When Team USA finished fifth, the athletes – three Olympic rookies and one veteran – didn’t reflect on their performance with much disappointment or shock. For the most part, they performed well. They knew that a chasm existed between them and the best nations, Russia, Japan and China.
“To be honest, we didn’t really have a chance to get on the podium,” Malone said.
For nearly two decades, elite gymnastics scores have been counted by combining Difficulty, an open value that increases as gymnasts complete requirements and perform more difficult elements, and Execution, which starts from of a Perfect 10 and decreases with errors. The Americans’ execution scores almost kept pace with Tokyo’s top teams. But their low difficulty ratings meant they started with a deficit and needed their opponents to make major mistakes to have any chance of winning a medal.
Gymnasts and coaches were aware of this discrepancy, but “having a near-perfect performance, and not even really coming close to it, told us that something was wrong here and we had to fix it,” said said Tokyo Olympian Shane Wiskus.
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America’s men haven’t medaled in team competition at the World Championships or the Olympics since 2014. Getting back to the podium starts with implementing what High Performance Director Brett McClure calls ” the most aggressive bonus system in the world”.
At national competitions, including this week’s national championships, gymnasts receive bonuses based on their difficulty, often referred to as their D-score. The bonus can cause scores to vary by more than one point – the equivalent of the deduction for a fall. Each fixture has designated bonuses for difficulty scores on a curve, carefully constructed based on country weaknesses and international competition ratings.
National team staff hope this system will tip the risk-reward calculus in favor of performing routines that are on par with the best in the world. They plan to wean off the bonus system as the Olympic year approaches. But for now, the results at the national championships, which determine who advances to the selection camp for the world championships, will include these bonuses – making it harder for gymnasts with easier routines to compete. At the selection camp, bonuses will be removed as the best team scenarios are evaluated.
Across the country, these gymnasts at the sport’s highest level have tried more difficult skills and demonstrated them with mixed success.
“We’re all in agreement with everything we need to do to get on the podium,” said Malone, who trains at Stanford alongside five other gymnasts on the senior national team and two others on the senior development team. “Guys here are the same way. Everyone is on board.
The American men’s program was never a dominant force like its women’s counterpart, but the Americans won silver in 2004 and had Olympic all-around champion Paul Hamm. Two years later, the sport moved to its current scoring system. The United States still won the bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics and reached the podium at the 2011 world championships.
At the 2012 Games, the American men had the highest qualifying score, but stumbled in the team final. Their average difficulty in all apparatus (6.48) was similar to that of the medalists – China (6.67), Japan (6.49) and Great Britain (6.35). Poor execution, on the contrary, doomed the Americans. The United States won bronze at the 2014 Worlds but missed out on the podium at the 2016 Olympics, finishing fifth after execution errors again.
“We were pretty frustrated with our consistency,” McClure said. “We struggled and couldn’t put everything together in a team finals situation.”
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The focus shifted to hitting routines, said McClure, who began her role in 2017. The staff embraced sports psychology, preparing athletes to perform well under pressure. The consistency has improved, McClure said, but the difficulty has gone down. The team’s results? Fourth in 2018, fourth in 2019 and fifth in Tokyo.
These disappointments challenged the philosophy: “What is most important?” McClure said. “What’s the difference between reaching 100% fifth place and being happy with your performance, or being competitive and making a few mistakes and finishing in fifth place?”
In Tokyo, the Americans’ execution scores on each apparatus were mostly similar to those of the medal-winning teams. However, across 18 routines, the United States averaged a 5.77 D score, compared to 6.01 for the Russian Olympic Committee, 6.07 for Japan and 6.06 for China. Before the start of the competition, the Americans’ maximum score was more than four points lower than that of the top teams.
“We want to be on the other side of the spectrum,” McClure said. “If we finish fifth again, it’s because we made mistakes.”
Consider the vault: Three American gymnasts competed in the Tokyo team final, each with a score of 5.2 D. The medal-winning teams averaged at least 5.6. It was the biggest deficit Americans faced on any device – and why the bonus curve for jumping is steeper than others.
Syque Caesar, the head coach of the US Olympic & Paralympic Training Center, played a key role in designing the bonus system and called vaulting a top priority. Some refer to the vault curve as an overly extreme implementation of bonuses, but Caesar said, “that’s what we need.”
The world shares a scoring system, but coaches point to tight judgment in the United States that has caused risk-reward calculations for Americans to favor well-executed and easier routines. National results help determine selection for the national team and for international assignments, such as world championships and the Olympics.
“Guys wanted to make it difficult in the last quad, but they also had to put together a team,” said Stanford head coach Thom Glielmi, the three-time defending NCAA champion.
College gymnasts also spend part of the year performing routines for their team, rather than experimenting with new skills. Glielmi said the college season can be a great time for his gymnasts to try new things, but his program might be able to embrace that ethos because of its distance from others.
With the new system in place at the winter cut in February, Vitaliy Guimaraes won the competition without earning a bonus: “He just did his high-level gymnastics and went six for six,” said Mark Williams, his coach in Oklahoma, who also admitted: “I think Always score is score, so I guess I might be a bit old school.The field included an Olympian, Yul Moldauer, who placed fourth despite a nearly two-point increase in bonus.
To recent American classic, Malone earned a bonus on five fixtures and won the competition. If the bonuses didn’t exist, he would still have topped the leaderboard. His Stanford teammate Colt Walker placed second with or without a bonus. The incentive system propelled Donnell Whittenburg to third place, ahead of a gymnast who didn’t reach the bonus threshold on any apparatus, but that’s probably the kind of result the American staff were looking at with this system. Whittenburg had the hardest jump in the field and can also improve a team’s score with his rings and ground performance. His jump in the standings matches his ability to fit into a world championship team.
The American men won no medals in Tokyo; Malone (high bar) and Alec Yoder (pommel horse) were in contention but missed by narrow margins in the apparatus finals. October’s world championships will be the first major team competition since then, and Russia’s absence boosts American medal hopes. Last year’s world championships included only individual events, and the American men won two medals – bronze on high bar from Malone and gold on pommel horse from Stephen Nedoroscik.
Moldauer, who finished fourth in the all-around at the 2021 world championships, hopes to score 6.0 D on each apparatus in time for Paris. Ask why, and he doesn’t mention the bonus system: “I want to be an Olympic medalist,” Moldauer said.
Wiskus describes the current group of gymnasts – whether or not they have represented the United States on the world stage – as hungry, determined to improve the difficulty, and perhaps their most important characteristic, “tired of seeing the United States- United finish in fifth place”.