Now that you’ve had your intro to gymnastics through a background of the sport and its technical side, we can move on to each of the events, which we’ll do in Olympic order.
“Olympic order” is vault, bars, beam, and floor, by the way. In qualifications as well as team and all-around finals, gymnasts rotate in that order (if they begin on vault, they do bars second whereas if they begin on floor they do vault second, and so on).
Vault is the quickest of the four events. Whereas the other three are made up of multiple skills, vault consists of one skill and on average takes about seven seconds from start to finish. Because it’s over so quickly, there are fewer places for judges to take deductions, so it’s usually one of the highest-scoring events.
Even though a vault is technically only one skill, it is broken down into several parts or phases – the run, the hurdle, the preflight, the repulsion, the postflight, and the landing.
All phases of a front handspring vault
The run and the hurdle onto the springboard don’t generally get any deductions, and basically exist as a way to generate power for the vault itself. The vault runway is 25 meters long, allowing gymnasts to accelerate up to about 17 mph before hitting the springboard. Problems can still arise during this phase of the vault, however. If a gymnast’s steps are off in her run, she can “balk” her vault. If she balks before touching the springboard or table, she has 30 seconds to start over, but if the gymnast touches the equipment, she receives a score of zero and can’t start over again.
The preflight is basically the time in the air between the springboard and the table. In this phase, the judges are mostly looking at the body position, including the body shape and legs. In general in gymnastics, the body line judges look for is one that’s straight from head to toe, so here and pretty much anywhere else, the judges will deduct if your body is arched or piked when it’s supposed to be straight. But where there’s supposed to be an arch (like in a back handspring) or pike (like in a piked skill), these body positions are obviously fine!
Aside from body positioning, the other big deduction can come from a gymnast’s form, and here specifically, leg form. Judges want to see straight legs glued together, so a vaulter with bent knees or any sort of separation between the legs will receive deductions.
Next is the repulsion phase, which is that split second when the gymnast’s hands hit the table to push off into the postflight. Again, body position and leg form are both important here, as is arm form (bent elbows are a serious deduction, up to 0.5) and the gymnast’s shoulder angle. If a gymnast has a twist in the postflight part of her vault but starts twisting while she’s still in the repulsion phase (with her hands still on the table), this also receives 0.1 off.
Everything that happens in the preflight and repulsion phases can affect what goes on in the postflight, which is where the flips and twists come in. In a front handspring vault, if a gymnast’s body is piked and she hits the table at a horizontal angle with bent elbows, the repulsion off the table won’t be as strong or as high, which means less time in the air and could result in a short landing, fall, or even serious injury.
This is McKayla Maroney on vault during the 2012 Olympics. See how high up she is off the table? Height is one of the most important parts of the postflight and a gymnast can’t get height like this if there are problems leading up to it in the preflight and repulsion. A gymnast is deducted up to 0.5 for a lack of height, and while most don’t come close to the height Maroney could get, gymnasts who don’t reach an appropriate height off the table will get a deduction.
Height is so crucial on this event because the higher a gymnast goes, the more time she has in the air to complete her skills. There are many variations of flips and twists a gymnast can perform in the air, with the more difficult variations given higher start values or D scores. Generally the more technically proficient and/or powerful gymnasts can compete the more difficult vaults because they need that technique and power to make them happen.
But no matter what skill a gymnast performs in the air, the form on all is super important. Like every other phase, body position and leg form are what the judges pay most attention to, so bent knees, separated or crossed legs, and incorrect body positioning based on the skill will all get deductions. If the skill looks nothing like it’s supposed to, the gymnast can even have the vault downgraded to a lower-level vault.
How does this work? Every vault corresponds to a number, which the gymnast posts on a board at the start of the runway before she takes her turn. If a gymnast posts that she is performing a handspring front layout and has a slightly piked hip angle, for example, she will most likely get deducted for this form error…but if her hips are SO piked that her body position changes from layout to pike, her D score will get downgraded accordingly, from a handspring layout to a handspring pike.
Finally, we have the landing. The most obvious landing deductions are hops, steps, and falls. Small hops or foot adjustments receive about 0.1 in deduction, larger hops or steps get 0.3 off, and a fall gets a full point (and if a gymnast lands a vault on her butt without first hitting with her feet and then falling, she gets a zero). Judges also take 0.1 off if feet are apart in the landing and 0.5 off for a deep squat, and there are deductions if a vault lands off-center as well as penalties if she steps outside the white lines.
The distance a vault gets is taken into consideration as well, and a vault lacking a good distance from the table can receive a deduction of up to 0.3. Distance is technically a postflight deduction, but it’s easier to see a vault’s distance after it’s landed, so if you’re watching for distance just keep your eyes on how far they are from the table after they’ve landed on the mat. I’m hugely in favor of distance markings, which would make judging distance less subjective, but judges do tend to have a good eye for how much distance a vault should get based on a gymnast’s size/height.
