Tuesday, July 12, 2016

How The West Was Lost

The Hon. Mia Davies MLA BMM
Minister for Sport and Recreation
Western Australia


Dear Minister and Department Members,

Dear you, Reader,

Dear Friends and Families,


This afternoon it was unexpectedly announced that the women's artistic gymnastics program at the West Australian Institute of Sport (WAIS) is to be closed down on December 31st, not long after the excitement and fervour of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

It is with great urging that I ask you to reconsider this action. Not just for my own interests as a longtime spectator and social media contributor to the sport, but for the wellbeing of the families and athletes who have spent years working with the program.

I wish that I could say that, in my capacity as the above, there was something remarkable about me. I wish I could say I inspired the kinds of hopes, dreams and excitement these athletes do. But I don't, I strive to elevate those that do.

Perhaps you were not all fully aware of the utter 'remarkableness' of this program.

WAIS Gymnastics is not only a significant program in the scheme of Australia's gymnastics operations, it is the premier program. Thanks to WAIS, Australia can boast a female World Championship gold and silver medallist, (the nation's first), 9 Olympians, a multitude of Commonwealth Games gold medals, FIG World Cup gold and silver medals, and a national championship results board that sags under its own weight. To put it bluntly - much of Australia's rise on the world stage in gymnastics between 1991 and 2014 is thanks to the environment and consistency fostered at WAIS.

There was something remarkable about Sarah Lauren, one of Australia's youngest ever gold medallists at a Commonwealth Games in 2002. There was something remarkable about Daria Joura, the Russian-Australian Olympian who in early 2008 received a floor routine score that topped the rest of the world. There was something remarkable about Allana Slater, an upstart redhead the world met in 1998 in Kuala Lumpur and watched lead Australia to a consecutive Commonwealth team gold in Manchester 2002. And truly there is something remarkable about Lauren Mitchell, our first women's world champion and a dual Olympian who graciously credits her success to her WAIS Gymnastics' renowned coaches and specialists.

Unfortunately, since 2011, Australia's international results are not completely what they have been in the past. The road to Rio has been paved with hard work, unpleasant decisions, nailbiting performances and the absolute best of intentions. Stalwart performer Mitchell has suffered a number of injuries that have hampered her world-class contributions to the team. Injuries have also niggled at our recent national champions Georgia Godwin and Rianna Mizzen, while Rio Olympics alternate Emily Little (who calls WAIS home) has herself fought valiantly in the green and gold despite minor injuries and a brief break from competing.
After the women's team performed shakily at the London Olympics, the funding and coaching structure within gymnastics (like other sports under the ASC's review) was under heavy scrutiny in an attempt to right the ship. National head coach Peggy Liddick acknowledged that improvement would not happen overnight, and after serious review and restructure of the national high performance KPIs decided to send no representatives to the 2013 World Championships, an unprecedented move. Australia had qualified a berth on its own merits, but all gymnasts were to stay at home with the intent to improve difficulty and consistency across the national program. Although lamentable, as several eligible athletes were fit enough to compete, the decision was upheld. The strategy paid off in a top-8 team finish one year later in China, even without anchor Mitchell, and an individual apparatus final placing for Victoria's Larrissa Miller. But the relief was short-lived after further nerves and injuries set in before 2015 World Championships, and a team finish outside the top 10 saw Australia face its toughest challenge yet leading into the Olympics. There would be one last opportunity to qualify a full team berth to Rio: Finish 4th or higher at the Rio Test Event in six months' time or settle for qualifying just one individual. To the dismay of fans, the Australian women (led by Emily Little) again did not finish as high as hoped at the event, and would see only one of them selected to compete at the Games.

And that is where we are today: only one Australian gymnast will compete in 3 weeks in Rio. It is not a WAIS gymnast, but it is a gymnast that justly earned her selection, and counts WAIS' competitors as her friends. Her compatriots. Her sisters. We warmly congratulate Larrissa Miller on her deserved selection. WAIS will proudly field the reserve role in Emily Little, who last week did not let disappointment distract her and won the vault event at a competition in the Netherlands, and finished 5th on the event in Portugal. These two Australians are great inspirations for young athletes everywhere, as are so many of WAIS' past and present competitors.

In short, WAIS Gymnastics is worth much more to Australia than the loss of it would be. It is greatly distressing to read that parents and athletes, and even Gymnastics Australia officials, were not given prior warning of this decision. We respectfully ask that you do not extinguish a fire that ignited in 1998 with a maiden Commonwealth Games team gold medal, and the Perth gymnast who became the trailblazer for so many. Gymnastics Australia President Jacqui Briggs-Weatherill said of the news, "This sends the message 'Your aspirations aren't important'." and it is heartbreaking to have to think of the situation like this. It would be extremely difficult for the 60 gymnasts of the program to transition to other locations to continue training, or other sports programs altogether. The 2016 National Championships in Melbourne allowed WAIS gymnasts to show tremendous promise and potential, in both junior and senior fields. There is so, so much more to come from this program in the lead-up to Commonwealth Games 2018 and Tokyo 2020.

Please reconsider the move to close down the WAIS Gymnastics program.

My sincere thanks for your time.


Meredith

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

National Championships 2016: Apparatus Finals

The last Saturday and Sunday in May are always a bit chilly in Melbourne, but the skills and confidence on show at Hisense Arena in the apparatus finals were hotter than a jalapeno hula skirt!

VAULT:

No surprises here, with Chris Remkes and Emily Little taking the golds in their respective senior fields.  Remkes was one of only 3 men's competitors, so it was a question of what colour medal he would be taking home if he successfully stood up his vaults. The shy 145cm-tall South Australian repeated his recently acclaimed World Cup form, standing up a daring Dragulescu and a Tsukahara 2.5 twist for 14.862 to take the top spot over national AA champ Luke Wadsworth and WA's Jake Thompson (neither of whom could match Remkes in the difficulty stakes).

Like Remkes, Little was also unmatched for difficulty in the final. We are extremely excited to hear Em has a Tsukahara 1.5 twist and an Amanar in training, though neither was on display this weekend. No stick on the Baitova but a nifty stick on the tsuk. Her 15.012 was one of the highest women's scores of the weekend and I've no doubt the teased higher difficulty will keep that 15 streak going. Next in difficulty though not in ranking was Yasmin Collier whose highlight was a decent Yurchenko 1.5 twist, she had to settle for 4th place. In second was Kiara Munteanu, who did not vault a Yurchenko 1.5 while third placegetter Naomi Lee (13.612) did, though sitting down her 1/2 on double pike off secured Munteanu's medal. Sometimes it's all a matter of execution. While the rest of the field was admittedly little flat, we do know the senior women's field has doubles waiting in the wings from Godwin, Mizzen and an absent Monckton.
  Execution and difficulty on the junior women's side left a lot to be desired, but rising star from Jesolo last year Talia Folino proved victorious again after her Junior All-Around win, as one of only 2 gymnasts with a 5.0 difficulty vault in this final.


BARS:

Oh, the agony and the ecstasy.

The 2016 bars title was, as I grandiosely stated after the all-around final, Larrissa Miller's to lose. And in an unexpected finals turn (a Maroney Moment if you will), she did.

Miller was completely stunning in her stalder and pirouette work, catching every release smoothly though appearing to clip her feet ever so slightly in her in-bar geinger. And then it all fell apart. Back on the high bar and seconds away from clinching another podium finish, Larrissa lost momentum in a full pirouette and came off. Unfortunately she was not able to fully brush the mistake off, and repeated the error almost immediately. Back on the ground she seemed extremely distressed and keen to finish up, which she eventually did again - finishing the skill on the third attempt and landing with her trademark stuck full twist dismount. It was devastating to watch unfold and to see her ranked last, but Larrissa is a fighter and we knew she'd come back strongly in the floor final. The medal dais was not to be Waverley-less, as first year senior Emily Whitehead (competing on her only apparatus of these championships due to injury recovery) snatched silver with a competent routine that featured a Markelov and shap half for 13.775.

Already crowned national all-around champion, Rianna Mizzen backed up last year's first bars place finish with another stellar routine (capped off with a stuck dismount) that brought her the gold. Like fellow finallist Queenslander Georgia Godwin, Rianna shows fantastic toe-on and Weiler work, and her tkatchev into pak is beautifully controlled. Her difficulty (5.8) is just below Miller but enough to top the field. Godwin herself managed the bronze with a routine that admittedly lacked some of the calm control she shows on beam and floor, and finished with a mere double pike dismount. Another routine that will surely get more daring with time.

In junior uneven bars it was again a Waverley dais double act with Talia Folino and Jade Vella-Wright taking gold and bronze respectively (12.150, 11.100). Another final that showed a few cracks in the pre-senior tier (only silver medallist Lily Gresele had an execution score above 7), Folino's 5.2 difficulty is helped by a corker of a straddled jaeger. She like several others in the final showed just a double pike dismount but she has so much stamina I am certain it will be a double layout, or better, extremely soon. I am told they didn't show Junior Bars on the livestream so courtesy of my phone and twitter here are....
Lily Gresele 
Talia Folino
Cassidy Ercole
Eadie Rawson
Elly Bayes


Parallel bars and high bar were yet another Luke W battle, with Wadsworth taking out the former and Wiwatoski finally breaking his silver streak in winning the latter on the final day. Both fought hard these championships that has seen many succumb to fatigue.  Each one's double pike dismount off pbars sent their clubmates into loud frenzy each round of this competition and this final was no exception. While Wiwatowski has the difficulty edge by two tenths, it was Wadsworth who pipped him with better execution to nab a 14.200. On high bar, "Wiwa" was the only gymnast to show a noteworthy release in the gravity-defying Kolmann he'd missed nights earlier in the all-around, and a thrilling double-double dismount. The gold this time was unquestionably his. Scott Brooks? Not so lucky!


