MONTREAL, Canada—Here is something amazing: I saw a triple back somersault on floor exercise.
I’ve spent virtually my entire life watching gymnastics and the only triples I had previously seen have been on TV or on Youtube. The footage of these skills was typically old—from the late ‘80s and mid-‘90s—and grainy. These clips hardly did the skill any justice.
But during the preliminaries at the World Championships, Nikita Nagornyy of Russia went for the triple. It was the first time in two decades that a man has attempted this skill at worlds or Olympics, because it’s really fucking hard.
When you see it live, you can truly judge how high the gymnast gets in the air. On TV or a screen, you can’t see the whole room. It’s not just about height off the ground—though it is certainly about that too—but about how a skill fills a space. You can’t get that from TV or Youtube. The triple back seems to inch a bit higher than average tumbling pass with two saltos.
The other notable thing about the skill is the acceleration through the saltos. The first two are so fast because he has to cram an extra flip into his air time. It almost makes the double somersault variations that all of the other gymnasts do seem slow by comparison.
Also, that third salto is something of a surprise, even if you know it’s coming. After years of watching gymnastics, my eyes are so accustomed to watching gymnasts launch into the air and do two somersaults that I was almost startled when I saw Nagornyy do the third.
The first man to perform the triple back in major international competition was Valeri Liukin, a world and Olympic champion from Kazakhstan who competed under the Soviet banner until the dissolution of the USSR. (Liukin is the current U.S. national team coordinator for the women and father to 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin.) The “Liukin” on floor exercise—he has additional skills named after him on the high bar—was first performed in 1987.
As gymnastics lore has it, you could tell Liukin was planning to throw the risky skill in his routine if he did a double back somersault from two back handsprings during his warm-up. Meaning: no run, no hurdle, no roundoff, none of the techniques gymnasts typically use to efficiently generate speed, momentum, rotation. If he could hit a double back that way, then surely he’d be able to do one additional flip with the lead-in.
The following year, Vladimir Gogoladze became the first man to perform the triple at the Olympic Games as a member of the Soviet team that won the title. (Gogoladze also has the dubious distinction of being removed from the 1989 world championship team because he and a teammate went on a two-day drinking binge.)
Four years later, China’s Li Xiaoshuang performed the triple back en route to the Olympic title on that event. (He is also the 1996 Olympic all-around champion.)
After Li, Russian Yevgeni Podgorny made a semi-regular go of the triple. (In a strange move, he had the triple as his second pass in the routine below. Typically gymnasts like to put their most challenging tumbling run first for when their legs are the freshest.)
These triples didn’t exactly set off a fashion in men’s floor exercise. Gymnastics isn’t the New York Times style section, where three occurrences equal a “trend.” The triple back represented an exponential increase in difficulty from the more common double back—even the variations that had additional twists. And it was quite risky. Very easy to under-rotate, which is why you saw the men who had the audacity to perform it during the early years pull their knees far apart—called “cowboying”—in order to speed the rotation.
And even if you could put it to your feet, you might not get adequately rewarded for it because almost all routines—whether they contained a triple or something simpler—were scored out of a 10. There wasn’t a way for the judges to truly reward that kind of risk taking. Hit the triple and you’re, perhaps, marginally ahead of your less courageous competitors. Miss it and you get virtually no credit for having tried.
Given that there wasn’t much incentive for gymnasts to go for this skill, those who attempted it perhaps did so out of a natural desire to innovate, or to simply show that they could. Gymnasts often train at higher difficulty than they compete. But every once in a while they take one of their “just for fun” skills, clean it up, and break it out in competition for bragging rights. But since Podgorny, there hasn’t been anyone who has attempted the skill at the world or Olympic level. Until this year.
The reason for the comeback is simple: The value of the skill was raised in the latest iteration of the Code of Points. It’s now valued as an “H,” which is currently the highest value in the men’s rulebook. (“A” skills are the easiest and the further down in the alphabet an element is rated, the more it is worth.) During the last cycle, it was only an “F.” This perhaps wasn’t enough incentive to gun it and go for a skill that can seem like a total crapshoot. Increasing the value pushes the calculus even further in favor of giving it a shot.
But this isn’t the same skill or the same context as what Liukin, Li, and Podgorny were doing. Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the overall difficulty and complexity on men’s floor exercise is much lower than where it is today. (Though the floor is springier than it was back then.) So now it’s not just about being able to pull the triple off without faceplanting; it’s about doing it without cowboying, and then being able to do five or six incredibly complex and grueling passes after you put the triple to your feet. This requires the gymnast to be unbelievably strong and well conditioned. And with Achilles tendons reinforced by steel cables.
After Nagornyy successfully executed his triple, he paused and started directly into his next tumbling pass, a double back with 1.5 twists. As he came in for landing, his feet slid out from underneath him. I groaned. Nagornyy’s score wouldn’t qualify him for the floor event final.
Nagornyy’s triple in preliminaries, the first in world and Olympic competition in nearly two decades, will be the last at this level for at least a year.