V is for Vault

Vaulting in gymnastics takes a particular kind of bravery. It’s one thing to do a handspring on the floor. Even on the balance beam, you’re either upright most of the time or moving slowly. Doing a handspring after running as fast as you can, so that you can launch off a trampoline to push off another object as high as your shoulders to do three somersaults, a twist, and land standing perfectly still? Divers at least land in the water, not on their feet.

Kerri Strug in Atlanta 1996, hopping after she stuck the landing. Photo from Pinterest.

American Olympic fans remember the spectacular courage of Kerri Strug in Atlanta 1996, when she vaulted for gold after injuring her ankle. But Americans don’t corner the market on audacity or determination, and the vault needs it all, as the stories of Svetlana Khorkina and Oksana Chusovitina also demonstrate.

It’s simple Gymnastics 101, as NBC announcer Tim Daggett always says:

Just fly high and stick the landing.

Gold medalist Tim Daggett

Shattering Your Ankle in Front of a Billion People

The vault that won gold, the vault that busted Kerri Strug’s ankle and probably ended her gymnastics career permanently, is considered one of the most iconic moments in Olympic history. It also wasn’t necessary.

In front of a hometown crowd in Atlanta 1996, the American women’s team was locked in a tough battle with Russian, Romanian, and Ukrainian teams. While it’s easy to look back now from a steady stream of Team USA medals (the last two gold), in 1996, reaching the podium still seemed impossible. Going into their final rotation, the U.S. began to worry they would fall short after their pre-Games favorite Moceanu brought in low vault scores. Strug, who was an outstanding vaulter, would go last.

But she under-rotated her first try and, in the fall that led to a sub-par score, she heard something pop. Limping off the mat, she told coach Karolyi she couldn’t feel her leg. He told her they needed the score, “You can do it.”

When she stuck the landing, the 9.712 score gave the Americans the gold. She tore two ligaments in her leg. Even after surgery, her ankle was never the same. It didn’t help that in the incessant publicity tours that earned her a living afterwards, they always asked her to do the vault. That, as much as the Famous Vault for Gold, ended her career.

Strangely enough, the math said she didn’t need the second vault. There are arguments and counter arguments of what was known at the time. The Russians weren’t dominating their floor exercises, and the U.S. had a lead. Even if some of the previous vaults were poor, they probably had the points. Some might have wanted to check the numbers a little more carefully before requiring an athlete to rip off a perfect Yurchenko while ripping a few ligaments.

Coach Karolyi carrying Strug from the medal stand. Photo from Mental Floss.com.

It’s an interesting image now to see Strug carried by Bela Karolyi, in that second famous post-Games photo that seems so caring. Another photo from a few minutes before shows Strug being handed limping from Karolyi to Larry Nassar, team doctor. It’s known now that Nassar subjected gymnasts to decades of sexual abuse, until the 14-year-olds finally pushed away the coaches and staff that let it happen and said no more. The teams from 2012 and 2016 carry a different attitude from the ones from 1984 and 1996, as if no longer willing to be infantilized in front of the media and abused away from the cameras. It took a completely different kind of courage to go into court against Nassar. But not surprising, if it’s routine for young women to fly high and stick the landing, even when it shatters ligaments.

Strug, for her part, bristles at the suggestions that they should have checked the numbers closer. She points out that male athletes are asked all the time to put their bodies at risk, to compete at their hardest even when injured. It would be just as patronizing to subject women gymnasts to such a standard. There had been plenty of falls and serious injuries in her career to date. She was 18; she could have said no. She never looks back.

Besides, giving it another go isn’t really unique to Team USA.

Five Centimeters Too High

Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina has always been a diva. She candidly admits it. What U.S. audiences saw in Sydney was her fall badly on a vault, fall on the bars, and refuse to vault again. Refusing to do it again, after Strug’s 1996 performance, was considered bad form. But here’s the thing. The vault height had been set incorrectly.