RINGS:

I watched this one from home on livestream, and once again it was a Luke W 1-2. Both have a 5.5 difficulty, both showed a tucked 1.5 dismount... you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a gymnastics Parent Trap! But once again, Wadsworth's execution notched him again of Wiwatowski for a golden 14.375. Chris Remkes had the highest difficulty of everyone with 5.9 but could not translate it into a medal-worthy performance. Bronze went to ACT's Adam Falzarono, a serial apparatus finallist this year. I was thrilled to see the return of South Australia's Clay Stephens, usually a vault powerhouse but like Em Whitehead only competing the one event this year. Unlike Whitehead he was unable to squeak into the medals and settled for 4th place.

POMMEL: 

Again, not the funnest event to sit through. Pocket rocket Remkes was one of several to suffer falls and bobbles, the most entertaining being Wiwatowski's front somersault off the side of the horse after a hand slip. Sorry, Luke, acrobatic bonus doesn't work on this event! This was another event that went to Wadsworth, the last man standing.

BEAM: 

The senior women's event was one of 2 'blue ribbon' finals on day 2. Unfortunately all-around champion Rianna Mizzen was withdrawn from this final (I had so looked forward to her layout stepouts again) and replaced by Georgia Godwin. Despite a fall from first up gymnast Yasmin Collier (who still drilled her own layout stepout sequence and made my heart flutter), each performance was close to or better than the one before it. Every single gymnast hit the routine of her life, it was so wonderful to see. Georgia-Rose Brown had one of her most confident showings yet, fully extending in her leaps and back handsprings, I am certain the meet photographers got some gorgeous shots. Godwin, too, showed the beam prowess that had brought her national championship placings over the years. More crisp wolf spins, and a solid BHS-back layout. However, Georgia brought me the second of two heart attacks this final with her extreeeeeemely close to the end of the beam side aerial sequence - the first was Alex Eade taking a very long pause before her dismount, leading me to think she'd suffered a total mental blank.
   Controversially, gorgeous beam queen Emma Nedov was awarded just 13.8 for a routine that, even without the additional layout stepout from the all-around, was hit tremendously. So great to see her make her bhs-flic-layout sequence with confidence, and have no significant issue on her double pike dismount. She did protest the low score but the 13.8 was upheld. The only error I could see was in one of her pirouettes, though I am sure code experts have a lot to say on the matter! She was bested only fractionally by Emily, who was skittish but stayed on to take silver. Personally I think the result should have been swapped, but I guess you can't have them all.

 The highlight of this rotation was the return of Lauren Mitchell to her first major meet final since the knee injury that kept her out of worlds last year. Nobody seemed to mind that Loz was accidentally introduced as "Lauren Miller". She showed much more poise than on night 1, successfully landing her two-foot layout sequence and two(!) wolf pirouettes. She took just one step on her double tuck dismount, clocking up all of her 6.2 difficulty to win the day on 14.025

I finally spotted Peggy Liddick on the sidelines as beam finished up and floor got started. I am sure the performances this rotation made her selection job even harder!

Unfortunately I didn't catch junior beam, but Waverley were victorious again - this time Jade Vella-Wright took the top spot on 13.255 over Shannon Farrell of NSW (a powerful vaulter), with golden girl Talia Folino settling for the bronze.


FLOOR: 

Once again, Chris Remkes proved that when he's on he's really on. Overcoming the hiccups from all-around night, Chris stood up a high-flying triple twisting double layout (it's a mouthful!) albeit with a step out of bounds, to a roar from the crowd. He backed it up with a double front pike, an arabian as a side pass and a triple twist for 14.450. He squeezed every ounce of of his 6.4 difficulty value but copped a fair whack in execution deductions. Jake Houtby of Queensland boasted a close 6.1 but numerous large falls on piked tumbled and a 3.350(!) execution dropped him to last place.
  Wiwatowski got the better of Wadsworth (before high bar of course!) with the silver medal on just .025 behind Remkes. He showed really tidy arabian work and a nice 2.5 twist closing pass.

Junior women's floor was starting to leave me a little uninspired until young Miss Eadie Rawson hit the mat. She only managed bronze, but her audience engagement and choreography (even simply walking on and off the floor) was utterly golden, a real junior Joura. Here she is at the recent Australian Classic, it truly is something special. Another Lisa Bradley masterpiece! Fresh off her beam win, Jade "Vee Dubs" took gold here on 13.525, a lovely whip to double tuck made everyone sit up and take notice. Talia Folino won silver and showed fantastic potential with a tucked tsukahara, high double tuck and a double pike almost cleanly stuck (5.2/13.225). This was quite the meet for her.

Senior women's floor was the most electrifying final of the weekend, not least of all because of Mitchell's return to the event that delivered her 2010 World Championship gold. It was a killer lineup (minus the national champion), with Rio Test team members, the previous year's all-around champion, and exciting young upstarts. Kicking us off again was Yasmin Collier who showed lovely choreography and combination passes, but the fireworks were yet to come.
  With teammates and coaches roaring like crazy in the corner once more (think a college team during the final rotation of a Super Six!), Emily Little blew the roof off with a full twisting double layout, a tiny little bit piked down but a vast improvement on her outright piked full-in. Phenomenal. She followed this with her usual strong Tsukahara and double tuck and pike for a straight 14.0

Alex Eade kept the exciting vibe going with an almost-stuck double layout, the only one of the women's competiton (so to speak... aside from Emily!) and nice tsukahara. I am so thrilled Alex has stuck around, she has really blossomed as a senior. I am glad to hear other people got Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs vibes from her choreography and expressions, her routine is a blast. Georgia Godwin, too, stood up her tricky double front opening pass and stuck her double tuck, but it was only good enough for 6th. I still stand by my statement that her wolf turns are so great she would excel at figure skating!

Lauren Mitchell had been waiting a year for this moment. After two other days of up and down competition, she found herself back at the top of the favourites list in a final against the nation's very best. It was hard not to let out a cheer as she stuck cold her piked full in (not connected to any jump) and successfully stood up her double arabian (welcome back!) and double pike. It was masterful, and if her knee is still experiencing discomfort she certainly didn't show it.

The gold medal went to a tenacious Larrissa Miller. As hoped, she bounced back like a trooper from her bars final errors the night before. Miller later admitted that prior to starting the routine she was a little teary from feeling so exhausted (emotionally as well as physically, I am sure). How admirable to see her put it aside and hit one of her best routines ever. I will never tire of that beautiful front lay to double front, even some international fans tuning into the livestream remarked on it. She took a step out of bounds in her combination pass but the rest was so sublime it kept her at the top of the rankings. The crowd's reception of it put me in mind of a ballet diva taking her final bow. If that was an emotional, tired, self-doubting Miller.... fear her when she's having a good day, is all I will say.

And that was that.

Winners crowned, losers frowned, and artistic gymnastics waved goodbye to Hisense Arena for 2016. Full results and more media can be found at ausgymnasticschamps.com.au

Gymnastics Australia report that we will officially find out our Rio Olympics artistic representative at the conclusion of the championships (tumbling, tramp, and rhythmic take place this second week). Here is one of my tweets stating the case for my preferred selection - the tweets after it in my timeline give a bit more context. But as this week proved: the game can go anyone's way on the day.

Thank you for joining me!


Saturday, May 28, 2016

National Championships 2016: Senior Men's & Women's All-Around

Christmas comes but once a year.

Twice, if you're an Australian gymnastics enthusiast.


Friday May 27th saw the first finals night of Senior men and women's artistic gymnastics competition at the 2016 Australian National Gymnastics Championships. Teams battled it out for glory, while individual seniors looked to improve on Wednesday's preliminaries and walk away with the individual all-around title.

Australia is in a tough position this year, qualifying neither a full men's nor a full women's team to the Rio Olympic Games. While this fact hangs over Hisense Arena a little like the creeping Melbourne fog outside, it does not diminish the importance of the event to those athletes seeking valuable podium experience - especially the one female gymnast to be selected as our sole Olympic representative.

The arena this year is resplendent in blue and red, with a proud 'jumbotron' at its centre. It seems all the stops have been pulled out and the atmosphere is more engaging than ever. We had dance-cam and Snapchat filters, post-competition fan photo opportunities and wonderful energy throughout the night. And in lieu of a Gymnastics Australia representative entertaining the crowd before and during competition, we welcome to our humble sidelines the one and only James Sherry, TV presenter and football roving reporter extraordinaire. Sherry was incredibly impressive for someone completely new to gymnastics. He shared delightful moments with gymparents, junior gymmers, and even past and present competitors. Sherry was warm and inquisitive with his guests of all ages, and displayed genuine admiration for the skills on show down on the floor. Having him at this event is a masterstroke - I nicknamed this competition the Sherry With A Twist. ;)

Missing from the championships this year is fan favourite Maryanne Monckton, while junior upstart Emily Whitehead only competed uneven bars. The biggest buzzes were around returned powerhouses Lauren Mitchell and Georgia Godwin (the latter looking to 3-peat), while some new faces set to surprise.

 On the men's side, it was to be an exciting battle for who would step out of the shadow of recently retired Naoya Tsukahara, though missing in action were 2015 crowd-pleasers Clay Stephens and Mitchell Morgans. I was amused to see a competition field with multiple Jakes and Jacks, a Jay, a Joel, two Joshes and a Jordan!

A big shout out to FullGymnastics for uploading videos from the livestream. 

So to the competition proper:

VAULT:
 Two absolute standouts here: Emily Little (WA) for the women, and Christopher Remkes (SA) for the men. Both were in medal form on the apparatus recently, with Little reaching the podium at the Olympic test event and Remkes winning a maiden world cup medal in Doha. Both are explosive and, in training videos, show potential for even more difficulty to be added. They were superb in prelims and even better tonight. Of note is Little's Yurchenko double twist (15.1 total), currently the hardest vault being performed in the women's national program. Little had a slight shuffle backwards on landing that even appears to be hinting at a quarter turn, a clear sign she could be our own McKayla Maroney and make the fabled 2.5 twist vault on home soil. I have heard very strong rumours we could see it as early as Saturday's vault final. She currently tops the standings with this vault.

