Correspondent Gina Pongetti Angeletti will be sharing a “reporter’s notebook” while in Tokyo, documenting the unique journey that is the 2020ne Olympic Games during these unusual times. We hope to provide a unique perspective of the behind-the-scenes aspect of covering an event of this magnitude. We’ll candidly share different aspects of the Games to be your all-access, backstage pass!

For Inside Gymnastics complete coverage of the 2020 Olympic Games, Click Here!

Additional Articles by Gina Pongetti Angeletti for Inside Gymnastics:

The Layer of Fear

The Amazing Aging Athlete

Artur and The Achilles

The Physics of Simone

Time Change and the Effects on the Body: Traveling to Tokyo

Making the Team: The Weight of the List

Individual vs. Team Spot: Where is the Reward

The Mental Side of the Mat

Tuesday, July 27: During and After (in the room where it happened)

Literal silence in the arena. 

I can spot a triple and a double, a 1.5 vs an Amanar (2.5) on vault while in my sleep. And I watched the whole thing. It was like my mind was doing tricks on me. We muttered about it in media row for a minute, then watched a replay. Indeed, something happened in the air, with the block, or maybe in her mind. So many possibilities. A 13.766 for a 1.5 with a 5.0 difficulty and an 8.766 execution instead of her usual 15.0+ performance. This is 1.1 less than the vault total during qualifications. 

To match, Lu Yufei was off on uneven bars, starting China out with a fall as well. 

Moments later, Simone Biles, the unstoppable machine of an athlete, the one who never limps or hurts, the one who is solid and has been for so many years, is seen leaving the competition floor with the team doctor and Cecile Landi, one of her coaches. 

Jordan Chiles is grips on and ready for a cold set on bars, assuming that in the warm-up gym, all events that an athlete is possibly capable of doing (sans injury or having not trained it in years) would be warmed up. In case something like this happens. 

Well, in case of things no one ever thought of. Like a pandemic. Or unicorns. Or something happening to Simone Biles.

Gasps. Here, while watching live and waiting, we hear from Peacock Commentator John Roethlisberger that Biles is, indeed, out. Out for the evening. As word spreads on media row and in the stands, people are typing furiously. Baffled. It is without belief. 

Clothed in her team warmup, socks included, Biles seems calm and pensive. She’s cheering on teammate Chiles who, having not been in the line-up, replaces Biles and hits for a 14.166. 

This is not like last-minute pitching in on the soccer carpool, or making dinner when plans go awry. This is a last-minute team final Olympic bar routine, where all three scores count.  

There is heightened awareness now on the floor. People chattering. Cameras focused and shifting. ROC seems more relaxed. Maybe a breath for them and a gap in points, though unsure if they  even know yet that this is a U.S. team without their superhero. 

As they march toward the balance beam, Hoda Kotb, NBC Today Show host, smiles and waves at Biles and yells, “I love you, Simone, We love you!” There are blown kisses in each direction. The crows claps as she walks by, officials and volunteers as well. It is just a strange feeling. 

She’s not hurt. Or at least, that’s not the main reason that she pulled out. She has a case of nerves, air sense that is challenged, and just, well, an off day. Is she feeling like she let the team down? Is every mistake from another country the opening of a door? Of course, no one wishes that door be opened in the first place, on either side. 

ROC’s Vladislava Urazova fell on the layout at the end of her series. It is a game of cat and mouse. Grace McCallum hits and then ROC’s golden girl, Angelina Melnikova, falls as well. 

My head is spinning. Thinking of what Simone is going through. The thoughts of keeping herself safe are always.

Biles and Chiles are dancing, together. Chiles trying to just stay loose and not process the gravity of the situation. Biles tries to dance, but you can tell, it is forced. To help her teammate and closest friend in an incredibly stressful and unforeseen time. I don’t think she actually knows what to do with herself. 

At this point, the U.S. and ROC are only one tenth away from each other in team total scores. Whew…

Could  they indeed pull this off without Simone? Will she look back, like Kohei did at his team, and say to herself, ‘they’ve got this.’?

Last rotation. ROC is 0.8 in front of the U.S. with a large gap of 2.7 to Italy. ROC and USA finish on the same event, as they are rotating together. 

Chiles falls on her front double pass. Flat into a sit and a bounce. This may have opened a huge door. Wow. Remember, 34 hit routines this year for her. The stress gets to every single person.  And an 11.7 is posted. 

Are the men and women of the ROC on their way to a combined journey? 

Sunisa Lee is last. No pressure there at all. Calm and collected as she always is. 

Melnikova finishes her routine to a country hug and then the wait. Yes, it’s enough. They are the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Champions. WAG and MAG, together. 

In the end, Great Britain squeaks past Italy with a 164.096 and 163.638 ,respectively. With the turmoil the program went through during Olympic Trials and team selection, a bittersweet ending indeed. 

A difference of 3.432 is what separated ROC from the USA. A spread that, if Biles had been at full potential on all four events, could have been closed. That’s why it’s called Olympic stress. Faster, higher and stronger. But not in life. Just in one simple day. 

In the event that Biles is out of the All-Around (we’ll wait respectfully and see), Jade Carey would take the spot. MyKayla Skinner would vault. Her uneven bar spot would go to De Jesus Dos Santos from France. Floor would go to GBR’s Gadirova. Beam to Ashikawa from Japan. 

The public’s knowledge currently is that NBC stated it is a mental decision, and USAG press release states it is a day-to-day medical decision. More on that later, as is possible. 

In the end, it’s the best team that day. And on this day, ROC delivered. 

Hats off to Suni and Jordan and Grace who stepped up under a pressure situation completely unimaginable. To the coaches, for keeping them cool, amazing. For Cecile and Laurent for working together with an athlete who made the decision of a lifetime while the world was watching and another who stepped in and did what she could. To all of the medical staff… without whom the athletes could not do this. Cheers to calmness and strength under pressure. 

Since 1992, the U.S. Women have medaled in every Olympics as a team, three of which were gold. Russia moved from silver in 2012 and 2016, to gold in 2020. The last time Great Britain won a team medal was bronze in 1932 – 93 years ago – until today!

Silver medals still do indeed shine. The demeanor of the U.S. women was amazing to see. Somewhat nonchalant about the result, supportive of each other for sure. For the three first-timers, it’s an oh-lim-pic medal. They have to be excited inside, and yet, scared to show it. Quite the thought…

The Russian women were holding hands the whole time while waiting their turn to step up to the top step of the podium. Smiles from ear to ear. They, like their counterparts, donned each other’s medals. 

I think about the countries who have massive amounts of state funding, and the stress and pressure that they are under to deliver. I think about what they will face after the Olympics are over, and I want to give them a hug. As Biles said tonight, there is more to life than gymnastics. Life is bigger than gymnastics, and she’s going to be ok. 

Depth

The Chicago Bulls without Jordan. 

The New York Yankees without Babe Ruth. 

The U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team without Simone Biles. 

Of course, teams are made up of the best that a country can grab. Usually, in every program, there is a stand-out athlete. Whether in the All-Around or on individual events, the team is made up of all of its parts. 

Jordan Chiles had in fact, been warming things up in the practice gym just in case. Not in case of this particular scenario, but because she is Jordan, and she is always ready. Bars and beam happened for her, and they happened well. Sunisa Lee threw a cold floor set on a 30-second touch. Period. Muscle memory, hard work and guts. Grace McCallum was the only one to compete all four events and she competed them well. That is how that happened. 

Though not gold, the U.S. Women showed the depth of the program. The ROC women, who had mistakes as well, showed how D-scores can carry even mistakes. The saw an opening and they took it and deserved gold without question. The depth of teams past has been amazing, but often led by someone points above in the all-around contribution. It is like wanting to bubble wrap people and just make it to the start of competition. 

So to the stars of any team, thank you for being around, being present, part of an Olympic Games. To the rest of the teams, waiting in the distance, your time will come. 

That’s all from Ariake Gymnastics Center for tonight. Let’s be kind and give them all their mental space. Physically you all get it, you are home. But on social, try it there, too… and here’s to a healing and safe space for everyone. Even Superwoman.

Tuesday Before Team Finals

Tension in the Air

Following ROC’s men’s team victory last night in the Ariake Gymnastics Olympic Center, the women’s motivation is high, the energy is flowing and excitement is in the air!. The U.S. Women are under great pressure, entering into these Games as a heavy favorite and then having mishaps in qualifications. Reporters and photographers were lined up hours early to access the venue, and they were from all countries. 

With the All-Around and individual events still to go, countries and respective athletes will bei n the arena supporting not only their teammates, but the world of gymnastics. They will be here for all that aren’t. They do have 48 hours to leave Japan, so watch while you can. And take in the experience that is the Olympic Games.

The Video

In the last few days, I put together a small video from my friends:)  Olympic legends in the sport, wishing well on the athletes and their experience. I cried. (Four  times now.) Each time I enter the stadium for the first time at a Worlds or Olympics. When the ROC Men won. When Dalaloyan didn’t die. And watching these selfie vids for the first time. 

