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.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Catching up with Ariana Agrapides

Although her elite career was short, Ariana Agrapides was instantly one of the fan favorites. During her elite career she trained at MG elite with Maggie Haney and alongside Laurie Hernandez and Jazmyn Foberg. At twelve years of age she competed elite for the first time in 2013, winning the all-around and bar title at the American Classic as well as finishing second on vault, beam, and floor. At the P&G Championships she won the vault title with two near perfectly executed yurchenko doubles. After coming off a minor injury in 2014 and not being able to train or compete full difficulty, she didn't have the strongest competition season--withdrawing from Classics and finishing 32nd in the all-around at Championships. In 2015, Ari decided to step down from elite and shift her focus to new goals--competing for her high school team and getting a college scholarship. We had a quick chat with Ariana to see what she up to today!

How did you get started in gymnastics? 
When I was little I did mommy and me classes. As I got older, I was put onto a team at a gym by my house. Some of the earliest memories I have in gymnastics are with my coach Bruce, he was the person who took me to Maggie [Haney] and I've very grateful to have had them both as coaches.

What has been the highlight of your career so far? 
Being the Junior National Champion on vault was definitely the proudest moment in my career so far. Another highlight was hitting bars both days of my second P&G Championships.

Do you still keep in touch with your former teammates Jazzy and Laurie? 
I still keep in touch with Jazzy and Laurie although I'm closer with Jazzy because I live closer to her, so I see her more often.

You competed in high school gymnastics this year, what was that experience like? 
It was a fun experience to compete with a lot of girls I use to do level 10 with. I do have to downgrade my routines for high school, but I wanted to do it so I could take part in a high school sport and just have fun!

What are your future plans in gymnastics? Do you see yourself possibly coming back to elite?
I do level 10 at Premier Gymnastics [in addition to competing in high school] and I'm interested in doing college gymnastics. It was a very hard decision to retire from elite, but I will not be returning.

I know you've had some injuries in your career, how do you stay motivated through those times? 
I've recently dealt with a foot injury but I'm back in the gym now. I try to stay motivated by going to the gym as much as I can and thinking about the positives.

Do you plan on watching the Olympics this summer? 
I do! I'm most excited to hopefully see Laurie and Jazzy competing this summer! (Note: this interview was done before Jazzy withdrew.)


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Golden Girl | 1992 Olympic Champion Tatiana Gutsu

Tatiana Gutsu is best known for her performances at the 1992 Olympics where she edged out the USA's Shannon Miller by .12 (the smallest margin in Olympic history) to win the gold medal. This came after the coaches made a controversial decision to force Tatiana's teammate, Roza Galieva to claim an injury so Gutsu could compete in the all-around final. She was also a member of the Unified Team, who won gold in their last performance together before the Soviet Union fell. In addition to her two Olympic golds, Tatiana won a silver on bars and a bronze on floor. Tatiana is also the 1992 European Champion on vault, bars, and in the all-around. There's no doubt that Tatiana Gutsu made history for her native Ukraine and will always be remembered for her difficult skills. A few years after the Games, Tatiana moved to the United States and began coaching. Now she is the owner of her own club in hopes of making more dreams come true! We recently visited Tatiana at her gym in Farmington Hills, Michigan to chat about her her Olympic experience, training at Round Lake, what she is up to today, and much more!

Interview Transcription: 

We’ll start by talking about how you got started in gymnastics.
I started gymnastics when I was six years old. I was chosen from a kindergarten back then with my original coaches which were Viktor Dikii and Tamila Evdokimova. And from that day when I was chosen I was interested in gymnastics and I think with my progression and the skills that I was learning or when I was observing the gymnastics-- I was drawn to it.

At what age did you realize you had the potential to make it to the Olympics?
[Laughs] I think it’s hard to say when I was an athlete when I had potential. I think my coach detected that I did have the potential. Even talking to them right now, they say that I was the jewel in their career and you know, it takes two to tango. Their dream and my dream combined together and we had a successful career. All ten years that I was competing, it was very successful.

