From my seat at the Olympic trials in San Jose, in the farthest corner of the arena from the vault, McKayla Maroney looked as big as my thumb. Even supersized by the JumboTron, she seemed slight. She is not as muscular as some other gymnasts; at first it's hard to see where she gets her power. Look past her size, though, and you notice the ropes of her quads and the shape of her shoulders. She has the shoulders of a quarterback who'd been blitzed by glitter.
Maroney indicated to the judges that she was ready to vault. She paused for a moment, staring at the vaulting table, looking fierce. Then she slid back on her left foot, as if loading a spring, and launched down the run. At a full sprint she hurdled herself onto her hands and into a round-off. Her feet slammed into the springboard and her back arched toward the table, her hands finding the crest of the slope. She kept her arms straight and punched off the table — Maroney has one of the best blocks in the world — and suddenly she was a bottle rocket launched. Her body flew high, her torso extended, her legs straight and fused, and only when she reached the height of her flight did she start to spin, remaining totally tight as she twisted and flipped. After two and a half twists, she opened up, stopped her rotation, and prepared her body for the landing. That vault — a 2.5-twisting Yurchenko, also called an "Amanar" or, by the gymnasts, a "2.5" — has a blind landing, which means she couldn't see the floor coming. She took a large step forward, but it was a controlled step.
Maroney was the first gymnast up at the trials, but her score was the biggest of the day — and would be eclipsed only by her Amanar on the second day of competition. Maroney, who is 16 years old, has been doing that vault since she was no bigger than a pea shoot. It used to be that she flew the way a hollow-boned bird flies, all instinct for the air. "The first time I competed it I was 13. I was so scared. I was terrified," she said later that night, after the first day of competition was over. "I was so little, and I'd barely made any in the warm-up. I remember the second day I made it, and I even took like five steps out of it. I had so much power, but I just didn't know how to control it." Now her technique is textbook. She knows exactly what she's doing.
What she's doing is one of the most exciting things in gymnastics. When Maroney vaults, coaches and gymnasts from around the world — coaches and gymnasts who've pretty much seen it all — stop to watch. During the team final at the 2011 world championships in Tokyo last fall, where the U.S. hit three Amanars in a row to build a huge lead over the Russians and never looked back, Maroney's 2.5 was the highlight. After she won the 2011 world vault event final (where two different vaults are required instead of only one; Maroney's second vault is nearly as gorgeous as her Amanar), she was considered a lock for the gold on vault at the Olympics — if she could make the team. The Americans are that deep. Their biggest competitors, as a rule, are each other.
The big drama coming out of the qualification round on Sunday was Jordyn Wieber's failure to qualify for the individual all-around, but that was only part of the story. The individual all-around competition tends to soak up the attention — and, even with Wieber's absence, American gymnasts, for the third Olympics in a row, will contend for that title. This year, though, after disappointing silvers in Athens and Beijing, winning gold in the team competition was declared the greatest goal. Wieber (the reigning all-around world champion), Gabby Douglas (the ascendant favorite), Aly Raisman (the most consistent American), Kyla Ross (a young, elegant gymnast with a strong bars routine), and Maroney (who will only compete on vault) make up the American team. They are favored to win the gold in the team competition, and they are favored to win because of the vault.
Maroney anchored during the first rotation of qualifications on Sunday, and her Amanar was not her best. Maroney skipped out of the landing, hopping forward to favor the big toe she had just reinjured after breaking it a few months before. Even so, her vault was the exclamation mark on the team's performance. Her lift was so high, her form so tight and clean, that she still earned a big score. With a strong second vault, her point total surpassed the other vault final qualifiers' by a mile.
Even without Maroney, the United States would probably be able to post scores on vault that would give it a daunting lead over its main competitors: Russia, Romania, and China. Not many gymnasts can pull off the difficult, high-value vault that Maroney performs, the 2.5-twisting Yurchenko. Most of the gymnasts who can are Americans. During the qualifications round on Sunday, the Americans hit one Amanar after another, the round-offs turning over like gears. The score that the team threw out (during the qualification round, four gymnasts compete on each apparatus, and the lowest score is dropped) was a 15.8 — a score that most gymnasts only dream of.
"Vaulting in some respects is such an unfair — " Al Fong, the coach of two members of the national (though not Olympic) team, said and then caught himself. "It's just one skill," he said. "All you've really got to do is be a monster who's got no fear, and good air sense, and all of a sudden you can tackle a vault that, even with a fall, can score higher than a double full.
"But right now, the Americans are going to take advantage of that, and we're not complaining about it."
A 2.5-twisting Yurchenko — an Amanar — takes hardly 10 seconds. It is named for Simona Amanar, a Romanian who performed it in competition once, during the event finals at the 2000 Olympics. (A trick is named after a gymnast if she is the first to perform it at the world championships or Olympics.) Amanar was one of the best vaulters of her generation, but it's obvious how inferior her vault is to Maroney's. Amanar didn't get the height, under-rotated the layout, and lurched off the mat. (In fairness, she was doing it off the old narrow horse instead of the broader vaulting table, introduced in 2001 in an attempt to make vaulting safer.)
