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Gymnastic Challenge 2000

PREMIER COMPETITION Gymnastic Challenge 2000, a new meet on the international gymnastics calendar, provided a unique opportunity for athletes to participate in a combined men's and women's team event, a format that helped to ease the unrelenting pressure that comes with an Olympic year. Teams were comprised of two men and three women per country, with the top men's score and top two women's scores per apparatus counting towards the team total. Organizers of the event, which was a part of Toronto's 2008 Olympic Bid, also permitted junior athletes to attend, giving the competition an intriguing mix of past, present, and future champions.

While a total of 21 competitors from the 1999 world championships were entered, it was the presence of one athlete who had not competed internationally for three years that piqued the interest of the international sporting community. Shannon Miller, now Shannon Miller-Phillips, announced her comeback to elite gymnastics in January, and Gymnastic Challenge 2000 would not only be her international debut, but also her first opportunity to measure her abilities against many of the world's best heading into Sydney.

While Miller was the top individual headline for the competition, the favorites for the team title were undoubtedly the Chinese. Fielding a team comprised entirely of athletes named to their Olympic training rosters, China was undoubtedly using this event as a final test before moving on to Sydney. Their performances, though occasionally marred by error, did not disappoint, and they went on to capture the team title and the $5,000 (U.S.) that came with the victory. Leading the way was 1999 world floor exercise bronze medallist, Xing Aowei, who took the highest score of the competition on floor exercise, pommel horse, and high bar, on his way to an easy victory in the all-around. Current world vault champion, Li Xiaopeng, performed four events only, but earned the top score on two of them, with his immaculate RO-half-on layout Rudi vault (9.750), and stuck double pike parallel bars dismount (9.800). With their performances, the Chinese men proved once again that they are virtually untouchable in the world of gymnastics, and that the true battle in the men's team competition in Sydney will be for second place.

The Chinese women were less successful than their male counterparts, but displayed enough clean exercises to help clinch the gold. After a disasterous first rotation, where all three gymnasts fell on vault (only one vault per athlete), the women came back well on uneven bars with strong routines from Qi Linzi and Yang Yun (gorgeous Healy turn with arm flared to the side, clean double layout) to overcome a fall by world team member, Dong Fangxiao, on her Comaneci release. Balance beam was, not surprisingly, their best event, with Dong (high RO layout, performed with a full twist in warm-ups), and Yang finishing one-two in that event (9.800 and 9.700, respectively). Yang sealed the team victory with a well-choreographed floor routine that earned her a 9.625 and a loud ovation from the audience.

A surprising second to the Chinese was the relatively inexperienced Ukrainian team, who used stable, if not flashy, exercises to propel them past the more renowned athletes from France and Australia. Paced by 3rd-place AA performances by 1997 world championship team member, Valery Goncharov, and recent junior European championship stand-out, Irina Yarotska, the Ukrainians presented polished, well-prepared routines that have become their hallmark since the break-up of the former Soviet Union. Highlights included Yarotska's fluid uneven bar and balance beam performances and Andrei Mikhailichenko's two full-twisting Kovacs' on high bar, which brought gasps from the crowd and helped him to an impressive 4th place AA result.

The French team placed third, but not without some confusion. After his women completed a nightmarish vaulting rotation (3 falls), coach Nelu Pop requested the opportunity for his team to re-vault, citing a shaky apparatus as the source of their difficulties. After adding some weight to the horse, Elvire Teza and Alexandra Soler successfully stood up their vaults (layout front from Teza, 4th AA), and the French moved into third place, just over one point ahead of the Australians.

As a result, the team from Down Under, touted to challenge the Chinese for gold, had to be content with fourth. Veteran men's performers Brennon Dowrick and Andrei Kravtsov (6th and 7th AA, respectively), both had up-and-down days, each taking low scores on rings and parallel bars. Teammates Jenny Smith and Allana Slater also had problems, the former on beam and floor, the latter on vault. Slater's 8.450 for her controversial layout front-half dropped her to 7th AA, but she debuted her new choreography and an innovative 2 twisting front on floor. Lisa Skinner countered with one of the event's highlights, however, showing outstanding exercises on all four apparatus to take the women's AA title. Skinner, who seems to only be improving with age (she's 19), was secure when others stumbled, and her result certainly bodes well for the Aussies, who now have three top all-arounders (with Slater and Trudi McIntosh) heading into Sydney.

Despite hopes of challenging the top countries in the team event, the Canadians would have to settle for fifth at the end of the day. Riddled with injuries that prevented world team members Yvonne Tousek and Michelle Conway from competing, the host country had to make a last minute replacement, giving 13 year-old Mariline Barrett the opportunity to compete on two events in front of a hometown crowd. Despite some misses along the way, Olympic contenders Crystal Gilmore, and Aubrey Taylor (9.575 BB) did their best to impress head coach Andrei Rodionenko less than one month before Olympic Trials, and earned many fans for their passionate performances on floor. On the men's side, Canadian veteran Richard Ikeda had the opportunity to compete, for possibly the last time, in front of a home crowd. While he sacrificed his all-around ranking by skipping vault, Ikeda still showed up well on two of his best events, high bar and parallel bars, where he placed fourth and sixth, respectively.