Videos from home to the hearts of all competing this week. Posts about their favorite memories of their Olympics. Team pictures reflecting on the group camaraderie and effect. The interesting observation from all of them? It is not about luck; the work is done. It is not about the medals; they will come if they are earned. It is not about being nervous, hundreds of routines are under your belt. It is, however, about the experience. About knowing that making it here is a feeling that you have been waiting for your whole life.  

Welcome to the club.  A club with a high-paid entry fee of blood, sweat and tears. And one that no on one can take away!

Monday – Men’s Team Final

Tonight, A Reflection on Sport and Only Three

Tonight

Before each competition, venues often take the time to showcase their country. For gymnastics, the 40×40 floor is a magnificent platform for this to happen. We see mixing of the disciplines (rhythmic, trampoline, tumbling) being cross-pollinated for spectators to appreciate all parts of the greater aspect of the sport. The coordination and practice that this entails – casting more than two years ago – happened without knowing if the performance would ever be appreciated.  I popped in early today to watch and it was phenomenal.

In the Team Final, the men competed in alternating fashion with Japan and China on floor, USA then ROC (the Russian Olympic Committee) on pommel horse, GBR and Germany on rings… You get the picture. The athletes exchanged low fives or knuckle punches getting on and off the podium. At the end of the day, as much as everyone wants to win, the spirit of the Games is alive. 

Following up on the explanation of the achilles injury, Artur’s Achilles Watch was in full swing today. All eyes were on the ROC men (because, well, they are worth watching!) and because everyone is waiting to see if the tendon holds on. It was never more silent when Artur Dalaloyan was going, and never more loud when he landed. Not wavering, all day. #arturachilleswatch is trending on Twitter, we did it, GymNerds. 

In the end, the ROC athletes ended on top by 0.103 over Japan and then another half of a tenth to the Republic of China. This is not a tenth per event. But a tenth over eighteen routines total. Unbelievable. The arena erupted into cheers when Nikita Nagornyy finished his last tumbling pass on the last event. The area waited anxiously for the judges, all eyes on the panel to see when they were complete and then, after, when the score popped on the board. 

The ROC athletes fell to the ground, in excitement, joy, disbelief. As social media has pointed out, the team had few healthy ankles. Once marched out to the podium, Denis Ablyazin still in tears, they grabbed hands tightly, shaking each other awaiting the ability to step up together. Ablyazin looked thoroughly at the back of the medal, before placing it around his neck, and then again, holding his head in his hands. Nagornyy and Dalaloyan place each others’ medals around each other’s necks. Priceless. Tears and tears, smiles and smiles. 

They walked around the floor one last time before leaving the Ariake on the night of their triumph. Endless smiles seen through their eyes and above their masks. This moment no one can take away from them.

People were still standing. ROC photographers and media were still crying. And hugging (don’t tell!). Flags were still waving. Through masks and separation, everyone could still feel through their eyes. 

Great Britain topped the U.S. Men again by a margin nearly  identical to 2016. In Rio, the separation was 1.192. Here in Tokyo? 1.166. In 2012, the U.S. was behind Ukraine by 1.574. The U.S. Men’s program has nested into fifth with a blanket. But this time? Differently. They did their best. The best routines that they had to offer, with the best attitudes. Their execution is what had them almost to fourth. They know it’s their difficulty that needs to increase. 

The U.S. men talked for a long time in the Mixed Zone. They know the place they are in, and did not have unreal expectations. Their D scores are separated by, in gymnastics terms, miles, and they know what they have to do. Adding difficulty early. Getting the up-and-coming guys to work as much on execution as their D scores. And doing so without playing it safe. The competition within the U.S. team is so fierce at Championships and Trials that so many train safe just to make the team. 

Japan’s young team is slated for greatness. Heck, they were great already tonight. Young and fresh, with room to grow, Kohei Uchimura even said that they are functioning on their own already. The country should be very proud of how close they even came to being golden. Could the home crowd have helped? Undoubtedly it may have made for a good distraction for the others. But sights are set on Paris and LA for certain. 

Btw, Why Only Three?

Tonight, Tokyo awarded its first medals in gymnastics in the Men’s Team Final. The margins between third and fourth (and fifth for that matter) are so slim. And yet fourth? No pictures. No ceremony. No celebration. 

For the main part of modern history, sports has saluted the top three. A podium notched with a high platform for the best, one step lower to delineate second, and on the other side, third. 

Dating back to 776 BCE, olive wreaths saluted the winners. In 1896, there was no acknowledgement of third place. Only the winner and the runner up were given medals, and they were silver.  Who knows why it turned into three (maybe someone important was next in line and demanded acknowledgement) but it did. In St. Louis in 1904, the traditional three-medal series of gold, silver and bronze started. In 1932, there was finally a podium.

Eight is also apparently a magic number, (second in importance to three and, well, one). Eight qualify to the event finals. There are eight swimmers in a pool for finals, and eight runners on a track. They all get official Olympic Diplomas. But not 10, eight. Poor 9th place… though they get a participation medal and subsequent certificate, too. Maybe 9th and 4th can have a party…

The point being, it’s time to salute those that are not standing on wooden pedestals. Just to put the performance together that so many teams did tonight is breathtaking. Just saying. 

While we’re on achilles watch… many have been asking about pain medicines and how I think he does it. There are literally so many rolls of tape on ankles on the podium right now that we could probably stretch across Tokyo’s famous Rainbow Bridge. Elite sports is a delicate balance of allowing certain things to be masked for performance reasons and then knowing that sometimes, temporary masking will lead to long term damage. It is all, to be honest, in the timing of it. Even the advice I give may be different athlete to athlete, pending time in season and depth of injury. 

As most probably know, there is drug testing that is performed not only at the meets themselves, but also at random times throughout the year. WADA rules guide this (World Anti-doping code) and USADA, the US organization. One can be approached at home, at the gym, and moderately unannounced. Medications that are usually in question for aerobic sports are things like blood doping (red ell increase, carries more oxygen) and anabolic steroids (for strength sports, including gymnastics, but this would as well lead to so much increased muscle mass that it would be counter-productive, biomechanics-wise. 

Competing in pain is something that every athlete at this level does.

Decisions made in high-pressure situations should be a combination of the athlete, the coaches, the medical staff and anyone else in the athlete’s best interest. I know that the team of four from the ROC would have done (nearly) anything to get through their last event, which was the pounding and jamming of floor exercise.  

Though the team medal is important, and an amazing feat, there are All-Around finals in less than 48 hours and then individual events as well. The longevity of these two weeks (and weeks leading up to podium days) are exhausting. We hope they make the best decisions for their bodies and their dreams, if that can be as easy to mix like an Arnold Palmer!

Sunday- Women’s Qualifying

The Women, Metal to Medal

The Women

The audibles today remind us of the passion behind the Olympics as a team sport. Mostly high-pitched voices pierced through the silence, and what usually is a very energy filled arena. The athletes can hear every word of encouragement today, very clearly.  

There is nothing that symbolizes the end of a journey – no matter the level of success – more than observing the athletes at the end of the night, with gym bag draped on their shoulders, grips thrown in before rotation, looking back to the floor for one more glance. Athletes who know that they  have not qualified to event finals or the All-Around have a journey that abruptly stops here. They are taking pictures on the floor and  in front of the Olympic ring with their teammates, competitors and coaches.

For those at the end of their careers, waving to the audience filled with family, friends, delegation members and more, is always an iconic moment and memory. The view from below, on the floor, up to the stands in appreciation. It is the beauty of being one of so few people who get to have this view – camera workers, volunteers, production crew, medical staff, coaches, judges and the athlete. The reason we are all here.

This year, final bows will have to take place in private family gatherings once home on through the vast world of social media fandom. 

As they walk out of the stadium through the carefully planned and separated pathways, board the buses back to their hotels, and make those first calls to families, the conversations are filled  with visible facial joy or audible voice cracks that, no matter what language you speak, cross the boundaries of translation. 

On the floor, the American women were like two parts to a whole today: half of them struggled (the ones expected to do well) and the others shined bright (Jade Carey in the AA, MyKayla Skinner in the AA). It was like both of them had something to prove (well, they actually did). Carey wanted to let the world know that she was good enough to contribute and be more than just a specialist. Skinner, who was fighting for that fourth spot on the team, competed lights out today, and her scores would have counted on all four events.

Because of the TPC rule, Skinner knew that she would, no matter how good of a day, most likely be behind teammates Sunisa Lee and Simone Biles, meaning that she can be proud of herself, but that tonight, indeed, was her first and last Olympic competition in 2021. 

Even ROC’s Angelina Melnikova was nervous -not as much for outside competitors, but for her own country. The TPC rule is a hard one. “It’s always difficult to know that people are behind you, nipping at your heels. This kind of mental pressure is not easy to deal with. But I’m happy that I managed to deal with it,” she said.

On the competition floor today, there was dancing at times. And also lots of ‘wow, what was that’ looks from the athletes as they came off of the podium after their less-than-expected turns. Almost a nonchalant-ness that is odd to see at the Olympics. In the Mixed Zone, the U.S. was whisked right past the media leaving reporters to write their own story on the team’s second place finish behind ROC. 