The next hardest vaults came from unassuming performers Yasmin Collier and Naomi Lee. Lee (ACT) is a great leg gymnast, impressing us later on floor. with big tumbles. Emily's Rio test teammate Rianna Mizzen, usually a bars specialist, is still overcoming injury and was not able to show the Yurchenko double she herself has recently mastered. Rianna went with a simpler full twist as her first vault but a stellar execution score on this and her second vault (9.4 and 9.35!) assured she would stay near the top of the rankings. Teammate Georgia Godwin, also capable of a Yurchenko double, also stayed safe with a full. Australia has a number of female gymnasts with obvious leg power who could in the months and years to come be impressive vault gymnasts in the vein of Little. Things are going in the right direction with the foundations being put in place now at camps - Mizzen, Monckton and Leydin got their harder vaults in fairly short time given the high pressure circumstances of the last 12-18 months -  but it comes a little too late for the Class of 2016.

My knowledge of men's vaults is rather lacking, but there was no denying the stellar effort of Remkes. A huge (and rare) Dragulescu vault landed to his feet wowed the crowd, the sometimes shaky Southstrayan was consistent across the two 6.0 difficulty vaults to rocket up the standings. Sadly he couldn't translate this consistency over to floor. Crowd favourite Scott Brooks (VIC) also showed off a nifty near-stick for 14.766, one of his better scores of the night.


BARS:
My thoughts with Michael Merceica, who going into this week was 2nd individual reserve for Rio off the back of his performance at the recent test event. Michael was injured mid-parallel bar routine in the qualifying round, landing awkwardly on his hand during a transition and having to be assisted off. He confirmed on Thursday that it was a dislocation, with fractured metacarpal. Michael also stated he was officially having to withdraw from the championships, we wish him the best for a speedy recovery. The highlight of this apparatus in qualifying and the final was the Victorian one-two punch of Luke Wiwatowski and Luke Wadsworth who hit their routines (capped off with neat double pike dismounts) very nicely, sending the home crowd sitting right in front of the apparatus into an absolute frenzy.

I pretty much missed all of high bar unfortunately! I'll be interested to see who this year can out-wow the crowd in the apparatus final given impressive performances in the past by rockstars Tyson Bull and Mitchell Morgans who are absent this year.

On uneven bars, this year it is transplanted Queenslander Larrissa Miller's title to lose. Veteran bars star Olivia Vivian snaps at her heels in most domestic meets but a freak mistiming error on her double front dismount on Wednesday, and a crash landing on her piked jaeger after hitting her feet in this final, have practically counted her out. But she's ok, folks...!
  Miller is far and away the nation's best bars worker. And what work it is - crisp and controlled handstands, impeccable release moves performed inside and outside the bars, and textbook toepoint on her dismount that she stuck cold in the final after shuffling in the prelim. The crowd roared. You can especially see the work that has gone into controlling the final full pirouette before her dismount, no Glasgow nerves here. The best thing about this gymnast is she is always better than her last round of competition. She greatly improved on her 14.650 score from qualifying and we know even better is yet to come.
 
Rianna Mizzen made an even bigger impression than in last year's title-winning performance and will give Miller a run for her money. A neat worker with great toe-on giant work in the very same vein as Miller, she showed no sign of the nerves that plagued her at the recent Pacific Rim Championships. A stuck dismount sealed the confident showing (14.725). Reigning all-around champ and fellow Queenslander Godwin was shaky in her set that includes some decent Weiler kip work, but only a double pike dismount (12.45). Victorians Munteanu and Whitehead showed off their brave release work, the latter boasting a very cool Markelov.

  Emily Little made a rare bars appearance this year, showing that she's not to be counted out for an all-around role. There were some form errors in her releases but still gutsy work for what is her weakest event (12.425) including the always impressive double layout dismount. I finally got to see the measuring and adjusting hoopla that goes into raising the bars for tall poppy Georgia-Rose Brown, our announcer Ade even saying during warmups on night 1, "This now concludes your warmup... everyone except Georgia Rose." Georgia showed a tidy routine (13.90) that makes the most of her exquisite Russian-esque bodyline, but still a pak salto with some kinks in it like a crease in an elegant ballgown, and a surprisingly stuck double tuck dismount.

Victorian and Queensland men really shine on high bar, and have for several years if past results are anything to go by. Like WA on women's floor, their daring sets them apart on the event. Variations on a double layout dismount (some singles and doubles in the mix) are always incredible to watch. Wiwatowski came off on a missed release but pulled through for an amazing stuck dismount, his difficulty one notch down from the 5.8 he had in qualifying.


POMMEL/RINGS:

Ah, pommel. If beige was an apparatus it would be you. I only really paid vague attention to it during prelims, where Luke Wadsworth suffered a scary fall on his dismount (over-rotating into his head) and Luke Wiwatowski stayed on - remarking after the competition that doing so was his highlight of the meet!

Rings... err.... was a thing that happened. That I can assure you. My watching of it was not. Someone did a really amazing double-double dismount, though, might have been rocking Remkes or bombastic Brooks again!


BEAM:

Lauren Mitchell's post-injury beam routine is dampened but not disappointing. Although a little skittish, she improved from preliminaries where she fell on her two-foot layout, and still rocks a 2.5 wolf turn (twice!)  like she's done it for a hundred years. Her dismount was a BHS-flic-double tuck landed a little squatted, I always worry she has pulled in too close and is going to clock her head on the beam!

Little suffered a fall and was hit with major execution deductions but it was not the worst we have seen from her, and she is always someone keen to improve. I hope one day we get to see the back tuck full she once showed off as a 'muckaround' skill in training. Her WA teammate Yasmin Collier, who is a real treat in the choreography stakes, surprised us all with a back handspring to two layout stepouts, beautifully performed. Mizzen also showed off this skill sequence very nicely too, and had a near-stick on her double tuck dismount to leapfrog Little (13.825). Not so lucky with the same acro sequence was Emma Nedov, favourite to take the beam title after preliminaries with a stunning routine. She added in the extra layout stepout that Maryanne mentioned during Wednesday's livestream, but slipped off clutching the beam and had to settle for 13.425. There is huge score potential, though, if she repeats the routine of this difficulty in the final with the confidence she did on Wednesday.

Godwin showed a decent two-foot layout (from one back handspring and not two these days) and excellent wolf spins, but had form errors in her change leg ring leap and double pike dismount (13.15).


FLOOR: 

On the men's side, head and shoulders above his competitors is teeny tiny Chris Remkes. He performed much better in qualifying with 6.6 difficulty (13.233) but couldn't repeat it in this all-around final, crashing out badly on his unique 'triple double' opening pass - yes, a double layout somersault with THREE twists! He bounced back with nice arabian work (tucked and piked) but there were some form errors throughout that hamper him, ending with 12.60. A few fellas came unstuck in their twisting work, and it will be interesting to see routine composition once roll-out skills are done away with. Costin, Wadsworth and Wiwatowski all kept their nerve to each score above 14.1, at one point Wiwa showed a double arabian with so much extra bounce I thought he was going to launch into an immediate extra front tuck!

The women's floor rotation was the blue ribbon event here, with the return of Lauren Mitchell drawing in much of the crowd. But alongside her were WA compatriot Little who has shown spectacular form recently with her new-look routine, world championship finallist Miller, reigning all-around winner Godwin, and upstarts Paige James, Naomi Lee and Alex Eade.

The absolute highlight outside the the actual routines was the WAIS team. Standing in the corners adjacent to the stands, they cheered for every girl's performance, and none were louder than head women's coach Martine George. Along with Stacey Umeh and competitor Olivia Vivian, they were getting the crowd involved from rotation start to rotation end, following every beat to one another's music and all heartily joining in the "HOO-WUH!!" vocalisation and claps in Emily Little's routine.

Mitchell again has had to show a modified routine due to injury rehab, but for the second time in as many years her performance made me utter "WHAT injury?!?" Still performing to hip-hop strings, she showed a powerful piked full-in to open (couldn't quite hit a fully-splitted jump on landing) and double back tuck and pike, the latter landed a little low. Her London Olympic teammate Little performed her fun new floor that wowed the crowd recently at Pacific Rim. Although still some form errors, there is no denying her explosive power. Her piked full-in is almost back to fully laid out, and she backs it up with a great tucked one straight afterward. No cold sticks tonight, but an engaging routine that gets serious air (13.650).

Beam queen Nedov showed a little anxiousness tonight, hugely under-rotating her opening tsukahara and closing double pike, putting her hands (and almost her face) down on the mat on both. I am pleased to observe though that they have worked on the volume of the wailing vocals in her music, it is obviously much quieter now at its peak - to the relief of the stadium sound guys, I am sure! Georgia Godwin was also unable to replicate her prelims performance, sitting down her opening punch double front but staying strong to get great height in her back double tuck (very open, like Kytra Hunter) and double pike for just 12.4. Errors aside, her wolf spins are so smooth, she would make a tremendous figure skater!

Larrissa Miller (14.4) showed the delightful form that made her a world finallist in 2014, her evocative dance combined with neat difficult tumbles thrilled the crowd. Who doesn't love a front lay to double front performed like it's ballet? Expect her to medal this weekend, and to be top of the candidate list for Rio. Test Event teammate Brown showed one of her best floor performances yet as well, with more air and stamina than ever in her 2.5 twist and stuck double tuck, her unique dance elegance showing up well on the 'big stage'.

The standout floors came from some dark horse gymnasts. Alexandra Eade (13.050) has gone from shy, small junior to explosive and mature senior. Her salsa-inspired routine had the crowd grinning, and not just because she showed off the only double layout of the women's competition. Like a Joura or a Slater of years past, she shows great expression in her face as well as her dance and will be a real asset to floor lineups of the future. Even more so is ACT's Naomi Lee. Lee, like Eade, always seemed shrimpy and shy. This nationals was a wonderful deb ball for her! I mentioned her vault above, and her floor was pretty remarkable too. While performing to "Fire and Ice" made famous by Monette Russo (who was in the house), Lee showed off a dainty double arabian and thrilling triple twist. An out of bounds and some execution deductions held her back, but the potential is amazing.
  And then there's Paige James from WAIS who has been on my radar for over 2 years now. The only indigenous Australian female senior, Paige showed great firepower in a routine much improved from prelims for 12.225. A speedy full twist through to triple twist and double back tuck were the highlight, ongoing injury recovery meaning her third pass was just a laid out punch front. But like Little and Eade, she really got the crowd clapping along.

