Attending My First Gymnastic Event: A Series of Whoa’s

I’ve seen many types of sports in-person, as you can guess: football, soccer, baseball, basketball, ice hockey, field hockey, water polo, track and field, tennis, lacrosse, volleyball, even team handball.

But one sport had avoided the desecration that comes with my attendance: gymnastics. Somehow I never made it to London’s O2 Arena (née Millennium Dome) for gymnastics during the 2012 Olympics. Perhaps that was for the best; if my first experience with a sport is at its highest level and pitch, how can I possibly enjoy anything less? This is the first-worldiests of first-world problems.

So it was that my first time watching real-life gymnastics was Thursday and Friday for the P&G Championships at Consol Energy Center. The talent and prowess on the floor and through the air astounded me. I came away amazed by the athleticism and artistry at all. Shall I call it sporting Cirque du Soleil? I hope it does not denigrate these athletes to be compared to high-level theatre. I mean only to praise.

I watched girls born in 1998 perform such acrobatics on a 3.9-inch-wide beam that a more worrisome person would consider child endangerment. I saw men built to cartoonish physiques rotate around a pommel horse with strength beyond human. The vaults, the rings, the bars, the sheer absurdity of the forms these athletes painted in the air… am I overzealous? These are supremely strong humans who labor to perfect a form.

2014 P&G Gymnastics Championships

Consol Energy Center, usually decked for hockey, made for a fabulous gymnastics host.

I’m not sure if this is the way all gymnastics meets run, as I’ve only been to two now, but the men’s and women’s formats are quite different. First, the women’s event: 11 competitors on four apparatuses (apparati?), split up on two apparatuses at a time. Every performance was separated, leaving some downtime as you wait for the next athlete.

This format, admittedly, makes the pace a bit slow and boring. As it was the first day of events and no medals would be awarded on the day, waiting between events became a chore rather than building up anticipation.

Contrast that scene with the men’s format: 33 competitors are split up to each of the six men’s apparatuses. Unlike the women, these guys aren’t taking turns for the attention of the crowd. Let’s go: one on vault, one on pommel horse, rings, high bar, parallel bars, floor exercise, all at once. For all intents, this is a completely different sport. It is frantic and kinetic. Study up on the program to see who the past Olympians and National Champions are, then pay attention to their performances.

That brings me to another stark difference between the women’s session and men’s session: name recognition. I could remember names that popped on NBC with five rings, like Jonathan Horton, Danell Leyva, Jake Dalton, John Orozco and Sam Mikulak, and I focused on them when they were on an apparatus. It also helped that most of the elite men wore the uniform of Team Hilton HHonors, which is both the team financially supported by USA Gymnastics and a ridiculous example of Corporate America creating a word with two H’s in which both are silent.

Point is, I knew the guys.

I couldn’t bring the same knowledge to the women’s competition. Perhaps this is on me needing to know more about the sport and the top American athletes. Fact is, all five of the U.S. men from London showed up to Pittsburgh. Only one of the women did. Isn’t this supposed to be the national championship? I wagged my finger at Pittsburghers not filling up the seats. But if it has become a truism that most Americans only care about gymnastics during the Olympics and your event has only one former Olympian in Kyla Ross, well, you reap the smaller crowds you sow.

(A side note: I’m certain USA Gymnastics gets untold money letting Procter and Gamble be the title sponsor for its top competition. P&G seems like a fantastic partner to the sport in America. I also believe you could garner larger crowds and more attention if you are able to call your national championships “the national championships,” and not a corporate-titled event that sounds like it could be any ol’ competition.)

But to conclude, I’ll give mainstream America at least one reason they should care: Simone Biles. People. This young lady has been industrial-engineered and performance-tested to optimal specifications. Even speaking as a novice to the sport privy only because of Olympic-based viewings, I can tell you she deserves the mechanical metaphor. Biles represents what happens when God takes 57 inches of muscle and stuffs it into a person. You don’t become World All-Around Champion without sharpness in all four areas, but Biles’ floor exercise nearly sent me into stunned disbelief. How does one do that?

What a shame it would be for Biles to not get her rightful Olympic glory because of a biological clock. She was born in March 1997, just barely too young to qualify for London Games eligibility, and may be a tad too far past her prime (yeah, at age 19) to win in Rio. I suppose that’s gymnastics for ya. But Biles’ fantastic abilities provide a perfect example of why this sport is too good, these athletes too astonishing, to be treated as a quadrennial sideshow.

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