March 6, 2008

Gymnasts Find Recipe for the Perfect Routine

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The gymnast, utterly still save for a beating heart, is carefully poised on the edge of the sprung floor. Cirque du Soleil suddenly blasts from the arena sound system and the athlete is off, twisting and twirling in ways you never imagined possible. A hearty “Red!” mingles with the swells of the melody as she launches herself into a series of mid-air rolls and whirls and tumbles. An instant later, miraculously, her feet find the mat and she is planted upright and beaming.
While the floor exercise may look pretty from the stands, behind the scenes it rivals the complexity of organic chemistry. Starting as early as summer, each gymnast designs her own floor routine with the help of teammates or a professional choreographer. Throughout the season the routine is then tuned and sculpted into its final form: 90 seconds of perfect, extraordinary motion coordinated to a scrupulously selected jingle. Creating a routine always begins with the formidable task of music selection. Red freshman Maddie Pearsall, this year’s Ivy champion in the floor exercise, chose to perform to Cirque du Soleil.
[img_assist|nid=28587|title=Strike a pose|desc=Senior co-captain Megan Gilbert enjoyed success on the floor this year. She said that stamina and good music are essential to that success.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“Music is picked to everyone’s own style. A lot of times you just look through old things, old instrumental CDs,” Pearsall said. A ban on all music containing lyrics limits the possibilities and invites the athletes to be creative. Senior co-captain Megan Gilbert, who shared third place on the floor with sophomore Brittany Howse at the Ivy Classic, avoided “college music” while forming her routine.
“I like to do music that’s different and that will stand out,” Gilbert said, “and I like to have my dance be different. Techno, upbeat music is really common for college routines, and a lot of people use music from pop songs or rap songs.”
Once the perfect 90-second clip of music has been determined, the gymnasts proceed to pack those seconds with a combination of passes, leaps and dance elements. Passes, which are sprints from one side of the mat to the other that result in tremendous bouts of airborne tricks, are critical in the scoring of the routine.
“Passes are probably the biggest thing because you need five-tenths [of a point] bonus which comes from certain connections between different elements of various levels of difficulty,” Pearsall said.
After the routine is formulated, the women spend months rehearsing the meticulous timing and placement of their various elements, in addition to landing the double backs [two consecutive backwards somersaults] and Rudies [front layout somersaults with 1 1/2 twists] without taking any extra steps.
And finally, they must do this all while appearing perpetually exuberant. Point deductions in gymnastics are awarded relentlessly; the first perfect 10.0 was scored in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and the last one was awarded in 1992 in Barcelona.
“Landings are a big thing,” Pearsall said. “You want to stick all of your pass landings. Form during your passes and during your dance combinations [is important] as well. They can also take off for showmanship-type things. You want to be entertaining, you want to be having fun and looking up at the crowd and at the judges.”
While most people would find simply the act of launching yourself feet into the air and simultaneously hurling your body upside down and sideways, several times, before landing on your feet to be pretty challenging, the gymnasts feel that endurance is the limiting factor for a great performance. Many of the hours spent in Teagle are devoted to stamina training so the women stay energized through all ninety seconds.
“The hardest part of anybody’s routine is endurance and getting through the whole routine. Obviously the first pass will be easier than the last pass because you have more energy,” Gilbert said.
Since months of hard work are poured into each routine, it is not uncommon to keep the same one working for a couple years. Though music changes usually require new choreography, subtle additions can spice up an old routine.
“When you’re watching other teams or watching higher level gymnasts, at the elite level, you always see things and you’re like ‘Wow, that’s cool. [I] should put something like that in [my] routine.’ People always see other people do things and build off of them,” Gilbert said.
“I could keep [my routine] for another year, there’d be nothing wrong with that,” Pearsall said. “Or if I find a new piece of music that I really like over the summer, I might change it. It’s all about finding the right music that fits your style.”
With the incredibly successful season they boast thus far, it seems that the Red gymnasts have found the right music.