to my old life. I thought the answer was trying to win a gold medal this time. Maybe the gold would have the answers. But after about 6 months, I realized that I didn't want to do gymnastics anymore, but I didn't know how to live without it. 

Was college gymnastics ever something you considered?
I took money for training so I lost my eligibility. I also was so focused solely on gymnastics that I didn't take my ACT or SAT. I always looked at college gymnastics as a sisterhood that I never got to experience. I went back to college 10 years ago and had to start with remedial classes. I just finally graduated with my degree in Psychology in 2013.

As an athlete that once made the decision to turn professional, what are your thoughts on young gymnasts having to make such a big decision before they are fully able to grasp the pros and cons of it? Also, what advice would you give to a gymnast who is trying to make this decision? 
I don't think it's about gymnastics success per se but more about using gymnastics as a platform. It's should be more than making money off of sponsors or the tour because that won't last too long. All my post gymnastics life, no one was asking for me to represent their companies. After the tour I never made money for appearances again. I do think it is important to know if the gymnast is marketable beyond those two years after the Olympics and each gymnast must weigh the odds. If the gymnast is looking to only make money on immediate sponsorships and the tour, then it might be better off for them to opt out of going professional and decide to go to college instead. How much money is college and how much will you make from sponsors and the tour?  Unless you're Simone [Biles] and well, making much much more. 

Let's take Laurie [Hernandez]. I do think she is different. She has spice and sass. She can be marketable because she is Laurie. People know her because of the Olympics, but she may be able to continue to gain popularity because of new things, like DWTS. I can see her doing commercials with those eyes. She has that it factor as well as an Olympic gold medal. She is outgoing and someone who might have been a star no matter what. I see Laurie as a Disney star. I am introverted and not so much the DWTS type of person. I get it, I'm not that marketable for ads and no one knows me, and college may have been a better option for me. Now I use my Olympic status to work with other athletes. They know I reached the ultimate dream and I know what is like every step of the way. I don't think it's that cut and dry. I think each athlete needs to make their own decisions on going pro.

How did you get into mental coaching and motivational speaking?
Mental coaching is the most rewarding thing in my life. I love my husband, Trucky, and my kids Cameron and Sammie, but helping athletes believe and love themselves is internally rewarding in a way I didn't know I needed in my life. Talk about my purpose in life...this is it. I wasn't the perfect gymnast, I had fears and doubts, yet wanted to make the Olympics. I had this constant battle going on in my head of what I wanted and what I truly believed I was capable of. I knew my goal was to be an Olympian, but did I really believe I was capable of it? My thoughts weren't the most empowering for an athlete, but I didn't know that back then. I didn't know that my thoughts were the wrong thoughts for an Olympic hopeful. I only learned about the mental side of sports after the Olympics when I went to see a Mental Trainer when I was trying to make my comeback in 94. From that day, I knew I wanted to work with athletes on the mental side.  

What is the biggest piece of advice that you like to share with young athletes?
The results will never bring you happiness, happiness comes from the process and the journey. Do gymnastics because you love to fly and flip, or because you love to challenge yourself and push yourself past your limits. Don't do gymnastics because you think that you will find happiness in success. Making the Olympics and winning a bronze didn't make me successful. I am successful because I learned how to overcome my fears, push myself past what I thought I was capable of, and learned how to make mistakes and move on. I learned how to be successful because of gymnastics and learned how to push, fight, work hard, and reach my dreams. My medal is only a physical representation of my work. Who I am is what that work created.

Appreciate the journey each of us are on, some of us will go to college, nationals, worlds, and the Olympics, but that does not mean that those who don't go are worthless, unworthy, or beneath anyone else. Know who you are and that no matter what the outcome, it is only one chapter of your story. The rest of the story is about the struggle, the work, the pain, tears, accomplishments, and successes along the way, and those are the chapters that are exciting. Gymnastics is what we do, not who we are. We chose gymnastics because we thrive on excellence. That is what makes us great. Use those tools in your life, chose excellence and strive for it everyday.

Have you been following the Olympics? What are some of your thoughts from the competitions?
I LOVED the men's energy and fight during the team finals. I could feel their passion. The women are phenomenal. I have mad respect for them and their coaches. It isn't easy to chose the elite life these days, but the athlete/coach team seem to keep everything in check. It will be interesting to see life after Marta. I know she was a calculated director, but I think she will be a warm hearted and loving now that she won't be in charge. Ya know like a strict mom, but when that mom becomes a grandma, she lets the grandkids eat cookies, stay up late, and not make their beds. I think that will be Marta. 

Want more? Wendy has a lot of interesting and insightful stories on her website. Click here to check it out!