Kohei Uchimura ((JPN) – possibly one of the greatest male gymnasts of all time – even stopped after his Olympics literally crumbled in front of his eyes (and out of his hands on high bar). He was gracious, respectful, and honest. Raw. Open. Seeing the heartbreak and at the same time watching an amazing athlete be proud of his team was humbling. 

Thank you, MyKayla Skinner for showing us what true grace is. For taking your alternate spot in 2016 to the top. For pushing so hard through COVID and balancing life with training. For returning from NCAA to show so many that it truly can be done. You did exactly what you came here to do, which was your best. 

On Tuesday, it will be Game Time all over again for the women. What we’ll see, is anyone’s guess at this point.

The Amazing Aging Athlete

Oksana Chusovitina (UZB) competed in what she says will be her final Olympic Games at the age of 46. She finished 14th on vault, her only event and her competition is over. Without question, hers is a feat that may never be rivaled again but nonetheless is an inspiration to every athlete out there challenging themselves to push for just one more season, one more year. See more on the aging athlete here.

Tomorrow – The Medals

In Tokyo, the environment is a large focus. From the Ariake Arena which was built to be temporary and completely recycled (yes, the whole thing!) to electric powered vehicles. They are an incredibly conscious society with recycling with a focus. Nearly 80 tons of electronics and old phones were recycled! Which quite literally makes these medals a part of the people of Japan. 

“Everyone’s Medal” was the theme launched in Spring of 2017. It encouraged the citizens of Japan to donate old or broken electronics so that their metal could be recycled to make the Olympic medals. Indeed, the people did so.  

All Olympic  medals have to have three things on them: the Olympic rings, the name of the Games (The Games of the XXXII Olympiad Tokyo 2020), and Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. This is in homage, of course, to the very first Olympic Games. 

The medals themselves are always unique to their Games. The checkered patterns in harmony that are seen throughout are called ichimatsu moyo. Even the cases are a reflection of the host country. Each individually carved out of locally sourced wood. 

The gold medals are plated in gold, but made of silver, just like the namesake second place medal. Bronze is a combination of copper and zinc. 

Whatever the materials used, the idea of receiving one and the photos that come with standing upon the podium is truly what matters. Forever will the athletes be asked where they keep them, to bring them to photo shoots and how heavy they actually feel around their necks. 

How do they feel? Like thousands of hours of work and dedication. That’s how. 

Saturday- Men’s Qualifying

The Men, The Legend of King Kohei

Men’s Gymnastics

A combination of art and sport. Power and grace. Clean lines and flexibility. Being lithe, yet muscular. Technical but effortless. 

Some of the most beautiful gymnastics is actually done in warmups, with timers. Blocking on vault to gauge their height, yet only flipping once. Tumbling to do the same, and arching or kicking out of a layout. Giants on high bar with a simple hop to check the bounce of the bar. 

Rhys McClenaghan (IRL) on pommels is spectacular to watch. From a physics perspective, pommel horse is about long lines, the arms and hands, power and balance on the horse. From arms or shoulders to toes should be as straight as can be. Kids training this even often struggle with dropped hips and a non-open chest until gaining the proper strength to do so. McClenaughan’s hips are extended and beautiful, his chest open and confident. Max Whitlock (GBR) has the same quality. Both qualified to finals, where they’ll battle it out for gold.

On parallel bars, it’s clean lines and precisely placed hands to hold positions. Arches that sling the body across to the opposite end of the apparatus. On high bar, varying hand positions and flexibility, and of course, release moves while flipping and rotating in opposite directions in a tightly bound body. Release moves including Kovacs are done with artistic arm positions and height. It’s like watching Cirque at the same time, but without catch nets. 

On vault, handspring double front half-outs often are so high and precise that they have time for a kick-out to land, without hesitation or wobble. 

Men’s gymnastics is lauded in other countries, as I spoke about yesterday. In the U.S., we are struggling to keep the college programs alive and funded. Is it because we don’t have a large enough pool of people (nope, our population is just fine). Is it because we don’t have enough coaches? (Nope, we are like an international melting pot of past World and Olympic medalists).Is it because it isn’t culturally supported? Maybe?

Football programs, especially in the southern part of the states, have been the play-or-else aspect of Friday night adventures. If you are from Canada, your boy must be able to play hockey. 

The “old boys club” sports – baseball, football, basketball, soccer – are still pervasive in the minds and dreams of Dad’s everywhere in the fifty states. 

So, why can’t we change this? Or can we? Being more fit than anyone on the planet should be something to strive for. Bouncing a quarter off of your bicep? Sounds amazing. Since there aren’t endorsements and shoe deals, jerseys with your name and number (not a thing for gym) and commercials (until Simone came along),men’s gymnastics  isn’t the “cool” thing to do. Sure, some tickets went for hundreds of dollars for Trials. But that is one time. In one year. There is no home team to buy 88 tickets for a season to. There just isn’t the market. Which should mean that meets that do happen should be packed. All of them. From state to Nationals. And they still aren’t. 

In Tokyo, the U.S. Men are a long shot to land on the podium as a team. Even with their very best gymnastics, their difficulty rating as a whole is lower than the top 3. A team medal would mean everything, but will it change anything?

King Kohei

What was missing today was the standing ovation. The last hurrah for Kohei Uchimura, one of the best male gymnasts ever, and the GOAT for high bar for sure. He successfully completed a tutorial on release moves before peeling on a stalder 1 ½ (Rybalko). He was stunned. He got up, completed the routine. Then walked away with glassy eyes to the corner of the arena, visibly distraught, by himself.  No staff with him. His teammates had moved on to floor. 

Thousands of hours of work. The weight of Japan on his shoulders. For when there is success, it is good. And with success comes expectation. And with expectation comes, well, pressure beyond belief. 

A seven-time Olympic medalist and 21-time World medalist, this is his fourth Olympics. And this is not how it was supposed to go. He was only here for high bar, as an event specialist. He was not training All-Around, stating numerous times that his body was just not allowing it anymore. 

In the end, it should not be what we didn’t do that matters, but what we did. Although the realm of possibility is an amazing future ideal, when the opportunity passes, let it be done and not baste in it. Unfortunately, the human mind- how hard we are on ourselves- and the constant ‘what if’ scenarios play over and over again like a broken record. 

Let’s help Kohei recover from this. Let’s show him the love that he should have gotten here. A final standing ovation. Roars that shake the stands and can be heard for miles. Waves and blown kisses to the fans who have relentlessly supported him and his success. That is what he needs, and what COVID has taken from us. Hope that he understands this, and in due time, will recognize that today was, well, just one day. 

Looking Forward to Women

The alternates are heading home. Today at 10am, which is when the meet starts for the women tomorrow, all substitutions had to be made. High Performance Coordinator Tom Forster posted sincere thanks today for their dedication and perseverance. All of them- – Leanne, Kara, Emma and Kayla who pushed forward to be ready if their team needed them  Seeing them practice with vigor was amazing. Watching them perform mock podium training with some of their best performances warms your soul. They peaked. They did it. They were ready. 

Tomorrow, Simone, Suni, Jordan and Grace take the floor for Team USA. Jade and MyKayla for themselves as individual competitors. They’ll push the boundaries of the sport, focus on getting to the finals and we hope, enjoy every minute. They’ve earned it.

New skills have been submitted and tomorrow they’ll be tested on the world stage. There is oh-so-much to look forward to!

Bonus Entry Saturday- Men’s Qualifying

What’s Missing, The Senses and the Beauty of Men’s Gymnastics

Today, it was the calm-before-the-storm feeling that usually comes with the good storm of energy and people. I remember back to any number of Olympic or World events – Rio, Stuttgart, Montreal to name a few, and how the stadium and the crowds transform the air. There is a sense of awe and wonder, faith and hope. 

The Senses

You never realize the buzz that life creates. There are actual apps for street sounds, made up of a mix of animals, automobiles, the clinking of shoes, horns, low chatter and more. Outside of an arena at a World Championship or Olympic event is usually a melting pot of noises to take it. The quiet sounds of talking in a distance, and the loudness of a ticket scalper. The smell of people- from all over- perfumes, foods, a large crowd. It just triggers emotion. The background noises of delivery trucks, doors closing, security beeping. Visually, thousands of people, within six inches of your personal space, all vying for the same concrete that you intended to be on when advancing toward the arena of dreams. Fingers grasping your tickets so tightly that you create an arm cramp. Phones and cameras tucked in places as to not get ruined or scratched in anticipation of capturing proof that you fulfilled a bucket list of observation. Money for souvenirs, and often space in bags to have them, from t-shirts to kazoos. Ribbons with pins on them, displayed proudly for some to guff at and others to revere and offer trade or bargain. 

Inside the arena, usually people chatter. Sharing where they are from, and who they are here to see. Everyone is in patriotic attire, so playing the ‘guess the country’ game is amazing. 

Today? 

Clicking cameras, claps from on the floor and from coaching staff and fellow supportive athletes. In the stands, delegation members follow their teams to respective events. No need to worry about finding open seats, plenty of front row availability. 

