As we get news of the Dutch gymnastics delegation having a positive test in its midst just two weeks out of Olympic competition (all tests today were negative), I have decided to ignore that and start previewing the competition as if everything is normal.
Phase 1: The vault preview. Why? Because two vaults are required to advance to the event final, vault presents the least deep of the four events with the most predictable slate of contenders. (The beam preview is basically going to be a shrug emoji and we all know it.)
Rules — To both qualify for and participate in the vault final, gymnasts must perform two vaults, each from different groups among the five options (Non-salto, handspring, Tsukahara, Yurchenko, and Yuchenko 1/2). The two vaults cannot feature the same flight, so both vaults cannot be back layout double twisting vaults, even if they are from different groups.
Simone Biles (USA)
Biles enters vault—among others—as the heavy gold medal favorite. Her current plan is not to perform the Yurchenko double pike (6.6 difficulty) in the vault final because no warmup is allowed for event finals and it is not safe. Score another win for the gymnastics brain trust. But even Biles’ “little guy” slate of vaults with the Cheng (6.0) and Amanar (5.8) should tie for the most difficult pair in the vault final, and her superior amplitude, distance, and body position should see her execution score rise well above that of any other contender.
There is the chance that she could also pull out the Biles I (6.4), but since we haven’t actually seen that vault since she fell on it in the world all-around final in 2018, I have a feeling that one has long since been taken to a farm upstate.
MyKayla Skinner or Jade Carey (USA)
One of the biggest storylines of the US women’s qualification performance will be which athlete ends up joining Biles as the second and final American competitor in the vault final. Both Skinner and Carey have the same peak difficulty on vault with the Cheng (6.0) and the Amanar (5.8) and are likely to score about the same for them, with Carey perhaps enjoying a slight edge (all else being equal) because of her amplitude.
Carey played things conservatively vault and floor at nationals and trials with her Olympic spot already locked, so we don’t have a great sense of her current level on vault (particularly with the Cheng, which we haven’t seen since February) compared to Skinner, who has been excelling with both vaults at recent meets. When they did perform the same vault on the same day—both doing the Amanar on the first day of trials—Carey scored 15.200 for it compared to Skinner’s 15.133, pointing to a very close race.
They’ll even put some pressure on Biles if all three gymnasts perform the same difficulty, but Biles has such an execution buffer (really should be at least five tenths per vault, if not more) that the threat of Biles missing out shouldn’t come into play the way it did in qualification at 2019 worlds when Biles bounced to Mars for a 0.3 out of bounds deduction.
Giulia Steingruber (SUI)
Among those who should also contend for a medal, the defending Olympic bronze medalist owns very comfortable handspring rudi (5.8) with a predictable landing that can be relied on for very high scores that should outshine the other 5.8s in this tier. Her stumbling block has actually tended to be her theoretically easier DTY (5.4), which is what kept her out of the vault final at the last worlds. At this year’s European Championships, however, Steingruber’s DTY looked strong, helping her to an ultimately smooth gold medal finish. If she vaults like that again, she should be considered a frontrunner for the non-US medal.
Shallon Olsen (CAN)
Expect Olsen to show up at the Olympics sporting a Cheng (6.0) and a DTY (5.4), which should put her difficulty close to the very top. Back in the day, she did have an Amanar (5.8) as her second vault, but in recent years Olsen has stuck with the DTY—which worked en route to a silver medal in 2018 and a 4th-place finish in 2019. She’s in the mix every time. Because of some tucking, the execution score on her Cheng tends to be lower than for the other top vaults, but she makes up for that on difficulty to stay competitive.
Lilia Akhaimova (RUS)
Akhaimova will go with a rudi (5.8) and a DTT (5.6) as her two vaults, which will put her on the same total difficulty as Olsen and a couple tenths higher than Steingruber. Based on performances at Russian Cup, Akhaimova’s landing control on her rudi may be a concern heading into the Olympics because she struggled on two of three, but when it really mattered, she pulled out a very good one in the event final that would put her in Olympic medal contention if she could recreate it in Tokyo.