Gymnasts are always pushing for bigger skills, and it was inevitable that some gymnasts would follow Amanar. "Whatever is coming up, people try to copy it," said Bela Karolyi, the former coach of the Americans and Romanians, when I asked him about Amanar's vault. Back in 2000, an easier but clean vault could score high; a more difficult but messy vault would score relatively poorly. As long as the 2.5-twisting Yurchenko didn't necessarily score higher, he added, it remained rare. "There wasn't a need."
Now there's a need. After the 2004 Olympics, the International Gymnastics Federation replaced the maximum score of 10.0 with a scoring system that has no limit on points. The rule book, or Code of Points, dictates how a gymnast can build a "start value," which determines a routine's maximum score. The more difficult routines receive a higher maximum score, due to their higher degree of difficulty. So far, so fair. But the Code is controversial.
Nowhere is the current Code of Points more controversial than in its scoring of the Amanar. The Code assigns a 16.5 maximum score to the 2.5-twisting Yurchenko vault. A double-twisting Yurchenko, on the other hand, has a maximum score of 15.8. The extra half-twist means a .7-point head start. That .7 bump may be even more valuable than it was four years ago, because the last revision of the Code of Points generally brought down scores in other disciplines, but not on vault. Gymnasts chucking 2.5-twisting Yurchenkos often score higher than ones doing beautiful double-twisting Yurchenkos. "Now, when they forced us into this craziness," Bela Karolyi said, "you have to do everything on earth to accumulate points. It's mathematics."
Trying to figure out the scoring system makes my head hurt, but the upshot here is this: You'll be hearing a lot about Amanars in London.
The 2.5-twisting Yurchenko is by no means the only big and dangerous skill that will be showcased at the Olympics, but it has become a flashpoint in debates over the risk of serious injuries, the scoring system, and artistry. During the next Olympics, you might not see so many Amanars. Already, a draft of the next Code of Points is circulating. The new Code is supposed to put a greater emphasis on artistry and execution, and to reduce the incentive to do the undercooked skills. Among the biggest changes: The start value of a 2.5-twisting Yurchenko will be reduced from 6.5 to 6.3. There is always a new horizon, though. A triple-twisting Yurchenko is not far off. Maroney's Amanar has so much power and height, and she has so much time when she lands, that it looks like she could add another half-twist easily. Maybe she will be the one to do it. Someone will.
Gymnastics isn't evolving now at nearly the same rate that it was in the 1970s, as Dvora Myers wrote in The Atlantic, when Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci revolutionized the sport. Still, the conditions are always changing, and with the conditions change the gymnasts. Watching the gymnasts in San Jose, I thought of the textbook example of natural selection: the proliferation of peppered moths in England in the decades following the Industrial Revolution. As soot killed the white lichens and blackened the trees, so changed the wings of populations of peppered moths: Where once they had been pale and mottled, now they were dark. A moth can't change her wings, whereas a gymnast can change her vault. Still, more than once, I looked around the arena and saw peppered moths flying through the air. Survival is not easy.
Not all the top gymnasts do an Amanar. Not even all the top vaulters. But it can really help a gymnast — if it doesn't literally hurt her. "You choose your vaults," said Alicia Sacramone, the 2010 world champion on vault. Sacramone doesn't do a 2.5, and she just missed making the 2012 Olympic team. "I personally like front vaulting better than back vaulting," she said. She went on. "I just, I don't know. I just have this weird fear that I'm going to blow out my knees every time I do a 2.5 on vault, so I just don't do it." She laughed, lightening her voice. "The older you get, the more you think" — her voice dropped to a stage whisper — "this sport's dangerous."
There are two types of landings for this vault: safe landings and scary landings. Coaches and gymnasts use the words "safe" and "scary" so often that I started to think of them as technical terms. A safe landing is any landing that doesn't make you wince and clutch your knee in preemptive sympathy. The other landings are scary. The 2.5-twisting Yurchenko is certainly not the only skill that gymnasts struggle with. The vast majority of injuries happen elsewhere. But one reason, I think, that the scary moments on Amanars get so much attention is that the impact on the knees is easy to see. If a gymnast locks her knees in an attempt to rivet them to the floor, the impact of the ground will shudder through her legs. If she under-rotates her layout and her feet slam into the floor before she is prepared, the force will test her knees' capacity to absorb the shock. Or if she's still twisting when her feet hit the mat, the ligaments that stabilize her knees will strain and can tear. A lot can go wrong.
At the Olympic trials last month, Raisman followed Maroney on vault. Raisman is known for her steadiness, her explosive floor tumbling passes, and her scary Amanars. Coming into trials, Raisman was considered a sure bet to make the Olympic team. She is not the most elegant gymnast — her idea of pointing her toes is curling her digits while bending her ankles, creating little feet-claws — but she is a great acrobat, and no one has proven herself more consistent in pressure situations. Bela Karolyi called her "one of the smartest I've ever seen in my life … She is the most planned person. Like a program — you put a program in her buttocks and pshhhew! Kidding. She's amazing."