The sound of the athlete slamming the board on vault almost creates an arena echo, as if we are at the base of Mt. Fuji. The different banging noises – punching and landing on floor, blocking on vault, and even as rotations happen, hands moving about the pommel horse. Silent, yet with powerful punches. Any gymnast could most likely close their eyes and do the “guess this noise” gameshow, like Jimmy Fallon does with “guess what’s in this box” with your hands. 

Close your eyes now, and you can hear it, too.  If you are a super gym nerd, you can even listen to a routine, eyes closed, and know how it went. Big noise, small noise is a hop. Cheers from coaches for success. Time in the air between set and land for how big the skill is. It is truly amazing. 

It is the sound of power. Of perfect timing. Of a body that has been thrown through the air somehow like a cat finding the exact amount of rotation and flipping to end in accuracy. These Olympics have heightened my senses for certain, and made me appreciate everything the brain processes- as an athlete, medical provider, spectator, and writer. Being truly in the moment and taking it all in. 

It does, however, feel like a glorified podium training, to be honest. Except in my heart, I know it is not. And they do, too. 

Some athletes are so good at tuning out background noises that I would bet they do not even notice the difference.  Sports psychologists have specific methods to teach elite athletes to focus. Literally to have hearing layers of what is in front of them, what is in their heads, and what is mere background noise. They have visual training- closing their eyes and picturing routine performances to trigger muscle memory

When the best of the best on each event in the World finish their performances, there is often a second salute, a pause, fist pump, and a rotation around the arena. Essentially multiple bows and a ‘thank you’ for honoring that what just happened was excellent. We have seen that here so far, and the claps have increased to a slightly larder roar- that of a baby cub trying his hardest. 

That being said, I sure do miss the lions. 

What We Still Have

The floor looks the same. The podium is set up identically. The officials? Similar, with plexiglass dividers. The announcements explaining the rules for any games’ understanding level will still go on, as IOC and NGB members will be in attendance as well as press and photographers. The scoreboards -nothing different. 

We have 98 athletes who are desperately seeking acknowledgement of all of their hard work and the organization staff, medical personnel and coaches along for the ride. The uniforms are still decked out, as over two billion dollars has been spent televising the spectacle to a home-bound, pandemic-ridden world. 

Masks are everywhere. Literally, you cannot be without, unless you are an athlete while competing. It is a challenge to measure the emotion of your coaches  – satisfaction or doubt- and fellow teammates from afar, unless you look into their eyes and see  their smile shine through. 

The Olympics have officially begun. Five years in the making- we made it. All of us. Including you, reading from home, watching at all hours of the day. Including those that were supposed to be here to work  in one way, shape or form, and couldn’t because of COVID. Including you, the athlete, that if it were last year, may have written a different chapter.  Including you, the parent of a small child, who you are watching while they are sharply dialed in to the broadcast, knowing that this dream is possible. 

Here’s to a safe and exciting day for all!

Day 5, July 23rd… The Night Before

The Days Between, The Elephant in the Room (Two-Per-Country) and the Concept of Possibility

The Days Between There are two days in between podium training and competition. Tomorrow, qualifications determine well, everything. Of course, some say that the day you win a medal is the biggest day of your life, but you have to get there first. The men go first tomorrow, and then the women on Sunday. 

It is qualifying, getting to the final, that is often the most nerve-racking experience. For countries who are stacked with depth, such as the U.S., China, Japan, Japan and ROC, being one of the top two athletes scoring-wise is often as much of a challenge or more than medaling in finals.

Today, the women’s team will review podium training,  how pressure-situations went, talk line-up and strategies, and practice. Tomorrow, which is the day before their first day, will be about last-minute tweaks, and mostly, to be honest, about sports psychology and normalcy. The “hype” is not good all the time. It can affect sleep, nerves, heart rate variability, stress hormones and more. Not that one does not want to live in the moment, but in small and controlled doses only. 

Today for the men, it is their ‘day before.’ The schedule for tomorrow is the exact same as it was for podium training. Depending on what country you are from, you have adjusted your sleep, wake, eating, recovery, physical therapy, stretching, and cool down times by this point. Some teams compete in the AM, which is different of course than many elite meets. Some teams are not even in the stadium until evening and won’t be competing until nearly 10pm. It takes some planning to get a body that is used to a specific weekly/daily schedule at home ready, let alone the time change/differences. 

There is no stopping now (unless you are physically stopped because of a positive spit test!). We have started, the World is here. The Opening Ceremony is just the official start, but the process for most sports has already began long ago. Some have been here for weeks already, with play-in games, preliminary competitions and podium/arena training. Thousands of staffers are here, some with the NGB’s (National Governing Bodies of Sport), some with IOC (International Olympic Committee), Media, Production, Medical, Logistics and more than we can count. 

It is palpable that competition is starting. Just as I was walking around today, there was excitement in the air. They were testing the lights and scoring yesterday at Ariake. They have dividers up, plexiglass, for all officials. The behind-the-scenes spaces are all designated for athlete/staff/medical paths and production/media separation. The days before have essentially been trial runs at figuring out the time it takes to get to the arenas on the official transport and get through many levels of security and COVID checks.  The athletes are comfortable and we are ready!

The Elephant in the Room… Every Four Years

Let’s just get this out there right now, since it is a topic each quad that brings tears, frustration and an interesting divide of both support and the hope of a rule modification. Especially in an era in time when we want equality and opportunity, can you still be a hardcore “best in the end” supporter?

**Gym Nerd Alert for the Two-Per-Country Rules, just warning you…**

Are the people that actually win medals and qualify for finals truly the best in the world? 

We can break this down as far as to say that even the athletes at the Olympics may not be the total pool of the top ranked athletes. Countries with depth often have a “B” and  “C “team that would qualify and rank higher than other delegation’s “A” teams. 

The two-per-country rule (TPC), in which only two athletes per country may advance from qualification to an individual event at the Olympics, continues to be a controversial topic, as it has been for years, with staunch supporters on both sides of the fence. The rule is particularly frustrating for the United States. 

In the qualification round in the 2016 Rio Olympics, the U.S. actually took the top three spots, signaling that the three of the absolute best gymnasts in the world at that time were Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and defending Olympic Champ Gabby Douglas. But due to the rule, Douglas got dropped from the field of 24 that will advance to have a chance to challenge for the coveted title of All-Around Olympic Champion. 

They had the potential to sweep the podium if the rule were not in place. Would that have been good for the sport? Bad for the sport? Or, is it more important to just recognize that the best gymnasts in the world should have an opportunity to challenge for the title regardless of what may be perceived as good or bad for the sport? 

This means that in Tokyo, even if the USA has three or even four of the top eight from the first night of competition, which is the qualifying round for individuals, they can still only send their top two, and then the list trickles down. The rule remains. 

Why Is There A Rule?

The rule was put in place to encourage participation and success for the global gymnastics community. The idea of exposure, of course, is to allow first time countries or countries on the rise, the opportunity to be a part of an amazing thing. In this case, however, without earning it, which is the rudimentary problem. The FIG decided that they can have wildcard sports for Olympic qualifying, in order to make sure there is proper world and continent representation, which technically should be chance enough. 

But, this takes these athletes here. It allows them to represent their country, to get press and an amazing experience. After qualifications, their experience is over, unless they qualify to move on. The best of both worlds.  

So, is it a rule that services the greater good or is it a disservice to the gymnasts and the sport? Both sides will debate and defend their positions aggressively. The fact that is has stirred many disputes, from those involved in the highest levels of the sport to opinionated hardcore fans on social media, to the general public who don’t understand why such a rule is in place. Surely, for those who are Americans, or fans of the United States, there are some unfulfilled dreams. 

The history of the rule is an interesting one. In the 1970’s, there were very dominant teams in the world, specifically Japan in men’s gymnastics. In Montreal in 1976, the Olympics were the first time to limit the qualifying per country to two for each individual event and three for the all-around, out of 36 total athletes. The 2004 Olympics were the first Games to see the TPC begin, and the AllAround numbers down to 24 total. Since 1992, for seven consecutive years, the U.S.  Women’s team has medaled, and eight of the nine years since 1984. That has been the dominance. 

So, Is it Good or Bad for The Sport?

The Olympics is the place where the best of the best to have (or should have) an opportunity on sporting’s greatest stage to showcase their talent, represent their country and battle it out for precious hardware and a place in history. It is amazing to give people the opportunity to shine for their home countries, to be groundbreakers (like the first time athletes).But, if the awards podium doesn’t represent the actual best of the best, is there always an asterisk?  

Few can forget London 2012 and Jordyn Wieber’s tearful reaction to being the third American, behind eventual Champion Gabby Douglas and fourth place-finisher Aly Raisman. While her teammates marched to do media, Wieber tried to take a moment off camera to collect herself, only to courageously go on camera moments later. She did what any seasoned competitor would do, was gracious in “defeat” congratulating her teammates. The question of “what if?” certainly is part of sport, but the question of leaving the current World All-Around Champion on the sidelines isn’t so clear. Wieber might not have gone on to win. But she should have had the opportunity to try. 