Mizzen sealed the deal in her final rotation. Although her score couldn't beat Little or Brown, her ground had been made up on beam and bars, and she capitalised on the errors of Nedov and Godwin to take the lead for her first national all-around title. I'm sure it will not be the last. She showed the fantastic form she had already shown in the Pacific Rim team trial, with wolf spins to rival Godwin and tidy tumbling. Her strengths are intelligently nurtured by her coaches and she put behind her all the errors from her recent international competitions.

3 - Little
2- Brown (also helped Victorian to team gold)
1 - Mizzen

RESULTS


3- Costin
2 - Wiwatowski
1 - Wadsworth

RESULTS

Congratulations to our senior winners Rianna and Luke, a testament to the strong coaching and development in their respective training centres. Two gymnasts with calm and focussed competition demeanour, I look forward to seeing them in more team lineups in the future. They and all the medallists showed off Australian gymnastics at its best and should be very proud.


NOTES AND QUOTES:


  • "I'm fine. [But ] sorry to anyone who had to change their underpants!" - Olivia Vivian, being interviewed after her scary bars fall
  • "ONE! TWO! YES!" - Martine George, counting Emily' Little's wolf spins at the start of her floor routine. Every. Single. Time.
  • "Um, about 6 weeks?" - Small child in the audience picked for one of the gymnastics challenge games, asked how long he has been doing gymnastics
  • Godwin and Darcy Norman shared the cutest high-five/handshake on the team medal dais
  • Georgia-Rose stooping down for photos with shy fans outside the arena was adorable
  • For the love of God please do something about the end part of Kiara's floor music where it fades out quickly, it is SCREAMING for "finishing behind the music" deductions that she doesn't deserve to get.
  • A tweet of mine made the livestream on Wednesday, apparently? Cool.  :)
  • You are damned right I got a selfie with James Sherry
  • VOTE FOR JUNIOR CHAMP TALIA!!!!



Sunday, September 6, 2015

In Conversation With: Allana Slater (Part 2)

"I remember buying these gifts that this man was buying for his family... and I couldn't believe nobody else had offered. I was just a competitor who felt for another competitor, and wanted him to be able to share his joy and experiences with his family."


It's so unfortunate you ladies missed the team final in Sydney, but you had better luck 4 years later in Athens --

Well they did take 8 teams in Athens, where Sydney only took 6.

Yes, very true! Because it was so heartbreaking seeing you guys come 7th at home. 

But, theoretically, we did make team finals because of the disqualification to China. We're now 6th, they lost the bronze so we moved up to 6th. It's actually in the book!

Oh yes, the DQ!

I even received a certificate from the IOC congratulating me for coming 8th in floor finals because I was first reserve. I 'officially' made the final because of Dong Fangxiao being too young and getting disqualified.

Some interesting mail for you! So in that four year period, then, was there an overhaul of the approach to training, or an emphasis on new things to ensure the best possible lineup could hit when it counted?

Not really, we trained pretty similar. But there was a big increase in training hours at camp between 2002 and 2004. We started doing three sessions a day when we were at camp, I think Athens camp was up to 50 hours a week at our peak that year. Other years it was 42, 44 hours a week.

We did a lot of work on physical conditioning, but for me my training program didn't really change much during my career. As a younger gymnast the big focus was numbers, hitting routines and good quality. Pre-Sydney I did maybe 20 vaults a session whereas pre-Athens it was more like 15 vaults a session. But the numbers are what gives you the confidence. In the leadup to Athens the focus was execution, sticking landings and skill combinations, all so big in the '04 code.

So let's move onto Athens for a little bit. You did have your Sydney teammate Lisa Skinner with you, did that make the journey a little easier for you, and then the competition itself?


I think it just meant I had a familiar face, a friend, someone who'd experienced Sydney with me. And I was delighted when she came back. She was my best friend on the team. At camp we were always paired together, we roomed together when we travelled, and we had a really wonderful friendship. I couldn't have shared that experience with a better person.

She always kept me nice and relaxed on the competition floor. We knew eachother's little quirks, when we wanted to talk, when we wanted to be quiet, when we needed support, I was lucky to have someone like that on the team. She knew exactly how I liked the bars prepared! In all-around I said, "Can I have Lisa come down and prepare the bars for me?!" And that was the perfect training relationship and competitive relationship. And friendship.

 Photo by Gymbox.net

Did Peggy and the other coaches find with you two older girls that, having been around the traps a bit, they were more reassured, maybe didn't have to supervise you as much? Or did you feel you really had to lead by example?

When we got to Athens, two of us had already been to an Olympics, so we knew what the whole Village was about. It didn't really grab our attention, we were like "Yup, village, international zone, yup, yup, get to those later." because it then wasn't a distraction for you. The massive food hall wasn't daunting. You just got on and did what you needed to do because you'd experienced the excitement of it before. We were then able to help the younger girls who were new to that environment to adjust, and not worry about all the other athletes and what's going on or the pressure, just focussing on what we needed to do. There was plenty of time for all that after the competition. So I think that was reassuring for the coaches - that there was 2 girls old enough and mature enough to get on with the job, once you got to the gym not be phased by equipment changes or the other athletes there. And of course helped out the younger girls with that.

I bet they thought you were pretty great "big sisters". 

I hope so! You've got to know what each girl's like, but you've still got to let them experience some of the excitement. We still went through that excitement with them, but you knew how to keep it in check. But we had a blast, we went to lots of events, and still made sure we experienced the Olympic Games!

And have you kept any souvenirs or memorabilia from either of the Games, ones that bring back the most fond memories?

Oh of course, I still have all my Olympic gear. I'm walking through my house now going, "Oh my gosh, how many boxes of memorabilia do I have?! I have so much stuff!" (Laughs) I collected Olympic pins, so I have a very precious pin collection from Sydney and Athens and from Commonwealth Games, pins you were able to get from athletes. I remember one of the volunteers in Sydney gave me one of the Olympic ring pins off their hat to trade for one of the Australian team pins which I think was the best trade ever, because I now had a pin that was just the Olympic rings so that's really precious to me.

I have my diary that I wrote in Athens, that brings back a lot of the memories because I was writing it 'in the moment' of what I was feeling. Sometimes it's nice to go back and read that and remind yourself - a decade later you forget all those details. And to share it, too. My husband Scott didn't really follow sport during the time of my career, so I think it's important for them to get to understand who you are as a person and how those experiences shaped you. It's nice to share that with him. Maybe down the track, if we have children, it might be nice for them to read about your thoughts and feelings as an athlete.

So those are the precious memorabilia I have - memories, photos, diary and pin.

I am sure you will have many, many amazing stories to tell down the track, I have zero doubt!

You forget, really, until you start talking to someone and it all comes back.

 I was talking to my mum the other day. I remembered one day when our parents could come in and visit the athlete's village in Sydney. So we went 'round the village and to the shop and we got this plate that there were only 400 of, that was only being sold that day. We went to buy one and I remember seeing this man, a competitor, buying presents for his family. But when he got to the cash register he didn't have enough to pay. And I just thought, "This poor man. He's tried really hard, he's got to the Olympic Games, clearly trained his entire life to get here and he can't afford a few souvenirs because in his country he doesn't get endorsements or government sponsorship, I mean maybe he's funded his way here for all I know?" I remember turning to my mum and saying, "I'll pay for it." So we told the cashier we'd pay for it. And the cashier just looked at us. But we said, "No no, it's fine, we'll pay for it." So I remember buying these gifts that this man was buying for his family... and I couldn't believe nobody else had offered, there were hundreds of other people standing there. I was just a competitor who felt for another competitor, and wanted him to be able to share his joy and experiences with his family.

So those are the little stories you forget about until you're reminded, and you think "Oh my gosh! Now I remember that that happened!" but it was such an Olympic value that's been ingrained into me.

And of course he'll possibly one day be sitting with his children, and looking at his Olympic gifts, and saying "Now, there was this red-headed Australian girl who helped me buy this...!"

That's it, that's it! "She was just a really generous young girl, 16 back then, about your age!" But that's the spirit of the Olympic Games. For me it was all about sharing and giving, but that's also what I was raised to be in my household by my mum and my dad. So that's just a little story that shows who I am, but you forget about those 'little' things. To me it wasn't a big deal, it was just something you do to help people.

A very nice Random Act of Kindness!

Exactly - an act of kindness can go a long way. And it can change someone's life.

"I was so definite about what I wanted but I couldn't put it into words. "I'll know when I hear it." The moment that El Tango De Roxanne came on I was just hooked... you compete on a twelve-by-twelve floor but your performance has to be bigger than that."

Your beautiful 'Tango de Roxanne' floor routine that we saw in both the Athens team final and AA final is still to this day a favourite for a lot of fans, not just for that period but for all time. You're on a lot of Top 10 lists. Can you remember much about how you went about creating it with [rhythmic choreographer] Lisa Bradley, and what was your favourite part of performing it?

I'd always had a little bit of say in my music, but I remember post-Sydney saying, "Please, can you let me choose my music?" because I'd done ballet classes when I was young, and still did private ones up until I was about 16 at home, and we always worked on that Interpretation Of The Music. Ballet teaches are, you know, the masters of interpreting emotions through music. So I remember saying "I want something that's mature." (Laughs) All of 16 years of me! And, "I want to be able to give a performance that's something that I can own. Something that's me. Something that I can become a character in." And I went to this well-known CD store - you know, back when CDs were all the rage, when you actually had to go into a shop to listen to music! - and I just remember hours with Lisa Bradley. I went to her house and went through her entire music collection, but we just couldn't find something that was the perfect tone. I didn't want something too heavy or dominating but with a bit of ebb and flow. 