You moved away from home to train at Round Lake, was it hard to leave your family behind?
Yes it was. At times I was devastated because I was a little girl and at ten years old to move far away from your family, parents, sisters and relatives; it was a little bit hard. I was just following my dream. I didn’t know how far my dream would take me, but I was following it. It was tremendous hard work. We would start practicing at 8:00am and would finish sometimes at 10:00pm, but now I understand the cause. The victory of every single competition that I went to—that is priceless! So you forget about the hard training, you forget about the blisters, you forget about the sweat. The priceless time was when you go to a competition and you’re completing your routines and when you’re standing on the podium—that’s what it’s all about—to be proud of yourself and all the hard training that you have done. The achievement of being rewarded for that were absolutely outstanding feelings.

What was it like training at Round Lake? How many girls did you train with and were you close with them?
It depends which time you take. Before I was chosen, actually my coach fought for me to have a chance on the national team. First you have to qualify to the junior national team and if you do really good all year round—and not just one year—if  you complete the whole process of training that goes on in Round Lake and then competitions, you might have a chance to be there. I know for a fact that my two coaches fought for me to be there, just to give me that chance. I remember it was 1988 and the girls just came from the Seoul Olympic Games and my coach fought for me just to try out! I was there for I think September, October, and November—for those three months we had to actually pay from our pocket to be there. So it was challenging for me, it was challenging for them, but I did prove that I deserve to be there—I deserved to be on the national team. In 1989 we actually got invited for the training at Round Lake starting in January.

Do you keep in contact with any of your former teammates or coaches?
I keep in contact with my original coaches every month. With some of the athletes that I grew up with in my hometown of Odessa—I still keep in touch—they are in different parts of the world. With my [Olympic] teammates, some of them I keep in touch with and some of them not.

Going into the 1992 Olympics, what was your overall feeling? Were you well prepared, excited, nervous or a little bit of everything?
[Laughs] It’s a little bit of everything. That particular question I always get from kids when I go to appearances at schools or when I’m at events, whether it’s a child or an adult, they ask me that question. It’s a little bit of everything. I think I was very prepared. I was prepared my whole life, I know that for a fact because I was four years old watching the Olympics on TV and telling my parents, “I’m going to be there.” And my parents said, “Okay, then you should relax.” [Laughs]  But who would have known and actually I did achieve that! In school [when the teacher asked “who do you want to be?] I wrote a whole story about who I’m going to be and how I’m going to be. In a child’s state of mind at seven or eight years old, I already knew who I wanted to be. And actually I got a C+ because I wrote I wanted to be Olympic Champion. [Laughs] It is a little bit funny to go back to that because on one side [you have] the coaches who were guiding me all my life to get to the top and then the teachers thinking, ‘oh just a na├»ve little girl who is not sure.’

Can you talk about the team competition and getting your first Olympic gold medal?
It felt like I was flying. We were standing out there and of course there was six of us experiencing the same feelings but I will talk about myself. It felt like I was lifted off the ground. The atmosphere from the people cheering for you and saying “Bravo” or “Good job,” you can feel the vibe! It’s almost like you’re listening to music and you’re standing closer to the sound and you can feel that vibe. Some music is great and can lift you up and some music is not, but that was just the right chemistry with everything. It was beautiful. It would probably be the same question if I asked you, “do you believe in magic?” It’s exactly the same thing.

During the team completion you fell from the balance beam and your teammate Roza Gailyeva qualified to the all-around ahead of you. Ultimately you were given a second chance when the coaches forced her to claim an injury. How did you feel in that moment?
I took that very professionally. I didn’t understand the second chance back then—I do understand the second chance now. I do believe that people deserve second chances and I think I did everything that I could to bring my county up proudly, not just USSR--because it was the last moment we competed as USSR and in fact we put the logo for USSR on [our leotard]…it was a team decision to do that, but to be the first Ukrainian girl who rose the flag and the anthem and to have the gold. It was an outstanding moment truly because I think I’m a hero to so many little girls who are very proud of that.