The Record Books, History and The Future

Looking at the numbers, it is remarkable the reign that the women’s team from the former Soviet Union had on the sport. This signifies actual dominance, since they were allowed to be dominant. From the Olympics in 1952 in Helsinki to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, The Soviet Union had 18 out of 30 All-Around medals (10 years, gold, silver and bronze each year). That is 60%! WOW! On balance beam alone, they had 50% of the medals for the same years. 

Well then, Is There a Solution or Evolution?

Sometimes well-intentioned programs have unexpected consequences. With Title IX, the original plan was to ensure that women’s sports had an opportunity to grow and women had equal opportunities to flourish in NCAA athletics. The goal was also to spread the resources – money, time, venues, and so forth – to help women’s sports thrive. But that turned out to be a slippery slope, with many schools eliminating men’s sports in order to comply with what Title IX required. Which brings up the next point – is there a compromise? Is there a solution that accomplishes the original intended goals, but also compensates for what is fair, equitable, and for the greater good?

In general, the more people that do gymnastics, both in the United States and in the World, the better it is for all. It increases viewership across networks, which makes commercials worth more, which gives people jobs and increases profits. It makes the sport better. It means the more written about and televised the sport is, the more likely people are to put their kids in the sport, leading to the need for more coaches and more gyms, and the cycle just goes on and on. Just like a micro-economy, there is a domino effect in participation and dollars. 

Well, I still pop back to letting it rip. Someone will do a spreadsheet about that (@poorlawyer or @gymterdotnet) and what could have been. 

OK, off my soapbox. It hurt to jump down. These former gymnastics knees are old…

The Concept of Possibility

Even if you are one of the best gymnasts on an apparatus or in the All-Around, it doesn’t truly help at the Olympics, except for confidence and the fear and intimidation that it may instill in peers. Or the relaxation of experience that it may create in you. All that does count is what happens in qualifications. This is not an end-of-year award (which by the way, would be really cool) for the average of your top 5 scores (even like RQS, the Regional Qualifying Score, in the NCAA). This is a ‘if this, then this’ situation. We truly hope that the best (that are here, as established earlier) make it to the finals. And that those that make it through to the finals (also established above) pan out in order like they should. 

There are some athletes in these Olympics that were not even Elites at the time that Tokyo was announced as the host city. They dreamt not only of being an Olympian, but doing so on home territory. Japan has had a strong men’s gymnastics program for decades. It is socially respected here, and incredibly supported. The athletes do gymnastics in school, as other countries do, as a part of the curriculum. Everyone knows Kohei Uchimura, or King Kohei, here. It is like the NBA or NFL. They are lauded. It is a masculine showing of athleticism and strength, and a tight program to enter into for national-level training because of sheer numbers and desire. They took gold in Rio, and this only added to their excitement for holding this place in their home country as hosts. With fans, and fandom, it would have been a spectacle. They feel it, however, within the Japanese media and communities with training. It is just a shame that they cannot get the home crowd volume and earth-shaking that the Magnificent Seven women did in Atlanta (this is the 25th anniversary, by the way!) 

Many Olympians have stated on social media in the past days that they want first-timers, and even the repeats, to heed their advice. Soak in the moment. Remember that you are amazing, no matter what happens. And in the words of Canadian Men’s Olympic Gymnast Kyle Shewfelt, “Once an Olympian, always an Olympian. May your experience be positive, and your legacy be strong.” Jaycie Phelps, a member of the Mag 7, said “Trust the process, believe and compete fierce!” 

What very few say and remember? I wish I would have had a tenth more. Instead, they wish they would have taken more in. 

Take in a moment and relish the work, the hours, the process. The practices, the laughs, the challenges and the success.  No matter your role, even if you are a volunteer. Life is too short, and there are millions that wish they were here, and still millions more with eyes glued to television sets, dreaming someday that they will be. 

So, to the amazing athletes…

Walk through those doors and inhale the Olympic air. 

Enter the stadium and feel the Olympic dream.

Attack tomorrow on floors and bars that will loft hearts and souls into history. 

To the coaches and staff… thank you for getting them here. All of them. For pushing through five years. For being flexible with training, communication, and travel. For believing that they are worthy and capable. Make sure you, too, take your breath in. 

And, no matter what, remember the moment with all of your senses. Everything you see, how you feel, what you hear. Because in less than two weeks, it is a part of history. 

To everyone at home that is watching, enjoy the magic. Follow gymnastics and social media for the stories of the whole team. We, as a world, are better together. And the Olympics made it happen! Cheers to Tokyo 2020ne!

Day 4: Women’s Podium Training- July 22

The Feels, the Equipment and the Opportunity

Podium training is complete and there is one today until Opening Ceremonies!

The Feels Yesterday, the men’s athletes were a breath of fresh air in the Mixed Zone. Most of them were smiling and happy to stop and speak, even through an interpreter. I think the athletes are happy to see familiar faces from around the world!

Yul Moldauer noted that the arena “feels very homey” with the wood tones. Normally, arenas are very loud and echoey, almost to a point of making it difficult to concentrate. Sam Mikulak even noted that there is “good feng shui” and that the energy was also so much more comfortable as well, maybe because of “these guys” as he pointed to the rest of the team. And Moldauer added that they are used to being in the NCAA and that “we do our best when we have our teammates screaming for us.”

The cheers are abundant. Most of the time athletes are yelling words like try, let’s go, and come on! Here is a snippet of what I heard today (that I can break down): In Chinese it is “ba” which literally means try. Poydem (pronounces poi-dyum) and idti (sounded like itchy!) from the Russians. Va in French. Iku and Yuko from the Japanese. It is amazing to hear the support and how those words inspire motivation, emotion and smiles in every human alike. 

Photo ops have also been pervasive themes today across all subdivisions. I’ve seen pictures on social media in practice gyms, where the mats and apparatus are donned with official logos. Many teams posing for official photos,  having fun individually and with their teammates and friends, and coaches realizing they have made it here with their athlete – podium training takes it to a whole new level. These are the pictures of a lifetime. The actual beam or rings. The mats. The colors, the environment, the moment – all captured at the click of a button. 

The Equipment The vault was a large point of contention yesterday for the men. It seemed as if no one could land, and many thought that it was the table – whether not secure, rocking, height issues (flashback to Sydney Olympics in 2000), etc. It seems as if it is the board. The U.S. Men’s team commented that it was not really “giving” as much, per Mikulak. So, he told us, he just needed to run hard and hit harder. With a chuckle. He also commented, “maybe they will swap the table out?” Most of gymnastics seems so technical with angles and precise approaches. This time? Just go harder. 

At each event, there is different equipment and they all have to be approved by the FIG and tested. Everything from friction coefficient of the surfaces to the reaction force of the vault, the bounce and rebound of the floor, the give of the bars. They have to fall within set parameters. Supposedly, equipment may take small tweaks, but should not throw off a performance. Countries are aware in advance of what will be used at various events and often acquire the equipment for preparation. Of course, for those countries with lower resources, this is an issue, and potentially an advantage for those with more well-supported programs. 

I remember when I sat down with Dr. Ludwig Schweitzer at the 2019 World Championships in Stüttgart, Germany, for an in-depth look at testing. Yes, I am a science nerd at heart, and the biomechanics of gymnastics will always be the reason I went from athlete to physical therapist. From measuring (literally to the tenth of a cm) the pommels, to bouncing balls to check how high they go, Ludwig’s job is a great combination of science and play. His mission: safety. Second to that? To make sure that no boundaries exist during competition for the athletes to do their best job, and not have variations throw them off. 

“At such a big event like [the] Olympics Games or World Championships, athletes are coming from all over the world,” he said. “Normally, they train on their hometown equipment and they should be able to adapt and to win the deserved medal with the equipment, which shall not be too far away from the known equipment in the fraction and properties.” 

The goal is of course, to have everyone used to it. 

Style Watch GK is the official leotard company for the U.S. team. Patriotism, dynasty and being fearless are the three themes that the leotards were created from. Using the national colors of red, white and blue as well as stars, stripes and eagles are just examples of how patriotism will be brought into the threads. The past will be brought into play – including designs and athletes- in order to celebrate and remember the amazing legacy of the U.S. team, past, present and future. Strong and daring designs will show how fearless the team is, and recognize their hard work and determination. 

The German Women wore unitards for podium training. Magenta and black one-piece tanks. With a push for women’s rights and equality, there has been a great amount of recent debate on uniforms in general being antiquated and sexist. (Beach volleyball players also have been speaking out for years on how small their suits are). FIG changed this rule years ago to allow full length pants hip to ankle, so long as they are elegant in design. Earlier this year at European Championships, some members of the German team embodied this, and have again today. If you are a former gymnast, you know being comfortable in your own body is important, and for some, they will choose this option.

The Opportunity  It’s unusual to see a double tuck as the highest-level skill or a free hip handstand as a challenge during the Olympic Games. However, the Olympic Movement is and always will be supportive of countries developing their programs. The athletes can qualify without their country, medaling at Worlds (which is quite a feat). 