Sixth as a team, the Brazilians provided some of the most entertaining performances of the competition. Three-time Pan Am medallist, Daiane dos Santos (10th AA), delighted the audience with her top-scoring floor exercise routine (high Arabian double front, double layout, 9.700), as well as her effusive personality. The quality of their women's performances makes Brazil's 18th-place finish at last year's world championships seem like a miscalculation, but certainly points to a bright future for this young team. A stronger performance by their male teammates could have likely vaulted the Brazilians into contention with the top teams.

The Russians, who sent a team comprised of gymnasts from the world-renowned Moscow Dinamo club, had, for the most part, a forgettable competition. After losing Yuri Kryukov to a separated shoulder at the start of the meet (mounted rings but could not continue), the Russians suffered more bad luck when Ludmila Yezhova had to be taken to the hospital after two events with the stomach flu. The three gymnasts who remained tried to make the best of their situation, and produced some highlights along the way. Most notable was the performance of junior European championship gold medallist, Anna Pavlova, who finished 2nd overall. Standing just over four feet tall, this 12 year-old dynamo gave notice of great things to come with stellar performances on all events, especially uneven bars and balance beam (Onodi, Rulfova, triple twist dismount).

Unfortunately for the Americans, they were doomed to finish last when it became apparent that they would only enter one female competitor. Since two counting scores were required on each women's event, this athlete shortage allowed the Americans to compete for personal gain, rather than team success. As a result, Miller decided to opt out of floor exercise, citing a newly re-organized routine as the reason for relinquishing her all-around hopes.

Despite her position on this quasi-team, all eyes were on Miller as she moved to her first event, the balance beam. Over the past few months, the whispers about Miller had turned into roars, with an outstanding showing at Bela Karolyi's May camp, and talk by several national coaches of her Olympic team position being all but assured. All of this positive thinking could not help the seven-time Olympic medallist on this day, however, as Miller came crashing down to earth with a fall on "her" Miller, and an unplanned back roll out of her high double tuck dismount. It seemed as soon as she mounted the apparatus that this competitor among competitors was somehow out of sync, looking lost on the event that she all but owned during her career. Coach Steve Nunno said after the meet that Shannon had "blanked" after the fall, something he had never seen previously from his prized pupil. Nunno noted that many think of Miller as the consummate performer, who fights hardest when the chips are down, but he quickly quashed that old belief, stating, "that was then. This is now."

After her unbalanced beam effort, Miller returned to the competition floor two events later with a lofty Hristakieva (leaving her one and-a-half at home on this day), which took the evening's highest vault score (9.325). Unfortunately, the demons resurfaced on the uneven bars, where she overcooked a straddle back to handstand, despite hitting an intricate new combination of inverted giants, pirouette, giant, hop-full, to Tkatchev.

After the meet, Miller was open and honest about her disappointment, but her resolve to make the necessary changes before Sydney was equally evident. "This meet did not go well," she began, "I'm not happy with my performances at all". Nunno concurred, "tonight was a terrible disaster, no doubt about it. I take full responsibility, but there are no excuses [for this result]I forced her to come." He also noted that Miller was suffering from a pulled shoulder, and that he had protected his athlete by not forcing her to train up to full capacity. Only time will tell if Shannon's comeback dreams will be fulfilled with a berth on her third Olympic team, but as both coach and athlete noted, this humbling experience served its purpose: to get the competitive fires burning again, while brushing away three years worth of cobwebs. This story is certainly far from over.

While Miller's performance was notable for its errors, her two young teammates, seventeen year-old twins Paul and Morgan Hamm, were memorable for their successes. Paul certainly made a name for himself with his efforts, placing 2nd overall with a clean six-for-six night. Brother Morgan was also on track for an outstanding showing until he had to count a zero on vault (his hand touched the mat before his feet did). Despite the hiccup, these two young stars further solidified their position as true contenders for the U.S. team to Sydney and beyond.

After the tension of the team competition, the final night was dedicated to exhibition performances in a Gala Showcase. Joining the top performers from each apparatus of the team competition, as well as rhythmic, dance, trampoline, and sports aerobics performers, were several Olympic Champions. Vitaly Scherbo delighted the crowd by overcoming a four-year layoff and a button-down shirt to stick three ff-tucked full's, while Svetlana Boginskaya and Lilia Podkopayeva amazed with their physical condition and skill level (double tuck on floor from Boginskaya, now a mother, and two punch fronts and an aerial walkover on beam from Podkopayeva).

The impact of Gymnastic Challenge 2000 on a number of gymnastic careers will only be known in the months and years ahead. Until then, all in attendance were thrilled to witness a brief glimpse into the pre-Olympic crystal ball, while the teams who competed used this competition to clarify and solidify their rosters. Organizing committee chair, Susan Harris (Canada's Olympic judge), declared the event, which struck an intriguing balance between intense competition and light-hearted exhibition, a success, and has hopes of bringing high-level gymnastics back to Canada in the near future.

Written by JS

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