Monday, August 8, 2016

2016 Olympics | Highlights from Women's Qualification

The United States Dominance 
The United States come into these Olympics as the favorites to win gold. During the fourth subdivision of Qualifications, they showed the world exactly why they are the favorites. For the first time in Olympic history, the US team not only qualified at least one girl to every final, but they did so in a dominating fashion-- taking the top spot on each event. To nobody's surprise, the US heads into team finals as the number one team, finishing a whopping 10 points ahead of the second place qualifier, China. For the all-around competition, the 3-time reigning World Champion Simone Biles will look to officially sweep the quadrennium with the one thing she's missing--the all-around Olympic gold. Aly Raisman, who finished fourth in 2012, will try to gain redemption and secure her first all-around medal on the World or Olympic stage. The vault final is the only final that the USA only qualified one athlete (simply because no other athlete competes two vaults on the team.) That athlete is Simone Biles. Simone does two very difficult vaults and if she competes how she normally does, she will easily get a medal and likely gold. On bars, it will be the reigning uneven bar World Champion, Madison Kocian and the reigning Olympic all-around Champion, Gabby Douglas. Madison qualified into the bar final in first place with 15.866 and Gabby qualified in third with a 15.766. It will be a tough competition, but it's very possible for the US to secure another medal here as long as they hit. On beam, it will be Simone Biles, who qualified in the top spot once again with a 15.633 and Laurie Hernandez, the youngest member of the team, who qualified in second with a 15.366 after delivering a rock solid performance. The last final will be the floor final which features the reigning World Champion on that event with Biles and the reigning Olympic Champion on that event with Raisman. Biles topped the field with a 15.733 and Raisman was right behind her with a 15.275. With so many medal possibilities on the horizon, Rio is shaping up to be the USA's most successful Olympics ever in history.

Flavia Saravia and the Brazilian team  
The reaction from the home crowd was much anticipated heading into these Games and during Qualifications we witnessed it first hand. The energy in the arena was like no other when the Brazilian women took to the floor in subdivision 3. It's unusual to see a gymnastics crowd so rowdy... up on their feet and cheering loud, even when there was mistakes. As expected, the crowd really loved their hometown girl Flavia Saravia, who lives within walking distance to the arena. She won over the crowd with her fun floor routine and exceptional beam work. Saravia qualified into the beam finals in third with a score of 15.133. The draw for event finals has her going last, which will be an exciting way to wrap up that final. The Brazilian crowd will have plenty more opportunities to cheer on their team; Brazil qualified to the team finals in fifth, Rebecca Andrade and Flavia will compete in the all-around final (Andrade qualified in 3rd) and of course they will get the pleasure of watching Flavia on beam in the beam final.

Tutya Yilmaz Almost Making Beam Finals
A new fan favorite following Qualifications is Turkey's Tutya Yilmaz. She gained a lot of respect from the gymternet after nailing a rather difficult beam routine (6.3 start value) for a score of 14.500! Her score withheld all the way until the last subdivision where she was eventually knocked down to 11th place, just two spots shy of making the final. In a sport that is typically dominated by the same countries time and time again, it's nice to sometimes see contenders from countries that don't have top gymnastics programs. It's also nice to see athletes hitting their routines when it matters most. I mean, how cool is it to have your best beam routine at the Olympic Games? Fun fact: Tutya is only the second female gymnast to represent Turkey at an Olympic Games!

Eythora Thorsdottir Defines Artistic Gymnastics
Although she fell during her floor routine in Qualifications, Eythora still displayed a truly beautiful and captivating routine complete with stunning turn sequences and dramatic facial expressions to match her dance. Fans will get to enjoy Thorsdottir's floor routine two more times these Olympics as she is qualified to the team final with the Netherlands team and the all-around final.

Ellie Downie's Perseverance
Despite having a scary fall that resulted in having to walk away without completing her floor routine, Ellie returned to the floor for the final event of the night to help the British team secure a spot in the team final. Right after the fall, in which Downie landed on her neck, worry filled the arena and the minds of viewers at home as Ellie was taken off the competition floor. However, Ellie informed the coaches that she was fine and came back strong like the fighter she is to compete not just one vault, but two, with the hopes of qualifying to event finals. Her courageous performance qualified her to the all-around final and helped Great Britain qualify to the team final as well.

Oksana Chusovitina. Period. 
From the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the 41 year old Oksana Chusovitina hasn't slowed down. It's crazy to think that many of the gymnasts competing in Rio weren't even alive when Oksana was competing in her first Olympics. Now she is on her record breaking seventh Olympics and still keeping up with her competitors, some of which are the age of her son. After her performance in Qualifications, Oksana has qualified to the vault final with the hopes of winning her third Olympic medal. (She won gold in 1992 and silver in 2008) She played it safe in Qualifications to secure her spot in the final, but Oksana is capable of competing one of the most difficult vaults in the sport of gymnastics-- a front handspring double front. If she successfully completes that vault, Oksana could find herself on the medal podium.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Five Potential Breakout Stars of the 2016 Olympics

With the 2016 Olympic Games less than a week away, all eyes are on the stars of USA Gymnastics; mainly Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, and Gabby Douglas. These ladies are household names, appearing on every cereal box, commercial, and magazine cover you could imagine! You don't have to be a gymnastics fan to understand the hype that is surrounding these athletes.