 No matter how deep the legacy of the program, every country started somewhere. Someone who made it provided inspiration for a country that otherwise needed it. To be the first ever in your sport is quite a feat, Often countries will bring in coaches from other countries to help programs start, using techniques, organizational skills and workout plans that have a history of success. Training coaches within these countries – who may or may not even have experience at the high level of a sport- takes a decade or even more. 

I watched Luciana Alvarado from Costa Rica and her very playful routine, with multiple forms of actual dance throughout. She is the first Costa Rican to qualify for Women’s Olympic Gymnastics and is enjoying every second of it. She is for sure one to watch. She is truly stamping her own spot in the history books (and making a statement for equality with her ending pose!). When asked about this today, she said it is because she wants everyone to be treated with respect and dignity

Danusia Francis, a former UCLA gymnast who has quite the American following, is here competing for Jamaica. And story to add to it. Much like Oksana Chusovitina, she has hopped countries for the opportunity to compete in the Olympics. She was born in England and was an alternate for them at the  2012 London Olympics. Because of the rules of advanced qualification for teams and individuals, she earned Jamaica their spot for Rio in 2016 at a test event. However, the spot was country-based and not nominative (meaning that because she earned it does not mean she gets it, the country decides) and ultimately, it was given  to Toni- Ann Williams, an athlete at UC Berkeley in California. Francis pushed on, continued with training and earned an individual spot for Tokyo 2020 at the 2019 World Championships. She is proud of her ability to be able to persevere not only through the pandemic training alterations, but also through two other tries at making the team. Today, in the Mixed Zone, Francis was one of the few women to stop and talk to the media. Not just speak and hastily leave, but truly listen to questions, give thoughtful answers, and let the world get to know who she truly is.  

I will touch on the two-per-country rules tomorrow. But for today, let’s relish in opportunity and advancement. Dreams and what is possible with a little bit of support, hope and love. I will be cheering for every single one, and hope that the claps and excitement in the Ariake Stadium validates their worth, effort for their journey and place in this event for just even getting here.

Day 3: Men’s Podium Training- July 21

Ariake, Alternates and the Achilles

Ariake! It always gives me the feels walking through security into the restricted zones at the Olympics. It is truly like a world within a world- separate streets, parking areas, delivery zones, security, and anything athletes, staff or any credential holder would need. Except hugs:)

The stadium sits on the other side of a train station, opposite of which is the Ariake Park area with BMX and skateboarding and more. Entering the official doors, seeing the stadium for the first time brought tears to my eyes. 

Color is a sense that stands out here. A sea of blue. The ocean-shaded blue Tokyo 2020 logo literally bannered everywhere. Not a single other color besides five variations of blue and an off-white floor. Background music is playing, typical for podium training days. All athletes are draped in their patriotic cloth, matching uniforms, warm-up gear, bags- literally down to the shoes. China even has a crisp, white warm up jacket that reminds me of a mix between the swimmer’s parka and a long ski coat. 

The Rio Olympics, five years ago, were painted in green. London’s was a very bright pink. Gymnasts are used to shades of blue, with it being the pervasive matting color. So the contrast was “odd” per many of the 2012 and 2016 athletes. One photo and you know the country and the Games.

The stands are made of wood and are benches not seats. Remember that the stadium was meant to be temporary. To be disassembled and recycled or reused for other building projects. 

The stands do sit empty, a large color contrast to the floor, and a constant reminder of those who are not sitting in them. And that outside of this arena, where the largest focuses are routines, matching uniforms and keeping track of your honey bottle, there is still a pandemic rolling. 

The stadium is smaller than past Olympics by far. The gymnastics ticket is usually the hardest to get and the most expensive as it is traditionally also the most watched sport. It feels more like a college meet in size, but of course, without the deafening sound. If there were to be people in the stands, you would be able to tell what they are drinking from the opposite side of the arena. 

Rocking the Podium As the third subdivision got underway in podium training, the U.S. men brought with them a sense of focus and seriousness. As the evening progressed, sounds increased together with clapping and congratulations. Low fives (not high) and fist pumps abound. The general energy and support for one another after each and every turn was palpable. There was a lightness progressively increased as the events happened. The English men in subdivision two were the closest to this, posing for pictures with the equipment and Olympic rings and cheering.

Once the background noise and cheers are piped in on Saturday, a more celebratory and adrenaline filled tone will be set. Judges will be present. Officials will be watching. The grandness of the staging of the event will be laid before us all. The U.S. Men’s team sure seemed ready for that to begin. And as Yul Moldauer said to us tonight, referencing the support and observable camaraderie, they didn’t even show us the half of it yet.  

Thin Ice: The Game of Alternates

A normal Olympic Games brings about many tweaks to teams – orthopedic injuries, stomach bugs, odd falls and other random reasons are why an athlete would need to be replaced.  Alternates travel, stay separately, and in essence, do not get the Olympic experience after the competing team starts Podium Training. Prior to that, teams train together, bond with each other, and stay on schedule. 

The alternates for the U.S. Women will be heading home on Saturday, which is 24 hours prior to competition beginning. The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) confirmed that this is a 24-hour rule. To be exact, that’s 10am on Saturday for the women. Once the women or men are within a 24-hour window, no further substitutions can be made. This means that the athletes, who were literally slivers away from making a team, who traveled all the way here, training just as hard, following all of the protocols, will not even be able to gaze at the view that I have of the floor. 

As of Saturday evening, their job being in a ready position will be done.(Kayla DiCello and Emma Malabuyo will head home, and Kara Eaker and Leanne Wong will remain to complete quarantine. The comfort that they will have given the team-knowing that they were ready-was priceless. I wish I could capture the view, the senses, and give them a 4D experience of being here. I would give one of my days to them in a heartbeat. 

Here is the skinny on the rules: there are four women competing for team gold – Simone Biles, Jordan Chiles, Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum. MyKayla Skinner has the non-nominative (U.S. choice) spot. Jade Carey has the nominative (earned spot based on scoring and placements at World Cup Events) spot. Because both of them are actually credentialed, they can serve as replacement athletes should one of the four team members need to not participate. 

There is, however, a catch. 

The United States would lose that spot. Jade Carey’s would then trickle down to the next person in line. MyKayla Skinner’s spot would go to France, who earned that spot in 2019 World Qualifications. IF one of these athletes were chosen, the U.S. Women would drop down to having five athletes instead of six. 

If a country needed to choose one of their alternates, they, for obvious reasons, have to be in the country. Besides jet lag and timing of quite literally flying here, with COVID rules, they need to be here testing, and then cleared. Hence, the need for the 24 hours. 

With every awkward landing, run back off the podium and sneeze, I get nervous… especially after watching the vault eat up the men’s field today.

Everyone likes having a reserve. Hockey has multiple lines. Football teams have back-ups to their back-ups. Baseball programs have pitchers for days. The mental state of the four-person team is so much more relaxed knowing that should the need arise; most countries have depth. 

The U.S. women are down to two alternates. Typical for a non-pandemic year. But not for a time when you are one saliva test away from not being an option. Again bringing up the questions of why not bring the five total that the U.S. qualifying rules allow? 

The Achilles

Two weeks before European Championships in April, Russia’s Artur Dalaloyan severed his Achilles tendon in training and had surgery. Surprisingly, he is here, as we knew he would be. For four events, maybe? 

And then he did vault. And floor. And survived. 

In an interview with Olympics.com, Dalaloyan stated of the injury, “It was not just a partially torn tendon, but a severed tendon.”

Dalaloyan is only 25 years-old and potentially has a long future in the sport. Most athletes are elated to be a part of one Olympics, a feat that millions dream to do, thousands make every four years, and only a handful medal. However, the sport of gymnastics, particularly men’s, is home to many who are repeat qualifiers and even sit atop the medal stand quad after quad. 

Dalaloyan took this rehab into his own hands…well, partially. After being told conservatively that he couldn’t run for six months, he went off of how he felt in the gym, and pushed forward. 

As a physical therapist specializing in elite-level sports medicine, and having over 20 years of focusing on world and Olympic gymnasts, I can assure you there are sport specific protocols in place for best outcome potentials. 

Pushing the limits is always possible. It’s what athletes do. Every day. Hence why sports medicine, and taking care of world-class athletes, is almost a separate genre of medicine, mixing actual sport biomechanics knowledge, surface understanding, strengthening, conditioning, psychology and most importantly, the timeline and culture of the sport itself. 

Which brings us back to Dalaloyan. 

He won Worlds in 2018, so he does understand perseverance and dedication to sport. Now he understands how dedicated one must be to rehab as well. 

A quick anatomy lesson for everyone. You have, essentially, two calf muscles. One splits in to two parts, called your gastroc, which is made mostly of fast or short-twitch muscle fibers. The other is the center one called the soleus, made mostly of long twitch or more endurance-based muscles. They come together to form the achilles tendon, which inserts at the back of your heel (calcaneus). The calf muscles, along with ankle control muscles on the inside and outside (which are much smaller and responsible as well for balance) are what push you into a heel raise, releve position, help you jump, control landings, push off to walk and more. 

