I love that with the vault final in Montreal, we got exactly what we wanted with a hard-fought battle between reigning world vault champion Maria Paseka of Russia and the newcomer Jade Carey of the United States, who qualified to elite earlier this year.
Coming in with four extra tenths in difficulty over Carey, it was Paseka who had a clear advantage here, even with weaker form. Paseka came into the final averaging less than a tenth more than Carey, and she ended up winning by the same exact margin — just 0.084. With a 14.850 average, Paseka managed to defend her title to get her second consecutive world gold medal on vault, and in the first international competition of her career, Carey won the silver with a 14.766.
As a gymnastics fan, Paseka’s leg form in her block offends me and I don’t even know how to describe her Cheng without being rude, so I won’t try. But I will give her credit for having what was easily her best Amanar of the year right when she needed it, and I recognize that her chronic back pain, which almost forced her to retire last year, almost certainly makes it impossible to train on a consistent enough basis to fix the things even she knows are wrong.
Paseka has shown at times that she is capable of looking great on vault, and so it’s unfair to belittle how good she is on this event just because her form is weak right now. I’m definitely guilty of doing this and of making comments while watching her, mostly because I think the way she vaults is incredibly unsafe if nothing else, especially at Universiade. But I hope she’s eventually able to get to full health so she can work on the things that should matter in determining the ‘best’ on an event.
I do think that the judges were a little lenient with her form on the Cheng, but I think ultimately, the right gymnast won. Carey is still a little green, and it showed in her performances on this event, especially with her Amanar. Vaults she has shown to look excellent in training ended up getting too much adrenaline and not enough control when competed, and so the large running leaps out of Carey’s Amanar — which were really her only actual problem — cost her the title.
Even with the four-tenth gap in difficulty, Carey got impossibly close because she is the stronger, cleaner vaulter of the two, but in the future she’ll also be better at controlling her power. She had an incredible turnaround from a level 10 gymnast getting an invite to the ranch less than a year ago to becoming a world silver medalist.
I think my favorite thing about Carey is that she kind of…doesn’t seem to get it? In the few times I’ve talked to her at classics and at worlds, she seemed like she was just going with the flow completely unfazed by everything happening around her. Valeri Liukin calls you up to the ranch? No big deal, you just do what he asks, upgrade to some of the highest difficulty on earth, become the best in the country, and, while you’re at it, you might as well become one of the best in the world. Yawn. Just a regular thing.
I truly admire that the very first thing Liukin did during his tenure was to bring Carey in on the basis of seeing her strong vaults at the J.O. level. It’s clear that the level of talent in the U.S. right now isn’t quite so explosive as it has been in recent years, and so I worried that he would get criticism when his gymnasts at this year’s worlds wouldn’t win as many medals as Simone Biles, Kyla Ross, and McKayla Maroney did in 2013. But I think he more than proved his capabilities as a leader who can spot and nurture talent. Carey wasn’t just a lucky guess. This was a truly remarkable instance of recruiting gone right, and also an incredible reminder of just how much depth the J.O. program adds to the overall strength of Team USA.
Giulia Steingruber was, to me, a total surprise for bronze. The 2016 Olympic bronze medalist didn’t return to competition until a few weeks prior to worlds, and her difficulty on both of her vaults was too low to give her even the slightest chance at making the final, let alone medaling. I figured, meh, she’ll at least make the final if she gets her full difficulty back, but honestly between her injury, surgery, and extended hiatus, I didn’t think there was really a prayer of her getting a medal.
I ended up being super wrong. With an average of 14.466 thanks to her solid Rudi and Yurchenko double, Steingruber was able to show just how resilient she is as a competitor, picking up her first world medal. Her Rudi wasn’t quite as strong as it was in qualifications, where she earned a huge 15.1 to average a 14.750, but that qualifications Rudi was one of the best I’ve seen her do, and her vault in the final was just slightly off in comparison…a little shorter, a little messier, a step out of bounds. But overall she looked strong and prepared, and the medal was very well deserved.
The only other gymnast in this final who had a shot at beating her was Shallon Olsen, the Canadian on this team literally just for her vault combo. Olsen came within a tenth of Steingruber in qualifications, and had she stuck to the same vaults she did in qualifications — her trusty Yurchenko double that she first started training at age eight and her Cheng, a long-awaited and solid upgrade from the tucked version she’s been competing for years — she likely would’ve gotten the bronze.
