The Hidden Difficulty of the Vault

In my last article I described the phenomenon of legendary vaulters recording a streak of dominance and appearing unstoppable, only to falter at the most critical time. Elena Shushunova, Cheng Fei, and McKayla Maroney each record a fall in an Olympic Event Finals on their second vault run. They were three of the most dominant gymnasts to have ever performed on vault and their careers all ended without an Olympic gold medal on vault. In this article I attempt to come up with the answer as to why? Is this all randomness? Or is there something about the vault that makes mental composure more difficult to overcome? I’ve come up with the following explanations.

Vault is the first apparatus in the Olympic Order

This is the most obvious difference between the vault and other apparatuses. Vault comes first in the Olympic order and is always the first apparatus gymnasts compete on during Event Finals. As a result gymnasts may not have enough time to get accustomed to the environment and/or settle their nerves.

Vaults are not like routines

The vault is unique compared to the other three apparatuses in that it isn’t a routine where a series of skills are being performed in succession. Instead it involves a single skill being performed on two distinct attempts. On the other three apparatuses a small error does not destroy a gymnast’s gold medal prospects. She has other moves that can be completed perfectly and salvage the rest of the performance. In vault when an error is made, that typically undermines the quality of the entire vault.

The vault also requires so much power that for gymnasts, a small error can quickly turn into a big error when you consider the amount of force and momentum they are dealing with. On beam a small form break may result in nothing more than a balance check. On vault it means a bad block and/or landing awkwardly on your legs with massive amounts of force.

It requires a break in momentum

The vault being distinct from a routine also creates a second mental obstacle for gymnasts. Gymnasts undergo a complete stoppage in between their first and second vaults. Often times having to go as far as to walk off a raised platform, chalk their hands, and wait for judges to give a score for the first vault. It is unlike bars, beam, and floor where the pace doesn’t stop from the moment a gymnast starts her routine until the very end.

In that time gymnasts have to maintain concentration, cool their nerves, and keep themselves collected in preparation for their next vault run. In that small amount of time gymnasts can easily overthink their next vault.

Gymnast can get lured into a false sense of security

This is probably the biggest obstacle when it comes to the Olympics. During an Olympic Games the pressure and the heat of the moment is at its most intense. As they wait to perform on vault gymnasts realize that this particular moment is the moment that will matter most. It is the point at which a lifetime of work is all on the line.

Gymnasts typically attempt their most difficult vault first. After completing it successfully, they are in the home stretch. The countless hours they have spent in the gym is now behind them. The barrier of trying to pull off their most difficult vault has now been surpassed. The only thing left to do is to perform their second vault which is easier and barely a challenge for them. Only to falter on their second attempt and end up without a gold medal.

There is something different about Event Finals/Vault. In Data Crunch #1.5 I calculated at which point in a competition was a Perfect 10 most likely to be scored. Out of 16 stages of competition, Event Finals/Vault was the only one where no gymnast ever recorded a Perfect 10. I speculated that trend-scoring* was the culprit, but it can also be questioned if another contributing factor was gymnasts being more vulnerable to a break in mental composure.

*Trend scoring is the scores awarded by judges naturally rising as a competition goes on. Since vault is always held first in Event Finals, it in theory should have the lowest average score lessening the chance a gymnast scores a Perfect 10.

Elena Shushunova, Cheng Fei, and McKayla Maroney were three of the most incredible vaulters to have ever touched the apparatus. Very few gymnasts have ever matched their strings of success on the vault. Yet for each of them, it all ended in the exact same fashion. The trend of a famous vaulter being stopped on her second run in Event Finals has happened on three different occasions at the Olympics. But it has also occurred outside the Olympics as well.

Natalia Yurchenko

There is no bigger name in vaulting folklore than Natalia Yurchenko. Her vault style is now the standard in gymnastics and is so common that even gymnasts with zero aspirations for high level competition learn her move. It would be accurate to say Yurchenko has one of the the most ubiquitous names in the sport. Yet Yurchenko’s story is similar to that of Shushunova, Cheng, and Maroney.

Yurchenko won a gold medal on vault (in a tie with Olga Bicherova) at the 1982 World Cup. At the 1983 World Championships Yurchenko recorded a Perfect 10 on vault in both the team competition and the All-Around. Her performance on Event Finals played out largely the same as what had happened to Shushunova, Cheng, and Maroney at the Olympics. Yurchenko completed her first vault without a major incident and recorded a 9.900 only to fall on her second vault. It would result in an injury that forced her to withdraw from the competition and seemed to impact the rest of her career. Yurchenko never had quite the same success as she had been having prior to that ill-fated second vault run at 1983 Event Finals.

Like Maroney winning the vault title at the 2013 World Championships, Natalia Yurchenko did get redemption elsewhere. As a Soviet gymnast she missed the 1984 Olympics because of a boycott. But at the Alternate Olympics Yurchenko won the gold medal on vault, this time in a tie with Olga Mostepanova. But paradoxically, one of the most famous names in vaulting history does not have a medal of any kind on vault at the World Championships and Olympics. It may sound strange, but it becomes another example of legendary vaulters who never won the titles they truly deserved. Another example of a trend demonstrating that winning a gold medal on vault is far more difficult than people realize.

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