Essentially, injuring the tendon or the muscle is devastating for an athlete who relies on jumping and landing for a living. 

There are multiple ways to injure the calf area. Most minimally, you can overstretch it or have the smallest of tears. You can cramp or strain it by trying to use it too hard (landing short and trying to save it, jumping with too much force). 

A bit worse is that the muscle can be torn and have a relative hematoma, or blood pooling. The tendon can also be injured itself (if it is dry, full of scar tissue, or weak). This can happen from microtrauma that builds up, without stretching properly or recovering daily. It can also come about from mere overuse. 

Tearing the tendon itself can happen essentially in one of three ways. A clean (or clean-ish) tear in the tendon. A fraying of the tendon or what is called an avulsion, where the tendon tears and takes bone with it. Recovery for all three are different, and even more so pending your sport. There are some things, like tissue creation and bonding, making sure that the tendon reattachment will “hold,” that take time. 

There are other things that the athlete can do that will help keep muscles from having atrophy, or muscle wasting. Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) therapy is popular to allow the muscle to strengthen without having to have as much external force. Electric stim to activate muscles. Massage, cupping and other techniques to drain lymphatics and help reduce swelling. Strengthening, literally the day after, of other muscles that are affected (quads, glutes, hamstring) will help return to weight bearing, walking, jumping and running when ready. Avoiding other injuries upon return is key. Running on an anti-gravity treadmill such as the AlterG to offload body weight and slowly return. 

How did Dalaloyan rehab fast enough to get here? Access to amazing Physical Therapists and Athletic Trainers.

Having a sport as your job means that you can put forth effort multiple times a day into rehab when most get seen two or three times a week for an hour, and then struggle even to do their home exercises. Usually, an athlete returns partial weight bearing, then weight bearing. Squatting on two feet, then one. Jumping partial body weight, then full. Jumping two feet, then one. Loading, rebounding. Front tumbling, then back (because of take off angles for twisting) and the possibility of landing short. 

Dalaloyan committed to listening to his body. And to taking a chance for the glory of the Olympics. Risks? Absolutely. Retearing would have led to  a much longer second recovery. Not being strong enough in the lower body could have led  to knee, hip, ankle and spine/sacrum injuries. Because he did not rest for too long, stress fractures in the femur and tibia were less of a concern with return to vertical loading, but still present as activity levels drastically changed. 

At 25 years old, he is young and ready to be around for a while. Maybe even two more cycles. The Russian team needed him for this year, though, which outweighed the risk of ruining the next steps. Saturday will be an equal show of skill and guts. Trust in one’s body and willpower. A true example of how the dedication and persistence that makes him one of the best athletes in the world also gave him the edge in rehab. 

Let’s just pray it works. 

Off to get some rest, five subdivisions tomorrow.  These podium and qualification days are the longest, but yet the most exciting. Here’s to a safe and successful day tomorrow for all. And maybe a new springboard ☺

Day 2: Tuesday AM, July 20

Culture, Mood & Celebration

Warm Smiles (Masked, Of Course) Today, we navigated our way around necessary places a bit. Everyone is incredibly helpful and attentive, and so proud of their jobs. They want us, truly, to be happy. If the bus schedule does not work, they have a solution for that as well. Taxi vouchers were given to everyone for individual transportation, one per day that you stay (for now). They will take you to the venue in which you need to be for free. Anyone who has ever worked or been at a large-scale event knows that sometimes the pre-established transportation can be a challenge. So this is epic. 

You notice right away, whether it’s the bus drivers, restaurant and airport staff, or even the gift shop employees, everyone is dressed in uniform in Tokyo, neat and tidy. And anyone involved with the Games has an official credential. Even the gentleman guiding me to my bus. The airport has its own uniforms – vests, shirts, jackets. When walking around the hotel,  a credential must be worn at all times. Actually, it has to be worn at all times, anywhere, within the first 14 days of arrival, whether or not you are at an official facility or simply getting food at the 7-11. 

The city, hotels and infrastructure (we were exposed to the airport, the train and bus terminal as well) are filled with volunteers who are smiling under their masks waiting to welcome you to your experience-whatever form that exists. There are screened and designated buses for staff and credentialed staff. Taxis are also options, with vouchers, but the drivers have to be approved by the LOC (Local Organizing Committee). 

Observations & The “Comforts” of Home While navigating around the hotel (where we are allowed), and the venues and MPC (Main Press Center), I made some interesting and fun observations. 

  1. The escalators in Japan stop running if there is no one on them. Efforts to conserve energy, and are motion activated. 
  2. They have signs everywhere to make sure that all are aware of the 14-day quarantine to public space rule. We are allowed Olympic access, but no community access. We even have our own dedicated space to eat breakfast at the hotel for credentialed staff within the first 14 days. The IMAX theater looked great, but, nope. 
  3. The city is incredibly clean. There is no litter, curbside or in the parks. At the same time, there are no garbage cans… anywhere. People must be expected to carry their trash, similar to hiking a national park. What goes in must come out. 
  4. American Food. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, Starbucks. They are everywhere. We are allowed to have deliveries from UberEats. The most popular? Domino’s Pizza. With signs out front stating, “The American Tradition.” Clearly, they have not been to New York or Chicago!
  5. The nicer restrooms have sound machines in them that automatically start, motion detected as well. Running water, birds chirping. Possibly to encourage your bathroom habits, like running water, and possibly to allow privacy – sound related Almost every one has a bidet. They take their restroom cleanliness seriously!

It’s Getting Real Tomorrow starts the transition to what I consider Level 2. In my mind, after working many international events, Worlds and Olympics, Level 1 is arrival, practice/off-site gyms, getting settled, and adjusting. Level 2 is where the teams transition to podium training. The athletes will get on the real competition equipment in the venue where they will be vying for their chance to take home some hardware. 

Those days are always one of the most significant memories held by any Olympian, staff or any part of the experience. In everyone’s mind is the child-like depiction of what you will be wearing, how you will feel, and what the breath in will feel like when you realize this is the moment you are on the precipice of your dreams.

Podium training (Wednesday and Thursday) is an organized parallel to Qualifications (Sat and Sun). Athletes will start to feel the pressure of distractions in the arena – photographers, sounds, sights. They will get a layout of the arena and comfortable with where things are (though here, help is literally feet away at any moment in time). They will quietly file away how the beam sounds upon landing, the rebound of the floor, the softness of the mats and the bounce of the bar. 

Most athletes, of course, have done this before in one form or another, at a World Championships, World Cup, continental event and many times at their own respective nationals. Still the anticipation and build up to the Olympic Games is epic. The pageantry of being escorted by a uniformed volunteer while in matching national team attire is enough to remind you that even if you are on your way, quite simply, to get your ankle taped, you are doing so… at the Olympics. 

For the men, yesterday was about having some fun and relaxing the mind. For the women, today was that day. After having a great practice for the six women, they let loose with fun pictures in the gym, showing the depth of their friendship, support and camaraderie in this journey which few can say they have done. 

Celebrating One More Step Tomorrow, the gymnastics world turns their eyes to men’s podium training day and the questions and conversations will begin. How will Dalaloyan look after his Achilles tear and repair? How will Said’s emotions be after having left the stadium in Brazil in emergency fashion with his leg injury from vault? Will this truly be Mikulak’s time to put it all together? 

Podium training days are long, as the 12 teams and individual qualifiers are all present, and the kinks of the system are worked out. A day off, and then the same schedule happens Saturday and Sunday and we’ll know who’s going to finals to go after gold. Some athletes’ Games will be done, and individual qualifiers get to breathe. Others get to relish in the fact that they made it one more step. 

All eyes will be on the stories that emerge on social media, the posts that the athletes make in front of banners, the team fanfare and the pride. These amazing athletes got here. 

So, let’s celebrate them. All of them. Let’s all, as a community, be the spirit of the sport of gymnastics and not just our flags. Perseverance, organization, obstacles, and love. What a year. The love of a sport that could not prevent you from doing handstands in your house, even during a quarantine. 

Day 1: Monday, July 19

Arrival, Settling in, and Positive Tests

It is dark out, and nearly midnight in Tokyo, so there is no background noise. No hustle and bustle of busy streets, conversations or city distractions. The city feels empty and void of its normal buzz. The people we do encounter could not be more friendly and more welcoming of all staff and guests for the Olympics. They are proud, cautious and professional, and safe. 

As soon as we were through processing today (3 hours and 22 checkpoints, 6 separate forms, apps, fingerprints, retinal scans, photographs, immigration and my Starbucks password), we were actually allowed to pick up our phones. After 6:00pm in Tokyo, it was announced that one of the women’s team members tested positive for COVID yesterday, and then again this AM.  We come to find out that she is isolated, and cautiously, so is a close connection. (Editor’s note: It was confirmed that alternate Kara Eaker tested positive for COVID-19, and alternate Leanne Wong is currently quarantined as well.)

It was an eerie feeling. Knowing that she is quarantined in a foreign country. Knowing that any one of us is one small conversation, one simple hug, one touch and one wash away from flying solo. It was always a possibility, but now, it is a reality. Just after 10:00pm here, her coach, Al Fong, confirmed that she will go through 8-14 days of isolation, per Justin Surrency, a WHO-TV reporter’s Twitter feed. News travels fast, and they needed to act quickly. 