Instead, Olsen went for an Amanar in finals, a vault she debuted at the Olympic Games last year but hasn’t competed since. Matching Paseka in difficulty, it was a huge risk that would’ve had an equally huge payoff had it worked out. Unfortunately, she was way underrotated, seemed to have no air awareness, and crashed it to her knees. I was actually surprised the judges gave her credit for the Amanar and didn’t devalue it, but that was the least of her problems, as the major E score deductions she took were detrimental, putting her in seventh.
Right before the vault final, we got an alert from the FIG announcing that Olsen had submitted a Yurchenko triple at the last minute, and I was actually excited to see that play out. Honestly, I had more faith in her landing a triple than I had in her landing the Amanar, if only because her Amanar landings didn’t look ready at all in training.
But with the triple, she wouldn’t have to worry about the blind landing, and as long as she could get it around, she was pretty likely to hit it. I’m assuming she went for it in the training gym but couldn’t get it around, though I’d totally be on board with her continuing to go for it in the coming years. It’s unfortunate she didn’t have the meet she wanted, and she looked close to tears after crashing the Amanar, but she’ll get there someday. She’s an incredible asset to the Canadian team and has years left in her career to do big things.
Her teammate Ellie Black had a fantastic day in this final, in comparison. I didn’t even consider Black a real medal threat until I saw how favorably her vaults were received in Montreal. Being so far behind in difficulty, she still came within half a tenth from the bronze thanks to her huge handspring layout full and tsuk 1½, both of which had some minor form issues, but were overall huge, powerful, and super controlled. Seriously, some of her best work here, and her fourth-place finish made history as Canada’s best of all time on the event.
I was also thrilled to see Oksana Chusovitina do so well after struggling in recent meets. The 42-year-old seven-time Olympian finished off the podium despite coming in as a top contender at challenge cups in Szombathely and Paris leading up to worlds, including major mistakes and judges downgrading her start value. Her handspring layout full was still quite piked, but her tsuk 1½ was actually quite solid, and it was great to see her reach her best finish since 2013 after missing the final the two years following Antwerp and falling on her Produnova in Rio last summer.
As for Wang Yan and Sae Miyakawa, with so much difficulty I was hoping they’d perform well here, but I think I tend to forget how weak overall they end up looking in comparison to the vaulters with so much power and finesse.
Wang’s first vault, the tsuk double, was actually pretty good for her. I think it was definitely one of her better attempts, and rather than coming in too short, she actually had to take a step back to control it, which is an improvement. Unfortunately, she couldn’t make the same headway on her Rudi, which just didn’t get the block she needed, finishing super short. It wasn’t a devastating performance, but it also wasn’t her best performance. She seemed inconsolable afterwards, and it was such a bummer to see her so upset, but between that, her mistakes in the all-around final, and dealing with an injury that was clearly limiting her, she just seemed incredibly stressed and perhaps not in the best mindset for a competition like this.
On her first vault, the Rudi, Miyakawa got the same E score that Paseka got for her Cheng — an 8.7. I didn’t get it while watching live, and even going back and realizing just how low she was on her landing — with her chest on her knees — I still don’t see how Paseka’s Cheng and Miyakawa’s Rudi should get anywhere near the same E score. Miyakawa doesn’t quite have Paseka’s power, but she still had the far cleaner and stronger vault.
This is the one key aspect of the vault final that has bothered me — an inconsequential aspect, as Miyakawa crashed her Yurchenko double to her knees in her second run, a fluke fall that seemed to shock her as she landed it, shaking her head, and had no shot at any sort of medal, but nonetheless, I thought it was important to bring up because while Miyakawa noticeably doesn’t get quite the block that Paseka gets, the difference in quality is vast, and there’s no way Miyakawa lost so much in height/distance execution that the two E scores should be the same.
And thus, a photo illustration of my confusion.
So Miyakawa pretty clearly wins this one, right? Good body alignment, legs glued, straight arms…there’s very little you’d take from her in comparison to Paseka, whose legs are fully apart, knees bent, back arched, and chest angled 90 degrees away from the ideal position.
THE FLIGHT – EXAMPLE 1
I tried to capture within a split second from when their hands left the table, which looks super different when comparing a handspring entry and a Yurchenko half-on entry, but you get the gist. Miyakawa has a slight pike in her hips, but her leg form is excellent and you can see her arm prep as she begins to wrap in for the twists. Paseka, meanwhile, has her legs apart and her knees bent, though she did quickly straighten her alignment as soon as she popped off the table.