But what about some of the other gymnasts who might be flying under the radar? With a lot of top gymnasts claiming most of the attention from media, it's easy to forget about some of the other truly talented gymnasts we will have the pleasure of watching in the coming weeks. While it is expected that Simone Biles will sweep up most of the gold medals at these Olympics baring anything serious, there are plenty of athletes still in contention for the remaining medals. Here are five athletes who we think have the potential to burst onto the scene and steal some medals...and maybe even your heart! 

Laurie Hernandez | USA
16 year old Laurie Hernandez may be the youngest and most inexperienced member of the US team, but that hasn't stopped her from exemplifying poise and confidence every time she steps out on the floor. This first year senior competes like a veteran! Even when she makes a mistake, Laurie has an uncanny way of covering it up and continuing with the flow of her routine, a trait that certainly helped land her a spot on this team despite the incredible depth of USA Gymnastics. A third place finish at the National Championships and a second place finish at the Olympic Trials proves that Laurie is currently one of the strongest all-arounders in the country. If Laurie is given the chance to compete all four events in qualifications at the Olympics, she could certainty advance to the all-around finals and contend for a medal. Her next best bet for a medal (outside of the team) will come on balance beam, where Laurie is without a doubt one of the best in the world. Her level of consistency day in and day out is almost unrivaled and she has the difficulty to back it up. (6.5 D score) Depending on how the competition plays out that day, Laurie could find herself on the podium! 

Flavia Saraiva | Brazil
Flavia Saraiva may be tiny, but don't let that fool you--she has a big presence out on the competition floor! The 4'4 athlete is a bundle of joy and a natural when it comes to tumbling and the presentation in her dance. Seriously, the home crowd is going to eat her up at these Games. She is the perfect combination of both power and grace and has a natural star quality about her. She has been a fan favorite in the gymternet since her international debut at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games where she placed 2nd all-around, 2nd on beam, and 1st on floor. This year at the Olympic Test Event, she helped team Brazil qualify to the Olympics with a first place finish. She also took home a gold medal on the floor and a silver medal on beam and in the all-around. Born in Rio in September of 1999, Saraiva couldn't have asked for a better Olympics to be eligible for.  Flavia is likely Brazil's best hope for a medal, as she is world class on both the balance beam and floor exercise. Solid performances in qualifications could advance Flavia to those two finals in addition to the all-around final. Regardless of whether Flavia brings home a medal or not, I'm positive she is about to become the darling of the games!

Ellie Downie | Great Britain 
17 year old Ellie Downie is ready to make a splash in her first Olympic appearance. Training alongside her older sister Becky, who is a 2008 Olympian, Ellie likely knows what to expect going into her first games as she saw it firsthand with her sister 8 years ago! However, she is no stranger to the pressure of competing on such a large stage. Ellie helped Great Britain to it's first ever team bronze medal at the 2015 World Championships and qualified to compete in two event finals--vault and floor. This year at the European Championships, she placed second with the team and second in the vault and floor finals. Ellie's explosive power allows her on those events and put up routines that rival some of the best in the world. With solid performances, Ellie definitely is in the mix to contend for a medal on either event.

Sanne Wevers | Netherlands
Sanne Wevers is perhaps one of the most unique balance beam workers of the quad. With a 16.4 D score, Sanne's best hope for an Olympic medal will come on this event. where her difficult connections and mind boggling turns leave the crowd in awe practically every time. Sanne is the 2015 National Champion on bars and beam as well as the silver medalist on beam at the 2015 World Championships. To open up the Olympic year with a bang, Sanne won the Olympic Test event with a super impressive beam set, proving that she is a force to be reckoned with on that event. As much as Sanne would love to have some individual success at these games, the main focus for her is improving her ranking with the team after coming off of an historic 8th place finish at last years World Championships! Regardless, I'm sure the fans in Rio will be speechless after her difficult and extremely beautiful beam routine.

Angelina Melnikova | Russia 
It's been a strong start to the 2016 season for 16 year old Angelina Melnikova. This first year senior is the Russian all-around national champion, as well as the balance beam and floor exercise champion. She was also a member of the first place team at the European Championships earlier this year. Melnikova had a pretty steady junior career as well, winning her fair share of all-around and individual event titles at various international competitions. The Russian team has struggled a bit this entire quad with injuries and lack luster performances at some of the bigger international assignments, however, Melnikova could be the breakout star that they are looking for! She really has no weak event, and while it's a long shot that she will bring home an individual medal from these games, the Russian team will rely on her for consistent scores to help bring home a medal in the team competition. This is Angelina's chance to step up and prove that she can be relied on and really make a name for herself.