 I knew Moulin Rouge was coming out and I thought "I really want to listen to that soundtrack", I think it had only just been released... And you listen to the first 8 bars (if you're lucky) and you're just like "No... no... no...!" and my mum would say "How do you know?" and I was like, "You just know." I was so definite about what I wanted but I couldn't put it into words. "I'll know when I hear it." So I was listening to the Moulin Rouge soundtrack and the moment that El Tango De Roxanne came on I was just hooked. I could hear how it was building, and how "I could take this bit out and put it with that bit." and in my mind i already had this character building... and I hadn't even seen the movie yet! So I'd chosen my music and then I went and watched the movie. And learning what it was about I understood, how it was pushing the boundaries a little bit because it was about this courtesan in the 1900s in this mystical world of Paris, this whole love triangle. And I thought "How am I really going to put that out onto the floor?" and it was going to push boundaries with what I was doing in my dance form.


I chose that music because it struck a chord with me. Cutting it was hard. I trained with words in my music because I couldn't even get them taken out, we didn't know if we could. Peggy sent it to America to get it re-orchestrated. It was a very long process to get this floor music but we were going to get it! So I went to Lisa Bradley, who's just an incredible choreographer, and she already had sort of a routine in mind and we had to see if it matched up. Some things we had to change, my arms just weren't long enough to get into some of the positions! But she came up with this piece and it was new, it was fresh, it was different. It was a little bit of the rhythmic world coming in, in terms of dance and telling a complete story.

For me, the favourite part was that every time I performed it I did it a little bit better. In that 4 years my maturity changed, as a person and as an athlete. Me performing it in 2001 is very different to me performing it in 2004. There's a maturity that you gain into your 20s, a performance value that you just don't have when you're 17. There were favourite parts that had been taken out, then put back in, then taken out. I remember there was this one move right before my last tumble that for me was the crux of the routine that displayed what it was meant to mean and I was like "I am going to put this bit of choreogaphy back in." so we worked around it at training camp with Lisa and we got it in. It was just this movement that really symbolised that you were a mature athlete, I was running my hands down my body and going into a really strong pose right before the end. And I was determined, "I am grown up, I'm here but I can still do it." And then still portraying the sensitivity that was in that Moulin Rouge piece.

And I think it was a very good example of, when you're talking to gymnasts and trying to explain the idea of "engaging the audience and engaging the judges". There are WAIS gymnasts who have come after you, too, who really sell it. From eye contact to head-to-toe, to well-selected music that they work with. I think all that can really make a routine. And I would say that's why your routine is on so many people's favourites lists, the music selection and that well-performed choreography and the total engagement that you brought to it.

Absolutely. And for me, the performance value was so important. Yes, the judges are marking you, but for me it was all about the audience. Yes, you compete on a twelve-by-twelve floor but your performance has to be bigger than that. You have to make eye contact with the crowd. You look at the singers and dancers that are out there, and the stage performers, you watch what they do and he way they engage, and I wanted to bring something special like that. Pre-Sydney I used to wink at the judges, that was my thing to try and draw them in.



But then you grow and get something more mature, and you can't just wink at the judges your whole life! This was a routine that wasn't all about smiling, but it was about being almost playful in your expressions and tantalising, "I'm going to engage you with my expression and my eyes and look at you, but no I'm not! And now I'm going to do a move that's coy and shy because it's a tango piece. " The tango is all about playfulness and just putting your spirit out there. So I just tried to engage the judges and the crowd and draw them in with me.

 That's what's so hard to express about artistry, for young athletes to really understand. There's so many deductions now for artistry but it's hard for them to understand the concept of artistry when they're really young. It's not just smiling at the judges or looking really happy and doing bigger movements. It's about a character, it's about portraying something, and that's hard to get people to do. But Australia is very good at it! We've always been very good at it. Girls now have brilliant artistry, through the work of Lisa Bradley and Stacey Umeh.

Personally, I was hoping after your all-around performance of the routine that you were going to get a phone call from Baz Luhrmann! Honestly! Saying, you know, "Thank you so much for your wonderful interpretation of this song from my film!"

That would have been lovely! (Laughs)

Because we have had plenty of gymnasts use music from soundtracks before, and yours was great as a standalone routine as well as an interpretation of the film it was from.

 Image courtesy Kostikal.net

It was evocative. And although gymnasts will do past gymnasts' music, as far as I know nobody has used that music since or at least done it as well as you did. It was so one-of-a-kind.

Aww, thank you! Well, there was one girl who competed in the same round as us in qualification, from South Africa, and she had the same kind of music as me.

Awkwaaard!

And I was like "Ohhh! Oh, poor thing!"

Haha. "Yeeeah... but I'm gonna wipe the floor with you so I don't feel too bad!"

I mean, it is hard. I had Omelianchik's Ballet Russe music. And you're learning it and thinking "I need to make this my own. I can't copy but I need to make it my own." And you just try. It's hard to have somebody else's floor music and share the floor with them.

Full disclosure, I remember that particular routine of yours so well because when I was doing gymnastics at the time I used to try and copy your actual choreo. I loved all of the moves.

Really? Aww! I think it's nice when people try and copy it! I used to try and copy the girls in the gym when I was little, I knew all their choreography. It's ridiculous, but I have a little knack for remembering choreography. I still remember all of my floor routines. It's a bit sad!

No, not at all!

And interestingly... for our wedding, my husband and I learned a tango piece to my floor music. The exact cut.

Really?!

Yeah, we did! We came in and did a little character building piece at the beginning, and then danced to my floor music. I thought that would be a really nice surprise for my coaches. I went from performing the tango by myself - you know, the tango's a partner piece of course! - to tangoing with my partner. And hats off to him because he's not a natural dancer! But we danced well together, we learned this tango-slash-Argentinian-tango and I had an absolute ball.

What a wonderful journey for that music! And for you guys!

It came full circle! And now that music means something to him as well. And I mean, it wasn't our official 'first dance', but I really wanted to use it. So we did it as an extra piece.

"I think social media does so well for athletes these days, you can promote yourself and catch the eye of a sponsor. It's very hard when you're 20 but look 16 with the support of just a car dealership. No deals came around for me. There are mortgages that only exist because of gymnastics careers."

Speaking of maturing in your gymnastics and moving into adulthood... a little bit of a tangent here. I used to work in a bookstore, and one day I stumbled on the book "Raising Champions", where parents of elite athletes talked about their experiences, and your mother Barbara (as well as Phil Rizzo's mum!) had contributed a chapter. In it she describes a moment in about 2001, 2002, where you were both watching a tennis match on tv, and I think it was Mark Phillippousis, and they'd described him finishing in the top 10 in the world and getting all these sponsorship deals. She said you turned to her and said, "But Mum, I made 9th in the world too. And I've got nothing." Can you talk a little bit about your experiences with sponsorship and funding while training, esepcially as you got a bit older and had to look at becoming more self-sufficient? 

Well I was a 'test case', really, because I was one of the first to keep going past 18 years old - excluding Lisa Skinner obviously. So it was all  bit trial and error, to know what a good balance was for an adult athlete. If you're the only person in a training centre or team who's of age, or over age, it's hard to keep that balance for the coaches. But the more athletes stay on the easier that balance can get for them. So I actually didn't work, because they thought that would be best for me when I was training so I could be solely focussed on it. I wasn't going to do Year 12 because I was travelling too much to sit my exams - I was going to have to sit them in Hungary when I was at the World Championships and obviously that wasn't going to happen!

So I didn't work. I did a small speaker's circuit which makes a little bit of money, but not a lot. My mum was my sole supporter, financially. Sponsorships were just non-existent back then, no matter how much you spoke to people. They just weren't quite willing to put their money into athletes unless you were super big, like Ian Thorpe or a major sport like AFL, tennis, golf.  Everything's moving forward these days, as it should. But to be in that era was hard, when you're not working you're not getting quite enough to support yourself but you were training so much you didn't have time to work.

You think, "How am I going to get sponsorship?" We really did try. We tried to go down the beauty avenue, you know, you're a young female so maybe makeup or hair products. But you're competing with all the models and the actresses with those. So it was certainly a hard pocket to be in. I had a very generous man here in Perth at McInerny Ford, he loaned a car to me so I didn't have to buy one. So that was a huge appreciation on my behalf to him and his company. Other than that there was none.

 I remember getting a phonecall recently from an athlete who's in a different sport, and she called me because she got some offers and was looking for a manager. So she asked me what I did about a manager and I said "I didn't have one. My mum and I just looked after it." Neither of us were managers and we didn't have a social media platform to try and put yourself out there and try to gain a profile. I think social media does so well for athletes these days, you can promote yourself and catch the eye of a sponsor. It's very hard when you're 20 but look 16 with the support of just a car dealership, for me there was no financial sponsorship.


Even after the back-to-back Commonwealth Games team golds, that amazing Worlds team bronze in 2003, those results that made a few newspapers, there was still nothing that came your way? 

No. I never had any major endorsements during my career. Anything I did was organised by my mum and myself, any promotions were mostly for AIS and WAIS. I did quite a bit promoting WAIS. Any of that I did, though, was as goodwill. I did do Dolly Magazine's "Dream And Achieve" program, where you went into schools and made motivational speeches. You got a little bit of money for that.

But overall I guess it wasn't a big focus of mine, it wasn't something I felt that I had to do - get sponsorships and endorsements. It was like the "icing on the cake" side of things, like being recognised or being able to inspire people and realising you've inspired people. It would've been lovely to have the financial support, but no, no deals came around for myself. It would have been a huge stress off my mum's shoulders, being a widow and supporting her child through a sport. There are, you know, mortgages that only exist because of gymnastics careers. She did it because she loved me and wanted me to follow my dreams. And c'est la vie. That's life. You keep going forward. You can't get upset that you don't get endorsement deals if you're doing the sport just because you love it. I loved going to the gym, and I loved training, I loved gymnastics.


