‘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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Valencia Marathon produces historic times in men’s, women’s races

2022 Valencia Marathon
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Kenyan Kelvin Kiptum and Ethiopian Amane Beriso won the Valencia Marathon and became the third-fastest man and woman in history, respectively.

Kiptum, a 23-year-old in his marathon debut, won the men’s race in 2 hours, 1 minute, 53 seconds. The only men to ever run faster over 26.2 miles are legends: Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge (2:01:09 world record, plus a 2:01:39) and Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele (2:01:41).

Kipchoge made his marathon debut at age 28, and Bekele at 31.

Beriso, a 31-year-old whose personal best was 2:20:48 from January 2016, stunned the women’s field Sunday by running 2:14:58. The only women to have run faster: Kenyans Brigid Kosgei (2:14:04) and Ruth Chepngetich (2:14:18).

Ethiopian Letesenbet Gidey finished second in 2:16:49, the fastest-ever time for a woman in her marathon debut. Gidey is the world record holder at 5000m and 10,000m.

Valencia is arguably the top annual marathon outside of the six World Marathon Majors. The next major marathon is Tokyo on March 5.

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Aleksander Aamodt Kilde wins Beaver Creek downhill

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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde won his second straight World Cup downhill race to start the season, despite feeling under the weather.

Although dealing with an illness all week in training, Kilde powered through the challenging Birds of Prey course Saturday in a time of 1 minute, 42.09 seconds. It was enough to hold off Marco Odermatt of Switzerland by 0.06 seconds. James Crawford of Canada was third to earn his second career World Cup podium finish.

Kilde also won the opening downhill last weekend in Lake Louise, Alberta.

“It’s been a tough week,” Kilde said after the race. “I caught the flu in Lake Louise after a very, very nice weekend. It really hit me hard. Then I got a couple of days to rest and take it easy. … I felt OK. Still feeling it a little bit in my system.”

The Beaver Creek crew members had the course in solid shape a day after a downhill race was canceled due to high wind and snowfall.

ALPINE SKIING: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Kilde reached speeds around 75 mph in picking up his eighth World Cup downhill victory. That tied him with Kjetil Jansrud for the third-most downhill wins in the World Cup discipline among Norwegian men. The total trails only Aksel Lund Svindal (14) and Lasse Kjus (10).

“I found a really, really good set-up with my equipment and also with my skiing,” Kilde explained. “I believe in myself. I trust in myself. I have a good game plan. When I stand on the start, I don’t dwell on anything. I know that this plan is what I do and when I do that it’s going to be fast.”

Odermatt has been on the podium in all four World Cup races this season as he tries to defend his overall World Cup title. The 25-year-old finished third in the opening downhill of the season last weekend. He’s also won a giant slalom race and a super-G.

Ryan Cochran-Siegle wound up in seventh place for the top American finish. He was ninth in the downhill in Lake Louise.

“It’s been solid,” Cochran-Siegle said of his strides in the discipline. “A couple of little things here and there that pushed me off that top three. You have to ski with a lot of intensity and ski without abandon, in a sense. Today was a good step.”

Switzerland’s Beat Feuz, who won the Olympic downhill gold medal at the Beijing Games last February, tied for ninth.

The Beaver Creek stop on the circuit comes to a close Sunday with a super-G race. Odermatt will be the favorite after holding off Kilde in the opening super-G last weekend.

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