Saturday, June 30, 2012

The U.S. Rings Problem

Team USA's biggest weakness is not what we think it is.


Commentators typically mention the team's pommel horse problem: the American competitors lack the difficulty that other teams have; their hips are not as extended as they should be; and pommel horse, like the women's balance beam, can go terribly wrong in the blink of an eye.



I will not deny that Team USA struggles on pommel horse, but it is not the only problem in this Olympic cycle. At first glance, the Americans' deltoids suggest that the men are great competitors on rings. However, statistically speaking, this apparatus is one of their most problematic events. Let's look at the numbers after three nights of competition.



(Click images to enlarge.)


Before we can analyze the charts, we must keep in mind a couple of things. First, in the gymnastics community, it is generally accepted that the US National Team is not hurting on floor, vault, parallel bars, and high bar. Second, picking a good team is extremely difficult this year. Only 5 men can make the team, and only 3 men will be competing in the finals at the Olympics.


So, what can we glean from these numbers?


If the Olympic Committee wanted to field the best possible team on pommels, Alexander Naddour, Danell Leyva, John Orozco, and Samuel Mikulak would compete in the qualifying round, and Naddour, Leyva, and Orozco would compete in finals. This is a viable option, and it makes sense to put Leyva, Orozco, and Mikulak on any iteration of the team. They, after all, are the top three all-arounders in the United States.


But Naddour's bid for the team is not as strong as he might like it to be. During the team competition, he would be limited to competing pommels. As someone who finished 13th on floor, 9th on rings, 15th on vault (last), 12th on parallel bars, and 13th on high bar, he would not help Team USA on any other event. And even on pommel horse, his consistency is questionable. Who can forget his rough go at the 2011 World Championships in the qualifying round?


So, should the US risk it and use 1 of their 5 slots on a gymnast who will compete 1 event in the hope that Naddour will score above a 15? Or should the US put up a consistent pommel lineup in finals--one that scores consistently in the upper 14s?


That decision would be easier to make if pommel horse was the only problematic event for Team USA, but, alas, it is not. Rings further complicate the selection process. Whereas Leyva, Orozco, and Mikulak pack a 2-3-4 punch on pommels, they pack an 8-3-9 punch on rings. That is quite the spread among the top 3 all-arounders, and if the selection committee does not want Leyva (8th) and Mikulak (9th) competing rings in Team Finals, it is not an easy fix.


Well, sort of. Luckily for Team USA, Jonathan Horton is the top gymnast on rings. He was an event finalist at the 2011 World Championships, and his three-day average is the highest in the field. Also, he is the fourth best all-arounder going into the final day of competition, which means that he is fairly consistent and could compete on almost any event in a pinch. If Horton were placed on the team, the lineup for finals would be Horton (1), Orozco (3), and Leyva (8), and the 5-gymnast team would consist of Leyva, Orozco, Mikulak, Horton, and Naddour.


But, in terms of rings, that's quite the jump from 3rd-best Orozco to 8th-best Leyva. Is that a spread that they are willing to deal with in order to put Naddour on the team? If Team USA does not name Naddour to the team, they could add Brandon Wynn, the second-best rings worker. But a look at the scores shows that he would be another Naddour in finals, in the sense that he would be a 1-event specialist.


A 1-event specialist will not cut it on a 5-person team, which brings me to Jacob Dalton. In addition to being a top performer on floor and vault, he is currently 5th in the all-around, and he would make the rings lineup a 1-3-6 punch.


Yet, 1-3-6 is still quite the spread, but who else could Team USA add? Perhaps CJ Maestas, who is 6th on pommels and 4th on rings. Perhaps Chris Brooks, who has struggled with consistency throughout the 3 days of competition, yet finds himself 5th on rings and 6th in the all-around.


Leaving speculation aside, one thing is clear: the Selection Committee cannot have it both ways. They cannot send their best rings lineup as well as their best pommel lineup. As male gymnasts joke, it is difficult to fall off the rings, but for Team USA, developing a good rings lineup is perhaps one of its biggest challenges. It is the event that has the biggest spread among the top 3 all-arounders, who, barring injury or a disastrous second day at Trials, appear to be on their way to London.


On Sunday morning, our speculations will be put to rest, and we will know which gymnasts are on their way to London. Based on the names called, we will have a better understanding of the concerns of the US Selection Committee members, specifically whether the Selection Committee is more concerned with the pommel lineup or the rings lineup.


In the meantime, keep an eye on the rings scores on Saturday. They could very well make or break a gymnast's Olympic dream.

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