Today was supposed to be the coronation of McKayla Maroney as the world's best female vaulter. She had dominated the event since making her senior debut a year ago, winning the world championship title in Tokyo. (There was even a completely unprovable, likely fan-generated rumor that the USOC was pressuring Martha Karolyi to name Maroney to the London team because though she could only contribute vault to the team total, she was virtually guaranteed an individual gold medal in the vault—helping , which is significant in our bid to beat the Chinese where it truly matters—medal count.)
And in the team finals, Maroney astounded viewers with her Amanar, which should have received a perfect execution score. (You can check it out in super slo-mo here.)
Second to last in the lineup, Maroney began with her Amanar, high and gorgeous as usual, if a little off to the side. No biggie, though—she still got a huge score, 15.866. Then came the Mustafina vault, which also begins with a round-off but is followed by a half twist onto the table and a front, full-twisting somersault off in a stretched position. Her feet hit the mat and then, unthinkably, she sat down.
Everyone was stunned—though no one more than the 16-year-old vaulter herself. When was the last time Maroney missed a vault in competition? Had she ever? One blogger who looked into the matter concluded that this mistake broke a 33-vault hitting streak when she fell today.
Still, her score of 14.3 left her in first place, with just one competitor left to go. Unfortunately for Maroney, it was the next strongest vaulter in the lineup, Romania's Sandra Izbasa, who'd trailed by a little less than half a point after the first vault.
Starting with the same vault that brought Maroney to grief, Izbasa hit her second vault too, with a 15.0—good enough to take a gold medal that wasn't even supposed to have been up for grabs.
Even with the fall, Maroney was missed out on the gold by 0.108 points. Though Izbasa was the deserving winner today, the closeness of that result illustrates just how dominant a vaulter Maroney is.
This is the second straight Olympics in which an overwhelming favorite faltered in the vault final. In 2008, China's Cheng Fei came in having won three consecutive world titles on the apparatus, only to make a big mistake and come away with bronze.
The bronze this time went to Russia's Maria Paseka, who placed third with the help of an Amanar of her own. Behind her were two Germans, 16-year-old Janine Berger and 37-year-old Oksana Chusovitina, who was competing in her sixth and final Olympics.
Chusovitina began her career as a member of the Soviet team. She burst onto the scene in 1991—before any members of the Fierce Five were even born—and won the world title on the floor exercise, then helped the Unified Team win the team gold in Barcelona. After that, she competed for her home republic of Uzbekistan. In 2002, however, her son, Alisher, was diagnosed with leukemia, and her family relocated to Germany with the help of the international gymnastics community, so that he could receive advanced treatment. She became a German citizen in 2006, winning several international vault medals for her adopted country.
The men competed for event titles on floor exercise and pommel horse. China's Zou Kai, the defending floor exercise champion, won gold on the floor again, becoming China's most decorated gymnast. All-around champion Kohei "Superman" Uchimura of Japan won silver on the floor—the only event final he qualified for, after a subpar performance in preliminaries. Uchimura, the greatest male gymnast of all time, finished the London Olympics with two silvers and one gold. Russia's Denis Ablayzin, who completed the most difficult routine of the meet, won the bronze.
On the pommel horse, the British men continued their remarkable Olympic performances by taking silver and bronze on the pommel horse. Louis Smith, the final competitor, actually tied the score of Krisztian Berki of Hungary, the pre-meet favorite. But FIG went to the tiebreak rules again, because heaven forfend that two people who did equally well should share a medal. (What does the gymnastics federation have against ties? They were allowed to stand as recently as 2003, when Americans Chellsie Memmel and Hollie Vise tied for gold on the uneven bars at the world championships.) Berki prevailed on the tiebreaker, and Smith had to settle for silver—while Max Whitlock, 19 years old and the eighth and last qualifier, excitedly took home the bronze, with Kate Middleton looking on.
For a handy master schedule of every Olympic event, click here.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.