Gymnastics Vault Needs 'Speed, Explosive Action'

U.S. gymnast McKayla Maroney took the floor on Tuesday to tackle the event that can make or break Team USA in just a fraction of a second. It's the vault. And Maroney has the approval of the man who's been on the mat for so many memorable vault moments — Bela Karolyi. Audie Cornish asks Karolyi about the pivotal moments that can make or break success in the event.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As we just heard, the Americans were spectacular today on the vault. We're going to take some time to break down the fundamentals of that event, and who better to explain it than gymnastics coaching legend Bela Karolyi, who talked to us before the Olympics began.

BELA KAROLYI: What makes the vault so spectacular is because it's a very athletic type of event, where it needs a lot of speed, a lot of explosive action and, of course, great coordination.

CORNISH: So help walk me through the vault here. I know it starts with a run.

KAROLYI: Well, that is a major, major element of the successful vault is the run. It is about 30 to 35, 38 feet long distance. Some of them make it longer, some of them make it shorter. That is up to the athletes. Next is the take off from the vaulting board, which is extremely important and is different based on the different kind of vault. Next would be the repulsion, followed with a big air phase, the fly phase. Now, that is the time that the athletes are performing the amazing skills with twisting motion in it and with flipping motion in it.

CORNISH: And this is in the post-flight part, right?

KAROLYI: That's called the post-flight, yes. That is the second fly and actually the most important part of the vault. And finally, obviously, is the landing. So no movement, no additional motion, just a straight and solid landing.

CORNISH: And what's interesting about this landing is that you're taking a body that has been in full motion, right? I mean, you've really...

KAROLYI: Right.

CORNISH: ...built up so much speed coming down that essentially runway, launched yourself off of the table or the horse, as people still call it, and you're supposed to come to almost a full stop. What do you have to do to your body to make that happen?

KAROLYI: You have to have a very, very perfectly developed sense of the landing motion and you just point it out as perfectly right. The body is in a huge speed and you have to reduce that to zero, that speed. This is not easy. This is probably the most difficult part.

So it's a perfect alignment, body alignment with the perfect takeoff with a perfect fly phase and a perfect landing would make a McKayla Maroney type of one.

CORNISH: And you mention McKayla but it's interesting, Mary Lou Retton capped off a great 1984 Olympics with a vault performance and in 1996 you had Kerri Strug with her performance at the Atlanta Olympics, also the vault being kind of the pivotal moment that people remember from it.

KAROLYI: I think you're perfectly right. Mary Lou introduced the perfect landing into the vaulting event and, of course, you know, she created the sensation of performance during the 1984 Olympic Games.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, boy.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yes! She has (unintelligible) the best (unintelligible).

KAROLYI: Winning not just the vaulting event but winning the all around Olympic medal, gold medal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There it is!

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: She did it!

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There came the gold medal. The gold medal goes to Mary Lou Retton.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh!

KAROLYI: Kerri also showed an amazing, amazing performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: She's the last to go and she's the only one who can do it.

KAROLYI: Landing on one foot and making almost perfect landing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Good! Good!

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Kerri Strug is hurt. She is hurt badly.

KAROLYI: With an injured foot situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We've got to find out if she - 9.792. She has done it!

KAROLYI: And also anchoring the gold with it for the United States Olympic Team.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Tonight she was there for Bela, for her team, for her country, and for herself.

CORNISH: And lastly, Bela Karolyi, I wonder about the mental element of this. How much of the vault isn't physical?

KAROLYI: Oh, a good 80 percent of the vault is still physical and another percentage of it, 20, 25 percent is mental. Mental is always the mental strength, the confidence building up to that contest or repetition, practice, practice, and practice. But still - still, a strong mind the athlete is always capable to even squeeze a more perfect vault out of the performance rather than a younger athlete who has not mastered yet the vault properly.

CORNISH: Coach Bela Karolyi, thank you for explaining this to us.

KAROLYI: You very welcome.

CORNISH: Bela Karolyi, once the coach for Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug and many other celebrated gymnasts. He was breaking down the explosive Olympics event, the vault.

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