You Must Win Vault Twice

In the last 13 months Brazilian gymnast Rebeca Andrade has emerged as a breakout star and has been one of the most successful athletes in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) in that time. Among Rebeca’s many accomplishments were the two gold medals she won on vault. The first came at the 2021 Olympics while the second occurred at the World Championships later in the year.

For Andrade, she currently holds the two major vault titles in WAG simultaneously while also being able to call herself a repeat winner on this event. But when Rebeca won her second gold medal on vault she didn’t so much as venture into uncharted territory, but fulfilled a prophecy that almost always seems to come true for recent vault champions. That being, when a gymnast wins her first career gold medal on vault, she will probably win a second gold medal on that very same event in the not so distant future.

This trend is so common that you have to go all the way back to Sandra Izbasa at the 2012 Olympics to find an example of a gymnast who finished her career with only a single gold medal on vault. Every other gymnast in that time frame has either won multiple gold medals on vault, or never had the honor of finishing in first place.

This is by no means something that is only a recent phenomenon. Of all the gold medals ever awarded on vault at the Olympics and World Championships from 1952-present, 62% of them went to gymnasts who won at least two gold medals on that apparatus over the course of her career. But the most jaw-dropping aspect of this statistic is that from 1985-present that figure rises to a staggering 74%.

In nearly four decades of WAG history, almost 3 out of every 4 vault medals have gone to a gymnast who either has finished or will finish her career with multiple vault titles. Cheng Fei, Hong Un-Jong, McKayla Maroney, Maria Paseka, Simone Biles, and Rebeca Andrade are merely the recent examples of trend that has defined this apparatus.

That 74% figure from 1985-present is such an outlier that on all other individual events (all-around, bars, beam & floor) the figure stands at just 43% in this same time period.

Rebeca Andrade winning the gold medal on vault at the 2021 Olympics

The trend of “win vault at least twice or not at all” first appeared from 1956-1968 when Larissa Latynina and Vera Caslavska combined to win all but one of the available gold medals on vault in this era. Margarita Nikolaeva winning the gold medal on vault at the 1960 Olympics was the lone exception.

Then the trend all but completely disappeared from 1970-1984 with Nellie Kim being the only repeat winner to emerge in this era. But when Elena Shushunova won back-to-back vault titles at the World Championships in 1985 and 1987* the trend was here to stay.

*There was no World Championships in 1986

It is particularly interesting that the trend took off starting in 1985. It was at this exact point in time that Yurchenko-style vaults witnessed an explosion in popularity. It was in 1984 that an 11-year old Elena Gurova became the first gymnast to perform a Double-Twisting Yurchenko (DTY) vault in a televised competition. The DTY would go on to become one of the most critically important skills on vault and leading vaulters would adopt the skill en masse. Even to this day the skill remains common in high-level competition.

Another interesting aspect of this trend is readers may recall that in the past I wrote that vault is impacted by an unusual trend where dominance on this particular event correlates with a gymnast being less likely to win gold at the Olympics. Elena Shushunova (1985-1988), Cheng Fei (2005-2008), and McKayla Maroney (2011-2012) are three leading examples where a gymnast experiencing a “hot streak” on vault was unable to carry that hot streak into Olympic Vault Finals.

Rebeca Andrade winning the gold medal on vault at the 2021 World Championships

More gymnasts have won multiple gold medals on vault than any other apparatus. Vault also has the highest number of 2x gold medalists at the World Championships, but this same event is tied with beam for having the lowest number of 2x gold medalists at the Olympics. Vault has a 5:1 ratio between 2x gold medalists occurring at the World Championships and 2x gold medalists occurring at the Olympics. For comparison the ratio is 1:1 on bars, 2:1 on beam, and 4:3 on floor.

Vault is a strange apparatus in regards to historical trends. On one hand there is a trend where gymnasts are far more likely to win multiple times as opposed to only winning once. On the other hand, there is a trend where gymnasts who win on vault with too much frequency are prone to an Olympic upset. These trends seem almost contradictory, but there may be an explanation to this madness.

Unlike bars, beam, and floor, the vault is WAG’s only event where gymnasts do not compete one single routine. Instead gymnasts are tasked with making two distinct attempts on the apparatus with a long pause in between their attempts. Vault is also the only apparatus where a gymnast performs one skill at a time, and two skills in total. This as opposed to the other three events where gymnasts are tasked with performing multiple skills, in a specific order, over the course of a routine ranging from 30-seconds to 90-seconds in time.

These differences are the most likely culprit for vault being prone to not one, but two unusual trends.

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