Five-ring Circus

The Cursed Trick That Almost Cost Suni Lee a Gold Medal

Should they ban the wolf turn just for being the ugliest?

Lee mid–wolf turn on balance beam, left leg crouched on the beam, right outstretched, arms raised into the air
Lee taming the beast, during the women’s all-around final at Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on Thursday. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

There was not a dry eye on the “gymternet” today—the ever-rabid cyberworld of gymnastics fans, nerves already frayed from a hell of a week—nor in the entire state of Minnesota, as St. Paul native Suni Lee clinched the all-around gold, edging out Brazilian juggernaut Rebeca Andrade by just over a tenth of a point to become the first Hmong American ever to win an Olympic medal. (That Andrade’s silver is Brazil’s first gymnastics hardware did not in any way staunch said weeping.) It was a cathartic, redemptive, heart-pounding conclusion to a competition that began with the bittersweet absence of the sport’s greatest athlete—who, by the way, spent the competition in the stands, audibly hyping up competitors from all countries. Simone Biles’ withdrawal had, shockingly, turned the meet into anyone’s game.

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It was a heart-stoppingly close competition, where first Lee’s beautiful double-twisting Yurchenko vault was bested by Andrade’s powerful Cheng (the super-difficult vault that the GOAT also competes), but then Lee pulled ahead again after refusing to let an off-center release skill stop her from acing the world’s most difficult bar routine. Finally, she hit a beautiful floor set tumbling on an ankle that’s been injured for nigh on a year.

But not before the balance beam, where Lee pulled off one of the most hardcore saves I’ve ever seen. A lesser gymnast would have fallen—and what damn near felled her is none other than the most loathed balance beam skill in women’s gymnastics.

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I’m not talking about a side somi or a Barani—I’m not talking about an acrobatic skill at all. I’m talking about the most dastardly of the dance moves, one that you’ll see in almost every elite balance beam routine and not a few floor exercises, as famous for its muscle-testing difficulty as it is for its shocking lack of aesthetic payoff: yes, the enfant terrible of tough tricks, none other than the wolf turn, in this case a triple wolf turn, which Lee finished perilously off balance, leaning far enough back at the end that only by sheer force of core and toe strength did she manage to stay on that cursed apparatus:

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After that remarkable correction, Lee wisely cut the second wolf turn (a double) she normally connects to her first; this lost her a good bit off her difficulty score (the double wolf is worth 0.4, plus the connection value she lost), but it was far short of the whole entire point she would have eaten for a fall. The most Godforsaken of all pirouettes had come for the world’s new favorite daughter, and she, somehow, used her very strong feet to kick its ass. Had she fallen while wolfing and lost that point, Andrade would have topped the podium, with—all other points being equal—Lee all the way in fifth place.

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Many casualties of the wolf curse are not nearly so fortunate. First performed in 1966 by Soviet gymnast Natalia Kuchinskaya (as the great “old school gymnastics blog” the Medal Count reminds us), and named after the jump in a similar position—one leg straight, the other bent, which looks … nothing like a wolf—the wolf turn is as tricky to complete as it is awkward-looking.

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Even in the best-case scenarios, when a gymnast absolutely nails this skill—Biles on her very best day, Riley McCusker—it’s, well, I believe the technical parlance is the unmitigated fugs. As the inimitable gymnastics blogger Spencer Barnes has put it: “AH MY EYES. MY EYES.” Especially in its triple incarnation (also rarely called by its official, Code of Points name, the Mitchell), this accursed pirouette is performed in most cases, as Barnes put it, “by doing a double wolf turn, but instead of stopping at the end of the skill, somehow chugging yourself around for an extra full turn through sheer force of will and nothing else. It is heinous 95% of the time.” But this nefarious element has destroyed even its master practitioners at one time or another, enough so that there is an entire subgenre of YouTube videos devoted to the Wolf Fail.

