With a four-second video tweeted Monday evening, Simone Biles managed to revamp curiosity about how much women’s gymnastics can evolve – a conversation Biles regularly has sparked by pushing the limits of what was thought possible.
In the training video, Biles did a vault no female gymnast has ever performed in competition: a Yurchenko double pike.
The term “Yurchenko” describes the vault’s entry – named for Natalia Yurchenko, a Soviet world champion who first competed the skill in the early 1980s. This style of vault is typically the most common at all levels, and it will be performed by most gymnasts at the Olympics.
In a Yurchenko, a gymnast does a round-off onto the springboard, then a back handspring onto the vault. Once a gymnast’s hands hit the vaulting table, she pushes off into the air and begins a single flip. That flip is where variety usually begins.
Gymnasts typically increase the difficulty of this type of vault by adding twists. U.S. teammate Sunisa Lee does a double twist in competition. Biles and other top vaulters do a Yurchenko with a two-and-a-half twist, known as an Amanar.
But here, Biles flips a second time, giving the vault unprecedented difficulty, along with extreme risk. The “pike” refers to the position of her legs during the flips, with hips bent and knees straight.
Biles landed the vault in a foam pit, which offers safety if a gymnast doesn’t have enough height or rotation to finish a skill. But what prompted awe on social media was how she seemingly could have landed it on a competition surface. Fellow Olympians and elite-level gymnasts responded to the tweet in disbelief. The video has been viewed more than two million times.
Widely considered the best gymnast of all time, Biles tweeted “2020” along with eyes emojis and a question mark, letting others consider the possibility of seeing this vault in competition. Will Biles actually perform this skill at the Tokyo Olympics or in other events this season? Probably not. But that mere chance, and the potential she showed in the video, will fuel discussions about Biles’ dominance in this sport.
McKayla Maroney, a member of the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team in 2012, had similar talent on vault. In a 2016 interview with GymCastic, a popular gymnastics podcast, Maroney said she did a Yurchenko double tuck in training, but at a national team camp, team coordinator Martha Karolyi told Maroney, “Do not ever do that again!” Maroney performed an Amanar as her primary vault in competition.
A Yurchenko with a double flip, however, requires “the most intense block,” Maroney said, referencing the moment a gymnast pushes off the vaulting table with her hands.
“The thing about double backs that’s really dangerous is it’s like once you’re going for it, you’re going for it,” Maroney said.
Maroney explained if a gymnast feels something is off during a twisting vault, she can decrease the number of twists midair and safely land. But “when you’re [doing a] double back,” she said, “you can’t stop.”
That’s the danger in a vault such as the one Biles tweeted Monday, a key reason no woman ever has performed the skill in competition. A Yurchenko with a double flip that doesn’t rotate enough could result in head or neck injuries. But a handful of male gymnasts compete this type of vault safely. Biles’ training video shows she has the necessary height and technique to do the same.
A vault called a Produnova, which is like the forward version of a Yurchenko double tuck, features similar risk. A few gymnasts around the world have competed this skill that involves a forward entry onto the table and then a double front tuck off. The sport’s international governing body devalued this vault, aiming to discourage gymnasts from trying it. In 2016, when asked why she hadn’t attempted the Produnova, Biles told the New Yorker, “I’m not trying to die.”
That way of thinking could also apply to how she views the Yurchenko double pike.
With the 2020 Olympics fewer than six months away, Biles doesn’t need to add difficulty. Gymnasts receive scores that combine difficulty and execution components, and Biles excels in both areas. Her scores far exceed those of her competitors in nearly every meet. At last year’s U.S. championships, she beat Lee, the second-place finisher, by almost five points. (For context, one fall deducts one point from a gymnast’s score.)
Biles, the 2016 Olympic all-around champion, won the 2018 world championships despite two falls, perhaps a disappointing showing but one that epitomized how much of a cushion the level of difficulty of Biles’ routines gives her on the international stage, too. Biles again won the all-around title at the 2019 world championships, her fifth, and is poised to win another all-around gold in Tokyo.
She continues to push the boundary of what’s perceived as possible in women’s gymnastics. Four skills are named for her, which is the custom when a gymnast successfully performs a skill for the first time at an Olympics or world championship: a vault with a half-twist entry onto the table, then a front flip with a double twist off; a double-twisting double tuck beam dismount; and two floor skills, a triple-twisting double tuck and a double layout with a half twist.
But gymnasts, even the best ones, regularly must make risk-reward assessments. That’s why Biles doesn’t always perform her eponymous beam dismount in competition. She has said the skill’s assigned difficulty value is too low for what it requires, and many agree with her. A few extra tenths is not worth the risk of falling or injury.
Monday’s video only shows Biles vaulting into a pit, whereas her training video of a triple-double last year showed Biles landing on a soft but floor-level surface. (She then debuted that skill last summer.) Plus, the Olympic year is typically a time for gymnasts to solidify routines and perfect elements. Winning medals is valued over naming skills, and competing safely trumps all.
Even with skills attempted into a pit, you can envision an imaginary landing surface. Some videos posted on YouTube show gymnasts attempting Yurchenko double tucks for fun with no chance of ever trying the skill to a different surface. Pausing the videos at the time the gymnast passes ground level often captures what would be headfirst landings.
Biles’ attempt is much different. When she reaches the spot where the ground would be, Biles is upright, positioned well for a feet-first finish. That’s the part that piques the Gymternet’s interest. As she disappears into the foam, Biles rotates farther than required to complete the skill. A couple of people in the background of the video hardly look up. At Biles’ club, this is likely a normal day.