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‘My mouth just drops’: Inside Alexa Al-Hameed’s bar release that sends crowd into a gasp

Georgia’s Alexa Al-Hameed prepares for bars during a gymnastics meet between the University of Georgia and Ohio State University in Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019. (Photo by Kristin M. Bradshaw)
Georgia’s Alexa Al-Hameed prepares for bars during a gymnastics meet between the University of Georgia and Ohio State University in Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019. (Photo by Kristin M. Bradshaw)

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It was one of Alexa Al-Hameed’s first days on campus at Georgia, and the freshman gymnast had the opportunity to show her teammates her capabilities on bars.

Al-Hameed stepped up to begin her favorite routine, and Georgia assistant coach Jason Vonk simply said ‘watch this’ to Sabrina Vega and four other returners. Vega didn’t expect to be blown away, then experienced Al-Hameed’s release on uneven bars.

She spun around twice and relinquished grasp from the high bar and Al-Hameed began the Tkatchev, which is categorized as a “D” in difficulty on an A-E scale. It’s a quite-popular move that many other gymnasts have displayed, but this one was unique.

“Everyone thought ‘You’re going to touch the ceiling,’ Al-Hameed said. “It was funny. I guess it’s my signature thing.”

Al-Hameed, at 5-foot-6, gains unique height while releasing into the air in a straddle position. In basketball, for example, there’s fascination over a player’s vertical when jumping for a dunk or blocked shot. That can serve as a reference point when trying to visualize the Tkatchev, but this is higher for Al-Hameed.

It was a skill introduced to Al-Hameed in 2013 as she trained out of Triad Gymnastics in Ames, Iowa. She and her coaches tried a few different releases, but none worked as seamlessly as the attention-drawing Tkatchev — flexible shoulders, in fact, became what made it work.

Georgia head coach Courtney Kupets Carter, a former highly-decorated gymnast, had her first glance at Al-Hameed’s unique release on the recruiting trail and simply thought ‘I want that on my team.’ Now, her 13 other teammates had a glimpse and were instantly amazed.

“I’ve never seen anybody do it the way she does it,” said junior Rachel Dickson, who competes on all four events for the GymDogs. “She gets unbelievable air time, and it touches the ceiling (figuratively) every time. My mouth just drops.”

When Georgia opened its season last Saturday against Ohio State, there was hope for a similar reaction from a sellout crowd at Stegeman Coliseum. Al-Hameed said GymDogs’ volunteer coach Suzanne Yoculan Leebern told her: “As soon as you get in the Coliseum, we’re going to make that your thing. We want people to go ‘whoa.’”

So, as Al-Hameed stepped to the bars to perform in front of a collegiate crowd for the first time, not too many people had an idea what was coming. She spun around the high bar twice, and a loud ‘Ahh’-like gasp echoed throughout 10,000-plus people as she went into a straddle nearly three feet above the bar.

Sure enough, Yoculan Leebern got her wish as she cheered on Al-Hameed while having a laser-like focus on the routine.

“It’s the most amazing feeling, and sometimes it’s like I’m flying above the bar,” Al-Hameed said. “I don’t really hear the gasp in the middle of my routine.”

Added Vega: “I have never seen a more beautiful release in my life, and I still get that feeling every time I see her.”

The first display of the freshman’s signature move earned her a 9.8 on the bar routine. Kupets Carter’s only area of concern is Al-Hameed’s dismount, which was recently changed to a full-twist double tuck — categorized as an “E” in difficulty.

Al-Hameed’s routine involves two ‘D’ skills — the Tkatchev (also known as reverse hecht) and a Bail Handstand — and the “E” level dismount. Each of the other skills are categorized as either “A” or “B,” and extra difficulty lies in whether Al-Hameed will re-catch the high bar and how it affects her transition to low bar.

Georgia’s season continues with a trip to top-ranked Oklahoma, where Al-Hameed (ironically enough) was previously committed before signing with the GymDogs. She was one-of-two freshmen on bars, along with Rachael Lukacs who won SEC Freshman of the Week, and won’t see her role change against the Sooners.

“She’s in that lineup whether she wants to or not, but she does want to be,” Kupets Carter said. “She’s an athlete that can find the landing, but doesn’t have her tap down right now the way she wants it. Once she can, that’s definitely a 9.9 in our lineup. It’s amazing, because that bar lineup can be 9.9 from at least five girls.”

Al-Hameed was full of ear-to-ear grins when reflecting on her Georgia debut and the so-called signature move brings a bit more excitement. As many couldn’t believe her expertise of the bar routine, Al-Hameed turned and looked at the crowd after landing her dismount.

She had her own moment of fascination.

“It was amazing to have that much support,” Al-Hameed said. “They’re all here to see us. It’s an honor to be here and to have that much support.”

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