London Olympics 2012: Breaking Down McKayla Maroney's Vault
It doesn't matter if you have ever watched a second of gymnastics before, you knew there was something special about McKayla Maroney's vault during the women's Olympic team final.
The reason you knew was because it was.
Maroney made an extremely difficult vault look like the proverbial piece of cake. Here is the now famous vault from the Olympic team final. Don't let Shannon Miller fool you, it wasn't an easy day at all.
I am about to take an in depth look of the X's and O's of a two-and-a-half twisting laid-out Yurchenko vault, also known as an Amanor.
You can watch Maroney explain what goes through her head while she prepares for her specialty before you read on as I break down the exact steps of how she performed so perfectly.
To the uninitiated, the run could seem to just be the only way to get down the runway, but the run has great importance on the vault.
The most important part of an effective run is the vaulter should be at his or her fastest at the end. That may seem simple, but there are many people who start with a burst of speed and can't hold on to that pace causing them to slow down right before the vault. The run is used to build up power and momentum to use for the rest of the vault, and slowing down takes away that power.
Maroney has her run down to a science. She has only 12 steps to reach her maximum speed, easing her way into it and reaching her top speed around step six or seven.
Let's also remember Maroney is doing all of this on a re-injured broken toe, an injury that would keep a normal NFL player out for about four weeks.
The momentum of the run is what is used to set up the vault's entry.
In an Amanar, the entry is a roundoff onto the springboard leading to a back handspring onto the vaulting table.
The entry starts with the hurdle, which ideally should be an elongated running stride. Another common misconception is the idea of jumping up higher on the hurdle. A high hurdle, especially with a Yurchenko (roundoff-back handspring) entry, can cause the vaulters momentum to start and up and down motion instead of keeping the momentum moving forward.
(Think of a long jumper in track and field attempting a long jump by jumping as high as he could on takeoff. It would be the same effect.)
After the hurdle, Maroney now has to perform a roundoff while still keeping her momentum traveling horizontally. Her legs on her roundoff have to scoop through enough so the springboard can shoot her back towards the vault and not up in the air. Landing with he body straight up and down on the springboard would just launch her up and her block would be almost nonexistent.
(The picture on the next page will give a better visual.)
I have talked about keeping momentum traveling vertically for the first two parts of this vault, but this is now the part where Maroney gets her height.
Maroney has the best block in the world. Take a look at this video of her warm-up vault at this year's Olympic Trials.
Maroney uses the momentum she created from the roundoff to start the back handspring onto the table. Her hands have to reach the table before she is fully upside down (as seen above). The key to the block is having the push come from the shoulders and not the arms.
Bending the arms and pushing off in a push-up-like motion would lose power during the bending process. Instead, Maroney starts pushing through her shoulders before her hands hit the table so she is almost full extension of her arms when contact is made (to help: put your arms out straight and only use your shoulders to extend your arm as hard as you can).
She hits full extension in her arms as her feet come up into a handstand position (use the picture above to imagine her feet kicking overhead as this is done). When both happen at the same time, all the momentum built up in now what causes Maroney to have the massive height we have been witnessing from her.
In this pre-Olympic interview with former Olympian Dominique Dawes, Maroney credits her block to running around on all fours when she was young due to a Tarzan obsession. We may start to see a new addition to the conditioning program in club gyms all across the country.
The Flip and Twist
Now that all the hard work has been done, here comes the fun part.
Once the block is completed, the flip starts. When Maroney starts to rise up, her next move is to simultaneously lift up her chest and kick her feet over her head.
This step is important to initiating the flip and must be done before she starts her twist. If she goes into her twist before the flip is properly started, it is very likely she will land under-rotated.
It may not seem like it because everything happens so fast, but this step requires patience. Maroney has to wait until she is almost right-side up again after the block before she can start her twist.
Maroney twists to the right, so she starts her twist by bending her arms and bringing them in to her right shoulder. Physics takes over from there. Maroney can control how fast she twists by how hard she brings her arms to her shoulder.
Plenty of people can flip and twist, but controlling it and having air awareness is the difference between throwing your body around and having a perfect vault.
Once Maroney knows she has competed two-and-a-half twists, she must "kick-out." "Kicking out" is the process of stopping yourself from flipping or twisting. In order to do this, Maroney brings her arms from bent in at her shoulder to straight out to her sides. The process of opening up her arms is what makes the twisting stop.
One thing that makes Maroney's vault so incredible is when she kicks out, her body is still at table height (many gymnasts don't finish their twists until they are just about to land).
In the interview with Dawes on the previous page, Maroney said she has thought of competing a triple-full. She is more than capable of making three twists around and could probably, with no twisting, complete a double back. Both would be amazing, but the problem is there is no need to attempt either one of those vaults because she is still going to win the Olympic Games on vault by at least five tenths only doing a two-and-a-half.
The landing on a two-and-a-half is considered "blind" because the gymnast can not spot/see the landing almost until feet touch mat, but Maroney's height gives her the advantage there too. The height of her vault allows her to have much more time than her competitors to prepare for a landing, since most of them are still worried about completing the twist.
When Maroney lands, she must keep her chest up and not let her momentum bring it forward. When her chest stays up, we see balanced landings like the one in team finals, but when she lets herself fall forward, we see her have to take deductions because of a large step.
This had nothing to do with the actual vault, but was possibly the most fun part about it to watch.
There's few things more exciting in gymnastics than a stuck vault, and to stick a vault of that magnitude in the Olympic Games only magnifies it exponentially.
I want to say it was the best Olympic vault ever done, but I haven't watched her in event finals yet. We may see this celebration again.
Dan Pizzuta is a former Division I gymnast at Temple University. Follow him on Twitter @DanPizzuta for more gymnastics coverage during the Olympic Games.