Oksana Chusovitina (UZB)
The legend herself has an entire Mary Poppins bag of different difficulties she can pull out depending on context, though her current most difficult pair is the same duo as Akhaimova has, the rudi (5.8) and the DTT (5.6). I imagine we’d see those in an event final because it’s the ‘Lympics and this could be her last one…maybe actually this time.
BUT, we did see Chuso get burned by this vault selection in qualification at 2019 worlds when a miss on the DTT left her out of the event final entirely. The Tsuk 1.5 (5.2) is a much more comfortable vault that she usually leans on at world cups, but will a 5.8/5.2 be enough to get her into the final this year?
Alexa Moreno (MEX)
It was with this very popular rudi (5.8) and DTT (5.6) combo that Alexa Moreno qualified in third place on vault at the 2019 world championships. Ultimately, she was not able to recreate that same rudi performance in the final and finished 6th, but even then she was less than two tenths out of the medal places. Among this Olympic field, only Biles, Carey, and Olsen placed higher than Moreno that day. Bringing her very best vaults again, she should be in the medal picture.
Yeo Seojeong (KOR)
Will she do it? Yeo has the potential to pull out her eponymous handspring double full (6.2), which would keep her in the forefront of the conversation since it may just be the most difficult vault of the event final. That, paired with a typically comfortable DTY (5.4), would give Yeo among the highest cumulative D scores.
Whether it’s worth it to perform the Yeo—or whether it’s still an option given that we haven’t seen her compete since 2019 and basically have no idea what her level is—will be a major consideration. Yeo fell on that vault in the 2019 final and finished last, and a downgrade to the handspring rudi (5.8) would still act as a competitive repertoire, the exact one Steingruber is hoping to use to medal.
Murakami Mai (JPN)
What is Murakami going to do? Over the years, she has almost never gone for two vaults outside of Japanese national competitions and has never even attempted to qualify for the vault final at a world championships or Olympics. But now, Murakami has upgraded to a rudi (5.8) to improve her competitiveness in the all-around and, paired with what has always been an extremely comfortable DTY (5.4), that could put her up with the very best vaulters. (She has also trained an Amanar, but I don’t think we dare hope to see both upgrades at the same time.) Murakami has the chance to be a real spoiler here…if she decides to go for the vault final.
Angelina Melnikova (RUS)
There are a number of athletes with somewhat lower difficulty who are not really in the mix for actual vault medals but could very well make the final should even one or two of the above athletes falter in qualification. With a time-tested and confident DTY (5.4) and Lopez (5.2), Angelina Melnikova should be on the top of the list of gymnasts who could pick up the pieces and sneak into this final.
Jessica Gadirova (GBR)
If we’re including Melnikova on this list, Gadirova must be included as well since she performed the exact same vaults as Melnikova in the European event finals this year and did them just a hair better, nudging out Melnikova for silver. She’s just as capable of finding a way into the final here.
Ellie Black (CAN)
Black is in a similar position, though with different vaults. With her handspring layout full (5.4) and Tsukahara 1.5 (5.2), she’s probably relying on other people to miss to get into the final, but they wouldn’t have to miss by a lot. Black ended up only a couple tenths behind Shallon Olsen at Canadian Nationals despite performing 0.8 lower difficulty because her execution paid off.
Black had upgraded her first vault to a rudi (5.8) in 2019, but she then got injured attempting that vault in the all-around final at worlds, so please don’t.
Marcia Vidiaux (CUB)
At her strongest, Vidiaux also has the rudi (5.8) and DTT (5.6) that many of the bronze contenders boast, but we haven’t seen Vidiaux since worlds in 2019, and those landings can be touch-and-go for her at the best of times. So, she’s always someone to keep in mind because of her potential difficulty, but she wouldn’t rank as an odds-on favorite.