Simone Biles had a signature Rhinestone Goat embroidered on the back of the leotard. The real statement though was made when female gymnastics’ greatest spine sprung off the board and launched itself into a Yurchenko double pike orbit at the US Classic on Saturday. No other woman had ever tried the risky Yurchenko double pike in competition before Biles.
“I was just thinking, ‘Do it like training. Don’t try to like overdo anything,’” the American gymnast, a legitimate claimant to the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) tag, said. “Because I have a tendency as soon as I raise my hand to kind of overpower things, and I did a little bit, but at least I was on my feet. It’s a new vault and I’m proud of how today went.”
Pushing off the vault with palms and gaining enough height to launch into two back-flips with stretched legs, to nail a straight landing, made it a no-go for any woman before Flying Queen Simone.
Indian gymnast and former Commonwealth Games medallist Ashish Kumar made the nebulous declaration, that’s echoing across the world: “Simone Biles can control gravity. Her landing of the latest vault, the Yurchenko Double Pike, is 10 times better than the men.”
Having picked his 2010 CWG bronze on a similar Yurchenko round-off (one-hand first cartwheel) vault, Kumar’s proficiency arms him with the knowledge that the back-flips that the American rolled out over the weekend of the US Classic Championships are proof of her ability to defy physics and do wondrous things in flight.
Biles scored 16.1 on her Big Y. A winner of 25 World Championship medals and easily the biggest star of the Rio Olympics with six medals, the 24-year-old already had an eponymous skill (Biles vault – Yurchenko with two twists). But after smoothly sticking her brand-new vault, she should head into Tokyo with a Biles 2 (two twists upgraded to two flips in piked or straight-legged position, body bent 90 degrees at hips) taking the risk-taking many notches higher. History, though, has been made already as she registered a stick landing returning to competition after 587 days.
“If she competes on the vault and Floor with the guys, you never know, she can beat them,” Kumar says of the otherworldly gymnast, who has four skills in her name already, and is often seen more in flight than on the ground in mesmerised gymnastics arenas. “Her landings are so perfect and beautiful,” he gushes, “I think this is tougher than the Produnova.”
Currently the Handspring somersault holds the highest D-score of 6.0 despite a downgrade. Biles’ two flip Yurchenko is provisionally pegged at 6.6.
Rendering glass ceilings to smithereens might be the lesser source of excitement, as Biles elevates – literally – the sport of gymnastics to the next level.
It’s the height Biles gains from the repulsion phase on the vaulting table that easily sets her apart from her competitors, gender notwithstanding.
Roughly, she sprints down the runway, takes a round-off onto the bouncy springboard, which fuses into a back Handspring on the vault. Imagine an inverted hands-arched up-Laughing Buddha, and then pushing off those straight- lined palms to launch into two aerial flips in pike position – knees straight, hips bent, before landing starch-backed in a straight line.
“If a vaulter doesn’t get enough height off the table (the push or block) to factor in enough rotations, she can injure her head or neck. Also, the impact on the hard surface makes it a clear risk for ankles which is why women haven’t preferred it,” Kumar says. Three of women’s four apparatus – Balance beam, Floor and Vault – rely on lower limbs, unlike only two off five for men, yet, the Yurchenko double pike wasn’t attempted by women and stayed rare for men too.
Vault specialist McKayla Maroney is supposed to have tried a double tuck (knees to the chest) in 2015, but was dissuaded by coaches citing the risks, according to Rockergymnastics.com.
Named after 1996 Greek Olympic champion Ioannis Melissanidis, the pike was most famously summoned by Briton Kristian Thomas in the all-around team event to get the 2012 Games host nation a historic bronze. Russian Natalia Yurchenko did a single flip back in the 1980s, but an additional rotation as the L-shaped body descends to stick ramrod straight is altogether trickier.
Kumar recalls his contemporary, Mayank Srivastav, trying to perfect the very same vault at Allahabad, without adequate repetitions, and ending up tragically paralysed in 2017-18. “I think he tried 1-2 times, managed, got emboldened and went for a third without proper soft mats. He couldn’t catch his leg tuck, landed on the neck, his lower body rotated back and spine squeezed,” he recalls.