Here’s a good example of differences in distance…do you see that little crease in the mat? In the first photo, Gabby Jupp lands just beyond the crease, but in the second photo, Katelyn Ohashi lands several feet behind it. Jupp definitely got a deduction for a lack of distance, whereas Ohashi likely did not.
The last thing you need to know about vault is that because it’s such a quick event, for those who want to reach the event finals at major competitions, they have to perform two vaults from separate families. Vault families are based on the vault’s entry, so what you see in the hurdle, preflight, and repulsion phases rather than by the flips and twists you see in the postflight, and there are five different vault families for the women:
- Group I – handspring without salto (front handspring onto the table with no flips in the air off the table – these are very simple vaults and you won’t see anyone doing these at the Olympics)
- Group II – handspring with salto (front handspring onto the table)
- Group III – Tsukahara (front handspring onto the table with a half twist before pushing off)
- Group IV – Yurchenko (roundoff onto the springboard, back handspring onto the table)
- Group V – Yurchenko with half twist (roundoff onto the springboard, back handspring onto the table, and then a half twist before pushing off)
A gymnast who hopes to enter the vault final can’t do two Yurchenkos, but can do one Yurchenko and one Yurchenko half-on, or one Yurchenko and one handspring, for example. Both of her vaults are judged independently from one another and are then averaged to determine her total score. If a gymnast does a double-twisting Yurchenko to get a 15.0 and then a handspring front pike half to get a 14.0, her final score will be an average of the two, or a 14.5.
Additionally, even if a gymnast has two different family vaults, the postflight in the two families can’t be the same. If a gymnast opts to do a Yurchenko and a Tsukahara vault, for example, she can’t perform full twists on both, or she will incur a 2 point penalty because both are back flips with full twists. A Yurchenko full and a Tsuk double combo is fine, however, as is a Yurchenko double and a Tsuk 1½ or any other combination that changes the postflight. But if a gymnast does a Yurchenko full and a handspring front full, it’s fine because the Yurchenko is a back layout full and the handspring is a front layout full, the direction of the flips making the postflight different.
Now we’ll get into the most common vaults, aka what you can expect to see in competition this summer.
Yurchenko style vaults are named for the Soviet gymnast Natalia Yurchenko, and they’re what you’ll see from almost everyone competing at the highest levels of Olympic competition. They’re generally the easiest to perform but the most difficult to learn, so if gymnasts don’t come from top programs, they may not have coaches who know how to safely teach Yurchenkos, and so they stick to vaults of the handspring/tsuk variety.
So what does a Yurchenko involve? After the gymnast runs, she performs a roundoff onto the springboard and then a back handspring onto the table. When she pushes off, she performs a back flip, which can be done in any position – tuck, pike, or layout – and can involve any number of twists. Most gymnasts at the Olympic level perform layouts, and the strongest go for either a double twist or a 2½, which is known as an Amanar after the Romanian gymnast Simona Amanar, the first to perform it.
McKayla Maroney is perhaps most famous for her Amanar performance at the 2012 Olympics, which she stuck perfectly in the team final. It comes with a 6.3 start value, which is one of the most difficult you’ll see in Rio.
In addition to the Amanar, you’ll see a ton of Yurchenko layouts with one, one-and-a-half, and two twists. The FTY (one twist) is at a 5.0 start value, a 1½ is at a 5.3 start value, and the DTY (two twists) comes at a 5.8 start value.
These are more rare, but many gymnasts who are strong at the Yurchenko layout style vaults will opt for a Yurchenko half-on for their second vaults. The biggest difference is that the half twist onto the table means the layout coming off the table will be facing forward for a more difficult front flip rather than facing backwards for the easier back flip.
Here’s Simone Biles performing what’s called a Cheng, named for Chinese gymnast Cheng Fei. A Cheng is currently the most difficult of the Yurchenko half-on vaults, with the postflight including a front layout with 1½ twists for a 6.4 start value. Notice that the start value for a back layout with 2½ twists in the Amanar is a tenth lower than the start value for a FRONT layout with only 1½ twists! That right there says a lot for how difficult the forward-facing saltos can be.
The other popular Yurchenko half-on vaults include one with a half twist (known as a Lopez and rated at a 5.6 start value) and one with a full twist (rated at a 6.0 start value and called a Mustafina by most gym fans though it’s not officially named in the code of points).