Were you and Roza on good terms following that incident?
We never spoke about that. Being a child and having an adult make that decision—to make a professional decision—It’s not just ‘okay whatever, you’re going to compete.’ It was a professional decision and I think they made the right decision and I will stand by those words. I will stand by what I have achieved and what I have done because of all the hard training and the hours and the nights and the traveling and giving up [so much]…it was a well-deserved Olympic gold.

Can you describe that moment you saw your name on top of the scoreboard and realized you had won?
I didn’t! I didn’t know. It was hard to believe. The routines had been done many many times, we’re not talking about hundreds or one thousand, we’re talking about thousands of times where the skills were repeated over and over again so you master the move. And it’s not just the skills, it’s the preparation and how you step out on the floor and how you present yourself. Honestly, I didn’t know that I had won. I went and I did my best but I didn’t know that I was that close. To hear my name ‘Tatiana Gustu’…I still have goosebumps when I look on YouTube at my performance. It was amazing!

How did your country react to your success?
When we came back to Ukraine, we were celebrated with the president of Ukraine and he gave us the most beautiful presents so we could actually go on with our lives. Because we did such a tremendous job and hard work for our country, our country rewarded us back. I was driving a brand new Ukrainian car and it was great! Actually seeing the president and warm wishes and congratulations [from him]…it was very nice. You know, I was fifteen years old and he’s the ruler of the Ukraine. [Laughs] It’s nice to be recognized for something that you do for your country. I know that I was put in the Ukrainian history book so kids from 8th grade to 12th grade will know their heroes. In my hometown of Odessa we celebrated. I had a whole band waiting for me to appear from the train and flowers from strangers and kids. It was beautiful, it was truly beautiful to see that I wasn’t alone out there doing that. It was pleasant to see that the whole country was actually cheering for me. And still know when I go home, people say “Hello, it’s very nice to see you.” It’s very good to give the knowledge back now to kids or to the people.

Can you talk about the fall of the Soviet Union and how that affected you?
You know, it’s hard to say how it did affect me. I wanted to continue with gymnastics and for a young athlete just being on top of the world and winning the biggest and most prestigious award in my career, it was a little bit hard for me because at that point I didn’t know which direction to go—although I did have my coaches by my side. You know, sometimes I look back even with Nadia Comaneci [who] made history in her sports career when she won the 1976 Olympic Games and then some of the competitions after the Olympics—it wasn’t that great. It’s not because we lost our mastership or something in gymnastics, it’s because you put so much energy into it—it’s like athlete energy plus the universe, coaches and positive surroundings. For me, I felt like I accomplished everything in 1992. I felt like I accomplished everything that I could—and I did. And I stopped. I stopped for that reason because I didn’t have to prove anything to anybody because I had already achieved that award.

Besides for the Olympics, what were some of the other highlights of your gymnastics career?
My proudest moment in gymnastics was I think every competition that I went to. I have not taken [it] for granted because every single competition or every single country that I went to, I gave all my best. I’m not talking 100%, it’s a trillion or billion percent of what you love to do. When you love what you do, you give it your all. It’s not just the energy, it’s the soul, it’s the heart, and everything that you got. I would say that I’m very proud of every single competition that I went to from my very first one to my very last one.

You were known for having very difficult skills, was that something that came natural to you?
That…I have to say credit to my coach because he was bringing the ideas of what we could try and we tried everything! Everything that’s out there—I’m not comparing to gymnastics now—although some of the skills we were working on, it was just not ready to put it in. Like double layout with a full twist—we were working on that or a triple tuck—we were working on that too. It was just not meant to be to put it there. That’s why the unique [combination] of athlete and coach just came together like a puzzle. We were exploring to see what the options are out there. We were taking one step at a time but it was adventurous because yes I was scared and terrified, yet it was exciting because I knew that I was the only one that was working on those skills. Not just at Round Lake, but there was other centers in Moscow that I worked and I had seen my competitors and the girls who were working on the harder skills and I wanted to do better. I think that’s why we discovered some of the skills that had never been out there. I know that in the international category, I was the first one to do the full twist standing on the balance beam. Same as…there was a very attractive element—a double layout split out. I know some of the girls tried it in 1996 or 2000 off the bars and it was kind of faded out, but yes—the original—it was me who did that.