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So why did Lee, who is famous for her grace and beautiful execution, even have one of these in her routine? Well, because it’s hard, so it’s worth a lot of points. Even though it’s “just” a spinny thing—and we can all do a spinny thing, right? maybe?—this particular spinny thing requires a staggering amount of strength and control in the body, from the upper core, through the pelvic floor, and down through the entire leg. Do you know how hard it is to try to bend one leg as far down as it can go, then flex in that position, then balance entirely on that leg’s foot, and then spin multiple rotations in perfect control?

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Despite the declarations of what is and isn’t difficult by the predictable coterie of expert couch gymnasts that crop up miraculously every four years (and this year’s have been a doozy), no, likely you do not know how hard the wolf turn is, because you have been lucky enough to never attempt one. But you know who, for better or worse, does know how hard this bad boy, especially its triple version, is? The Women’s Technical Committee of the International Gymnastics Federation, or FIG, who value it at a very high “E” rating—worth half a point, the same as the difficult piked double salto dismount.

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Knowing what you now know, you may be unshocked to learn that some in the gymnastics community have called for the wolf turn to be, well, not worth so much. Not a few folks would be relieved if the wolf were devalued punitively—which would make it unworthwhile for gymnasts to include in their routines. It wouldn’t be banned outright—a dishonor reserved only for skills deemed too unsafe for anyone to attempt, such as the Thomas salto that paralyzed Elena Mukhina in 1980—but rather de facto banned, like the one-armed giant swing on the uneven bars that, thanks to its risk of shoulder dislocation, was assigned a middling “C” rating (the same, at the time, as a two-armed one) after Liu Xuan debuted it in 1995, and thus never to be swung again. Or the Produnova, the infamous “Vault of Death,” which was devalued from a 7.0 start value to a 6.4 in 2017, after yet another vault final in Rio resulted in athletes chucking it, thus risking life and limb for a shot at a medal if by some stroke of luck they stood it up. But because it’s not particularly dangerous, the wolf turn’s suggested punitive devaluation would have to be for purely aesthetic reasons—or, you know, out of spite for what it did to Suni Lee. Unfortunately for wolf haters, neither of those justifications is feasible.

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Seriously, though: As much as I would enjoy never seeing the wolf turn darken gymnastics’ doorway again, devaluing it probably isn’t wise. Not only is it wildly subjective to consider dinging a difficult skill—a difficult skill that requires all of what balance beaming is supposed to require: timing, core strength, foot strength, and, yes, balance—purely because of what it looks like, doing so would also open a very gross can of worms in a time when the sport of gymnastics is entering an appropriate reckoning with its paternalistic, misogynistic very recent past.

The old-school balletic style of the sport—think Soviet legend Olga Korbut’s Bolshoi-quality dance—was a carryover from the days in which women’s gymnastics, as Dvora Meyers has written expertly, wasn’t even meant to be a sport per se at all, but rather an exhibition of ladies’ grace, suppleness, and docility. Every single acrobatic innovation in gymnastics—think, again, of Olga Korbut, who had to push against the FIG for every pioneering salto she flipped, even at one time threatening to retire and deprive the sport of its greatest draw—is the result of a fight against its earliest incarnation as a nonsport.

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And make no mistake: The wolf turn, though it takes place without flipping upside down, is a dance element in name only. Though it (almost) ground even the beautiful beam rhythm of our latest gold medalist to a heinous halt (and, truth be told, doesn’t look as gorgeous as the rest of her routine when it’s hit), the Pirouette of Enmity is, alas, as acrobatic and athletic as any double-double you’ll see out there. So as long as its difficulty is properly recognized by the FIG (which isn’t always the case, much to the justified anger of Biles and her fans), it will be spinning its ugly way into televisions and hearts worldwide for many Olympic cycles to come. I suppose I can forgive its continuing existence for the sake of crushing the gymnastics patriarchy—but only, truth be told, because it failed, against its most evil of natures, to take gold away from Suni Lee.

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