PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Guillermo Alvarez sipped from his plastic-foam cup of coffee Wednesday morning in the bowels of Wachovia Arena, home to the Philadelphia 76ers and Flyers. The former University of Minnesota All-American seemed remarkably placid for all that’s at stake here tonight for him and a handful of the nation’s best gymnasts.
“I always seem more relaxed than I am,” he said.
When his strong hands began fidgeting with the cup, that façade became apparent.
The U.S. Olympic gymnastics team will be selected – more or less – this weekend, and, the way things are going, it could amount to the last man standing. An athlete like Alvarez, 25, who is admittedly on the bubble, keeps moving to the core group.
There are only 14 men here, but on Wednesday the surprise national champion David Sender hurt himself. Meanwhile, the nation’s best gymnast, Paul Hamm, isn’t competing here because of a hand injury and recent surgery. His status for Beijing is iffy, but officials will almost certainly place him on the team in hopes of his readiness. One of the top guys in parallel bars, high bars and floor exercise, Justin Spring has a shoddy left ankle, and he might not be able to compete fully here.
But Alvarez, who grew up in Denver but has lived and trained in Minneapolis for nearly seven years, is healthy and planning on a strategic approach to making the team. He’s being aided here by Gophers coach Mike Burns.
Burns’ advice is that of any positive-thinking adviser: Don’t worry, be happy. And, pal, while you’re at it, can you try to be as close to perfect as possible, please?
“Avoid outcome thoughts and focus on the process” is how Burns described his wisdom for Alvarez. “The outcome will be in some other people’s hands.”
He’s in the mix
This is, after all, one of those maddening subjective sports. So, Alvarez might reduce – by a smidgen – the difficulty of his routines while seeking perfection on the ones he performs.
It’s a balancing act. You can attempt a hellacious trick with a so-called “high start value,” but if you blow it, you lose points. On the other hand, if the degree of difficulty is a bit lower and you nail it, you might earn a mark just as high.
“Is [the tougher skill] performed well enough to make it worth competing or do I actually get more deduction on it than I do bonus?” Alvarez asked.
The selection process is as flexible as the athletes themselves, and the injuries mean that what happens here is not definitive. USA Gymnastics leaders can determine the final six men on the team later in July after a training camp. Still, eight or nine men will leave Philadelphia as the final group, and Alvarez, who finished seventh all-around at last month’s national championships is in the mix.
His selection could come down to his performance in three key events: pommel horse, floor exercise and, perhaps, vault.
In Beijing, the important team event allows for specialists to score key points.
With Spring’s injury, the floor exercise seems to be wide open for a spot. Ron Brand, the head of the Olympic team selection committee told me, “Guillermo is a great tumbler. If he can be a little more consistent and cleaner on his landings, that could be the difference right there.”
A social symbol?
The U of M grad, who’s been chalking his hands, twisting and somersaulting through the air since he was 10, hopes to enter a Ph.D. program in linguistics. He can already speak Russian after minoring in that at as undergrad.
There’s another interesting thing worth watching – and this event will be on TV, KARE-11 locally, with the men’s final live Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
In a smattering of Olympic sports — the so-called “country club” sports — there is a cracking diversity. Cullen Jones is an African-American attempting to make the swim team and talking up the need for young kids of color to learn how to swim. The Nicaraguan émigré family – siblings Steven, Mark and Diana Lopez – are becoming corporate darlings after all three made the U.S. tae kwon do Olympic team; that growing Hispanic market is developing its own advertising icons.
Alvarez isn’t particularly outspoken on deeper issues, such as immigration, but the grandson of a migrant Mexican farm worker told MinnPost: “Anyone who’s an Olympian is going to be considered a role model. Being in that position and being a role model is definitely good for the Hispanic community, which isn’t necessarily always shown in positive lights or respected positions like that.”
As it turns out, his father, Amando Alvarez, a Spanish lecturer at Idaho State University, is an outspoken advocate for immigrant rights in Idaho.
But tonight and then on Saturday, the only language, the only issue on Guillermo Alvarez’s mind, is his 12 routines, six tonight, six Saturday.
All he needs is perfection. That’s all.