Saturday, July 30, 2016

Riley McCusker | The Latest Rising Star From MG Elite

Only four years ago, an unknown gym was just emerging onto the elite scene. The gym was called Monmouth Gymnastics--now better known as MG Elite--from Morganville, New Jersey. In just a few short years, Maggie Haney and her assistant Victoria Levine have took that unknown gym and built an empire of some of the strongest elite gymnasts in the country; Laurie Hernandez, the gym's first elite gymnast, was the Junior National Champion in 2015 and was recently selected as a member of the 2016 Olympic Team. Former MG Elite gymnast, Ariana Agrapides became the Junior National Champion on vault during her first year of elite in 2013. Jazmyn Foberg won the Junior National Championships during her first appearance in 2014 and is also a member of the National Team.

Enter fifteen year old, Riley McCusker--MG Elite's newest elite and rising star!

John Cheng 

Riley got her start in gymnastics in a way that's different from most. At six years of age, she was actually taking swimming lessons, however she was always more interested in doing cartwheels into the pool rather than swimming. Naturally, Riley's mom signed her up for gymnastics classes instead and it's been her passion ever since.

Riley continued to grow and progress in the sport throughout the years. She looked up to 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist, Kyla Ross and idolized her for her "clean and beautiful lines." Eventually the idea of becoming an elite gymnast herself seemed within her reach. Riley also remembers watching Jazmyn Foberg and Laurie Hernandez have success in the elite ranks and knowing a gym change was necessary if she wanted to reach her full potential. "I knew that I had to make a change or my dreams would not be possible to reach," she said. "I knew that MG Elite is where I wanted to be because it's a small team environment and that is best for me." In October of 2015, Riley began training at MG Elite with the hopes of qualifying to the junior elite level, however, she knew she would have to make some sacrifices. That's why she lives with a teammate in New Jersey during the week so she can focus on her training. After practice on Saturday she heads back home to New Milford, Connecticut to spend the weekend with her family. On Monday morning, it's a two hour drive back to New Jersey in order to train with the best.

Training with the best means working alongside those girls she once looked up to-- who she now views as her second family. As members of the National Team, Laurie Hernandez and Jazmyn Foberg have been able to show Riley the ropes and help guide her through the in's and out's of elite competition. "Training along side Laurie and Jazzy in incredible because they are such great role models," she said. With their support, advice, and friendship; along with coach Maggie's guidance, Riley began to achieve the things she never imagined she would.

John Cheng 

One of those things happened in March, when Riley's biggest dream became a reality, "Qualifying to elite this season was surreal to me," she recalled. "I had been dreaming of that moment ever since I knew what elite was!" However, obtaining elite status was only the beginning.

Riley's first elite competition was down at the Karolyi Ranch for the American Classic where she finished 5th all-around and third on beam. Her performance qualified her straight to the P&G Championships, however, she would first compete at the Secret Classic to gain more consistency with some new skills and get acquainted with competing on a podium. Riley brought a very competitive level of difficulty and performed well overall. Despite a fall on beam, she still finished 9th all-around and also finished fourth on bars. Her moment to shine was still to come.

Heading into the P&G Championships, Riley only had one expectation for herself-- to do exactly what she does in the gym. As a first year elite and a first year qualifier to Championships, not many eyes were on Riley to be a medal contender, however she was representing a gym that now has a history of producing some of the top junior elite gymnasts throughout the quadrennium, so there at least some expectations from the gymternet for her to perform well.

 Riley did not disappoint, excelling over both days of competition and doing the job with confidence. With the way she attacked each event, you never would have guessed she was brand new to the scene, but Riley knew how much hard work she had put in and wanted to show that off, "It's fun to show of all your hard work and represent your team and coach." she said. At the conclusion of the meet, Riley had officially continued the success for MG Elite, finishing second on bars, beam, floor, and in the all-around. She also secured her spot on the junior national team-- the first national team since 2001 that will not be under the guidance of the legendary Martha Karolyi, who is retiring in August.

John Cheng 

After such a strong first year of elite, Riley not only surprised the gymternet with her performances, but she admits she even surprised herself, "It feels amazing to do as well as I did because I wasn't expecting any of it." Riley told us. "I never knew that I could do it, but my coach Maggie was always telling me that I could." Another perk of being an elite gymnast? The fans! "I love competing in front of fans because I love to inspire other people to follow their dreams." she said.

When Riley is not in the gym training she's just being your average teenager who loves swimming, paddle boarding, hiking, playing with her dogs, and hanging out with friends. However, her time and dedication truly lies in the gym where she trains for over thirty hours a week. With her first year of elite in the books, she is in the gym working harder than ever to prepare for next season when she becomes a senior. Her goals are to add some upgrades and compete at the World Championships, "I know that on bars I am going to add some connections for next year and get my double on vault!" Riley added. Of course she has her eyes set on bigger things in the future as well--competing at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and competing in college for the University of Florida. However, coach Maggie has other Olympic dreams she must first tend to. For the next several weeks she will be in Rio for the Olympics with Laurie Hernandez; Riley is eagerly awaiting her return, "I know I will learn so much, I can't wait until Maggie gets back from Rio!" she exclaimed.

Riley came to MG Elite inspired to reach the elite level, having seen what Maggie had done with Laurie Hernandez. Now as she watches them in Rio, she'll be dreaming of maybe, just maybe, having her own Olympic success in 2020.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Olympic Trials | What about the other five?