THE FLIGHT – EXAMPLE 2
I then wanted to capture the moment in flight where the twisting begins. As you can see here from the hip position, Paseka might be a tiny bit higher than Miyakawa, but it’s not by much. The biggest takeaway here is that Miyakawa is still super clean in her leg form, and her body is SUPER straight from head to toe. Paseka’s legs are closer together here, but there’s a slight knee bend and her hips are at a 90 degree angle, which is pike territory. She does straighten up as she gets past the first half twist, so it’s not worthy of a downgrade, but it is absolutely worthy of a large deduction.
THE FLIGHT – EXAMPLE 3
This is close to the end for both girls. Miyakawa’s body line is still excellent, but right after this moment as she preps for the landing, her feet come apart a little. Paseka is a bit straighter than previously, but her hips and knees are both still pretty loose, and her legs are apart once again.
THE LANDING – EXAMPLE 1
Miyakawa has a low landing, the worst part of an otherwise lovely vault, but Paseka’s landing is nearly identical. I’d actually give this one to Miyakawa, though, because you can see that while her chest is at knee level, her back is flat, whereas Paskea’s back is angled forward and down. At the same time, Miyakawa’s knee bend is slightly more significant…so maybe they’re even here, but Miyakawa’s chest position is still the more important factor, and you’ll see why in a second.
I’d also like to point out that there’s a crease in the bottom mat and it’s a pretty good indicator of distance. Paseka’s feet land about six inches behind the crease, while Miyakawa’s feet are about six inches in front of it, giving us about a foot in difference between their distance. Significant, but not enough to take so much away from Miyakawa.
THE LANDING – EXAMPLE 2
When Miyakawa stands up out of her landing, she’s able to bounce right up into place without any further steps. Paseka, meanwhile, because her chest was angled forward, had to take a step forward when standing up. They were both short on their landings, but Paseka was more crucially short, because at that angle, she was more likely to fall forward than Miyakawa was.
They both had super low landings. Paseka wins in power. Miyakawa wins in literally everything else. And what Miyakawa lacked in power, it was not worthy of so great a deduction that she was unable to make up for it. Her form is significantly better than Paseka’s at every step in this vault, and so the fact that they both got an 8.7 E score is mind-blowing to me. I’d love for some judges to take a look at this and explain why they aren’t at least three tenths apart. I’m not saying Miyakawa had a 9.0 vault, but I am saying Paseka shouldn’t have had an 8.7 vault in comparison to Miyakawa’s 8.7.
Anyway, as always, this is a judge issue, not a gymnast issue, and it’s hard for me to say Paseka shouldn’t have won when Carey — although much cleaner — had lower difficulty and a large mistake on her landing. I’d just love to see less bizarre judging on this event, especially because it’s the easiest event on which to add up the pretty obvious deductions, so it’s always a little confusing to see that there’s very little gap between a good vault and a better vault. For hit vaults in this final, an 8.7 was the lowest E score, and a 9.2 was the highest, and yet the 14 hit vaults we saw were all wildly different to the point of needing far greater than a five-tenth spread.
The biggest contender to miss the vault final, just to give a little love to some of the girls who tried to qualify, was European champion Coline Devillard of France. Devillard crashed her Rudi in the most bizarre fashion, only getting credit for the layout full instead of the fall. A shame, as she was a definite contender for bronze, but like Olsen, she’s still young and hopefully she’ll use this time going forward to clean up a bit so she can be an even bigger contender in the future, especially as a contributor on this event in team competitions.
Tisha Volleman nearly made this final, but got knocked out at the last minute. It was by Chusovitina, which is the only forgivable scenario, but I do have to mention how solid Volleman was in her performance, especially with her lovely Yurchenko double. She’s improved so much as a gymnast, and she’s filling a gap the Netherlands desperately needs with several vaulters retiring in recent years.
I also have to give a shoutout to Marina Nekrasova‘s handspring front pike full, which was excellent. The vault champion in Szombathely, Nekrasova — as I mentioned in my all-around recap — is looking better than ever, and while her total difficulty across both vaults isn’t great (her second vault is only a tsuk full), she should definitely take greater advantage of the world cups going forward.
Some bummers here…Boglarka Devai, dealing with an ankle injury, wasn’t able to get traction on either of her vaults, finishing 14th in qualifications but, adding injury to insult, she seemed to have further injured her ankle on the second vault.
Then there was Marcia Vidiaux, who has a great deal of difficulty that could get her on the podium when she’s clean. She struggled on both her tsuk double and her Rudi, the latter of which she crashed. Truly unfortunate, and I wish Cuba got more competitive time around the world because it wasn’t that she seemed lacking in some physical way; she just looked rusty and not as confident as the rest of the women there.
And of course, Rebeca Andrade, one of the top contenders in this final, was unable to compete at all after sustaining a knee injury in training, forcing her to withdraw.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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