She's also one of the most muscular athletes. Raisman looks like she could crush the vault. Her abs punch through her leotard like a keyboard. Her strength allows her to get away with murdering her knees. The gymnastics blogger Spanny Tampson once did a fantastic frame-by-frame comparison of Raisman's 2.5 and the Russian Aliya Mustafina's. The two Amanars are almost identical: same bent waists, leg separations, under-rotations. The only difference was that when Mustafina, the 2010 world champion, did her vault at the European Championships last year, she tore her ACL.
At trials, Raisman did her Amanar true to form: She flew off way to the right, tucked and hauled her body around, wobbled on the landing, and knocked her knees to keep herself upright. For all this, she earned a 15.55: only .05 points less than her score that day on floor, where she is the current bronze medalist. Raisman's Amanar isn't lovely, but she can land it, and land it, and land it again. Landing an Amanar will usually earn a big score. Land one safely — as Raisman did on Sunday, during the qualifications round — and a gymnast can earn a really big score.
Besides, why pick on Raisman too much? Jordyn Wieber also looked like she was one shiver from a blown-out knee on the first day of trials. On that day, when the world champion landed her vault with her knees locked, I heard myself making small, involuntary wounded sounds. Wieber is built like a running back, which may have helped her. "She is a super-strong gymnast," Bela Karolyi said afterward. "Did you watch her ankles? Did you watch her ankles?" He began raving about her "constitution" and her bones. "Sometimes she's coming off the vault, landing on one leg. Everybody else would be carried out on [a stretcher]!" he said. "Not her."
Wieber started doing an Amanar when she was a junior. Back then Shawn Johnson was the only American doing it. Her coach, John Geddert, insists that it wasn't a big deal for her to learn. "Being as good an athlete as she is," he said, "honestly, it wasn't like I had to work that hard." Wieber also refused to boast. She wouldn't even let me boast on her behalf. Her manner is a mix of confidence, embarrassment, and plain sense. Didn't she think it was pretty cool to be one of the first to do such a big trick? "I don't know," she said. "I was pretty young." Wasn't it scary? "I've never really had a lot of fear." She spoke in a clipped, matter-of-fact way and seems entirely comfortable with the media — she's been the center of attention for a long time — but occasionally softened her voice at the end of sentences, as if she'd heard herself. You get the sense that, even though she wears a leotard on national television, she's the type of kind, attractive girl who's too shy to take off her T-shirt at a pool party.
I brought up the scary knees on the 2.5s. She nodded thoughtfully. "Everyone's trying to get that stuck landing," she said, "and that can take its toll."
Wieber did a great Amanar during the qualifications on Sunday. It didn't distinguish her from Douglas or Raisman, however, who both did excellent 2.5s. Wieber performed well on every event during the qualifications round — with a few bobbles, but no major mistakes. There will be legitimate questions about whether she was underscored. Still, she doesn't have another routine that makes her stand out, the way Douglas stands out on bars, or Raisman does on floor. Wieber finished with the fourth-highest all-around score of the day of any gymnast — and the third-highest score among Americans. Gymnastics has a two-gymnast-per-country rule for the all-around, which means that Wieber, the current world champion, is the odd one out.
At the world championships last fall in Tokyo, Wieber, like the American team, took advantage of the high start value of her Amanar to win the world championship title. She beat Russia's Viktoria Komova by .033 points, despite Wieber's significant mistakes on bars and floor. Since then, gymnasts from other countries have been working on risky upgrades in an attempt to close the start-value gap. The Russians, who had performed no Amanars during the world championships, landed two Amanars during the qualification round — including a good one by Viktoria Komova. The Russians qualified for the team final with the second-highest point total, Komova qualified for the all-around with the highest.
Women's gymnastics is weird, thrilling, and improbable, elegant and kind of honky, practiced mostly by teenagers but also the occasional 37-year-old, at once absurd and insanely serious. When the American team coordinator Marta Karolyi, who is routinely depicted as an imperious, unmovable force in women's gymnastics (on television she usually appears to have a frown cut into her stony face), announced who made the Olympic team at the end of trials, she started to cry. "I did not expect that at all," said Wieber the following morning. By the time the five members of the Olympic team walked onto the floor in San Jose to greet the crowd, barely visible through a curtain of confetti, they were all sobbing too. A month later, on the first day of competition at the Olympics, there were tears again — from Raisman, who cried from joy when she learned she had qualified for the all-around, and from Wieber, who cried from devastation.
The U.S. qualified for the team final with the highest point total. Tonight, scores will start from zero, and three gymnasts instead of four will compete for each country on each apparatus. All scores will count. The established order of the Americans has been rocked, and it will be interesting to see how they can handle it. Wieber will be competing on three apparatuses. She, Douglas, and Raisman are teenagers, friends, and competitors. Now, for one night at least, they, along with Maroney and Ross, have to forget about the individual all-around and compete as teammates.
If Sunday proved anything, it's that nothing is certain in gymnastics. Except this: You should probably watch McKayla Maroney vault tonight.