Another popular Yurchenko half-on isn’t a layout…it’s the Yurchenko half-on front pike with a half twist, called a Podkopayeva and rated at a 5.2. Most of the tuck and pike skills aren’t valuable enough to become super common at the elite level, but this is one I’ve seen several times this year and you might see it in Rio. Actually, I’ve seen a front layout half vault downgraded to a front pike half a few times, so keep an eye out for those layouts…if the hip angle is bent, a 5.6 layout vault quickly becomes a 5.2 pike.
While these aren’t quite as popular for gymnasts on top teams, in the vault final especially you will see handspring varieties with all sorts of flips off the table, including tucks, pikes, and layouts either with or without twists. Like the Yurchenko half-on, handspring vaults are front-facing vaults, and again, front flips are a little more difficult, which is why these tend to be more rare.
Here we have the Swiss gymnast Giulia Steingruber performing a Rudi, which is a front handspring onto the table followed by a front layout with 1½ twists for a 6.2 start value. This is the most difficult of the handspring layouts…for now. Steingruber has actually been training a front handspring front layout with a DOUBLE twist, which she hopes to unveil in Rio! There’s also the front layout for a 5.0 start value, a front layout half for a 5.4, and a front layout full for a 5.8.
In general, skills that are tucked or piked are easier than layouts and aren’t given as much credit in the D score department, but because front handsprings vaults are pretty difficult and require a great amount of strength, several tucked and piked elements out of a handspring entry still carry a pretty solid start value.
This is Teja Belak of Slovenia performing a handspring front tuck with a full twist, which has a 5.3 start value. A front tuck on its own is a 4.4 and with a half twist is a 4.8, and you could see both of these from some of the lower-level gymnasts in Rio. For the piked handsprings, a front pike with no twists is a 4.6 and a front pike with a half twist is a 5.0.
Finally, one of the rarest unicorns of the handspring variety is the handspring double front, aka the Produnova. Yes, that is a front handspring with TWO front tucks off! It’s currently the most difficult vault a woman can perform, given a 7.0 start value. Two gymnasts will perform this in Rio – Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan and Dipa Karmakar of India.
The vault is incredibly dangerous because most gymnasts don’t have the strength to flip that many rotations around, and even these two who perform it tend to have super deep squats when they land (so deep that they brush their butts on the ground before standing up) and they “cowboy” their legs like divers to get a quicker rotation in the air, which means they spread their legs apart and pull them back to flatten themselves out rather than hold their knees together in front of them, which is the correct tuck position. Both are huge deductions, but for the gymnasts who perform this vault, the deductions are worth it because they make up so much with the high difficulty score. Sometimes a Produnova with a fall actually scores higher than many HIT vaults!
I think the Tsukahara – or tsuk – vaults are the most rare for the women, though we do see a few from gymnasts who compete two vaults. Most popular are the tsuk with a layout full twist (5.2 start value), the tsuk layout 1½ (5.5 start value), and the tsuk layout double (6.0 start value).
Here’s Chinese gymnast Wang Yan performing a tsuk double as her first vault. You can see that she jumps from the springboard to do a front handspring onto the table, but begins twisting just as her hands hit the table and completes the twist just as she launches into her flight, where she does two more twists before landing.
Remember how I said it’s easier to complete twists in a Yurchenko compared to a Yurchenko half-on because the half twist turns it from a back flip into the more difficult front flip? The difference between the handspring and the tsuk is the opposite! It’s easier to complete twists in a tsuk than in a handspring because the handspring requires a front flip whereas the half-twist in the tsuk turns the rotation off the table into a back flip. That’s why you’ll see a couple of tsuk back layout doubles in Rio, whereas no woman has ever competed a handspring front layout double full (unless Steingruber changes the game by landing hers, of course).
THE VAULT CHART
If you want to know the start values for ALL vaults, I’ve listed them here by family (the start values are in the third column). They’re listed in order of their assigned numbers (first column), which are what you’ll see gymnasts flash on the board before they compete.
A good way to practice recognizing vaults is to look for the number flashed (the board is close to where the gymnast begins her run) and then match it up with the description (second column) on this list. Named vaults are in parentheses, and I’ve bolded the vaults that are most common.
Videos are linked where available…I did that part in kind of a rush with whatever came up first on YouTube so they’re by no means the best example, necessarily…if anyone has any suggestions for other videos, share in the comments!
