Shallon Olsen did a terrific vault in the preliminary round of this year’s World Gymnastics. With an excellent score of 14.7, the 19-year-old Canadian powerhouse vaulted into second place going into this Saturday’s event final by throwing a skill called a Cheng, a roundoff entry with a half-twist onto the table, and then a somersault with one and a half twists before landing. With a difficulty score of 6.0 (that’s high), the Cheng is so hard that almost no women in the world attempt it in competition.
Simone Biles—who, need I mention, qualified ahead of Olsen—uses the Cheng as a warmup vault now.
Sure, Biles used to compete the Cheng … for about two months earlier this year. But then she “upgraded” and added another half-twist, so now women’s gymnastics has a new vault: the Biles. (A skill competed for the first time internationally bears the name of the athlete who competed it.)
Here it is in slow motion (from selection camp last month):
I am writing this from inside a sarcophagus, because I am dead. This vault has killed me, and it was worth it. (Did I mention that Biles did this with a kidney stone?)
The Biles kills me not just because of the skill’s difficulty, but because of Biles’ form, which is so close to flawless that her 9.566 execution score in prelims, combined with the staggering 6.4 difficulty score, put her almost 1.5 points ahead of Olsen after qualifying. Her execution is so beautiful that even if she’d competed it in the men’s competition—with the Biles’ difficulty lowered to the 5.4 it garners as a men’s vault—she would’ve posted the second-highest vault score.
And yet: While there is no shortage of Simone hagiography (I’ll happily claim it as a subfield of my own oeuvre), and while nobody ever forgets to praise the 21-year-old’s sheer power and superlative “air awareness” (what allows a gymnast to know where she is in the midst of a big twisting trick), mainstream accounts of her greatness often fail to emphasize her polished execution.
On this vault, her body is perfectly straight in the air; her legs together, toes pointed. I can only surmise that as an American-style “power gymnast,” Biles does not get due praise for her form because her body does not have what is euphemistically called the “international look,” i.e. that of a Russian ballet dancer run through a de-bigifier. (If you think international judges’ notorious favoritism of this “look” seems racist, you are correct. Deadspin’s Dvora Meyers talks about this in great detail in her definitive book about gymnastics scoring.)
Given that the difficulty of Biles’ routines would allow her to win every competition she enters with a fall on all four apparatuses—which she would never do because her execution is superior—she could potentially be seen as exposing the flaws in the sport’s “new” scoring system that replaced the “perfect 10” in 2006. Namely: Because the system prizes difficulty, an athlete can theoretically win the Olympics with an ugly routine full of falls if only that routine is hard enough.
While this concern is mostly overblown, particularly when it comes to Biles, it has been a legitimate issue in the vault. Since vault has only one skill rather than a routine full of them, there are relatively few form deductions an athlete can get, and so there is a high return on investment for high-difficulty elements, execution be damned. And so in recent years, gymnasts have tended to throw the most difficult trick possible, even if it wasn’t perfect. Even if it was straight fugly. Even if it might kill them. I’m talking here about the handspring double-front, aka the Produnova, aka the “vault of death.” (Nobody has actually died doing it, but because of the hurtling flips forward, risk of neck breakage is unusually high, hence the epithet.)
When it comes to the Produnova, there is no executing. There is only chucking. Even its inventor, Russian Yelena Produnova, usually landed it in what Meyers graciously termed a “deep squat,” and which I’d describe as on ass. To get around its two and a half rotations, the athlete must compete in the tucked position, and must “cowboy” the tuck, or pull the knees apart to hasten the flipping, making the most inelegant position in gymnastics somehow look even worse. Even competed the best it can be done, which pretty much hasn’t happened since 1999, the Produnova sucks.
So why, in the vault final of the 2016 Rio Olympics, did two different gymnasts—Indian upstart Dipa Karmakar and Uzbeki legend Oksana Chusovitina, then 41 years old—try it? In short, because they wanted a chance to beat Biles. And even though Biles’ top vault at the time—the good ol’ Amanar—was breathtaking in execution, the Produnova had a higher difficulty score, so on the off-chance that one of those ladies stood one up, they could’ve potentially taken gold.
In some ways, the Produnova was an equalizer in the rarified world of women’s elite gymnastics. To attempt a Produnova, a gymnast needs one thing and one thing only: power. Not a lifetime of merciless training; not grace, finesse, or air awareness; not the best facilities, not even a particularly experienced coach. Just power. As a result, gymnasts from countries with developing programs—India, Greece, the Dominican Republic, Mexico—have been able to qualify athletes to world championships and the Olympics.
As the most powerful female gymnast in the sport’s history, Biles likely has the raw talent to land a Produnova. (I bet she could even put a half-twist on the end, the final element in a super-hard men’s vault called the Dragulescu.) But she’s famously stopped that discussion with a single sentence, and that sentence is, “I’m not trying to die.” However, because of her superior execution, Biles has never needed the Produnova. This is especially the case now that the sport’s poohbahs have demoted the Death Vault in the Code of Points, ushering in what I hope is a new era of nuanced women’s vaulting.
The Produnova used to be valued at an absurd start value of 7.0. That meant that if a gymnast landed it, even with 1.5 points of form deductions she could score a 15.5 and potentially get on the medal stand. But now, the International Gymnastics Federation has not only lowered the Death Vault’s start value to a 6.4, the group also included a few extra penalties for doing it ugly. Since the Biles also happens to be valued at a 6.4, and its doer happens to do it with almost no deductions, an uggo Produnova now has no chance to beat a Biles. For that matter, a Produnova also has no chance to beat a beautiful Cheng, which Biles may “downgrade” to in the event final in these world championships if she cannot adequately warm it up beforehand. (We are now in a world where one “downgrades” to a Cheng.)
So now there’s no incentive to throw a Produnova, which means that we’ll probably never see one in women’s competition again. This could be seen as a snobby move designed to keep out the countries with less-refined programs. But to that I say: Is it any less exclusionary to have the price of admission be a egregiously dangerous vault? That’s not inclusion, just recklessness. And so, do svidaniya, Produnova. You will mostly not be missed, and your demise will also ensure the Biles will remain untouchable until its namesake retires from the sport. (I’ll be pulling for you in 2021, Shallon Olsen!)