Return Of The Meme: McKayla Maroney Vaults Again

One year and three leg surgeries after London, McKayla Maroney has returned to competition on the vault. And from a performance standpoint, not much has changed. She does the two-and-a-half twister that made her famous (before the meme made her even more famous) just as well as she did at the Olympics. She even managed to stick a vault that was better than the one she did in the London team finals:

That she is back in competition form despite her fractured tibia and her popularity is impressive to anyone who has followed the trajectories of famous gymnasts. Typically, they go the talk and award show circuits, do product endorsements, and make noncommittal comments when asked if they plan to return for the next Olympics. Then, after a couple of years away from the gym, they might try staging a comeback too late in the game, à la Nastia Liukin. Gabby Douglas has moved to Los Angeles with her family, and her training situation is uncertain. Aly Raisman has only just resumed workouts after competing on Dancing With The Stars.

This is the cycle. Female gymnasts have a very limited time to make money off of the sport. As Hillel the Elder once said, “If not now then when?” Naturally, he was referring to the earning opportunities for elite gymnasts.

I thought Maroney would follow a similar trajectory to her teammates, especially after her smirk went viral. But it turned out that her mind had been made up way before that. Since she returned to competition, she’s repeated over and over that the moment her butt hit the mat in London, she dedicated herself to go to Rio. (She’s admitted that her phone password is “2016” so if anyone gets ahold of the device, they can access her prodigious selfie collection.)

But she hasn’t returned strictly as the vault specialist she was in London. Maroney has been training on all four apparatuses. At the national championships in August, she picked up titles on floor and vault. And in preliminaries in Antwerp, she competed on all of the pieces. She placed 6th but failed to advance to the finals due to the two-per-country rule. (Americans Simone Biles and Kyla Ross qualified ahead of her.)

The same rule also kept her out of floor finals. She received a .1 penalty on the event because her music ran too long, which placed her just behind Ross in the rankings. (How this issue wasn’t detected and fixed before this meet is astounding. After all, Maroney had attended several national team training camps and competed the routine twice at the national championships where the penalty should’ve been applied.)

This leaves Maroney’s only medal opportunity in tomorrow's vault finals, which I guess is how it should be. The defending world champion has some unfinished business on the apparatus after doing a seat drop in the Olympic final. But unlike in London where she simply had to stand up both her vaults to win, her victory in Antwerp is not completely assured. For the first time in her senior career, she is facing real competition on the apparatus.

First, there is teammate Simone Biles, who won the all-around at the national championships in this, her rookie year as a senior. She also leads the standings after the preliminary round and became the first American to qualify for all four apparatus finals since Shannon Miller did it in 1991. Biles doesn’t go as high or as far on her Amanar and does an easier second vault, but her execution marks have been nearly as high as those of her teammate. She came within a tenth of Maroney’s vault average in preliminaries.

Here’s a side-by-side video comparison of the two gymnasts performing the Amanar, which shows just how high and far Maroney takes her vaults. She gets the optimal “block” off the table.

Though she comes in a bit high on the table, she hits the vault with perfectly straight arms and open shoulders, which allows her to ping herself quite high, giving herself ample time to finish the twists and open for landing. (Many other gymnasts hit the apparatus with bent arms or shrugged shoulders, which limits the power of their rebounds. Several don’t hit the table straight on—rather, they start twisting early. Gabby Douglas was notable for this.)

Aside from her block, where does all of this airtime come from? In part, her speed. The same comparison video shows Maroney, who starts farther back on the runway, “chasing” down Biles to the round-off entry. Maroney has one of the fastest vault runs and the speed converts upward, giving her plenty of time to complete her twists and rotation.

The airtime might also she gets might be a consequence of her early training. Her previous coach (and Ross’s current coach) Howie Liang seems to focus on height. At 2008 junior nationals, Liang’s three gymnasts went 1-2-3 on vault, one of which was a young Maroney. (She is the last gymnast in the video; Ross is next to last.) “That’s not what anyone else does,” Rick McCharles, a blogger observed. “Most elite coaches want rotation first."

Biles isn’t Maroney’s only serious challenger in Antwerp. There’s North Korean Hong Un-Jong, the 2008 Olympic vault champion. She has the distinction of having a twin sister who may or may not be three years older than she is—North Korea submitted three different birth years for Hong’s “twin” sister. As a result of their shenanigans, North Korea was banned from international competition for the past five years, which is why Maroney has never faced her before this.

But it seems that Hong kept training during her enforced break. She has returned with the same two vaults she did in '08—the Amanar and a second vault that bests Maroney’s vault by a half twist. Hong has the highest difficulty ratings going into event finals. She also has submitted a triple-twisting Yurchenko to the sport’s governing body, which indicates that she plans to perform it during event finals. If she ekes around the triple twister, it’ll be named for her. That, and she’ll surely win the title.

Whether Hong or her ACL will survive a triple attempt seems questionable; she’s been highly inconsistent in training. But when she has hit the Amanar—she has yet to show the more difficult vault—she has soared nearly as high as Maroney.

Maroney’s supremacy is not only being challenged by Biles and Hong, but by changes in the Code of Points. The much-ballyhooed Amanar has been downgraded by two tenths so it’s only half a point more valuable than its double twisting sister.

“Nobody is working towards an Amanar any longer. The value is too low for the difficulty,” McCharles noted.

If these three gymnasts stay on their feet, they will probably occupy the medal podium in Antwerp. Unlike on bars or beam where there are many possible and worthy medalists, this event has just three realistic contenders. It’s a game of musical chairs where everyone has a seat when the music stops.

Vault is unique in that the event itself is basically a single skill—it's the Australia of apparatuses. It’s also the least technical. If your country lacks gymnastics resources and expertise, vault might be the easiest way into international competition Very few gymnasts bother training a second vault, which is required for vault finals. If you simply have a second vault ready to go, you have a good chance at making the finals.

In addition to North Korea, recent medalists on the vault have hailed from Vietnam and Switzerland. Dominican gymnast Yamilet Peña has made a name for herself with a double front vault that is notable for trying to kill her:

Yet she continues to make final after final, even with scary falls, for this uber-difficult element. Recently, an Egyptian gymnast has been attempting this same vault to disastrous results. The only woman to have successfully performed this skill was Russian Amazon Warrior Princess Elena Produnova back in 1999:

This lack of depth in women’s vault is a shame, but shouldn’t at all detract from Maroney’s prowess. Even if her competition hasn’t been up to snuff, she really is among the all-time elite. London should’ve been a cakewalk for her, but if she wins in Belgium (and she should), she’ll actually have triumphed over a pair of great vaulters. That would make her redemption all the sweeter.