The Tuscaloosa News will dive into the differences between elite and collegiate gymnastics with a three-part series focusing on the decision to switch, the changes in competition (below) and the best of both worlds.
Beauty is always going to be in the eye of the beholder when it comes to gymnastics. It’s a subjective sport. There are judges involved in both elite and college competition.
The expectations, though, are different between the two levels.
“The sport as a whole in vault, bars beam and floor – having four events – hasn’t changed,” Alabama coach Dana Duckworth said. “The demands of how do you become an Olympian – the numbers, the hours, the training, the discipline, the structure, the training camp and all those things – some of that has changed and tweaked here and there, but it has never lessened the fact that to get to that level is demanding.”
More demanding than college.
Difficulty is prioritized in the elite world. The harder the skill, the better. Therefore, gymnasts are pushed harder.
Or at least in a different way.
“Obviously you want to have good execution, but it’s not the main part,” UA junior Maddie Desch said. “It’s build a difficult routine first, make it and then make it perfect. But I think college is literally the complete opposite. It’s what routine can I do at the best of my ability to get the highest score possible execution wise.”
What can she do as perfectly as possible, if not completely perfect.
A college score is determined by deductions. Each routine has a start value – ideally, a 10.0 – determined ahead of time by the skills, leaps and connections incorporate throughout a routine. Then, as a gymnast performs, she is judged by what is done correctly and incorrectly. Any wobble, step, hop or fall results in points off.
“The skills are a lot easier,” Alabama freshman Emily Gaskins said. “So I have to kind of slow down and control it. But then it’s so different because like here, you have to hit your handstands, you have to keep your knees together and you have to stick your landings. And in elite, you just have to make your routine and make it look nice.”
Nice. Not perfect.
Elite scoring used to work the same way but changed in 2006 by the International Gymnastics Federation. Now, two different panels of judges determine an individual’s score. There is one that decides a difficulty score, and another that focuses on an execution score.
The execution part is a lot like the old way and college: start at 10 and deduct points for mistakes made throughout a routine. The difficulty portion is where things differ but is actually very similar to how a start value is calculated: start from zero and add points based on the technical content. The two marks are then added together to get a final score.
“You can have a higher start value, be a little sloppier and still score higher,” Gaskins said.
Results are also normally higher than a 10, which would never – and could never – happen in college unless its format changes.
That separate difficulty category is why elites have a more impressive list of skills on their resume.
“Trust me, if you looked at (Desch’s) beam skills she’s doing right now, in her elite career, she probably did 17 extra skills between other things because she had to,” Duckworth said. “So now it’s nice to be able to say these are the one we’re really good at and we’re confident in, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Sometimes, Duckworth will choose to have one of her former elites plug a more difficult skill into her routine. Alabama freshman Shallon Olsen, for example, would sometimes throw a double-double (two twists, two flips) on floor this season depending on how she warmed up, even though it didn’t necessary add anything to her score. That kind of tumbling pass provides a “wow” factor that not only can impress the judges if done well but also the fans.
“I’m still trying to do some difficulty in college because first of all, it looks pretty,” Olsen said. “Everybody likes watching the big skills.”
Because, at the heart of it all, gymnasts are performers. The moment they step out on the competition floor they are there to entertain. There’s a reason this type of gymnastics – the one with vault, bars, beam and floor – is called artistic gymnastics. They’re artists within their sport.
All of that should be fun, especially in college.
“But at the same time, are you going to get the job done if you’re goofing around and not being focused?” Duckworth said. “You won’t.”
Reach Terrin Waack at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.