|GROUP I – HANDSPRINGS WITHOUT SALTOS|
|1.01||Handspring with ½ twist||2.8|
|1.02||Handspring with 1 twist||3.2|
|1.03||Handspring with 1½ twists (Kim)||3.6|
|1.04||Handspring with 2 twists||4.0|
|1.05||Handspring with 2½ twists||4.5|
|1.11||Yamashita with ½ twist||3.0|
|1.12||Yamashita with 1 twist||3.4|
|1.20||½ twist on, handspring off||2.4|
|1.21||½ twist on, ½ twist off||3.0|
|1.22||½ twist on, 1 twist off||3.4|
|1.23||½ twist on, 1½ twists off||3.8|
|1.24||½ twist on, 2 twists off||4.2|
|1.30||1 twist on, handspring off||3.2|
|1.31||1 twist on, 1 twist off (Korbut)||4.2|
|1.40||Roundoff on, handspring off||2.6|
|1.50||Roundoff ½ twist on, handspring off||2.6|
|1.51||Roundoff ½ twist on, handspring with ½ twist off||3.0|
|1.52||Roundoff ½ twist on, handspring with 1 twist off||3.4|
|1.53||Roundoff ½ twist on, handspring with 1½ twists off||3.8|
|1.60||Roundoff 1 twist on, handspring off||3.2|
|1.61||Roundoff 1 twist on, handspring with ½ twist off||3.6|
|1.62||Roundoff 1 twist on, handspring with 1 twist off||4.0|
|GROUP II – HANDSPRINGS WITH SALTOS|
|2.11||Front tuck with ½ twist||4.8|
|½ twist to back tuck (Cuervo)||4.8|
|2.12||Front tuck with 1 twist||5.3|
|2.13||Front tuck with 1½ twists||5.7|
|2.21||Front pike with ½ twist||5.0|
|½ twist to back pike||5.0|
|2.22||Front pike with 1 twist (Chusovitina)||5.5|
|2.23||Front pike with 1½ twists (Chusovitina)||5.9|
|2.30||Front layout (Evdokimova)||5.0|
|2.31||Front layout with ½ twist (Wang)||5.4|
|2.32||Front layout with 1 twist||5.8|
|2.33||Front layout with 1½ twist||6.2|
|2.40||1 twist on, front tuck off (Davydova)||5.2|
|2.41||1 twist on, front pike off||5.4|
|2.50||Front double tuck (Produnova)||7.0|
|GROUP III – TSUKAHARAS|
|3.10||Back tuck (Tourischeva)||4.0|
|3.11||Back tuck with ½ twist||4.3|
|3.12||Back tuck with 1 twist (Kim)||4.6|
|3.13||Back tuck with 1½ twists||4.9|
|3.14||Back tuck with 2 twists||5.4|
|3.31||Back layout with ½ twist||4.9|
|3.32||Back layout with 1 twist (Kim)||5.2|
|3.33||Back layout with 1½ twists||5.5|
|3.34||Back layout with 2 twists (Zamolodchikova)||6.0|
|3.35||Back layout with 2½ twists||6.5|
|GROUP IV – YURCHENKOS|
|4.10||Back tuck (Yurchenko)||3.8|
|4.11||Back tuck with ½ twist (Peneva)||4.1|
|4.12||Back tuck with 1 twist||4.4|
|4.13||Back tuck with 1½ twists||4.7|
|4.14||Back tuck with 2 twists (Dungelova)||5.2|
|4.31||Back layout with ½ twist (Hristakieva)||4.7|
|4.32||Back layout with 1 twist||5.0|
|4.33||Back layout with 1½ twists||5.3|
|4.34||Back layout with 2 twists (Baitova)||5.8|
|4.35||Back layout with 2½ twists (Amanar)||6.3|
|4.40||1 twist on, back tuck off (Luconi)||4.6|
|4.41||1 twist on, back tuck with ½ twist off||4.9|
|4.42||1 twist on, back tuck with 1 twist off||5.2|
|4.50||1 twist on, back pike off||4.8|
|4.51||1 twist on, back layout off||5.2|
|4.52||1 twist on, back layout with ½ twist off||5.5|
|4.53||1 twist on, back layout with 1 twist off (Tankusheva)||5.8|
|GROUP V – YURCHENKO HALF-ONS|
|5.10||Front tuck (Ivantcheva)||4.6|
|5.11||Front tuck with ½ twist (Servente)||5.0|
|½ twist to back tuck||5.0|
|5.12||Front tuck with 1 twist||5.5|
|5.13||Front tuck with 1½ twists (Khorkina)||5.9|
|5.20||Front pike (Omelianchik)||4.8|
|5.21||Front pike with ½ twist (Podkopayeva)||5.2|
|½ twist to back pike (Khorkina)||5.2|
|5.22||Front pike with 1 twist||5.7|
|5.23||Front pike with 1½ twists||6.1|
|5.31||Front layout with ½ twist (Lopez)||5.6|
|5.32||Front layout with 1 twist (‘Mustafina’)||6.0|
|5.33||Front layout with 1½ twists (Cheng)||6.4|
Check back soon for our continuation of this series with everything you need to know about the uneven bars, beam, and floor! We’ll also preview all of the top contenders for each event as well as in the team and all-around competitions soon.
Article by Lauren Hopkins