The anticipation was inspiring, truly unrelenting. If the excitement was a sound, it would have most assuredly been deafening. Rarely a moment went by where NBC commentator Tim Daggett (Olympic Gold Medalist) didn’t refer to McKayla Maroney’s vault as far and away the “best” at the London Olympics.
And who could argue with that, right? As a former competitive gymnast, and coach of women’s gymnastics, I was in awe of the height and distance McKayla could generate, and the technical execution with which she could perform her Amanar.
She, easily, separated herself from the field on this event because of these three factors. Others did the vault very well, she just did it better. She took the same vault others competed and put it on a completely different (higher) playing field.
Seemingly a shoe-in for the gold, as Daggett inferred numerous times, it seemed a certainty. If I were a gambler, she is where I would have placed all my bets.
However, as I have indicated before (and something I have experienced myself), gymnastics is a very unforgiving sport. Minute differences between competitors make all the difference, and a major mistake…well, if you have been watching the gymnastics in London, you know the story.
Yet many may wonder how it is that McKayla Maroney can perform the exact same vault so much better than anyone else. What is it that makes hers different?
To the untrained eye, they might only see what the sports commentators mention as they strain their necks to watch Maroney fall from the ceiling as she completes her vault. They talk about the same three aspects I mentioned earlier, her height, distance, and technical execution of the vault, when comparing McKayala’s performance to others; with two of these features most easily seen by spectators (height and distance).
So let’s take this a bit deeper than just the surface, the aspects that everyone sees, and break things down into a couple of the major components that make Maroney’s Amanar…well…”Maroney’s Amanar.”
Now this may get a little technical, so bear with me for a bit.
One aspect that is necessary for any vaulter to perform well, especially those at the highest level, is speed into the board. And from what I can tell, McKayla has loads of it coming into her Yurchenko piece of the vault (round off onto the board, back handspring into the vault table). She actually builds speed through her run, starting out more relaxed and gradually accelerating as she continues down the runway.
However, this is a common trait that all top vaulters have. As a spectator miles away, I can’t really tell how fast she is, or even if she has the fastest sprint speed into the vault of all the vaulters. But, to do what she does, she still has to be fast. Without excellent speed into the board, everything else is irrelevant.
The second aspect of her vault is likely, what I would call, the separation factor. When I first saw her vault, and noticed how difficult it was for the camera technician to keep her in view as she popped off the vault table like she was shot out of a cannon, I knew what I wanted to look for in the slow motion replay NBC normally shows after a good performance. And sure enough, I was not disappointed.
If you watch closely during MaKayla’s Amanar vault, you will notice that her hands hit the vault with her body at a steeper angle (body more down toward the spring board) than do many of her other competitors. Most of them have their bodies higher on the vault as their hands make contact with it.
What this does is effectively allow her to take that speed she generated in her run and redirect it up, “blocking” herself into the stratosphere, something she would have a tough time doing if she didn’t have great speed into the board.
Next, and simultaneously with her block, she explodes using her arms and shoulders (which is all supported by a very strong core), exponentially adding to her quest for “flight.”
Last, this blocking motion detailed above also contains the “snap” down, where Maroney’s explosive push is combined with a pull down of her body in order to generate the forces needed for rotation and twisting...and complete the vault. So as her shoulders and center of gravity continue upward (that “pop” you see as she comes off the vault table, the piece the camera technician has trouble staying with), her legs, feet and part of her core rotate downward (tight as heck I might add, with toes pointed and pinned together).
From here the major pieces of what separates her from every other vaulter out there is pretty much completed. Now it is all about twisting mechanics and sticking the landing. The height and distance has already been determined by these initial parts discussed above.
And let me tell you, this girl is HIGH. As a coach, way back in the old days, before there was a vaulting table (and no, not when you had to hunt for your food), girls vaulted on what was in effect a pommel horse without the pommels turned sideways.
I had a high school age vaulter performing a layout Tsukahara (round off onto the vault, layout backflip in the air after the push off) that I could literally walk under with outstretched arms and hands, not able to reach her when spotting. And she would travel a good distance from the vault, landing at the very end of a large landing mat. What is that, hmmm, let’s see, guessing here, but say…about 10 to 12 feet.
Knowing the height of the current vaulting table for girls, the approximate length of landing mats, the height and distance my vaulter got on older, less efficient equipment, I would say that MaKayla is quite a bit higher. Certainly a good deal higher than my reach, and the vaulter I coached (I can reach about 7’ off the floor; heck, I was a gymnast, what do you expect, 9’). Most definitely higher than what that camera operator is used to trying to keep in view.
Maroney is so high that this vault, one of the hardest vaults any female has performed, looks like child’s play for her. Just sitting on my couch as an observer, I can tell that there is a great deal more potential in McKayla on this event than what we are seeing with this Amanar. I would be very surprised if she and her coach have not been working other more difficult vaults into the pit. Likely things that have merely been idle thoughts in other gymnasts’ minds, maybe the kind of vaults that have never before been attempted. McKayla Maroney is capable of that, there is no doubt in my mind.
Now I know she did not win the gold as was expected. It was painful for me to watch as I am fully aware, just from watching her vault in the team finals, of how good she really is.
Think of it this way, how many vaulters in the world could actually sit their second vault on their can and still win a silver medal in the Olympics in a field of competitors this tough? I can only think of one capable of doing something like that.
And if Maroney decides that gold is something she cannot leave the sport without, becoming her goal on this event in Rio, and she is willing to put forth the same efforts, if not more, and make the same types of sacrifices that got her to London, all while keeping everything in perspective (a tough task for many these days), I’d bet my house on her.
Don’t be surprised if, in 2016, the gymnastics broadcaster announcing the vaulters in the finals at Rio says,’ “next up on vault, McKayla Maroney, performing the…Maroney, start value – 17.4!!!