Photos by Grace Chiu
U.S. Men Rally For 4th – Where Do We Go From Here?
By Gina Pongetti Angeletti
Fourth is the new fifth.
Two World Championships in a row, 2018 and 2019, the U.S. men have landed in fourth place. Two Olympics in a row (2012 and 2016), the U.S. men have landed in fifth place.
Today, they were 7.148 points behind Russia and 3.581 points behind third place Japan. No one was expecting a gold, but a place on the podium would have in itself, been a tremendous victory and achievement for this team. Still, after a shaky qualification round to say the least, fourth had to feel awesome.
Brett McClure, the U.S. Men’s High Performance Coordinator, reiterated after the competition he was proud of the team’s performance and improvement tonight, both in difficulty over the last year and in their attention to execution.
Still, they were fourth. And a long way from third.
To get a grasp on where the U.S. men’s team stands and what might make a podium place possible in Tokyo, here are some facts by the numbers:
- Their score increased 2.584 from the 2018 Doha World Championships team finals performance and tonight’s team final.
- The team performed nearly to the best of their ability, with 2-3 small errors, and no major mistakes tonight.
- There was a 1.0 D score increase (over all 18 routines, 0.056, per routine) and a 1.584 execution score increase (over all 18 routines, 0.088 for each routine).
- Of 18 routines, that is only 0.199 tenths per event per person to get there.
The podium is possible. But first, some things have to change. Yes, a two-and-a-half-point increase over a year is something to be commended. The issue lies more with what those points are made up of and how the team gets there.
McClure stated this was a great meet for the men, and that this is where they fall in the grand scheme of things. The conundrum remains: if the men increase difficulty, then they need to be consistent. If it is not consistent, then they risk having the E scores lowered. And if they cancel each other out, then is the risk truly worth it? Of course, if consistency falls into place, then we are true contenders. But, any athlete knows consistency take months, even years to build and Tokyo is just a short 10 months away.
So, what has to happen in order for the U.S. men to have a shot at a medal? First, they need more depth. We need more obvious standout athletes and routines we cannot live without, not those we can simply live with. How is depth added? It takes years for athletes who are up and coming and those who are considered veterans to find their speed – pushing their limits and committing to following their career not only to college, but through college and beyond.
Mark Williams, U.S. Men’s Head Coach, described the need for depth and increased difficulty this way, “Generally, I would say, we need to have more depth. Guys need to be pushing the top guys, so there isn’t that ability to just come down a little bit and be safe. We have to have guys that are pushing the bottom, so that we can move up on the better teams in the world. I’m not saying it’s not worth the risk, we’d like to be on the podium. But we also could have dropped back down to seventh if we were trying to do more that I think we were capable of.”
Of note, between ages 18-21, men become physically developed and grown enough to come into their own. They can build strength and power, and not have to worry about altering their gymnastics for the physics of changing height. They worry less about their timing being off. They have enough of an ability to maintain muscle mass. And where are they during this time period? In the U.S., most, if not all, are training and competing in college. This means that although we have the best student athlete opportunities in the world, it is still exposure to a social life that takes away from training and the balance of the steep demand for academic excellence that parallels the gym. In many countries who are at the top of their gymnastics game, strict training and a comparable strict lifestyle is the focus.
In sharp contrast to the men, the women for the most part, peak before they leave for college, live at home with their parents, and often attend home-school (which is shortened to 3-4 hours a day at most) so they can focus on gym. They are, in all assumptions, fed well, sleep well, and don’t have the stress of having to live an independent lifestyle.
NCAA gymnastics does, however, bring the type of camaraderie, friendship and team-focused training the elite men are often missing in their home gyms. It is often the reason why so many of the men improve in college and stay motivated through high school – knowing this amazing experience awaits them. Whether the athletes improve greatly and choose a school that traditionally connects to the national team, or a school where they can end their gymnastics career, it is up to them to choose and hone their path. And their goals.
All these factors considered, is 10 months enough for the men to improve enough to make the podium in Tokyo? At some point in time, you have to say, “this is the routine that we have, and we need to make it better, event great and consistent,” rather than trying to add in new things up until a competition. For all of the teams, not just the U.S. men, when is that time? Months before Championships? Between Championships and Trials? When the numbers and the spreadsheets say consistency is not worth the effort?
In response, Williams offered this, “We obviously are doing what we can do. The problem is, you know, when you add difficulty, the execution goes down, and so does consistency. Personally, I know Yul can do some harder gymnastics, but it generally goes down when he starts to add more difficulty.”
But isn’t that what separates the boys from the men, the podium from the rest of the field per se – figuring out a way to accomplish both by combining repetition and accuracy in training?
Comparing where the team was in 2016, vision and attitude-wise to where they are now is a good leap. The coaching staff understands the job that has to be done – they are making staffing changes and acknowledging their shortcomings. And, they are allowing the team to relish in the fact that hitting 18 routines in a pressure-cooker situation such as finals with the 3-3 format, was a great accomplishment.
The men currently representing the U.S. cannot make the changes on their own. They are trying their hardest, doing the work, and trying to carry out the training plans and routines that have been decided for and together with them. Looking ahead to Tokyo, I would say fourth would be an amazing accomplishment. One place higher than both 2012 and 2016 would be great. A leap to the podium would be icing.
Consistency, like we saw in finals today, is what they are capable of doing and what they train for. What we saw in qualifications is, unfortunately, sometimes what we get.
Maybe a team picture, adorned with medals, in front of the Eiffel Tower, is where we are headed. Grow the grass-roots programming. Continue to foster the success of the NCAA. Motivate the crème’ to continue to push beyond college. And make your lifelines. I guarantee you the countries on the podium tonight already have this in mind.
Chalking Up In Comparison
- 2.584 difference 2018 to 2019
- D score – 103.5 to 102.5 is 1.0 increase 2018 to 2019
- E Score – 151.078 – 149.494 1.584 2018 to 2019
DOHA 2018 Men’s Team Final – 251.994
STUTTGART 2019 Men’s Team Final – 254.578