The Australian Youth Olympic Festival held in Sydney this past weekend afforded an opportunity to get a look at some of the younger generations of gymnasts who are looking toward Rio.
The Australians fielded two teams at this event, consisting largely of some of our most promising but competitively inexperienced twelve and thirteen-year-olds. Although one of these teams finished with a team bronze at AYOF behind China and Great Britain, some fans might have been disappointed in the lack of medal hardware in the all around and apparatus finals.
This was not the case for Australian head coach Peggy Liddick, who was not expecting medals from her younger brood at this early point in the Olympic quad. Given the traditional bevy of retirements that follow any Olympic year, and a small, ‘ageing’ senior population, Liddick’s focus is firmly fixed on the long-term build of the national team rather than short term success.
“There were really no surprises. I knew what their difficulty level was coming in. We’ve got a lot of young kids- not using that as an excuse, but you can’t rush the timeline. And we’ve got some good quality kids I am excited about. We’ll see what happens in about eighteen months time.”
One Australian gymnast who might have had the scores to squeeze onto the podium was experienced junior Alex Eade. At fifteen, Eade was the oldest member of the Australian team, a fact made abundantly clear by her edge in difficulty over her team mates.
And according to Liddick, Eade has much more in her bag of tricks than was seen at AYOF, too. However, for the coach, winning medals is less important than protecting one of Australia’s strongest juniors from injury at this time in her development. Eade had a nervous day on day one, but Liddick was pleased that her young charge recovered to hit all her routines during the second competition, the all around final.
“It’s good that Alexandra [Eade] came back and hit four-for-four today. She has a lot more difficulty that we didn’t put in today. She’s got ankle issues. Again, it’s not an excuse- it is what it is. And we felt her long-term health was more important than trying to win a medal.”
“Alex has a double twist on vault that she could have medalled on, but I don’t believe she has done enough on a hard surface to compete it. But I know she has it, she knows she has it, her coach knows she has it, and we’ll put it out when I feel its safe and it matters. Alex doesn’t have to do anything until 2014, which is Commonwealth and Worlds. I can’t afford to injure these girls, I just don’t have enough of them.”
As Liddick has found, it’s tough timing hosting an international meet in your country right at the end of our nation’s beloved summer holiday period. Some gymnasts were on holiday right up until the pre-AYOF training camps, making it difficult to prepare.
“It’s the same with some of the little hot kids like Darcy and Rianna. They’ve really got good programs, but the difficulty in Australia is that everybody shuts down in December and January really. It’s really difficult to get the coaches and athletes motivated at this time. The AOC doesn’t want to hear that, but it’s really hard. So of course we are not going to put in full programs.”
This is also a delicate developmental period for some of the younger team members.
“Of course the twelve and thirteen year olds are going through growth plate issues at the moment, so we are not going to push. We have to wait until there little bodies harden up. They are all home working good difficulty in a nice safe home environment. We’re just not ready to put it out on hard [floor] yet.”
“And with the few gymnasts we do have in Australia, I can’t afford to kill them at this early stage! We are just taking the slow but sure approach with this generation.”
While Liddick realises that Australians are expecting to see a lot from the batch of new young hopes, she feels that such pressure is unnecessary at this time in their careers.
“There’s a lot of expectations on these girls and I am trying to protect them from these expectations because they are really unrealistic expectations- at the moment. In two years time it will be another story, you know and we are working really hard to get the level up. When your accelerated learning goes like this [Peggy gestures a rise], then it all peaks off and all equals out, so in about 2015 they’ll all be around the same.”
This year it is Liddick’s wish to focus keenly on development while there is time and space in the competitive calendar to do so. For her, this means international competition is not a priority. Rather, preparing for the rest of the quad is tantamount.
“We are having a big planning meeting with all the coaches in February and ah, my preference is that we don’t go out for the first six months of this year. We won’t have another chunk of time for skill acquisition if we do that. That’s going to be my recommendation. But it is a coaching council, so they’ll all have their say and we’ll just work it to whatever everybody agrees to.”
There are, however, seniors in training in the hope of making it to this year’s Worlds, one that will feature only an all around and apparatus finals.
“There is Olivia [Vivian], she’s fired up ready to go. Larrissa [Miller] is in the gym training.”
Australian star Lauren Mitchell, who attended the meet as an athlete ambassador, has also announced her intention to stay in the sport, telling the media that while Rio may be to far away, she would like to represent Australia at The Commonwealth Games. Mitchell and Liddick are exercising caution with Mitchell’s future- and with her battle wounds.
“With Lauren, it all depends on her shoulder. We might give this year’s Worlds a miss, but she’s all in for next year”.
There are other upcoming gymnasts who will also be hoping to go to Worlds. For Liddick, however, more focus on development toward Rio is equally important for the seniors too.
” Hmm, who are our new seniors? There’s Maddie [Lleydin], Kiara [Munteanu], they are in with a shot. We’ll see how they compete at Nationals. But we’re not going to send anyone to Worlds if they are not, you know, top twelve. It’s not- it’s just not necessary. We have to stay home and work on our difficulty.”
Interview: Brigid McCarthy
Photo: Peggy Liddick and Rianna Mizzen by Nadia Boyce
Join in the conversation on Facebook on The Couch Gymnast’s News Page.
Join the TCG Twitter