Monday, August 23, 2010

Yang Wei

Yang Wei, of Hubei, China, is one of the most talented and powerful competitive male artistic gymnasts known today. He has won ten gold medals, three silver, and two bronze in his competitive career. He began training at the age of five, under the tutelage of coaches Wang Guo Quin and Yubin Huang.  In 1997, at the age of 17, Yang competed for China in his first international meet.

Wei won his first World Championship medals in 1999, earning a gold with his team and a bronze for his individual high bar routine. The next year he went to Sydney for the Olympics and won his first Olympic gold medal as part of the Chinese team, and he also took silver for all-around competition. In 2002 he won bronze at the World Championships for his vault routine.  In the 2003 World Championships Wei won the gold for the team competition and silver for all-around. While Yang was part of the Chinese Olympic team in 2004, he had a fall during his routine that prevented him from earning any medals. He still placed respectably at number seven, however. In the 2006 World Championships he won gold medals for his parallel bar routine and all-around competition as well as the team competition. The next year he once again defended his World Championship titles with the all-around and team gold medals. In 2008 Yang gave a stellar performance in the Beijing Olympics. He took home gold medals for all-around and team competitions once again, as well as a silver medal for his routine on the still rings. Yang also placed fourth on the pommel horse event, just missing a bronze title. It had been his goal to make up for his disappointing scores at the 2004 Games in Sydney, and he did exactly what he had intended.

What places Wei apart from other male gymnasts is the high difficulty in his routines. In fact, his routines are so difficult that he could fall during one of them and still win the competition with the subsequent penalty deduction. This actually happened at the 2008 Games in Beijing. The moves involved with such a high difficulty routine take a great deal of work and practice to perfect. Wei's dedication to these moves is what earned him an “A” score in the difficulty category at the 2007 World Championships. He included certain special moves in each of his parallel bar, floor, and ring routines to maintain this level of difficulty.

Men's artistic gymnastics focuses on strength, balance, and flexibility. Athletes like Yang Wei  must be able to perform difficult moves under pressure, so great focus and confidence are also required. In order to win an all-around medal, male gymnasts must perform in six different events: the vault, high bars, parallel bars, floor exercise, still rings, and pommel horse.

During the vault exercise, the athlete sprints down a 25 meter strip and leaps onto a springboard for power. Then he directs his upper body to the vaulting apparatus hands first, and briefly touches it. He then  performs a series of mid-air twists or somersaults before landing upright on his feet on the other side of the vault. The whole routine is judged by its difficulty, speed, and execution. On the high bar a gymnast must perform revolutions, directional changes, and twists on a steel bar that is 2.5 meters high. The athlete will try to gain more height and power by performing the revolutions, called “giants”, and releasing at the right moment. Parallel bars use the same techniques on two bars that are about shoulder width apart. Since there are two bars, this event requires a little more coordination. The floor exercise is a tumbling event performed on a 12 x 12 meter sprung floor. Athletes must present their skills of balance, strength, and flexibility during this routine,  which consists of four passes. Unlike female floor routines, this event does not have music. The still rings provide the gymnast an opportunity to display dynamic motion as well strength, balance, and power on wire suspended rings. As the name implies, the rings must stay static during the event, which also includes the skills of mount and dismount.  The pommel horse is an event in which the gymnast demonstrates both single and double leg skills, but the double leg maneuvers are emphasized. To make the routine interesting a gymnast will perform combinations of leg circling skills on different parts of the apparatus and end with a dismount. Separately, these events are extremely challenging. To win all-around in a competition, the athlete must score well on all six. Wei accomplished this five different times due to his superior difficulty scores in all events.

Being a competitive athlete keeps a gymnast very busy, especially when he is a world-class champion. Yang found time in his heavy training schedule for romance, however. He dated Yang Yun, another Olympic medalist and gymnast for some time before they became engaged in 2006. His proposal was quite creative. At the time Yun had left gymnastics and had begun a career as a reporter.  Wei faked a news conference to propose, and luckily she accepted. They were married in 2008 and had a child together the next year.

For a small portion of Wei's career he enjoyed some professional rivalry with American gymnast Paul Hamm, who was known for his superior execution skills in routines. Hamm beat Yang in 2003 and 2004 at the World Championships, but he had to retire after injuring himself. Yang Wei continued his competitive career, and for a while there was a lot of speculation whether he and Hamm would ever compete against each other again. Unfortunately, it never happened.  Wei officially retired from competitive gymnastics in June of 2009.

Yang consistently proved that he had gold running through his veins throughout his career. He embodied the vigor, power, and stamina that is the hallmark of men's artistic gymnastics. He ended his career on the highest possible note, winning Olympic gold in Beijing.