Last weekend we were treated to plenty of gymnastics action, however there was also plenty of amazing gymnastics that we didn't see. (Thanks, NBC!) While I get that NBC's job is to focus on the girls who are in contention for spots on the team, it would still be nice to see at least one routine from everybody, considering there were only fourteen gymnasts competing in the whole competition. The Olympic Trials are a special moment and for some gymnasts it's their time to shine. The Olympic Trials are their Olympics!

While you might not have seen these ladies competing (unless you were lucky enough to be in San Jose) they are just as talented and special as the eight girls named to the Olympic squad. (And Maggie Nichols, of course!) So here's some recognition to the five girls you didn't see! (Shout out to @jovialjacki for recording some of the routines!) Also thank you to Christina, Emily, Amelia, and Rachel for contributing to the article!

Christina Desiderio 
John Cheng 
  • 1st year senior 
  • Won bronze on floor at the 2016 Secret Classic 
  • Has a 16.0 start value on floor 
  • 1 of 5 US women (senior) to compete a double double on floor
  • Committed to LSU (2018-2019)

"I was extremely honored to participate in such a prestigious event, the Olympic Trials! At first I thought I was going to feel overwhelmed, but surprisingly I was not as nervous as I thought I would be. The highlight of the meet for me was making my bar routine on both days. I also enjoyed bonding more with the girls-- we had so much fun! Competing in front of 19,000 people was amazing! I plan to stay elite and hopefully get lots of international assignments and maybe even make the 2017 Worlds team before I leave for college." 

Emily Schild 
John Cheng
  • Won bronze on vault at the 2013 Secret Classic 
  • Member of the gold medal winning team at the Pan American Games in 2015
  • Placed 1st with the team, 3rd on vault, and 7th all-around at the 2016 Jesolo Trophy 
  • Has a 16.4 start value on bars
  • Committed to the University of Georgia (2017-2018)

"Competing at Trials was truly amazing. It's always such an honor to wear USA on your back knowing that you are among the very best gymnasts in the USA. The highlight for me was the crowd. They had such an amazing energy! Knowing that at the end of the night we'd have an Olympic team chosen added to the excitement! As for the future, I will continue competing elite until I leave for Georgia!" 

Amelia Hundley 
John Cheng 
  • Member of the US National Team for 5 years
  • Became the junior National Champion on her "weakest" event (bars) in 2013
  • Team gold, floor silver, and bronze on bars at the 2015 Pan American Games 
  • 3rd all-around at the 2016 Stuttgart World Cup 
  • Signed with the University of Florida (2016-2017)

"It was just the most amazing experience and it makes all the hard times and sacrifices worth it. One of the highlights of the week was on the first night walking out for introduction and they announce your name with 19,000 people screaming in that huge arena! I am now very excited to start school at the University of Florida and have a great and fun college experience." 

Rachel Gowey
John Cheng 

"Competing at Olympic Trials was an experience I will never forget. With all the injuries I have faced in the past couple of years, I would have never pictured myself getting this far. It was the most fun I've ever had competing, especially with a close group of girls and cheering everybody on! A highlight of the competition would definitely be improving all of my routines day 2 and giving it my all. My beam routine on day 2 was probably my best beam routine that I have ever competed and I was just so grateful to have this experience. My future plans are to attend the University of Florida this coming fall and be on the gymnastics team. I am so beyond excited to start this chapter in my life!" 

  • Won bronze on beam at the 2014 Secret Classic 
  • Won 2 gold medals at the 2015 Pan American Games--team and uneven bars!
  • 2nd all-around at the 2016 Secret Classic 
  • One of very few gymnasts who have competed a 3.5 twist on floor
  • Signed with the University of Florida (2016-2017)

Brenna Dowell 
John Cheng 
  • Member of the US National Team for six years 
  • Has a skill named after her in the code of points (front handspring-double pike) 
  • 2nd all-around at the 2014 American Cup
  • Member of the 2015 World Championships gold medal winning team.
  • Gold with the team and silver on floor at the 2016 Pacific Rim
  • Competed as a freshman at the University of Oklahoma in 2015. Will return to the team this season!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Polina Shchennikova | Ready For The Next Chapter

For Polina Shchennikova, a future in gymnastics was practically a given from the moment she was born. Her parents, former Soviet gymnasts Katia and Alex Shchennikova, moved to the United States from Moscow, Russia a year after Polina was born to accept a coaching job. The rest, as they say, is history.

Polina was always in the gym with her parents and eventually started taking classes herself at the age of four. One of her earliest memories in the sport is learning a new skill with her mother. "It was only me and my mom in the gym and she was teaching me how to do a kip," Polina recalled. "After many failed attempts and my mom's motivational words, I made it. I was so happy!" Polina's parents moved from gym to gym looking for the right fit--and with them they brought their talented daughter. They needed a gym where she could continue to progress and achieve her goal of becoming an elite gymnast.

