Tokyo Olympics Artistic Gymnastics

Simone Biles trains Thursday on the vault ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

TOKYO — When Simone Biles performs her new vault, she pushes her hands off the table and soars into the air, reaching heights that none of her peers can match. That power and technique allow her to pull off the world’s most difficult and risky vault, the Yurchenko double pike.

Biles has performed the Yurchenko double pike only once in competition; when she unveiled the skill at the U.S. Classic in May, she scored a 16.100. The world’s next-best score on a single vault this year is nearly a full point lower. Biles practiced it before the U.S. Championships but said she “jammed” her ankles when she landed short on one attempt. At the Olympic trials a few weeks later, her coach, Laurent Landi, didn’t want to risk Biles aggravating her healing ankles.

But Biles has said she wants to do this vault in Tokyo. She practiced the skill during Thursday’s formal training session. She rolled backward with too much power on her first attempt and then nailed the second. Biles, who declined interviews after that practice, seemed ready to perform the vault here at the Games. If she does so successfully, it will become the fifth skill that bears her name.

Biles should have four opportunities to compete on vault: the qualification round, the team final, the all-around final and the vault final. Determining which day to attempt the skill is complicated, even for the world’s best gymnast. And her coach wants to proceed cautiously, especially with Biles already projected to win up to five gold medals.

“If she really wants to do it, she’s going to have to beg me,” Landi recently told NBC Sports. “People seem to forget that it’s a very, very dangerous skill. ... Just to have glory and being [in] the Code of Points, it’s not enough.”

Landi ruled out the qualification round as a day Biles could perform the vault because he said a fall could take her out of the event final. Just two athletes per country, and eight gymnasts total, can qualify for each final. Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner, the U.S. gymnasts in Tokyo as individuals, perform two different vaults, which is needed to be eligible for the final. Even with a fall, Biles probably would land in the top eight, but her two teammates could have a slight edge.

Biles’ score for her Yurchenko double pike at the U.S. Classic minus the deduction for a fall would be no higher than 15.100. At the Olympic trials, she scored a 15.466 for her Cheng (a round-off onto the springboard, half-twist onto the table and then a front flip with a 1½ twist). The average of those scores is 15.283.

Skinner’s best two-vault average from the trials was a 15.233. Carey, the vault silver medalist at the 2019 world championships, hasn’t performed her two most difficult vaults in competition this season. But she practiced those skills Thursday and probably would earn a score in the same range with a pair of solid vaults.

On the surface, it seems to make the most sense to perform the vault during the event final, when a mistake wouldn’t affect an all-around score or the team total. But in event finals, the International Gymnastics Federation does not allow competitors to have what’s called a touch warmup, a time when athletes can practice quickly before they perform.

Not having a touch warmup “is a little bit crazy to me, because we are throwing some very high-level skills, and it is dangerous,” Biles said earlier this year. “But I probably wouldn’t do [the Yurchenko double pike] for an event final unless I was later in the lineup, just so we could go to the back [gym] and warm that up.”

That leaves the team final and the all-around final, both held next week. Biles is expected to win a gold medal in each. As long as the Americans avoid major mistakes, Team USA probably will have a significant cushion over fellow medal contenders Russia and China. Biles would have a touch warmup ahead of vault, and she could try the skill then.

Biles told Texas Monthly this spring that she could do the skill in the all-around final. She’ll probably have a sizable advantage and could withstand a fall. But when Biles had a fall on beam and mistakes on other apparatuses on the second night of the trials, U.S. teammate Sunisa Lee finished with a higher single-day all-around total.

The difficulty of this vault lies in how Biles does a double flip off the table. Other gymnasts with Yurchenko vaults, which are defined by a round-off onto the springboard and a back handspring onto the table, perform just one flip while adding as many as 2½ twists. No female gymnast has successfully performed a triple-twisting Yurchenko in competition, and Biles has said this double-flipping vault is safer for her than attempting a triple twist.

Annie Heffernon, the vice president of the U.S. women’s program, didn’t expect Biles to perform the Yurchenko double pike during Thursday’s practice. She didn’t try the skill in the warmup gym before entering the competition venue for podium training.

“I was just as shocked as everybody else,” Heffernon said. “If she does it like that, we could see it in competition maybe. I’m not sure when, but sometime.”

The 6.6 difficulty score, which Biles has criticized for being too low, is not far off from the 6.0 she earns with her Cheng, which she executes regularly with ease, and the 5.8 of her Amanar, a Yurchenko with a 2½ twist.

So why do the Yurchenko double pike in Tokyo?

The primary motivation is that, as long as she lands it, it would be named for her. But there’s another reason, one the Biles family plastered on T-shirts after she expressed it earlier this season: “Because I can.”

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