‘Better than I did it’: Men who performed Simone Biles’ vault react to history

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When Simone Biles landed the Yurchenko double pike vault on Saturday night, she became the first woman to do so in competition. Few men have performed it.

The one other American is David Sender, a 35-year-old veterinarian in Auburn, Alabama. Sender, the 2008 U.S. all-around champion, does not follow the sport very closely anymore, but his interest piqued last week while chatting with his father.

“He heard that Simone was doing that vault, so he called to tell me and talk about older times, I guess,” Sender said Monday afternoon as he prepared for a hospital shift.

Sender didn’t see the U.S. Classic competition, but on Sunday he looked up Biles’ vault from Friday’s podium training that spread across social media.

“My first impression was, wow, I think that was better than when I did it,” he said.

Biles previously introduced skills to the women’s Code of Points on vault, floor exercise and balance beam (men don’t compete on beam). Fewer men have done the Yurchenko double pike than her other vault — a Yurchenko style roundoff entry with a half twist onto the table, followed by a laid-out somersault with two additional twists — and her famous triple-double on floor, according to MAGnastics.

Her first eponymous skill from 2013 — a double layout with a half twist on floor — is not common for men but more because of its uniqueness than its difficulty.

Sender is one of at least five men known to perform the Yurchenko double pike in competition.

China’s Yang Wei may have been the first at the 2002 World Championships. The vault was later named after him by the International Gymnastics Federation, though his name is not associated with it in the current Code of Points. Rather, it’s labeled a variation of the Yurchenko double tuck done by Greek Ioannis Melissanidis in the late 1990s.

(Yang, by the way, holds one of the few records of dominance that Biles hasn’t broken — winning the 2008 Olympic all-around by 2.6 points, the greatest modern-era Olympic margin of victory for men or women. Granted, the men have six apparatuses to the women’s four, creating more opportunity to gap the field.)

Then came Sender, who was unaware that Yang had done it when he began training it later in the 2000s. Sender said he performed the vault at the U.S. Championships in 2009 and 2012 (video here), plus at the 2012 Olympic Trials.

“At the time it was almost more of a dream than anything else,” said Sender, while noting that he believed other male and female gymnasts had the talent to perform it. “I’m not sure how many people thought it was really possible. I think by now it’s long since proven to be quite possible.”

Sender, a three-time national champion on vault, preferred the Yurchenko style of vaulting, which is less common for men than women. He said he learned the Yurchenko double tuck in one day of training. He wanted to try something harder, so he began doing it piked.

Memories flooded back last week as he watched Biles prepare to sprint down the runway.

“What I see in her, to some degree while she does that vault, is a lot of what I felt while doing it,” he said. “You can prepare as much as you want to, and train it as much as you want to, or as much as you can, but that style of vault is really kind of an all-or-nothing thing. There’s very little margin for error on it, and if you’re not 100 percent committed to doing that Yurchenko, two flips, landing on your feet, whatever, if there’s any part of it you’re not committed to doing, and you don’t put everything into the entire thing, I think you’re in big trouble.”

Great Britain’s Kristian Thomas stuck a Yurchenko double pike under the most pressure of his life — in the 2012 London Olympic team final, in front of Prince William and Prince Harry. Thomas helped propel the nation to its first men’s team medal in 100 years. He later watched gymnastics finals with Kate Middleton.

Similar to Biles’ progression, Thomas previously performed a Yurchenko with two and a half twists in the air rather than two somersaults in a pike position. In late 2011, the Englishman had time to try new skills. He saw video of Sender landing it, and then learned it in time for the crucial Olympic season.

Thomas, who landed the vault at his best at the 2013 World Championships, retired after the Rio Olympics.

“There are athletes capable of doing it,” Thomas said. “They just get a little bit scared of the thought of doing it because it’s a little bit of the unknown.

“Some gymnasts will prefer doing twists than somersaults for spatial awareness in the air.”

Nguyen Ha Thanh of Vietnam and Ivan Tikhonov of Azerbaijan also performed the vault, according to this video.

About a month ago, Thomas first saw clips on social media of Biles training the Yurchenko double pike with soft landings since February 2020. Biles began practicing the vault before the 2016 Olympics, then without intention of performing it in competition. She tweeted Monday night, “I’m sorry but I can’t believe I competed a double pike on vault.”

Thomas can believe it.

“My initial thought was she could probably do it quite easily,” he said.

Thomas, like many in gymnastics, saw Biles’ vaults last week splashed on his social media feeds.

“When you put all the extra emotions, the pressure, all eyes on you, the cameras, etcetera, and still be able to pull it out of the bag as comfortable as she did, I think she’s in a very, very safe space with that vault,” he said. “We’re talking about the greatest female gymnast of all time here.”

American Danell Leyva, the retired, triple Olympic medalist gymnast, noted that the vault apparatus is set higher for the men than women (by four inches). That arguably makes Biles’ ability to reach the required height to complete the Yurchenko double pike, and go beyond and over-rotate it on Saturday, more impressive.

“In terms of whether gender really plays a role [in the ability to do the vault], I don’t think so, honestly,” Sender said. “I think it’s more about the individual talent of the gymnast doing it.”

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