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


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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IOC recommends how Russia, Belarus athletes can return as neutrals

Thomas Bach

The IOC updated its recommendations to international sports federations regarding Russian and Belarusian athletes, advising that they can return to competitions outside of the Olympics as neutral athletes in individual events and only if they do not actively support the war in Ukraine. Now, it’s up to those federations to decide if and how they will reinstate the athletes as 2024 Olympic qualifying heats up.

The IOC has not made a decision on the participation of Russian or Belarusian athletes for the Paris Games and will do so “at the appropriate time,” IOC President Thomas Bach said Tuesday.

Most international sports federations for Olympic sports banned Russian and Belarusian athletes last year following IOC recommendations to do so after the invasion of Ukraine.

Bach was asked Tuesday what has changed in the last 13 months that led to the IOC updating its recommendations.

He reiterated previous comments that, after the invasion and before the initial February 2022 recommendations, some governments refused to issue visas for Russians and Belarusians to compete, and other governments threatened withdrawing funding from athletes who competed against Russians and Belarusians. He also said the safety of Russians and Belarusians at competitions was at risk at the time.

Bach said that Russians and Belarusians have been competing in sports including tennis, the NHL and soccer (while not representing their countries) and that “it’s already working.”

“The question, which has been discussed in many of these consultations, is why should what is possible in all these sports not be possible in swimming, table tennis, wrestling or any other sport?” Bach said.

Bach then read a section of remarks that a United Nations cultural rights appointee made last week.

“We have to start from agreeing that these states [Russia and Belarus] are going to be excluded,” Bach read, in part. “The issue is what happens with individuals. … The blanket prohibition of Russian and Belarusian athletes and artists cannot continue. It is a flagrant violation of human rights. The idea is not that we are going to recognize human rights to people who are like us and with whom we agree on their actions and on their behavior. The idea is that anyone has the right not to be discriminated on the basis of their passport.”

The IOC’s Tuesday recommendations included not allowing “teams of athletes” from Russia and Belarus to return.

If Russia continues to be excluded from team sports and team events, it could further impact 2024 Olympic qualification.

The international basketball federation (FIBA) recently set an April 28 deadline to decide whether to allow Russia to compete in an Olympic men’s qualifying tournament. For women’s basketball, the draw for a European Olympic qualifying tournament has already been made without Russia.

In gymnastics, the ban has already extended long enough that, under current rules, Russian gymnasts cannot qualify for men’s and women’s team events at the Paris Games, but can still qualify for individual events if the ban is lifted.

Gymnasts from Russia swept the men’s and women’s team titles in Tokyo, where Russians in all sports competed for the Russian Olympic Committee rather than for Russia due to punishment for the nation’s doping violations. There were no Russian flags or anthems, conditions that the IOC also recommends for any return from the current ban for the war in Ukraine.

Seb Coe, the president of World Athletics, said last week that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned from track and field for the “foreseeable future.”

World Aquatics, the international governing body for swimming, diving and water polo, said after the IOC’s updated recommendations that it will continue to “consider developments impacting the situation” of Russian and Belarusian athletes and that “further updates will be provided when appropriate.”

The IOC’s sanctions against Russia and Belarus and their governments remain in place, including disallowing international competitions to be held in those countries.

On Monday, Ukraine’s sports minister said in a statement that Ukraine “strongly urges” that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned.

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Summer McIntosh breaks 400m freestyle world record, passes Ledecky, Titmus

Summer McIntosh

Summer McIntosh broke the women’s 400m freestyle world record at Canada’s swimming trials on Tuesday night, becoming at 16 the youngest swimmer to break a world record in an Olympic program event since Katie Ledecky a decade ago.

McIntosh clocked 3 minutes, 56.08 seconds in Toronto. Australian Ariarne Titmus held the previous record of 3:56.40, set last May. Before that, Ledecky held the record since 2014, going as low as 3:56.46.

“Going into tonight, I didn’t think the world record was a possibility, but you never know,” McIntosh, who had quotes from Ledecky on her childhood bedroom wall, said in a pool-deck interview moments after the race.

McIntosh’s previous best time was 3:59.32 from last summer’s Commonwealth Games. She went into Tuesday the fourth-fastest woman in history behind Titmus, Ledecky and Italian Federica Pellegrini.

She is also the third-fastest woman in history in the 400m individual medley and the 11th-fastest in the 200m butterfly, two events she won at last June’s world championships. She is the world junior record holder in those events, too.

MORE: McIntosh chose swimming and became Canada’s big splash

McIntosh, Titmus and Ledecky could go head-to-head-to-head in the 400m free at the world championships in July and at the 2024 Paris Olympics. Titmus is the reigning Olympic champion. Ledecky is the reigning world champion, beating McIntosh by 1.24 seconds last June while Titmus skipped the meet.

The last time the last three world record holders in an Olympic program event met in the final of a major international meet was the 2012 Olympic men’s 100m breaststroke (Brendan Hansen, Kosuke Kitajima, Brenton Rickard).

Ledecky, whose best events are the 800m and 1500m frees, broke her first world record in 2013 at 16 years and 4 months old.

McIntosh is 16 years and 7 months old and trains in Sarasota, Florida, which is 160 miles down Interstate 75 from Ledecky in Gainesville.

McIntosh, whose mom swam at the 1984 Olympics and whose sister competed at last week’s world figure skating championships, is the youngest individual world champion in swimming since 2011.

In 2021, at age 14, she became the youngest swimmer to race an individual Olympic final since 2008, according to Olympedia.org. She was fourth in the 400m free at the Tokyo Games.

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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