Polina with her mother and coach Katia
After many years of hard-work and dedication, Polina's dream became a reality, qualifying to junior elite in 2010 at the age of twelve. At her first major elite competition, the Covergirl Classic, mistakes cost her the chance to qualify through to the Visa Championships. However, in 2011 she came back much stronger placing 3rd all-around at the American Classic and 15th on bars at the Visa Championships. It was at this time that many gymnastics fans first took notice of Polina and her beautiful gymnastics. The comparisons to her idol, Nastia Liukin began to roll in, but understandably so. Both gymnasts were Russian born and American raised, they trained under their parents, and showed extreme flexibility and poise in their gymnastics; so the comparison was only fitting!

While Polina's elegance comes natural, the dance component of the sport is something she holds to a high regard. "I have loved to dance my entire life! Although I've never had any formal dance training, any chance I got-- I would dance. I would have random "dance parties" in my room, in the shower, and during practice. I even tried out for the Nutcracker when I was very little." she said.


2012 was a breakout year for Polina, she placed 2nd all-around at the coveted Nastia Liukin Cup and 2nd on uneven bars at the Secret Classic. She also placed 10th all-around at the Visa Championships, improving her ranking from the previous year by nearly 10 spots! However, the year did not pass without it's share of trials and tribulations. Coming off the 2011 competition season, Polina noticed a lot of pain in her right heel but didn't want to rest it--in fear that she would miss the necessary preparation for the upcoming season. "Right before 2012 Secret Classics, I decided to go to the doctor to see what was going on," Polina explained. "I found out that I had shattered the back of my heel near the Achilles and cracked the bottom of my heel. They asked me if I still wanted to compete. I had gotten so far, I didn't want to quit, so I pushed through the pain."

The following year proved to be an even stronger year for Polina. At the Secret Classic she placed 3rd on her best event--the uneven bars and 8th all-around. She replicated those results a few weeks later at the 2013 P&G Championships and found herself among the top 8 girls--securing a spot on the junior national team. One of Polina's biggest goals in gymnastics was to make the national team and when she looks back on it now, it has provided her with some of her fondest memories in the sport. One memory that stands out the most was from a national team camp in November of 2013, when she attempted to verify a yurchenko double after always being advised to only show a yurchenko full each camp. "I really wanted to prove that I could do more. When it was my turn to verify, I showed my yurchenko double and landed a little short," Polina recalls. "I did two more after that and over rotated both of them! After practice, we all lined up and Martha began to talk about vault verification. In the middle of her speech, she looked at me and announced to the whole group that I had shown a really good double full. I was extremely proud of myself when Martha told the whole gym that I didn't give up and kept pushing through!"

Martha praises Polina on her 3rd place finish in the all around at camp

2014 was a tough year for Polina as she had to sit out of the entire competitive season to rest two compression fractures in her back. However, one of the highlights of that time was getting to watch and enjoy her younger sister, Alyona on the elite stage. "I could not be more proud of how far she has come. She was very, very wild when she was younger, but as the years went by, she has become more focused," Polina told us. "She would watch me train and tell me she wanted to be like me and then she would go and train harder than before. I believe she has the ability to go very far in her elite career."

The injury also gave Polina plenty of time to explore her collegiate options. In 2015, she announced her verbal commitment to the University of Michigan, a decision that was actually influenced by Alyona, who announced her commitment a few months later. "She actually wanted to go to the University of Michigan before I decided where I wanted to go," Polina explained.

 At Michigan, Polina and Alyona will get the opportunity to compete side by side for the first time in their career. "I will be finishing up my last year while she will be starting her first. By that time, I will know the campus, the best stores, and restaurants, and competing with her will be the ultimate prize for me. We have wanted to compete with each other since she started elite, so it will definitely be a unique experience for both of us!" she mused.

Alyona and Polina 
Polina returned for what would be her final elite season in 2015. At the Secret Classic and P&G Championships she only competed on bars, but an injury forced her to withdrawal from the second day of P&G's. After dealing with nagging injuries throughout the course of her career, Polina decided to take some time off to recover her body from all the years of intense training.

For the past two years, Polina's shoulder had constantly been dislocating, making it hard for her to train at a high level and ultimately sidelining her from competition for a full year. On May 6, 2016, Polina had surgery to repair a torn labrum. Although her elite career was now over, Polina knew her college career was just getting started.

It was time to turn the page and focus on setting new goals as a member of the Michigan Wolverines Gymnastics team. Polina is still on the road to recovery, but hopes to compete this season. "The surgeon said it would be a four to six month recovery, she told us. "I recently started physical therapy and I hope to be back on the shorter end of the estimated time." Polina will be working hard to contribute to the team on as many events as she can this season. "Competing all-around would be a privilege," she said. "I believe that I can get back my bars and beam. I had also been working a new vault before my surgery, which will help me a lot. My flexibility is still very good, so I can do more leaps and turns on floor. I am motivated to get back into the gym!"

