You might think that with his long-deserved, long awaited gold medal for the high bar performance of his life in his hand, medical student Epke Zonderland might be contemplating retirement.
He deserves it, after so many years and so many great high bar performances and so much that he had to prove even to get to the Olympic Games and get a shot at the high bar final.
Zonderland’s signature combination on high bar, three double-flipping moves in a row, capped with twists on the first and third element, brought excitement back to a once high-flying event that has been co-opted by bonus given for often yawn-worthy pirouetting skills. (No offense, Zhang Chenglong.)
Zonderland is universally admired by high bar specialists and gymnasts who would like to be considered high bar specialists. Fabian Hambuechen and Jonathan “X-Games” Horton, both of whom would compete against Zonderland in high bar finals (to Hambuechen would go the 2012 Olympic silver), both have undisguised admiration for Zonderland’s guts.
When Zonderland gave one of the best performances of the 2010 Rotterdam Worlds in high bar finals in front of a super supportive home crowd that included the Prince of the Netherlands and was still beaten by Zhang based on a few pirouettes, Hambuechen went on the record as saying that to him anyway, Zonderland was the best in the world.
So, retirement? Not so fast. Zonderland, who muscled his way through six events at the London Test Event to beat out teammate Jeffrey Wammes for the Netherlands’s only berth to the Games in men’s gymnastics, is not calling it quits yet. Instead, he’s improving: the new video of him tossing off a yet unseen-in-competition combination — Cassina, Kovacs, Kolman, Gaylord II — showed a confidence in doing the first three elements in a row that he hasn’t shown before, even at the Olympics.
The Netherlands knows when it has a good thing. At a team meeting earlier this year, new Dutch head coach Mitch Fenner asked candidly which gymnasts were willing to give six events during the next few years. Zonderland, along with several other people, raised his hand eagerly. “Not you, Epke,” Fenner told him kindly, eyes twinkling.
Fenner will certainly make sure Zonderland doesn’t do his scary floor routine in competition anytime soon. Ditto rings, which aggravates a shoulder injury, or vault. The Dutch men do have some relatively unknown talent, including Wammes and 22-year-old Bart Deurloo, who if healthy could develop into a major international player during the next four years. If it all goes well, Zonderland won’t be competing alone for a berth to the 2016 Rio Olympics — he’ll be with his whole team.
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