You retired from gymnastics in 2005, not long before the World Championships in Melbourne. At that Worlds, Australia got its first major all-around medal with Monette Russo's bronze. Was there a feeling of bittersweetness there for you? Or did you think, "You know what, this was the right time to step away. This new generation's in good hands."

I did want to continue for 2 years post-Olympics but sometimes your body just doesn't agree with you. I still had a few injuries. My ankles... I mean... I didn't really know if I was ever going to be able to do floor again. Well, certainly not that year anyway. It was always going to be a question mark with my surgeon as to whether I was going to be able to do it again. I had a back injury as well. Sometimes you've just got to accept that your body says no. And I had an amazing opportunity presented to me to commentate the [2006] Commonwealth Games for the host broadcaster. And I thought "I guess this is the right time?" Because the last thing any performer wants to do is fizzle out, to try to continue and just never really do anything else. I was going off to play an extra on "Stick It", and it kind of just felt right.

Would I have loved to have continued on and competed a Worlds and Commonwealth Games in Australia? Absolutely. But sometimes you just have to accept your limits, and that's what I did. I had an amazing opportunity during Worlds to be in the Channel 7 broadcasting van when Monette was competing, and helping with the broadcasting and feeling that excitement. Then running from the van to the venue to see Monette receive her all-around medal! Monette had been one of the up-and-comers into Athens and I felt pride, because I'd been team captain on a couple of teams she'd been on and got to see her shine. A little bittersweet that it happened not long after I finished, but she was a great gymnast and a great performer, I'd worked with her very closely and I was so extremely proud of her.

It's because of trailblazers like you and Lisa Skinner that she was able to do it at all, there's certainly some credit to you in there.

I think that's important. You look at the 1992 generation,  in '91 we came 6th in the world in Indianapolis and qualified our first team [final] in '92. I had three girls training in our program that were on the Olympic team and for me that was inspirational. With each generation you get more inspired and hope that you can keep upping the achievements.

We have had past Sydney and Athens Olympians like Lisa Mason and Catalina Ponor making impressive comebacks after retirement. Is there definitely no possibility of you pulling a leo back on and making a go of it? We couldn't tempt you?

(Laughs) I have a lot of gymnastics dreams! If my body still loved me enough to let me do it I probably would. But I'll stay at the judges' table and enjoy it from the sidelines. Sometimes in my dreams I'm still out there! And I look at those athletes from my generation coming back and I just think they're incredible people. Lisa Mason's just going from strength to strength, and Catalina's always been a unique and intriguing gymnast and it's so great to see her back. And Chusovitina is the benchmark for gymnastics, doing the skills she is doing, being at that level and that age she is, that's just incredible.

I know! I'm 28 and I look at them and think "Nope, I sure couldn't, so more power to them!"

I remember when Bounce opened here, I went. I could still do a couple of things but wow, did I hurt afterwards! I couldn't go up stairs, I was pretty sore! I was like, "Oh yeah, I can totally do a double front half out off the tramp, nope, OWCH OWWWCH!" But also got to find out how incredibly uncoordinated my husband is on them! We had a ball though.

Khorkina was a little bit scary. But, at the same time, don't under-estimate a little redheaded Australian! People are trying to get up on the beam, you know, and it was my turn! So I front-saulted over the top of her hands!


So by way of wrapping up, I now have a bit of a fun Lightning Round for you! I'm going to give you the name of a gymnast from during your career, I'd love to hear a memory or a description or even just a phrase that stands out from your time competing with them:

Beth Tweddle:

Post-2000 I knew she was going to be amazing, an up-and-coming bar worker. Incredible bar connections. Innovative, and inspirational to GB gymnastics.

Did you get to chat much during 2002 Commonwealths or at Athens?

Not really... I first got to know Beth post-Sydney at the World Cup in Stuttgart, and she was this new, green, fresh-eyed gymnast coming out of GB that was super talented and then just went from strength to strength. Even post-2004, she and Amanda Kirby came up with the most innovative bar connections the world's ever seen. And she had several different versions of her routine that she could perform, A-B-C-D-E and Z, and she knew exactly where she was all the time and how she was going to get out of a small mistake and still make it look like an intentional part of the routine. I think that's the mark of a very very special gymnast.


Catalina Ponor:

She was artistic. Incredibly strong on beam and floor. On beam it was just... numbers. All the time. Consistent. Up-down-up-down. Intention when she trained, intention when she competed. And a real performer.

You were both in the beam final in Athens. Did her work ethic, or her approach to competing on beam, influence you at all? Did you take anything from when you were watching her?

I think at the time you're so involved in what you're doing you don't really watch for that. I certainly noticed more after retiring and watching her. But, you know, I watched the Romanians train for years and they're just machines. They do routine after routine, and they hit the routines, and it's no fuss. You get on with the job.  That's what makes consistency and that's why she was beam champion.

I'm so fascinated to see her come back some... what, twelve years after that beam win?

I really hope she makes it for Worlds! And Izbasa as well.

Elena Zamolodchikova (AGB: And sidenote, I did you see you both judging at 2010 Pacific Rim!)

Yes! She has got a really lovely personality. Very friendly, very giving.

After she become Olympic champion on floor, we were at the Stuttgart World Cup not long after. And it was back when they had the top 2 in the final repeat their routine, and you went on the lift thing to find out which of them had won--

Oh yes, the "super final"!

-- The Super Final!

So I remember getting to floor, and I had equalled her score in the qualification so I was like "OhmygodddddIequalledtheOlympicChampiononflooooor!", I was so excited! To go out and perform the second round with her was incredible. So here I was going, "I can do this. I can do a second routine within fifteen minutes, I'm gonna be fine!" It was just so matter of fact with her, she was just (clicks fingers), incredible. And I loved her style. She had her own unique style and you know that was her from her movements.

So we finished floor finals, did the super final, and then we had bars final straight away. We were both in bar final. Then there were actually 3 of us in that super final because there was a tie and they couldn't seperate us. Right before we came out for bars she came over to me and said, "You must have!" and she gave me dark chocolate and coffee. (adopts a slight Russian accent) "Thees you must have, to be ebble to do Super Final! Big workload!" So she gave me those to give me the energy to perform because obviously I'd never been in a Super Final before and it was new to me. And then I went on to win. So that was pretty exciting for me - maybe it was that dark chocolate!

Brilliant! I love it!

That was the generosity of her nature. She wanted everybody to always compete to their best. And then it was whomever was best on the day. It was never a fight or anything like that, it was always "Can I just do something...?" She was very giving as an athlete.


Trudy McIntosh

Oh, Pocket Rocket! Her floor and beam were just ridiculous. Amazing.  She was fantastic under pressure. She was one of my really good friends when we travelled, and we travelled a lot together. And we had so many laughs, I couldn't think of the number of laughs that we've had and shared over our career. Truly a very good friend.


Svetlana Khorkina

Ha! I knew this one was coming!

My coach Nikolai actually coached her when she was young, so he knew her quite well. So I think I got a little 'in' that way. But let me tell ya, if she stares you down the corner for a tumbling row, you let her have it!

She was a little bit scary. But, at the same time, don't under-estimate a little redheaded Australian! People are trying to get up on the beam, you know, and it was my turn! I'd been waiting a long time! So I front-saulted over the top of her hands! (Laughs)

Niiiiiiice!

Once you've been out there a long time you get to know each other really well. And she was Svetlana Khorkina. But she also, sometimes, could show her generosity. She'd say (adopts slight Russian accent again) "No no no! Eet's Allunna's turn!"

Aww!

So we looked out for eachother in that competitive environment. I don't know what it's like now. But back then when you had one beam and 40 girls trying to warm up at qualifications for World Cup, you know, once you had been out there a while you gained respect. And that's what I loved about all the competitors at that time. It was always respectful in the training gym and at the competition hall and afterwards.   


And that's what I love about gymnastics. The media like to spin it so public perception is always, "Oh, it's competitive to the point I bet it's really catty!" but I wish sometimes broadcasts would show more sideline moments like that. There really is great diplomacy and sportsmanship in gymnastics, because you train and compete alongside each other all the time, but we don't always get to see it.


I agree! You have a great respect for one another. You all know how hard you've trained and worked to get here. You all know how hard it is to travel and compete, travel and compete, travel and compete, and you just want everybody to have a good day. You don't want to win by default, nobody does. You want to go out there and perform, and whoever's best on the day is best on the day. It could be anybody. Could be Number 1 in the world, could be Number Twenty in the world. You just want everybody to do their best. And for me that's what the experience was always like. You always wanted everybody to perform well, and be willing to say "Hey, congratulations! That was really good!

I really do wish more of that got shown. I loved seeing Simone Biles, Number One, World Champion, cheer for Claudia Fragapane at the American Cup, and cheering for other girls at Worlds.

And you know what? The people who understand you the best in the world are your competitors. You're all training hard and all aiming for the same goals. Some people achieve it and some people don't. But at the end of the day you've all trained hard and have a great respect for eachother.

Very well put. And a perfect note to finish on. Allana Slater, thank you so much for your time.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

In Conversation With: Allana Slater (Part 1)


"For me, the Olympic movement is everything. It's what shapes who I am beause of the journey that I went on. They're the values that I live by."

Two Oympic Games. Two Commonwealth Games. Multiple World Championships and World Cups. Multiple state and national championships. A brief stint in the commentary box. A judge, a motivational speaker, a physiotherapist, a student, a wife, a daughter, a friend...

When I call Allana Slater one Sunday evening in August, to reflect on her glittering career as an Australian gymnastics trailblazer, these are just some of the memories she is packing up and shifting as part of her latest house move. As warm and engaging to speak with as she was each time she took to the floor mat,  I felt very privileged to have just over 90 minutes to talk about the changes and challenges of such a unique life, notably those changes and challenges that have arisen in the 15 years since the Sydney Olympic Games.

This is Part 1 of that interview.




AGB: So, by way of introduction, tell us a little about where you're at right now. I know you were married not long ago, and have had some interesting career transitions....!