Can you talk about your teammate from the 1992 Olympics, Oksana Chusovitina who is going for her 7th Olympics. Is that weird for you to see somebody who you competed with still competing?
It’s not weird at all. You know, she’s a very strong minded girl and when I was training with her I seen that. It’s something very unique and special about that girl and athlete. I am ecstatic to see her out there because she’s simply phenomenal.

Come you talk about what inspired you to make your own comeback in 2003?
I think I missed it. I missed the competing and I missed [the feeling of performing]. I think I was drawn to the feelings because the adrenaline is crazy when you actually go and perform from the moment you’re raising your hand. There’s so much focus out there as an athlete to make sure that you perform and do everything well. I think I missed that. When I started training I think I just didn’t have the right components of support to continue [my comeback]. After several months I actually stopped [training] and the missing went away. I think with that, my passion to coaching went much higher than it was. I’m appreciative of that time because I think I needed that. With not proper support or guidance as an athlete you can be misled.

After having spent so much of your life in the gym, was it hard to finally retire?
Not anymore. I think when I was going through my teenage years and discovering a new country, it put my thoughts back. When I came to the United States I was seventeen years old and I had to learn English and I had to explore the life—just everyday life—or how to communicate, so it kind of took me back. I appreciate that time. I don’t miss it, I wouldn’t change anything. I think everything happens for a good reason and my reason was that.

Can you talk about your journey to the United States and how you eventually settled here in Michigan?
Well I was invited here in 1994 with my coaches who came here to help some people open a club. I think I was on the peak of the teenage years and I wanted to explore because the first time I came to the United States was back in 1990 and I just simply fell in love and said “okay, one day I’m going to be here.” Soon enough, in 1994 we were invited here and then I kind of went to find my journey. I worked for many prestigious clubs and companies—not just gymnastics, but I worked with cheer and dance companies. I wanted to explore myself and see where I could find me. It’s good to have a background with the Olympics, Worlds, and European Championships on my resume but what about me as an individual?  What do I do? How do I find what I love to do? I started coaching here and there and I finally found my passion. My job is the best job in the world, I work with kids! I can share my knowledge not just with kids but with parents. I get so many questions every single day, “how was that?” or “how did you feel when you went there?” It’s priceless. I am more than open to wanting to give that information because you never know, I have my athletes and my youngsters and every practice they say “I want to go to the Olympics.” I am here, I am here to guide you there. I don’t know, I don’t have a magic ball, I cannot see the future. All I know is that if I work hard and with the right guidance for the youngsters and their future—I am here.

Do you still follow the sport at the elite level or college? Do you go to any competitions?
Yes. We started going to the Big M [University of Michigan] competitions more this year. Because I just wanted to see the difference from the elite level competition and college level competition. When our team is traveling, it’s one standard competition, but to see elite or college, it’s an absolutely different atmosphere. And the college atmosphere is absolutely outstanding! I went and I was like “wow!” [Laughs] I was sitting there like, “big 10 for everyone!” [Laughs] It’s good to explore something. So I’m not just having the mindset for elite. You have to see everything and you have to explore and open your mind to everything that’s out there. Although gymnastics is my life—I live, I breathe, I eat, and everything is about gymnastics—but there is exploring of other sports.

So for the Olympics coming up, who are you cheering for?
I’m not choosing sides! Whoever is going to go there and whoever is competing, best of luck! It’s a once in a lifetime experience and if they can enjoy that time—go for it. Because who knows, if it’s going to be first or maybe it’s going to be seventh.

What have you been up to lately?
Well my company has been open for six months now and I’m thrilled about that. I can’t be more ecstatic—this is my dream and this was my goal! Now it’s going to be a new set of goals. This year we’re starting from level 1 to level 4 and I think it’s going to give us time to build the empire of Tatiana Gutsu Gymnastics Academy. We have great talented kids coming in and I’m more than happy because I am the head coach and the owner of the company. I absolutely love every single minute that I am here because I’m here at 7am and I leave at 10pm. But it’s mine and I have to nourish it because every little seed that you plant needs nourishment—and I need to nourish my little seed.

