Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG) has seen some incredible vaulters over the years. But one of the more unusual elements of the vault is that three of the best vaulters WAG has ever seen all suffered the exact same fate. Each of them recorded an incredible winning streak on the apparatus and seemed to be unbeatable, only to fall on vault during an Olympic Event Finals.
Elena Shushunova was slated to make her senior debut in 1984. With no World Cup or European Championships scheduled in that year, the 1984 Olympics would be her only major competition. But as a Soviet gymnast Shushunova missed the 1984 Olympics due to a boycott. At the 1984 Alternate Olympics Shushunova gave her first indications of vaulting prowess by scoring a Perfect 10, but ultimately failed to qualify for Event Finals.
But in 1985 Elena Shushunova would take the gymnastics world by storm. Among her many victories were gold medals on vault at both the European Championships and the World Championships. In 1986 Shushunova won the gold medal on vault at the inaugural Goodwill Games. But the most prestigious competition of the year would be the 1986 World Cup where Elena Shushunova again won the gold medal on vault. Then in 1987 she defended her vault titles at both the European Championships and the World Championships.
With five gold medals on vault Elena Shushunova had won every vault title of the entire Olympic quad. The only thing left was to win the 1988 Olympic vault title as well. Not only did Shushunova carry her momentum into Seoul, she raised the ante. In Team Compulsories Shushunova scored a Perfect 10 on vault. She recorded another Perfect 10 in Team Optionals. Then she added yet another Perfect 10 on vault during the All-Around. At this point the gymnast who was already having a perfect quad by winning on vault at every competition was now going to finish it off with the perfect vault performance at the Olympics. Shushunova was on the verge of scoring a Perfect 10 on vault at all four stages of an Olympic Games.
On her first attempt Shushunova stuck the landing.
But on what was her final vault run of the Olympics, Elena Shushunova recorded a fall. Elena not only lost her one and only chance at an Olympic vault title, but ended up finishing in last place. The most dominant streak of consecutive vault victories in women’s gymnastics ended without an Olympic medal of any kind.
Cheng Fei made her debut in a high profile competition at the 2004 Olympics where she was largely a non-factor. Cheng finished fourth on floor and failed to qualify for any of the other individual events. But from that point onwards Cheng never looked back. At the 2005 World Championships she won the gold medal on vault.
But in 2006 Cheng’s career really took off. At the 2006 World Championships she won three gold medals, one of which came on vault. She also won the vault title at the 2006 Asian Games. Normally an Asian Games victory can be classified as a significantly less prestigious title than those won at the Olympic or World Championships. Vault at the 2006 Asian Games is a rare exception to that rule.
The 2006 Asian games featured two dominant North Korean vaulters. The first was Hong Su-Jong who would go on to be the silver medalist on vault at the 2007 World Championships. The second was her sister Hong Un-Jong who would win the gold medal on vault at the 2008 Olympics. By beating both, Cheng Fei’s 2006 Asian vault medal was as impressive as anything she did that year. She also won yet another title at the 2006 World Cup in a competition that featured both Anna Pavlova and Elena Zamolodchikova.
The following year Cheng Fei again defeated Hong Su-Jong at the 2007 World Championships to claim the gold medal for herself. In doing so Cheng became the first gymnast to win the vaulting title at the World Championships three times. Not only is Cheng the only gymnast to win this title three times in total, she won them all consecutively.
Heading into the 2008 Olympics Cheng Fei was undefeated on vault since the 2005 World Championships. She had racked up an undefeated streak after having attended and won four major competitions, each of which had featured the best vaulters in the world. Cheng wasn’t just winning, but had literally made a name for herself in the process. Cheng’s eponymous skill the “Cheng” would go down as one of the most legendary vaults of the 2000s. It has proven to become only more famous with time as Simone Biles has helped popularize the particular variation. Cheng’s name will almost certainly stand the test of time in vaulting folklore alongside names like Yurchenko, Amanar, and Produnova.
During the 2008 Olympics it looked as if Cheng’s winning streak would continue. Cheng had qualified in 1st place with a score that was .187 points higher than second place. To put that in perspective the gap in between 2nd and 4th place was .200 points.