Polina is staying positive post surgery!
One of the biggest motivations for Polina to stay positive through all the tough times was her commitment to Michigan. "I believe that everything happens for a reason. A lot has happened but because of it, I have become a more motivated person," she explains. "I am here at the University of Michigan and I have set my mind to look at all the good things this school has to offer me and my future." Polina is going into business, which is one of many reasons why she chose the University of Michigan. "Bev, Scott, and Dave have supported me through everything I have been through. I feel like the University of Michigan community is a safe, protective, and caring one. The ultimate goal for everyone here is to succeed and everyone works together for that to happen." she added.

With the support of her parents, sisters, and now her new family at the University of Michigan, Polina knows the sky is the limit. She attributes much of where she is today to her parents for guiding her throughout her career. "I have spent my entire life training under my parents. They have inspired me, motivated me, and molded me into the person I am today," she said. "They were able to help me reach my potential because they knew what work was needed to help me reach my goals."

A family effort it was indeed, and now the oldest Shchennikova child is off to start a new chapter in her gymnastics career at the University of Michigan!

Polina with her parents/coaches Katia and Alex and her younger sister Aloyna (junior elite) and Kristina (Level 8)

Thursday, July 7, 2016

2016 Olympic Trials | Rewind: Where were they 4 years ago?

With the Olympics a little under a month away, the field of contenders vying for a spot on the Olympic Team has been narrowed down to fourteen. It's interesting to look at the athletes who are in contention and see how far they've come in the last 4 years. A lot can change in that amount of time...and this time 4 years ago everything was different. Below is the roster for the 2016 Olympic Trials and a look back on where these athletes were in 2012!

Simone Biles (Bannon's/WCC)

Four years ago, Simone Biles was still human, yet she was on the way to becoming something great and gym fans around the world could just sense it. In only her second year of elite competition, Simone competed her amanar vault for the first time at the Secret Classic, scoring a huge 16.050 after nailing the landing. (The first of many times she would go on to do that!) She won the competition and went on to place third all-around at the Visa Championships--becoming a member of the junior national team. Biles became the 2012 Junior National Champion on vault while also placing sixth on bars, beam, and floor. The following year Biles would turn senior and start her path down becoming the most dominate gymnast the world has ever seen! 

Christina Desiderio (Parkettes)

In 2012, Desiderio began her first season as a level 10. She wasn't a standout competitor, but she showed a lot of potential and promise right from the beginning. She placed 2nd all-around at the State Championships in addition to winning three individual titles. At Regionals she finished 6th all-around and won first on vault and beam. She qualified to JO Nationals and placed 54th in the Junior A division and fifth on beam. The following year Christina started the season as a level 10 and then began her journey down the elite path in the summer. 

Gabby Douglas (Chows/Buckeye)

4 years ago, Gabby Douglas was having the best year of her life. It all started at the American Cup where she wasn't technically a competitor, but she competed as an exhibitionist and unofficially won the competition over Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman.  As a member of the Pacific Rim team, she helped Team USA win the gold medal as well as taking home an individual gold on bars. A few months later she placed 2nd all-around at the Visa Championships and 1st on bars.  As the top bar worker currently in the United States, she was nicknamed the "Flying Squirrel" by National Team Coordinator, Martha Karolyi because of her sky high releases. At the 2012 Olympic Trials, Gabby edged out Jordyn Wieber for first place, securing the only guaranteed spot on the Olympic team. At the Olympic Games, Gabby won two golds, one with the team and of course the individual all-all-around. The rest, as they say, is history! 

Brenna Dowell (GAGE)

4 years ago, Brenna found herself embarking down the same path she is today; not quite in the hunt to vie for a spot on that Olympic Team, but looking very good for potentially securing an alternate position. As a first year senior, Brenna started her 2012 season in Jesolo where she finished 7th all-around, second on bars, and eighth on vault. On the floor she debuted her signature skill--front handspring piked double front (which would go on to become the Dowell in the code of points a few years later.) At the Visa Championships she finished 9th all-around and was invited to the Olympic Trials. At Trials she finished 9th all-around once again and although she was not named to the Olympic team, she was selected to compete at the Mexican Open later in the year. This was Brenna's time to shine, winning the all-around title as well as vault, bars, and floor! This was the first individual title (and only to date) that Brenna has won in her elite career. 

Rachel Gowey (Chows)

2012 was Rachel's first and only year as a level 10 and it was a very dominate year for her. Rachel won the all-around and all the event titles at nearly every invitational she competed in. Towards the end of her season she once again swept the all-around and every event title at the State Championships. A few weeks later at Regionals she won beam, floor, and the all-around title. Rachel concluded her season at the JO National Championships, finish second all-around and first on beam. After such a strong season as a level 10, it was no surprise that Rachel moved into the senior elite ranks the following year. 