Sitting in my room by myself, I try to imagine what Kara must feel like. But it’s hard to grasp. I am not an 18-year-old teenager, who still lives at home, without her parents in a foreign country. I’m not missing out on my Olympics. I am not scared of the scrutiny. I am not fearful of this unknown. As an alternate, you have a strong sense of duty. To be able to step in at any time. To then grapple with reconciling the new reality must be difficult. 

Thinking ahead and all-case scenarios: What if the team doesn’t have a team of alternates ready? Does that place more pressure on those that are on the team? It brings up potential coaching questions of doing or not doing riskier skills for injury. It adds more preventative recovery time to decrease likelihood. It piles on even more stress to not need to be replaced. 

This brings up the question many still have – why not take another alternate, because you could have? 

I am equal parts nervous for her and empathetic (I did 10 days alone in my house on a separate floor, dinners left outside of the door, no interaction with my kids). I am apprehensive to the news I will wake up to. But just as athletes have to compartmentalize, so do we as we navigate each circumstance. We have a Games to cover and many great stories to explore and share. History will be made, stars will be born, generations will be inspired! It’s a Games like no other, and the athletes who have trained a lifetime for a moment like this will soon be in Podium Training, with Prelims just around the corner!

Day 0 – “WE ARE GOING TO THE OLYMPICS! BRING ON JAPAN!”

Papers and the Journey… with Gratitude 

SO MANY PAPERS…

Today is day zero, embarking on a journey that seemed as if it may never arrive. Mixed emotions of excitement to begin this trip and sadness to leave my family. Exhaustion in the preparation.

Let me first say how incredibly proud we are to bring coverage of yet another Olympic Games and how excited we are for the athletes to have their well deserved time on sport’s greatest stage. We are so looking forward to all that’s ahead! 

But for today, we thought we’d showcase the reality of the crazy logistics that go on behind-the-scenes just to get to this point! The organizers and the country want this experience to be as safe as possible. And sooooo many moving parts have to come together under normal circumstances. And during a pandemic, that is amplified exponentially. 

Rewind!

Folders upon folders! So much paperwork. 37 sheets to be exact. The amount of communication, entry requirements, emails and forms to fill out is more exhausting than registering a child for the first day of public schooling or summer camp. But, seriously. 

The journey really started two years ago with applications, emails with the USOPC about acceptance, housing requirements and registration. Enter the start of a pandemic, months out from the Olympics, and rumblings of rumors of postponement. Planning, then not planning. Postponement. Waiting. Wondering. 

Finally, we had the official word that the Games are on! Technically still designated the 2020 Olympics, 2020ne begins to trend. Booking and rebooking airline tickets. Eagerly awaiting the final steps. Finally, we get word from the USOC – credentials are mailing! It was like Christmas morning. 

You’d think it would be time to finally breathe. Not so fast. That “number” that you get, your official Olympic Credential Number, leads to door number two down the longest hallway of your life, with 652 check points. 

Up Next: Your Master Activity Plan, which needs to be officially approved by the Japanese government. This includes every step you will take and activity you will watch – from airport to official transport to hotel, practice venue, competition venue, and press center.

Time for Review and Re-Review: The Media Playbook, officially the name of the “guide” to the rules of the Olympics Games, a mere 68 pages long that summarizes the do’s and don’ts (Updated, as you’d expect, multiple times). Because of COVID protocol, things are markedly very different – don’t hug anyone, don’t get close to anyone, keep your mask on, make sure you test when you should. Walking in the streets in Tokyo outside of the Olympic zone, eating out, touring – not allowed. It’s all understandably about protecting the people of Japan.

APP-Up: Apps called OCHA and COCOA are how we’ll be tracked for contact tracing that is automatic based on proximity of your phones and more. ICON – the Infection Control Support System – is the hub for always knowing where you are (or where you should be) with the activity plan, testing, results, health, monitoring and more. The issue right now? We’re having trouble actually get into ICON (and we’re apparently not the only ones). It is like that guy that has BitCoin, but cannot remember his password…LOL. But rest assured, we’ll figure it out.

Testing Time: COVID testing as expected was and is required, super official and methodical. 96 hours out, I may have officially lost all of my nose hair by getting two COVID tests within four days of departure! Everything needed to be officially signed and sealed once the results were back. Even if vaccinated (which I am, and still have COVID antibodies, but can still carry it, which means, out) testing is required. Out is out. Positive is positive. (More on this in Day 1). 

I printed the negative results, took pictures of them, kept them in a million different places – just in case! And sent all the paperwork to a friend’s email, just in case. Racing thoughts as I try to wind down, do the OCHA survey and print out the coveted QR code that I need, pack, try to sleep and GO!

And maybe breathe.

FINALLY, ITS GO TIME FOR REAL

Airport check in was very official, showing all paperwork, signed forms, negative test results, credential, passport, blood type, and middle name of first born. OK, well the last two may be a bit of a stretch!

We soon realized that there were only three categories of people on our flight: Japanese citizens who were returning home, athletes and staff – with an abundance of logos for sport and country (and some with recognizable height). And then, the VIPs. Seemingly, a literal Princess whose personal security guards left her no farther than six feet apart until the plane quite literally took off.

After a little bit of a giddy jump up and down with a great friend Jess (and owner and master Podcaster with GymCastic!) I boarded the plane, breathed deeply on the other side of security, then exclaimed, maybe a bit louder than socially acceptable, “WE ARE GOING TO THE OLYMPICS! BRING ON JAPAN!” 

SELF-REFLECTION

Self-reflection, of course, is something I try to do. Often now, but before one of my closest friends Betty Okino taught me, it was not enough. Practicing daily gratefulness for what we are given. Practicing grace in the process. Allowing patience to enter our bodies with the sheer magnitude of the Games. Being forever humbled and indebted that God granted me the talent to help athletes, to be in the right place at the right times when they need me most, and to have a gift and platform to share the experience. The journey I get to be on with these amazing athletes, for 20 years. 

The Inside Gymnastics team is beyond amazing, and you will all see, across all media platforms- photos, writing, interviews, social and more throughout the Games. So much more. What a voyage this has been and will be. The trust in me and support from the Inside Gymnastics team is the fuel to my fire.

I’ve worked over 100 events, credentials all kept and hanging like an adolescent child holds their medals on their wall. Not to glance at and feel proud, but to breathe deeply and snap a picture in my mind of the process – years in the making – and the true humbled appreciation for the opportunity of a lifetime that so few have gotten, get now, and will get in the future. 

I hope to take you on this journey with me. To bring to you the sights and sounds. The rich history of the pageantry of the Japanese people. The centuries-old rice fields that we will pass  on our way to and from the stadium each day. The protocols that need to be followed and the juxtaposition of both anxiety and comfort, fear and safety in these unusual times. The silence of the stadiums, and the loudness of the landings. The isolation on one hand, and the team bonding on the other. The laughter amidst the chaos. The heaviness of the responsibility of represent your country, and the appreciation of getting to do so. 

As I write this, well above clouds and water, and an ocean away from being a part of history in the making, one final self check-in. I sure hope the athletes had a moment of grace and gratitude on their flights, in the midst of chaos, excitement and team bonding. One moment to acknowledge that they are in the air on their way to their dreams actually coming to fruition. And a moment for every single person who is on these flights with all of us in spirit. The parents. The siblings. The coaches that could not come. The teachers who afforded them leeway because of travel and competitions. The carpools. The teammates. The children who looked up to the athletes and the staff for what they are trying to do. The medical staff. The children- my children. Who have learned to sacrifice me without ever being asked, and to share me with this crazy world of gymnastics, a sport that is like a secret society that no one understands unless they are in it. The facetimes, the calls, the advanced planning. To the spouses- as some of our athletes are married, and the husbands and wives that we leave behind to be a part of the team in whatever way that is. They live this crazy dream with us. 

To my spouse in particular, Brad, these four five years especially have been filled with emotion, heartache, passion and humility. From cases making national news, to setting new standards for SafeSport, justice for the athletes and their souls, more flights and Zoom calls than I can count. You live this with me, because of me, and I am forever indebted for the opportunity to live my dream. Oprah Winfrey said in one of her last episodes ever, how rare it was to align your passion and your career. To live your dream. To love what you do. Truly. And on top of that, to have it make a difference. Thank you for allowing me to align, live, love and make. 

Like a well-written movie score, with triggering the senses like Disney does on 4D attractions, let my written word allow a cracked door into the magic. 

Peace and safety for all. No luck needed – their work is already done☺

Photos courtesy of Ricardo Bufolin for Inside Gymnastics, Gina Pongetti Angeletti and Tokyo Olympics 2020

Follow us on Instagram and Twitter @InsideGym for the latest updates leading to the Games and on the scene in Tokyo!

Subscribe now at www.shopinsidenation.com for our Inside Gymnastics magazine Olympic Preview Issue and Commemorative Olympic Issue!