Gymnasts find unusual ways to get a grip on things

Posted July 08, 2012, at 9:27 p.m.
Jonathan Horton rubs chalk on the parallel bars while preparing to compete during the preliminary round of the men's Olympic gymnastics trials in San Jose, Calif., on June 28.
Gregory Bull | AP
Jonathan Horton rubs chalk on the parallel bars while preparing to compete during the preliminary round of the men's Olympic gymnastics trials in San Jose, Calif., on June 28.

As the U.S. men head off to their final training camp before the London Olympics this week, several gymnasts will be toting plastic bears filled with honey. Or bottles of Karo syrup.

Really. And no, it’s not for breakfast.

Some of the equipment can be as slick as ice, and gymnasts have had to get creative in order to keep a grip on things.

“You start slipping off the parallel bars and you’re like, ‘How do I hold onto this?’” said Jonathan Horton, a two-time medalist in Beijing. “When you’re a kid, I guess you don’t really think about it. Then you get older and you’re like, ‘Man, this should be easier.’ You just start figuring out, OK, what can I put that’s sticky on my hands to make me do this?”

For most, honey does the trick. Others use syrup. Whatever the sticky substance, they rub it on their hands, run their hands along the bars and then cover both with a layer of chalk. (The women have a similar routine on uneven bars, though most just spray water on them and then dust them with chalk.) Each gymnast has his own concoction, a recipe developed through trial and error.

“Growing up, I tried pancake syrup and Karo syrup,” Horton said. “Then I was like, ‘OK, honey,’ and I tried a million different types of honey until I finally found one that really works. Everyone kind of has their own little combination of how they like it.”

How they don’t like it, too.

Because so much of the chalk, honey and anything else gets rubbed off during a routine, most gymnasts don’t bother cleaning off the bars before applying their own layer of goop. Watch any international meet, however, and you’ll see whatever team follows China on parallel bars rushing to the equipment as soon as the Chinese are done to scrape and hose down the bars.

“I literally will spray down the bars and wipe all their junk off and start over,” Horton said. “The Japanese guys, after they do the bars? It’s like the stickiest grip I’ve ever felt. The Chinese guys, I don’t know what they’re doing to the bars and how they hold onto it, because it is not good to us at all. Everyone slips off of their stuff.”

So when you see guys carrying bottles of honey in London, you’ll know why.

Or, in Horton’s case, two bottles.

“I have one to drink,” he said, “and one to put on my hands.”

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