On her first attempt Cheng had a near perfect vault with only the smallest amount of movement on her landing.
But on her second attempt Cheng fell to her knees and would instead have to settle for an Olympic bronze medal.
When McKayla Maroney arrived at the 2012 Olympics she had only one major vault title on her competitive resume, a gold medal at the 2011 World Championships. But Maroney was already a highly reputable vaulter due to her young age and the fact that the 2011 World Championships were the only major senior level competition she had ever competed in at the international level.
Maroney didn’t have the same amount of wins as Elena Shushunova and Cheng Fei, but she made up for it by exhibiting pure mastery of the apparatus to make a name for herself. During Team Finals at the 2011 World Championships Maroney scored a 16.033 on vault. To put that in perspective the next three highest scores were as follows:
McKayla Maroney: 16.033
Jordyn Wieber: 15.833
Oksana Chusovitina: 15.333
Viktoria Komova: 15.033
The margin Maroney was beating her competition by had become insane. Maroney wasn’t just capable of difficulty, but technical execution as well. Maroney’s two vaults had an average execution score of 9.250 at the 2011 Event Finals. For comparison everyone else was in the 8.466 to 8.866 range:
McKayla Maroney: 9.250
Oksana Chusovitina: 8.833
Phan Thi Ha Thanh: 8.816
Jade Barbosa: 8.866
Giulia Steingruber: 8.700
Tatiana Nabieva: 8.849
Alexa Moreno: 8.466
Yamilet Pena: 8.600
In just a short amount of time Maroney had made herself into a legend by performing the Amanar vault, which was famed for its difficulty, by making it look as if it were a skill that was easy to master. Maroney seemed to have done the impossible with her combination of technical execution and difficulty. She had tamed a vault that until that point time, hadn’t really been tamed. The closest example being none other than Cheng Fei.
At the 2012 Olympics Maroney would repeat her success, this time pulling off a legendary vault score of 16.233 in Team Finals. It would go down as one of the most memorable moments in WAG history and is one of the most revered highlight films amongst fans. It is often labeled as simply “The Vault” and was so close to perfect that if McKayla couldn’t get a perfect execution score for it, no gymnast ever will.
At the 2011 World Championships McKayla Maroney had completed a trifecta. She competed in three different stages (Qualifications, Team Finals, and Event Finals) and had recorded the highest vault score on all three occasions. At the 2012 Olympics she had again had the highest score in Qualifications and Team Finals and was on the verge of repeating the trifecta in London. All Maroney had to do was repeat her success in Event Finals.
In typical McKayla Maroney fashion she nailed her first vault.
But on her second vault disaster struck and the resulting fall demoted McKayla Maroney to a silver medal. This fall was especially cruel for Maroney as vault was the only event she competed on at the Olympics.
Elena Shushunova is famous for being an Olympic All-Around Champion and one of the most decorated gymnasts in WAG history. Shushunova’s role in one of the biggest vault upsets of all time is a mere footnote in her decorated career. Cheng Fei is remembered for being one of the greatest Chinese gymnasts of all time and helping elevate China into a country that could win gold medals in the team competition. Cheng Fei has gold medals on vault and floor and an Olympic bronze medal on beam.
McKayla Maroney was not always a one-event specialist. During her career she had demonstrated tremendous capability as a gymnast with All-Around potential. But injuries and country limits forced Maroney into the role of a one-event specialist. In her career Maroney competed at three Group-1 competitions (World Championships and Olympics). In those three competitions she had performed in eight different stages of competition. The only time Maroney did not record the highest score on vault in one of those stages was Event Finals at the 2012 Olympics.
These three gymnasts are responsible for three of the most dominant runs in vaulting history, and each of them finished their career without winning an Olympic gold medal on vault. In the case of Elena Shushunova, she doesn’t have any Olympic medal at all on vault. It begs the question, why? Why did this identical situation happen not once, not twice, but three times in Olympic history? And in a follow up article I try to find the answer.