U.S. Olympic gymnasts walk fine line between training, overtraining

Aly Raisman
Getty Images

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The girls will come in, often wide-eyed and eager, to get a feel for what the typical day of an elite gymnast looks like. After watching three-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman make her way through another energy-sapping, mettle-testing, soul-draining workout, those same girls who dream of following in Raisman’s footsteps often leave in tears.

”I feel bad that I’m supposed to be inspiring them and they don’t even want to do it anymore,” Raisman said. ”I think people are surprised at how hard it is.”

Six hours a day. Six days a week. Week after week. Year after year. Usually for as long as their bodies – not to mention their brains – can take it.

Raisman can joke about it now that she’s on the other side of it. Her spot on a second Olympic team is all but assured when national team coordinator Martha Karolyi announces the five-woman squad late Sunday night. That giddy moment, however, will be quickly tempered by the reality that the most challenging four weeks of their careers await. Time off between now and the opening ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro will be scarce, if it exists at all.

The Grind is a rite of passage in the powerhouse U.S. women’s program, one designed to end with tearful hugs on the podium with gold medals draped around their necks as ”The Star-Spangled Banner” plays. It’s a bid for glory that comes with an inherent risk as Karolyi and the coaching staff grapple with the question of how much is too much.

It’s a fine line Karolyi believes she has found a way to straddle effectively while building a dynasty that hasn’t lost a major international competition in eight years. She is unapologetic in her approach, one that places a higher emphasis on execution than repetition. During competition days the Americans are almost always done with their warm-ups first, part of Karolyi’s directive to get it right and get out of there.

”Mentally you will be tired, but physically you are doing less when you’re getting closer, then you can avoid overtraining,” Karolyi said.

If anything, Karolyi appears to have mellowed as she nears retirement. Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton remembers throwing 70 vaults a day while training under Karolyi and her husband Bela before the 1984 Games. Back then there were no extra mats to help pad the landings to take some of the pressure off their joints, an added layer of protection that is standard today.

”I hit that (gold-medal winning) vault when I had to,” Retton said with a laugh while pointing out that at 48 she’s already had both hips replaced. ”They train smarter and more efficient. I’m pretty beat up.”

At this point in the Olympic cycle, ”healthy” is a relative term. When the 2012 Olympic team arrived in London, reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber was dealing with stress fractures in her right leg. While the adrenaline took over during competition, she spent the majority of her down time in treatment and limited her practice routines. Though Wieber helped the ”Fierce Five” roll to gold, she also failed to qualify for the all-around final, finishing as the third American behind Raisman and Gabby Douglas.

Now retired and serving as a volunteer assistant at UCLA (where she’s also a student), Wieber doesn’t believe she was overworked, calling her injury ”inevitable” after thousands of hours in the gym. The severity of the pain didn’t ramp up until the team arrived in London. With a lifetime goal finally in sight, Wieber bit her cheek and pressed forward.

”Everybody was banged up at the Olympics,” she said. ”I’m on the Olympic team already. I’m not going to give that up.”

It’s a mindset that can place Karolyi and her staff in a difficult position, particularly when it comes to teenagers who will likely have just one shot at their sport’s biggest stage.

”Coaching gymnastics is such a small part of it,” said Kim Zmeskal Burdette, who coaches national team member Ragan Smith. ”It’s reading their emotions, reading their body language. Are they just frustrated with this skill or is their body not functioning? It’s hard.”

Zmeskal Burdette would know. The 1991 world champion acknowledges she was ”extremely intimidated” to speak up during her career, concerned any sign of weakness would damage her standing. While making a comeback in the late ’90s, she ignored the throbbing in her shoulder – throbbing that eventually led to surgery – out of fear of getting passed up.

”If I say something, I don’t get to do bars,” she said. ”I don’t want to not do bars. My friends are going to do bars. They’re going to get better at bars. I’m going to be stressed that I’m not doing bars. It kind of happens naturally.”

Every single athlete at Olympic Trials has at some point been pushed to exhaustion at her home gym far away from Karolyi’s watchful eyes. Raisman estimates she’s done her boundary-pushing floor exercise ”8 million times,” which in her mind is only a slight exaggeration. There have been days she’ll peel herself off the floor to go home and her father will need to pick her up because she can’t muster the energy to get behind the wheel.

”I think people always say we train so much, but the system works,” Raisman said. ”You kind of have to push yourself to the point where you feel you can do your routine in your sleep. … I’m not saying it’s easy or it’s fun. It’s fun now that I’ve put in the work and it’s all coming together.”

VIDEO: Why Gabby Douglas made coaching adjustment

Sweden weighs 2030 Winter Olympic bid after IOC meeting

Sweden Olympics

Sweden’s Olympic leaders are weighing up whether to bid for the Winter Games in 2030.

The Nordic country’s potential entry into the race to stage the 2030 Games comes at a time when the International Olympic Committee has delayed the process and is searching around for more contenders to host the event.

Sapporo, Japan, was considered the favorite before an ongoing bid-rigging scandal related to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo held in 2021. Salt Lake City is the only other known bidder that might consider taking 2030, though officials have said they favor a bid for 2034.

A joint Stockholm-Are bid from Sweden lost out to another shared bid, from Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy, to stage the Winter Games in 2026 amid a lack of clear public support in Sweden and some government upheaval at local and national level in the run-up to the vote.

There was reportedly discontent in Stockholm over how the Swedish bid was treated in the contest for the 2026 Games.

The Swedish Olympic and Paralympic Committees and the Swedish Sports Confederation will start a feasibility study for 2030, they said Wednesday. A report from the study will be presented on April 20.

“These are new times now and the feasibility study will show how the Olympics and Paralympics can be shaped based on Sweden’s conditions,” said Anders Larsson, acting chairman of the Swedish Olympic Committee. “We already have virtually all the arenas required to arrange the largest Winter Games.”

The committee’s secretary general, Åsa Edlund Jönsson, said the 2030 Games “could be a campfire to rally Sweden around.”

“The idea is to review the concept that existed for the candidacy in 2026, which would mean competitions in several places in Sweden,” Jönsson said, specifically referencing Stockholm and the regions of Dalarna and Jämtland. “Here we feel confident that there is great experience in arranging world-class winter championships in the Swedish sports movement.”

The Stockholm-Are bid for 2026 even included plans to stage ice-sliding sports across the Baltic Sea at a venue in Latvia to avoid building a white elephant venue in Sweden — a key demand of IOC reforms to cut Olympic hosting costs.

The idea of Sweden potentially joining the 2030 race came up at a meeting in Lausanne in January.

“We have had a meeting with the IOC that was about, without obligation from any quarter, looking at the Games in 2030,” Larsson said. “During that meeting, it was clear that the IOC liked our concept for 2026. What the feasibility study will provide answers to is whether we are ready to move forward in the process.”

Sweden hosted the Summer Olympics in 1912 but never a Winter Games, despite the country being an established giant in winter sports.

It has made eight failed bids to stage the Winter Games.

Gunilla Lindberg, who is on the Swedish Olympic Committee, is also an IOC member and on its panel tasked with finding potential future hosts for the Winter Games.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

USA Boxing to skip world championships

USA Boxing

USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!