Javier Rojo, Colin Van Wicklen, Shane Wiskus, Alex Diab, and Stephen Nedoroscik

The U.S. men’s program in recent years has been a story of “so close, but so far” as teams of talented guys have secured a number of individual accolades on the world and Olympic stages, though the team medals have always fallen just out of reach. The powerhouse teams like Japan, China, and Russia are nearly untouchable with seemingly bottomless pools of depth thanks to nationally-funded programs that keep the sport top priority.

Things are a bit different in the U.S., where gymnasts who have aged out of club and NCAA programs and have to be adults didn’t have that same level of financial support. It becomes more of a hustle for these athletes, who try to balance training with providing for themselves, and in some cases, their families. National team funding helps, but it’s a relatively low salary even for those at the top tier, and the additional “cost of living” stipend for athletes over 22 – which was $350 in 2022 – covers groceries and not much else. Unless athletes have continued financial support from families into adulthood, gymnastics can become like a second job for many, and it can be difficult to spend the time and focus on building up the consistency with high-level routines that match guys who are doing the sport full time.

Despite being at a disadvantage in this sense, the U.S. men’s team isn’t exactly failing. The U.S. hasn’t been on the podium since the team last won bronze in 2014, but they also haven’t fallen below fifth place at a single world championships or Olympic Games since then, and while there have been some mistakes and struggles with consistency over the past decade, they simply just didn’t have the difficulty to contend with stronger teams – in Tokyo, for example, the U.S. men missed the podium by 7.3 points behind China, but they also had a 5.2 difficulty deficit in comparison, in addition to also being about five points back from both Russia and Japan, and about two back from Great Britain, which finished in fourth place less than a point ahead of the U.S. men in fifth.

In an effort to incentivize adding difficulty, the men’s program introduced a bonus system for domestic competitions, which allows the athletes to try out new, harder skills without risking their spots on the national team if they end up falling. It was a good start, and we did see significant improvement last year, where the U.S. was ahead of Great Britain’s difficulty by a few tenths, and only a little over three points back from China and Japan, with all three of these teams dropping two or more points since their Olympic performances while the U.S. men added about a point.

The final in Liverpool saw the U.S. men making too many mistakes to keep them in the medal hunt, of course, so it wasn’t a total win, but I nonetheless considered it an important stop on the road to becoming more competitive – add difficulty, then clean it up and make it consistent. It might be two steps forward, one step back for a while, but progress is progress, and even if it’s slow, at least it’s going in the right direction.

Though this new difficulty incentive did help, it didn’t solve the fundamental problem of the athletes not being given the same resources that other top programs have. In addition to a lack of funding, athletes who were in residence at the USOPTC in Colorado Springs have long discussed issues with the facilities and equipment, with some of the program’s top competitors choosing to continue to train with their college teams while others returned to club gyms, but these posed additional problems as athletes no longer had access to trainers and medical care, and often had to self-fund in addition to also taking care of their training and living costs.

The next step in creating a more competitive men’s program had to be about improving the experiences of the athletes overall, especially adults. The collapse of the USOPTC training program shortly after worlds last year came as a shock, but ultimately made sense as the relocation of most of the athletes to EVO Gymnastics in Sarasota, Florida came with massive benefits. Under the leadership of three-time U.S. Olympic head coach Kevin Mazeika, along with former FIG executive Steve Butcher overseeing operations via the Powers Gymnastics Group, EVO is privately funded by investors and donors, and offers salaries and performance-based bonuses for select senior elite athletes to train full-time as professional gymnasts.

“What we’re doing at EVO helps solve many needs within the U.S. elite MAG program, including those of many post-grad athletes,” said Syque Caesar, a Michigan standout and 2012 Olympian who was the resident program head coach at the USOPTC and is now a men’s team coach at EVO. “After graduating and/or exhausting one’s NCAA eligibility, it becomes very difficult to continue training at the elite level with your collegiate team. Since you’re no longer on the team, getting access to medical care and/or an athletic trainer is extremely challenging and usually requires paying out of pocket. Living expenses may be the most challenging – those who received scholarships were able to use those funds for rent, food, etc.; with that gone and only so little that they receive through the national team stipend, it’s nearly impossible to pay for those necessities without acquiring a job…which makes training at the elite level that much tougher. By solving the financial component, it’s a huge burden taken off the athletes and they can focus all their time and energy into training. Additionally, they have access to an exceptional recovery center in the gym with a highly qualified athletic trainer.”

Three-time Olympian Sam Mikulak is also coaching at EVO, and current national team members Alex Diab, Stephen Nedoroscik, and Shane Wiskus have all relocated to Sarasota for this opportunity, as has Colin Van Wicklen and a number of juniors.

“Any major change with location and training environment is challenging, but the shift to EVO has been great for the athletes!” Caesar said. “Certainly the paychecks and prize money earned thus far for them has been phenomenal. But equipment, space, and location have all been additional upgrades from the USOPTC in Colorado Springs.”

The prize money referred to here comes from another new development in the world of U.S. MAG, through a brand-new Grand Prix Gymnastics Series that also comes under the direction of the Butcher and the Powers Group. Held in conjunction with four popular multi-level invitationals – the Winter Beach Blast, the HGA Invitational, the Stanford Open, and the Blackjack Invitational, which also served as the overall championship meet for the series – the competitions offered over $70,000 in prize money to senior elites based on their event placements and points accumulated over the span of the series.

U.S. elite, collegiate, and club athletes all participated at various stages of the series, as did a few international athletes, including Javier Rojo of Mexico. Wiskus won two all-around titles and five apparatus titles across the two invitationals he attended, and his EVO teammates Diab and Nedoroscik took home prize money for a number of apparatus titles they picked up along the way. With each first-place spot worth $1,000 for the first three meets and $1,500 at the championship meet, that amounted to several thousand dollars apiece for each of these guys, with a few surpassing the $10k mark as the series concluded.

“The prize money won by these athletes is game changing,” Caesar said. “With some earning tens of thousands of dollars, various expenses including training, travel, medical, and living expenses are now affordable…but moreover, [these prizes served as] validation for these athletes’ time, effort, and hard work in this sport.”

Turning gymnasts into professional athletes through the foundations of a new national team program with additional opportunities to earn funding marks an incredible benchmark toward strengthening a program that has been far from “failing,” but that has the potential do better given the talent at every level of the U.S. system. Giving the athletes everything they need to thrive – which includes the peace of mind that comes from being a professional athlete – is the only way the U.S. men’s program can have a chance at contending among the world’s best. It’s not something USA Gymnastics’ budget has been capable of providing to the degree necessary to ensure lasting success, so this influx of both private funding and innovation in the means to get these athletes the assistance and resources they need to level up is going to be very interesting in the coming years, especially as they fight for that team medal.

“The mission is to help Team USA return to the podium in Paris 2024,” Caesar said. “And to the top of the podium at Los Angeles 2028.”

It’s a tall order certainly not without its challenges, but the talent is there, the motivation is there, and now the resources are there as well. With so much now in place following the complete overhaul of the system over the past few months, the biggest roadblocks have been cleared, and I can’t wait to see how this ultimately changes the U.S. men’s program, especially as post-grad athletes continue funneling into EVO in the coming years.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

Source link