Svetlana Khorkina of Russia wipes out on her vault during the All Around Final at Sydney 2000. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Allsport)

Khorkina has more skills (nine) named for her than any other gymnast. She had a gold and silver from Atlanta and was All Around world champion before Sydney. She had a realistic shot of winning the All Around in the Sydney until the mistake in the way the vault was set took her out. Five centimeters would easily throw off a Khorkina II, Yurchenko ½ on – 1½-twisting front tuck. Five centimeters could kill somebody, not just bust an ankle. The Russian was the reigning gold medalist on her next event, the uneven bars. But that vault–four years of practice until that pratfall–must have been in her head. A poor score on the bars then killed her chances. When they suggested, much later, that she could do the vault again, of course she said no. She had done the math and already knew the All-Around had slipped away. She was thinking ahead.

In the emphasis on Khorkina’s refusal, what’s lost is that she gave up her spot in the vault finals to her teammate, Elena Zamolodchikova. Zamolodchikova took the gold. Then Khorkina went back out on the bars. And took the gold. For someone with a bad attitude, she ended up with two silvers and a gold.

If I didn’t get over the disappointment, I wouldn’t be Khorkina. I wouldn’t be standing here with the gold medal. It still hurts a lot. It was cruel to all the participants, to vault on a nonstandard height…Tomorrow, I will dance for Russia. I will leave what happened on the vault far behind me, like the North Pole.

Khorkina, interviewed between the All Around and the event finals.

The media couldn’t decide if they loved her or hated her. Quitter? Diva? They followed her constantly when she was back again in Athens, at the ripe old age of 25. She loved it. She barely missed the All Around to Carly Patterson. Though she did beat Patterson at the vault.

Khorkina was back in Athens, medaling again on the bars. Photo at ESPN.

Seven medals, two gold, is walking the walk for a diva. Khorkina later posed for Playboy and published an autobiography, Somersaults in High Heels. She gave birth to a son but refused to name the father. Nowadays, she’s also a member in the Russian duma, wildly patriotic and pro-Putin. Why not? He’s pinned a Kirovload of medals on her. Of course, she’s a diva, disdainful of those impudent enough to challenge her authority on the mat. Just try to follow a Yurchenko ½ on – ½-twist to back pike. За здоровье!

She Competed with My Dad

If you needed any further proof of the siren song of the vault, consider, finally, Oksana Chusovitina, who competed on the vault in London. And in Beijing. In Athens. In Sydney. In Atlanta. In Barcelona. And in a record-setting ninth time, in Rio. She competed originally with the Unified team in 1992, then kept going, planning to retire, but finding reasons to go back.

In 2008, the reason was family and financial. Her adolescent son was diagnosed with leukemia, and Germany would let her compete, with her gymnastics paying for his treatment. In Beijing, at the age of 33, she won a silver medal on the vault, joining competitors half her age. Still, she wasn’t done.

At Rio 2016, Nastia Liukin was in the NBC booth. Liukin won the All-Around gold in 2008 and is the daughter of Russian gymnast Valeri Liukin, a champion in his own rate in the 1980s. As she said, “to put this in perspective, [Oksana] competed with my dad.”

Oksana Chusovitina in Rio, #9. Photo at New York Times.

Gymnastics used to be a sport for women in their late twenties. The Russian women in the 1960s dominated the sport with the grace of dancers, a reflection of their strong ballet heritage. Teenage Olga Korbut was the one who changed the model in 1972, standing on the uneven bars as if they were a playground.

After that, young athletic routines came into favor, easier to complete for a teenager not yet fully grown. Olga herself, returning in 1976, was no longer the sprite. Another fourteen year old, Nadia Comaneci, took the limelight. This dynamic played itself over until 1992, when Svetlana Boginskaya returned as a veteran to lead the Unified team to a second gold. While the sport favored the young, those older and wiser could still find a way. Gymnastics isn’t the only sport where that’s true. Chusovitina followed in the model, repeating success in the vault an unheard of nine times. Her coach in Rio, as she vaulted for Uzbekhistan, was none other than Boginskaya herself.

Khorkina’s three appearances and seven medals seem all the more amazing. Simone Biles is struggling to make it one more year to Tokyo for her second Games. No one will touch Chusovitina’s nine consecutive appearances. Even after Rio, Chusovitina hung up her slippers and put the mats away. But about a year ago, as Tokyo loomed, she talked about trying once more. She never has won a medal for Uzbekhistan.

She’s training for Tokyo, a tenth Olympic Games. That will become an unbreakable record. The vault is calling.

This post continues the A to Z challenge focusing on the Olympics. We’re nearing the end of the alphabet.

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