Laurie Hernandez (MG Elite)

Laurie's spunky routines and upbeat personality easily caught everyone's attention during her first year of elite in 2012. Back then, Laurie wasn't the most polished or consistent competitor, but she quickly became a fan favorite amongst the gymternet. After finishing 11th all-around at the Secret Classic (with a fall), Laurie qualified to her first Championships where she finished 21st all-around. For Laurie Hernandez, this was only the beginning. Ironically, Laurie celebrated her 12th birthday at those Championships which was the exact same arena that she stole the show in just a few weeks ago at her first senior Championships.

Amelia Hundley (CGA)

Amelia Hundley was another fan favorite picked by the gymternet early on in her career. 2012 marked her 3rd year at the elite level and was perhaps one of her most successful elite seasons. Hundley's season began at the Pacific Rim where she was one of three juniors selected for the team. She contributed to the team gold as well as bringing home a silver on vault and floor. Next she competed in Jesolo where she placed 1st with the team and 3rd on vault. At the Secret Classic she got 2nd on beam and 3rd on vault, bars, and in the all-around. Amelia's season concluded at the Visa Championships where she got 3rd on bars, 4th on beam, 5th on vault, and 6th all-around. As a junior, Hundley was always known for her powerful gymnastics and great presentation on floor. 

Madison Kocian (WOGA)

2012 was a very quiet year for Kocian and at the time, many people were questioning her future as an elite gymnast. After sitting out for most of the 2011 season, Madison only competed at one meet in 2012, the WOGA Classic, winning a silver medal in the all-around and placing first on bars. Madison sat out the rest of the season due to a minor injury but was back with full force in 2013. 

Ashton Locklear (Everest)

In her 3rd year as a level 10, Ashton competed in several small level 10 competitions while working towards qualifying elite. In 2012, Ashton still competed on all four events, winning the all-around and floor title at her gyms annual meet--the Everest Classic, and also finishing 2nd all-around at the Atlantic Crown Invitational. At the level 10 session of the WOGA Classic she placed 5th all-around and first on bars and floor. She also attempted to qualify elite at this competition but was unsuccessful. Ashton concluded her 2012 season with a first place finish at Regionals on her key event--the uneven bars. 

Maggie Nichols (TCT)

After playing around with both elite and level 10 from 2009-2011, Maggie shifted her complete and total focus to just elite in 2012. At the American Classic she placed 2nd on beam and 3rd on vault and in the all-around. Her performance was good enough to qualify her straight to the Visa Championships! Like many gymnasts do, she used the Secret Classic as a warmup to prepare for her first Visa Championships, Her best finish came on vault where she finished 7th.  At the Visa Championships Maggie had a solid performance placing 11th all-around, 10th on vault, 14th on bars, 10th on beam and 11th on floor. This set Maggie up for greater things to come within the next few years. 

Aly Raisman (Brestyans) 

From a first time Olympian to a veteran on the World stage, two things have always remained the same for Aly Raisman--she's dependable and a leader. 4 years ago, Aly had perhaps the best year in her gymnastics career. Finishing 2nd all-around at the American Cup and 2nd once again a few weeks later at the Jesolo Trophy. She kicked off her summer by winning the all-around title at the Secret Classic and finishing third all-around at the Visa Championships a few weeks later. Aly also became the national champion on her two best events, beam and floor. At the Olympic Trials she repeated that performance, finishing 3rd all-around and winning beam and floor once again. As a member of the Olympic Team, Raisman became the most decorated US female gymnast of the games, winning two golds (team and floor) and a bronze on beam. 

Emily Schild (Everest) 

In her first year as a level 10, Emily had a very consistent year, finishing 8th all-around, 3rd on vault, and 2nd on floor at the State Championships. At Regionals she finished 8th all-around and 3rd on beam. A few weeks later at JO Nationals, she placed 9th on vault and in the all-around. Emily attempted to qualify elite at the WOGA Classic but fell short by several points. However she did place 2nd on vault with a clean yurchenko full! 

Mykayla Skinner (Dessert Lights)

4 years ago, Mykayla Skinner was still wowing the crowd with her difficult skills, however she lacked the consistency and experience to really be in the conversation for London. In her first year as a senior, Mykayla was a member of the gold medal winning team in Jesolo and also finished 10th all-around, 5th on vault, and 4th on floor. At the Visa Championships she placed 15th all-around and 3rd on vault. Ultimately, Mykayla did not qualify to Olympic Trials but came back in 2013 with more difficulty and motivation! 

Ragan Smith (Northwind/Texas Dreams)

In 2012, Ragan began her first and only season as a level 10, however she also competed in several elite qualifiers, eventually qualifying herself as a pre-elite. At the State Championships she placed 4th all-around, 4th on vault, 3rd on bars, 9th on beam, and 5th on floor. She became the Regional Champion on floor as well as placing 4th on vault, 3rd on beam, and 6th all-around. At the JO National Championships, Ragan didn't have her best performance, only cracking into the top 20 on one event which was floor where she was 17th. However, she finished the season on a strong note, finishing 2nd all-around and 1st on floor at the US Challenge. The perfect way to kick off her elite career that would begin in 2013.