The reason Biles’ Yurchenko vault might be more exciting than the 100m sprint at Tokyo – both events take roughly the same time – is how smoothly she managed to pull it off.
When word first got out of Biles going for the Yurchenko double pike, she had told Texas Monthly: “So far, we’ve been training it pretty consistently and there haven’t been too many times where I was like, ‘Oh, that was really scary. Maybe we shouldn’t do that.’ It’s actually been like, ‘Wow, this is feasible, we can do this.’ And that’s kind of the scary part, me testing my limits, proving myself wrong, and being like, ‘Dang, Simone you can do this. That’s insane.’ Honestly, at this age, I feel like I would kind of start going down, but I’m still going up.”
While India’s handful of top-grade gymnasts, led by the inimitably bold Dipa Karmakar, have routinely gone for broke with high-risk routines, the Americans tend to be conservative and risk-averse. “Why take chances when you can score high in execution on the staple vaults is the thinking,” Kumar explains the approach. But American gymnastics went belly-up, plunging into ignominy after the Larry Nassar scandal soon after Rio.
Biles was one of the survivors who came forward about the abuse by the team doctor, emerging from the ravages of the inquiry, determined to speak up. “Gymnastics wasn’t the only thing I was supposed to come back for. I had to come back to the sport to be a voice,” she was quoted by The Washington Post.
A cracked rib, a broken toe and a kidney stone were speed bumps on either side of more World titles. But it needed another push for Biles to aim for what the Post calls a vault with, “unprecedented difficulty, along with extreme risk.”
Even while the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games left her in a puddle of disoriented tears, Biles searched for motivation – egged on by her mother and making a move to train in Texas under husband-wife coaching duo of Laurent and Cecile Landi.
Laurent Landi told 60 Minutes about getting Biles started on the Yurchenko double pike: “It’s very, very challenging. And what’s scary is that people can get hurt, you know. You do a short landing, you can hurt your ankles. It’s a very dangerous vault.” On not playing it safe, he added: “It’ll become very very boring for everybody. I think she’s opened everybody’s eyes that this can be done. And when a lot of people believed that a female could not do it.”
Biles’ outrageous abilities have been deliberately under-valued by FIG, gymnastics’ world governing body, to discourage others from having a go at the routines lured by points, but without adequate practice or wise self- assessment of capability.
Her double beam dismount – another elevation she generates despite the beam not being too high off the ground – was tempered by the assigning authorities too, and Biles has felt aggravated about being unfairly punished for others’ potential misadventures.
She reckons her Yurchenko double pike ought to be 6.8 too, rather than 6.6.
“You wanted people to be unique and different and do crazy things. Obviously, safety is a matter and a factor in that, but now they’re just like, ‘Wait! Wait! Wait! We wanted an open-ended code, but we didn’t want to do THAT,’” Biles said. “Or ‘we didn’t want Simone to do it’, or ‘we didn’t want the USA to do it,’” she had raged to 60 Minutes.
Known for her phenomenal explosive strength, it’s Biles’ mid-mark propulsion off the vault that gives her revs in the flip. Some say, she even over-rotates, as she did landing further than usual on Saturday.
“It’s her attacking position on the vault (when palms spring off the board), and her body arc when she gets airborne and leaves the surface, that makes her brilliant. She’s Newton’s 3rd Law in Superhuman form,” says Indian coach Lakhan Sharma, who is pushing Tokyo-bound Pranati Nayak to the Yurchenko 720/900 (twists) prepping to nail it at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
While the hamstring and quadriceps are Biles’ twitching muscles, it was her mind that she had to fuel with inspiration before going for the Big Y.
Yet to lose a meet final since 2013, and parrying off her next closest opponent to a whole half a point behind her, Biles had been quoted by USA Today Sports: “I had already reached, and passed, all my expectations in the sport already. So going back to, in 2018, Worlds, and in 2019, I was kind of like, ‘OK, I don’t really have anything to lose at this point. I’ve already stamped my status on the sport. But I’m going to push myself to see how much further I can go in the sport.”