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Home Sport Here’s the trick: To win gymnastics medals, U.S. men need harder skills
Here’s the trick: To win gymnastics medals, U.S. men need harder skills

Here’s the trick: To win gymnastics medals, U.S. men need harder skills

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TAMPA — At the Tokyo Olympics last summer, Brody Malone remembers watching the Chinese men’s gymnasts practicing their super-difficult parallel bars sets in the training center. Malone, a fast-rising talent in the U.S. program, had never seen many of these headliners in person. Competing among the stars made the Games a great experience for the Americans — and an eye-opening one, too.

When the U.S. team finished fifth, the athletes — three Olympic first-timers and a veteran — didn’t reflect on their performance with much disappointment or shock. For the most part, they performed well. They knew a gulf existed between them and the best nations, Russia, Japan and China.

“Being honest, we didn’t really have a shot at getting on the podium,” Malone said.

For nearly two decades, elite gymnastics scores have been tallied by combining difficulty, an open-ended value that increases as gymnasts fulfill requirements and perform harder elements, and execution, which starts from a Perfect 10 and decreases with errors. The Americans’ execution scores nearly kept pace with the best teams in Tokyo. But their low difficulty marks meant they started at a deficit and needed their opponents to make major mistakes to have a chance of medaling.

The gymnasts and coaches have known of this gap, but “to have an almost perfect performance, and not even really get close, told us that something’s wrong here and that we needed to fix it,” Tokyo Olympian Shane Wiskus said.

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The American men haven’t medaled in a team competition at world championships or the Olympics since 2014. Returning to the podium starts with implementing what high performance director Brett McClure calls “the most aggressive bonus system in the world.”

At domestic competitions, including this week’s national championships, gymnasts receive bonuses based on their difficulty, often referred to as their D score. The bonus can swing scores by more than a full point — the equivalent of the deduction for a fall. Each apparatus has bonuses designated for difficulty scores on a curve, carefully constructed based on the country’s weaknesses and internationally competitive marks.

The national team staff hopes this system will tilt the risk-reward calculus in favor of performing routines that are on par with the world’s best. They plan to wean off the bonus system as the Olympic year approaches. But for now, results at the national championships, which determine who advances to the world championships selection camp, will include these bonuses — making it more difficult for gymnasts with easier routines to be in contention. At the selection camp, bonuses will be removed as top team-score scenarios are assessed.

Around the country, these gymnasts in the sport’s top tier have been trying harder skills and unveiling them with mixed success.

“We’re all on board with whatever we’ve got to do to get on the podium,” said Malone, who trains at Stanford alongside five other gymnasts on the senior national team and two more on the senior development team. “The guys here are the same way. Everyone’s on board.”

The U.S. men’s program has never been a dominant force like its women’s counterpart, but the Americans won the silver in 2004 and had the Olympic all-around champion in Paul Hamm. Two years later, the sport changed to its current scoring system. The United States still won the bronze at the 2008 Olympics and landed on the podium at 2011 world championships.

At the 2012 Games, the U.S. men earned the top qualifying score but stumbled in the team final. Their average difficulty across all apparatuses (6.48) was similar to that of the medalists — China (6.67), Japan (6.49) and Great Britain (6.35). Poor execution, instead, doomed the Americans. The United States won bronze at 2014 worlds but missed the podium at the 2016 Olympics, placing fifth after execution errors again.

“We were pretty frustrated with our consistency,” McClure said. “We had the difficulty and weren’t able to put it all together in a team finals situation.”

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The focus shifted toward hitting routines, said McClure, who began his role in 2017. The staff embraced sports psychology, preparing athletes to perform well under pressure. Consistency improved, McClure said, but difficulty decreased. The team results? Fourth in 2018, fourth in 2019 and fifth in Tokyo.

Those letdowns questioned the philosophy: “What’s more important?” McClure said. “What is the difference between a fifth-place finish hitting 100 percent and being happy with your performance, or being competitive and having a few mistakes and ending in fifth place?”

In Tokyo, the Americans’ execution scores on each apparatus were mostly similar to the medaling teams. However, across 18 routines, the United States averaged a 5.77 D score, compared to a 6.01 for the Russian Olympic Committee, 6.07 for Japan and 6.06 for China. Before the competition began, the maximum score for the Americans was more than four points lower than those top teams.

“We want to be on the other side of the spectrum,” McClure said. “If we end up fifth again, it’s because we made mistakes.”

Consider vault: Three U.S. gymnasts performed in the Tokyo team final, each with a 5.2 D score. The medaling teams averaged at least a 5.6. That was the largest deficit the Americans faced on an apparatus — and why the bonus curve for vault is steeper than the others.

Syque Caesar, the head coach at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center, had a key role in designing the bonus system and called vault a top priority. Some reference the vault curve as a too-extreme implementation of the bonuses, but Caesar said, “that’s what we need.”

The world shares a scoring system, but coaches point to tight judging in the United States that has made the risk-reward calculations for Americans favor well-executed, easier routines. Domestic results help determine selection for the national team and for international assignments, such as world championships and the Olympics.

“Guys wanted to do the difficulty in the last quad, but they also had to make a team,” said Thom Glielmi, the head coach at Stanford, the three-time defending NCAA champion.

College gymnasts also spend a chunk of the year needing to hit routines for their team, rather than experiment with new skills. Glielmi said the college season can be an ideal time for his gymnasts to try new elements, but his program might be able to embrace that philosophy because of how far ahead it is from the others.

With the new system in place at the Winter Cup in February, Vitaliy Guimaraes won the competition without earning any bonus: “He just did his gymnastics at a high level and went six for six,” said Mark Williams, his coach at Oklahoma, who also admitted: “I still think the score is the score, so I guess maybe I’m a little old-school.” The field included one Olympian, Yul Moldauer, who placed fourth despite a boost of nearly two points in bonus.

At the recent U.S. Classic, Malone earned bonus on five apparatuses and won the meet. If the bonuses didn’t exist, he still would have topped the standings. Stanford teammate Colt Walker placed second with or without bonus. The incentive system bumped Donnell Whittenburg into third, ahead of a gymnast who didn’t meet the bonus threshold on any apparatus, but that’s presumably the type outcome the U.S. staff envisioned with this system. Whittenburg had the most difficult vault in the field and can also improve a team score with his rings and floor performances. His jump in the standings matches his ability to fit into a worlds team.

The U.S. men didn’t win any medals in Tokyo; Malone (high bar) and Alec Yoder (pommel horse) were in contention but missed out by narrow margins during the apparatus finals. The world championships in October will be the first major team competition since then, and Russia’s absence aids the Americans’ medal hopes. Worlds last year included only individual events, and the U.S. men earned two medals — Malone’s high bar bronze and Stephen Nedoroscik’s pommel horse gold.

Moldauer, who finished fourth in the all-around at the 2021 world championships, hopes to reach a 6.0 D score on each apparatus in time for Paris. Ask why, and he doesn’t mention the bonus system: “I want to be an Olympic medalist,” Moldauer said.

Wiskus describes the current group of gymnasts — regardless of whether they’ve represented the United States on the world stage — as hungry, committed to improve difficulty, and perhaps their most important characteristic, “tired of seeing the U.S. end in fifth place.”

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