AS: Gosh, well so much has changed in the last couple of years! I got married in 2013, and that was a wonderful day obviously, full of wonderful gymnastics family and my husband's family and lots of our joint friends which was just very special. Went to uni after retiring and got my physiotherapy degree, then 3 years out decided I would go it on my own - have a mobile physiotherapy service - whilst I started my studies for a Masters of Sonography (diagnostic ulstrasound), and go into the radiography/radiology medical imaging industry. I'm now a sonographer with a private company here in WA, I've been doing it for about ten months now, and that forms part of a traineeship. So within the traineeship you still continue your uni degree, and I have two years left... and I just can't wait! I'm really loving this career change for myself!

I still keep the mobile physiotherapy up, but I'm also Vice-President of the West Australian Olympic Council, so very involved in the Olympic movement here in WA. With one year out from Rio we're obviously very focussed on building our fundraising component, I don't think people realise just how much it is to get your athletes there (not just gymnastics obviously). It's a huge fundraising target so we're relying on the people in our state to be giving, and you step back from your own sport and really look at the bigger picture. For me, the Olympic movement is everything. It's what shapes who I am beause of the journey that I went on. They're the values that I live by.


It sounds like you're having a whale of a time! For someone to come out the other side of a very intense but prestigous sporting career, to be occupied and pursuing things they love... that's really wonderful to hear, as someone who followed that career and was so inspired by it. To know they're in a good place. 

There are lot of highlighted cases of athletes not doing well after retirement. It isn't easy. You have to have the support around you. I had my mum, who was an amazing influence on my life, without her I don't think I would be so well-adjusted. She kept me well-adjusted when I was training, she also kept me well-adjusted once I retired, kept me focussed. I had to do mature-age student entry into university because I didn't do year 12. It took a little bit of extra effort, not going the 'normal' route. I had to sit a mature age student exam, and doubts started creeping in: Am I smart enough? It's been years since I studied, what have I missed out on not doing year 12? Then once you get into university you just find your way like everybody else does.

There were difficult days, coming out of an extreme routine. Every day, every week being the same for years. It was definitely a challenge, finding a new routine. And your friends have moved on from school, friends from your sport might have moved on, not being in the age of Facebook definitely made it difficult to stay in touch... But at the same time you make new friends, in university and the workplace, and accept that you start working a different way in your life and then joining the 'normal' pathway of life, getting married, getting a house, having children, all that sort of stuff.


Well for anyone whose life was really anything but 'normal', I think it's fantastic to hear how your mum helped keep you grounded, and I will touch on that more a bit later. And are you still judging as well? 

Yes!


Because I did see you judging as recently as 2015 Nationals.

Yes, only at national level. I've been doing it since 2006, since basically the birth of the 'open' code. So that's been really cool. I love judging. I couldn't see anything better to do than transition into judging. Lots of people see it as taking, but I see it as rewarding. Because you sit there, and someone does something beautifully and magnificently, and you just go, "I couldn't have seen that done any better!", and you just enjoy the performance. For me it's all about seeing the love and passion on the athlete's face, and watching beautiful gymnastics.


I think that's so great! And a lot of gymnasts who have gone into judging have felt the same. Coaching too - it's their way of giving back.

Absolutely. And also you can use what you went through. Because you know what the athletes are experiencing so you can have a greater understanding. If you're a coach, you have an understanding of what they might be feeling, and you can connect with them a little bit better. You might be able to describe something to them from the aspect, "What are you feeling? What did that feel like? Well, I want you to feel it like this." rather than just a purely technical point of view. Some athletes are really connected to their body and what something feels like when they're performing, so if you can use that to your advantage as a coach you're going to connect with your athlete really well.

"We keep moving, we keep getting older and wiser but... as long as we keep enjoying it! That's the most important thing!"


And of course in 2015 you're dealing with an entirely different Code of Points to the one you competed under, what are your thoughts on the code, the bigger emphasis on artistry, and that change to an open-ended system?

I think because I never judged on the old system it didn't play with my mind too much. Because when you competed you knew your routines, and what you needed, but you didn't know absolutely everything about the code. You knew your major deductions but not the ins and outs of the code. So for me, jumping straight into the open-ended code was a perfect entrance level for judging.

There are so many advantages and disadvantages to the open code. Advantages are, I mean, compared to the old code, if you fall you still get the value of a skill as long as you completed it, it's the technical requirement. Previously you didn't always get the value. So I think that certainly benefits athletes to try those skills. What we found in the 2000-2004 era was that sometimes people weren't willing to take the risk on big skills because of the execution deductions, and everything being out of 10.0 so there was no advantage to doing anything bigger or worth more. So I really like that component of the new code - if you are brilliant and you've got really consistent huge skills like a Simone Biles, you can use them, you can show them, you can entertain the world with them. But I think the only disadvantage to some of that is that sometimes execution can get lost. Things like stretched knees, pointed toes, hitting full split, sometimes they might be not as important as getting the higher value skills. So I think it's just making sure that your balance your routine out for the overall look of it. Because I think that's where some people who don't follow gymnastics might get lost watching the sport!

(We proceed to have a further few moments' gushing about the "perfect packages" of gymnastics that are Simone Biles and Nastia Liukin)

Is it odd for you to be judging gymnasts who weren't even born when you took to the floor in Sydney? Do some of them have an idea of who you are? I know I for one would be telling my children who you are!

(Laughs) It's not that people don't know you, that doesn't bother me at all. To me it doesn't matter one bit that they know you're an athlete or not. The weird thing for me is when I look at the age of an entrant, or I look at an up-and-comer and I'm thinking "When do they become junior, when do they become senior?" and I look and they weren't even born when I competed at the Olympic Games! Next year will be the first generation of gymnasts that were born in 2000 becoming senior. Sydney, you know, was some 15-and-a-half years ago but to me that was just yesterday, in memories. And I think "Oh my gosh these athletes are going to be competing next year in Rio, they'll be doing their senior year at the Olympic Games, they were born the year I completed at the Sydney Olympics! Sometimes that totally blows my mind.

 Makes you feel a bit old, hey!

(Laughs) Yeah! Sometimes! I mean, I'm 31. Even in my day job, when I'm scanning and I'm checking birthdates I'm thinking "Oh my GOSH, you know? Gosh, they're young!"

(Laughs) I hear you! These days when I hear someone say "So-and-so gymnast is a 1999 baby, they're a 2000 baby." I think "Don't! Don't say that to me, argh! I was their age then, I don't want to hear that!"

Well that's life, isn't it. We keep moving, we keep getting older and wiser but... as long as we keep enjoying it! That's the most important thing!

Exactly, exactly. I agree. 


So now speaking of the Sydney Olympics, it has unbelievably been 15 years, and that's primarily why I hoped to have this chat with you today. Going back to that time when did it sink in for you, that you were going to be an Olympian? Was it as early as being named to the team? Or was it when you picked up your kit? Or as late as when you all walked into the arena together?

I think throughout the entire selection process you're just focussed on the team, and the selection process itself, you're not thinking about the Olympic Games. [Despite my good trial results] You had to put it out of your mind at every step of the selection, because you had to go to camp, you had to win your place to be on each apparatus. It's not about you just get given the opportunity. At camp you had to show your consistency, that you could be relied upon, but also show your skill value and execution is valuable to the team. So I had to put it out of my mind, "You're going to be an Olympian."

Even when you get to the Games you're trying not to think about it, just what you're there to do, not think about the thousands of people in the Olympic Village, or the crowds... so we were kept quite sheltered, Peggy and Jo and the coaches did keep us nice and sheltered. But I think the night of the opening ceremony, we were sitting in the Australian quadrangle area because of course we didn't walk in the ceremony as we were Day 2 competition --

That has always frustrated me, that gymnasts don't get to march!

I knoooow! I've never marched the opening ceremony! Ooh, I wish I could have! But sitting there watching the Australian team walking in, it was that 'buzz'. And then Cathy Freeman lighting the cauldron, those are the moments you're like, "Oh Gosh. This is the Olympic Games! This is what I was identified for a decade ago when I started at WAIS, this is it!"

So you have to keep trying to put it out of your mind, just keep trying to think "It's just another competition, gonna do X-Y-Z like in training." But of course when you march into the arena and there's 15,000 people screaming for Australia it hits you pretty hard! And then you really just want to do your best. You go out there and you've just gotta be proud. The Australian public loves you no matter what. You're Australian and you made it to the Olympic Games, only 6 girls (back then!) made the team and we had 21 girls trialling. And you were one of those 6, you have to feel pretty proud of achieving that.

"The moment I finished that floor routine was amazing. There's no other words. Sensational. I have to admit it took me three years to watch video of vault."


There was a lot of media hype leading up to the Olympics, especially after the Aussie women's program had such a great showing at '98 Commonwealths and '99 Worlds. How did Peggy prepare you all for that hoopla, and of course the gigantic stadium crowd? We've all heard about the infamous distraction tapes, but the noise is just off the charts in a stadium like that.

Oh, it is! And you know, we had the Test Event, we had the trials in the venue. But the crowd aren't 15,000-strong. No matter how many distraction tapes Peggy played it's just not the same. I mean, we were prepared for an entire zoo to run through the stadium! But you're so heightened in your sensations. You're concentrating on what you're doing and you're not really concentrating on what anybody else is doing around you, but you still hear things no matter what happens because of course you're in a heightened state. You've got to be trained to not react. Things like mobile phones beeping, laughter, things that happen in real crowd situations. And obviously all the other funny sounds and animal sounds were just so you can not respond to something out of the ordinary - what if a fire alarm went off, what do you do? - so those tapes are great for that 'in the moment' competing but nothing prepares you for the sound. The depth of sound that comes out of a crowd is insane.

I remember performing in, I think, the all-around competition. I'd messed up my first apparatus, I walked up onto the floor to complete my second routine of the day and was probably feeling a bit flat, you know, "I've got to get through this routine, now's a good a time [as any] to do my best to make up for what I've lost, and the crowd loves you no matter what." They'd forgotten about that first rotation and they were cheering and screaming and got me through that routine. And I did a better routine than I did on the first day because of them. Because of their unwavering support and the amount of energy you feel from the crowd, screaming for you. It's a feeling I'll probably never experience again in my career. How often do you get to compete to 15,000 people? A home crowd? Never. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.