What advice would you give to young gymnast who want to be like you someday?
Follow your dreams and don’t be afraid. Even sometimes when they’re learning new skills it’s terrifying, but you have to find that bravery inside of you. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself because that’s when your gong to master the skills to be the best.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Alaina Kwan | Overcoming Adversity and Chasing Her Dreams

At the World Championships last year, Alaina Kwan was the face of one of the biggest controversies in the gymnastics world of the entire year. Gymnastics fans were outraged when Kwan and her California teammate, Kylie Dickson were allowed to compete for Belarus despite having no ties to the country or having even visited there. This sparked a lot of debate and criticism on social media. Kwan, who will turn 18 next month found herself battling the hate while trying to chase her dreams.

All gymnasts dream of someday becoming an elite gymnast and competing on a world class stage--that was no exception for Alaina Kwan. After watching Nastia Liukin tumble her way to gold at the Beijing Olympics, Alaina knew she wanted to become an elite gymnast too. Kwan's father was an Olympic diver in 1984, so reaching the highest level of the sport only seemed like a natural progression. She began gymnastics at PDA USA Gymnastics doing mommy and me classes, then moved to Gym Max in 2011 as her skill level progressed. In 2013, she moved to All Olympia to train under Artur Akopyan and his wife Galina. "My family and I just felt like it was a better fit for me," Alaina said of the gym switch. "After being with them these last few years, my gymnastics has improved and they were able to help me reach my goal of becoming an elite gymnast. Overall it's been great and I'm happy I made the switch."

After trying for two years, Alaina finally obtained the elite qualifying score in 2015 and competed at the US Classic where she finished 9th all-around and 7th on floor. It was after that competition that the idea of competing for Belarus was first proposed. "I knew I was already late in the game when it came to elite gymnastics and we figured I had a slim chance of making the USA national team." she admitted. After her coaches received information on the opportunity, Kwan and Dickson jumped on board. "We just decided that it would be a great chance to travel the world before going to college."

When the news that Alaina and Kylie would be competing for Belarus emerged, the Gymternet went crazy and not too many people were happy with the decision.  "I was really surprised by how much talk there was about it, but I understand that people have their opinions and they are entitled to them." Kwan said. In order to remain focused, Alaina avoided social media and tried to block out any criticism that she and Kylie were receiving. "I just tried to remind myself that this is a great opportunity for me and to try and enjoy it as much as possible."

In only the second elite meet of her career, Alaina found herself on one of the biggest stages in gymnastics-- the World Championships. After a sub-par performance, she finished 73rd all-around but still qualified an individual spot for the nation of Belarus to the Olympic Test Event. On the biggest stage of her life, Alaina says she is most proud of hitting her beam routine. "I was already so nervous and was still trying to get use to the Gymnova equipment," she said. "I felt like I was shaking the whole time but I was able to push through and come out strong." Looking back on her Worlds experience, Alaina has no regrets, stating that she was glad to be given the opportunity to visit a new country and meet new people. Most importantly, she was glad she could share the moment with Kylie, who she says is her best friend.

The following months were spent training to claim the one spot secured to the Test Event. "The selection for the spot was based on our performances throughout the year, how our training was going, and how we were health-wise." Alaina told us. Ultimately it was decided that Kylie would be the representative for Belarus, ending Kwan's Olympic quest, however, she is fully supportive of Kylie and excited to cheer her on this summer in Rio as well as supporting team USA in the team final.

For now, Alaina's elite days are done as she shifts her focus to competing in college gymnastics. She is set to compete for the University of Kentucky this upcoming season. "Everything about the school just felt like the right fit for me, plus I love the team and coaches!" she said. Alaina's talents will likely make a big impact to the Wildcats lineups immediately.

If there is one thing Alaina has learned throughout her small but memorable elite career, it's to chase your dreams no matter what. "I would tell young girls to reach for their goals, whether it's making elite or competing internationally, always believe in yourself and don't focus on what other people think," she said. "You know what you're capable of and if you believe it and are willing to work hard for it then you're dreams can come true."

Alaina's did.