Have you ever gone back on Youtube and re-watched the team preliminaries floor rotation? Although a tv broadcast doesn't quite compare to being there, you can definitely hear some of that huge crowd noise. And you even see a few people get to their feet for standing ovations, after you and after Trudy McIntosh, just hit routine after hit routine...

I have gone back and watched a few things. Of course, what you feel as an athlete looks completely different to what the judges and the crowd see. And what the crowd sees is just the pure joy of performance. And you go back and you go, "Gosh I really hope that I portrayed what I was feeling." because at the time you're trying to be so controlled and restrained and keeping your nervous competitive energy in check. So you're trying to be in control but also you want to be sure that you're performing and showing that you really do love what you do. But I have gone back and watched and every time, it gives me goosebumps. Because I just remember the wave of emotions that I felt through the routine. Having "I Still Call Australia Home" wasn't just music. It was who we are as Australians and everybody went on an emotional journey with that routine. You could feel that through the crowd. And that, I think - I hope! - went into my performance level. The moment I finished that floor routine was amazing. There's no other words. Sensational.

I have to confess, I'm a serial re-watcher of that floor rotation.

Really?

Yes! I was 14 at the time and I broke my VHS tape from constantly rewinding re-watching the Aussie round of prelims!

(Laughs)

Now, in those prelims you ladies didn't have the happiest outings on vault or beam, but regrouped for an incredible floor rotation. Can you recall much about any pep talks you had with yourself, or with the team, to put it all behind you and step up for floor?

After vault... well... it is hard to come out in the first subdivision and compete. It took me three years, I have to admit, three years to watch video of the vault rotation. But I think... sometimes when you're performing something that's at your maximum capacity, you try too hard, and you have a little bit of self-doubt when you know it's a big moment and it unravels. But you do have to pick yourself up, and I think we did as a team. We didn't really talk too much, didn't really have a pep-talk, we personally all just regrouped. I think we just individually centred ourselves for the next apparatus. It was a momentous occasion, being in that moment, "Oh my God we're here at THE Olympic Games", it hits you pretty hard and strong.

There was less pressure going into Athens, going into Sydney there was an enormity of pressure. I had a camera 20 centimetres away from my face, and I remember saying to myself, "Don't cry. Be strong. Forget about it. Go and do the best bar routine you've ever done. It doesn't matter now. I can't change it." My score was thrown away anyway. They were never relying on my score to be a counting score in that time because it often was the 'backup' score. So I went into bars thinking "This is your event, this is the event you're brilliant at. This is the event that last year you scored a Perfect 10 on with that stick bonus." and you draw on those moments. You draw on all the times you've done those routines. You're like "How many times do you do that bar routine in a day?" So I relaxed into what I needed to do. I relaxed into who I was as an athlete. I wasn't as tense, I didn't have to be as tense because I'd just already made the biggest mistake I could possibly make. So "let's just be normal." It was almost like a pressure release so we just got on and did our job. You just do what you need to do. And strange things do happen at the Olympic Games but you just keep going.

Floor was probably the best apparatus to finish on for us because it gave us such a huge emotional lift. I remember in my routine, the one voice I heard during the entire floor routine was Min Cleland! Out of 15,000 people and I heard that voice! Because my ears were so attuned. I heard her and it helps you through. Honestly, I think it was one of the rotations of the Olympic Games for us for sure. And for the Sydney Olympics itself, for the Australian public. The Australian team on the most artistic apparatus, it was a way of giving to the crowd to thank them for their support.


"You get to a point where you just accept that this is my story. This is who I am and I can't hide from that. Why hide from it?"

A lot of the media attention focussed on you and your mother, Barbara. Audiences were told of the unfortunate death of your father in a number of feature pieces. Right before you competed bars in the all-around final, NBC American aired its profile piece where you and your mum talk about it quite candidly. There were people out there hearing your story for the very first time. If you don't mind my asking, what was it like to have to undertake that conversation together while you were still coping with it - "This very significant, personal thing is going to be asked about, our feelings are going to be on show." I think you both did amazingly well in the circumstances.


It obviously was a traumatic event, I found out while I was competing in Colorado Springs at the Junior Pacific Alliance. Coming back, I had to get back on the competition horse so to speak and put the emotional component aside, and those doubts and fears you have when it's something closely associated to when you heard about the tragedy.

I was watching a major swimming world championship with, I think it was Geoff Heugill... he got out of the pool, he'd just finished his race, they stuck a microphone into his face and said "How're you feeling, considering your dad's just passed on?" and I remember turning to my mum and saying, "That'll be exactly like that for me, won't it? If I become successful and get to the Olympic Games, that's going to happen to me isn't it?" And she was honest and she said "Yes. That's quite likely." My dad was the only Australian on that flight so it had already gained media attention.

I didn't expect to make the Commonwealth Games team a year later, I just went to trials to trial! I wasn't even in the realm of thinking about going to Commonwealth Games! So that was such a whirlwind, and of course it attracted a lot of media attention. In Western Australia I became a little bit of a "WA's Sweetheart", and you get to a point where you just accept that this is my story. This is who I am and I can't hide from that. Why hide from it? Because it is something I should be proud of, to be able to pick myself up and continue to compete to a high level and use an emotional charge that you get from a tragedy and use it for a positive outcome. My coaches didn't think I had that inner character, that strength, but I did. So that emotional strength filters through when you're doing interviews, and you just get used to answering the questions because it is my story. It inspires young people who've had difficult circumstances in their childhood, whether in sport or not, it does inspire them and gives them that connection: "Oh, all successful people don't have a smooth path." and if that's how I could inspire others, giving my story to the world was what it had to be. You're human and people want to see that you're human. I wouldn't have had it any other way.

A lot of that NBC stuff was filmed a fair way in advance. So quite a lot of the media hype was done with a fair distance between them being filmed and then the Olympic Games because they had a stop on all media contact with the team a good 8 weeks before Sydney, so we could focus on training. I think that really helped. That piece was filmed at the beginning of the year, NBC came out here and it was a technique that I'd never experienced before. Instead of questions being asked, I was sitting in a completely blacked-out room with a camera, so all you could see was a tiny red light and they gave you the book and wrote down, like a sentence, and it might say "The last time that I saw my father was, dot dot dot." and so you had this great need to fill the enormity of silence that was in the room, and I think you're a lot more genuine and honest. So I think that's why that piece was particularly moving for people. And I've watched it back and it's incredibly real. You're not forced to go there with that technique, you give of yourself a lot more.


One thing I was hoping not to talk much about today was the Sydney all-around vault 'debacle', because I feel like you get asked about it a lot and it's been done to death.

I don't get asked a lot, to be honest. Because most people don't realise it was me! I mean, I know Svetlana Khorkina wrote about it in her book, I do know that! (Laughs)

I have to admit I haven't read that book yet!

Yeah, it gets a reference. But the general public don't really know because it didn't get focussed on very much. I think the debacle as a whole was focussed on, rather than who found it and how-did-you-find-it. For me it was just, like, "There's a mistake. If that vault's the right height there's no way I'm landing on my feet, right?" (Laughs) I did 20 vaults a session, I knew how high the vault was, and as soon as I vaulted over it in warmup I knew. Always a great little question for quiz nights, I mean noone would know!

 I remember it coming up in an edition of International Gymnast last year, with "Quotes of the Year" there was one from you jut saying you were the one to spot the Sydney vault problem, and I was like "That's it? That's your quote of the year from Allana Slater? It's Allana frickin' Slater, people! Come on!"

I think people forget! It was just the enormity of the mistake that was focussed on. But yeah, it's a difficult one. Should the competition have started again? Who knows. It's just one of those things.

Well, given that you didn't have your best performances on vault at that competition, what was it like making the transition to the vaulting table, that two years later saw you become Commonwealth vault champion? Did it make things easier?

For me, the table was a way of having a new lease on life for vault. The whole table changed, and changed my life as an athlete. Because then... I didn't have a 'vault problem' because it was a new vault!

I had to work really hard before Sydney, telling myself "I am good at vault, I can do vault." because you keep getting knocked back. From performance, from not scoring well, things like that. As an athlete I had to work hard to convince myself to have the confidence that I was good enought o do vault. And I'd tried every type of vault in the code by that stage. You didn't see me compete them all, but I can tell you I tried every combination of vaults back then. When the vault table came out it was like, "Great! I have the chance to be a vaulter!" That I could be the next Commonwealth vault champion was the joke in the gym... and what do you know, it happened! Mentally, I could lose all the stress of vault and start afresh.

Was I technically as strong on vault? No. Well, not as strong as those who had learned to vault using the table. And you'll see that through the girls who transitioned to the vaulting table, the horse used a slightly different technique especially for the Yurchenko. But you didn't start to learn and then build up, in one year between the Olympics and Worlds you had to have a whole new vault worth a good value. So you didn't have the time to work on having brilliant technique. I'm so proud of my efforts, that I could turn around my career from being a Nervous Nellie on vault to becoming Commonwealth champ. And having that confidence - I didn't doubt myself as much on vault in the second half of my career. I could be a vaulter, nothing was stopping me. There was this new, safe, whizz-bang table, so why couldn't I be?

Would I have loved to learn on it as a young kid? Absolutely. You'd have good technique, you were extremely safe, no missing your hands or anything like that. I think the table revolutionised vaulting for men and women. These days we're seeing stuff you could've only dreamed about back then.

We got the vault table in the gym in maybe January, February of 2001. And some eight months later at Worlds you had to show up with decent vaults. I mean we all knew they weren't going to be huge difficulty vaults because nobody had had enough time to learn them. I remember at the World Championships training camp, my coach Nikolai was like, "I think we're going to try a Yurchenko 1 1/2!" and in one week before we left I learnt one, and then competed it.

Woohoo!

But that's an upgrade you never would have made with the old vaulting horse. It really did give me a new lease on life...