Olympics

Vault gives US gymnasts big jump on competition

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LONDON (AP)

Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!

The Americans wasted no time letting everyone know why they're such heavy favorites at the London Olympics during Thursday's training session, whipping off one monstrous vault after another as opposing coaches and even other gymnasts watched, wide-eyed.

''We've been working so hard on them, and it shows we really want this,'' Aly Raisman said. ''It's a huge advantage.''

Doesn't everybody know it.

The Amanar, named after 1996 vault champion Simona Amanar, is one of the toughest vaults out there these days, and most countries are lucky to have one or two gymnasts who even try it, let alone do it well. But four of the five Americans - Raisman, Jordyn Wieber, Gabby Douglas and world vault champion McKayla Maroney - land the high-scoring skill, and the point cushion that could provide might well be the difference between their second Olympic title and a medal of a far less satisfying color.

The women's competition begins Sunday with qualifying.

''I feel it's a good advantage,'' said Martha Karolyi, coordinator of the U.S. women's team. ''But we cannot just be happy and relaxed having this advantage. You want to keep the level on all the events. If we're able to do that, then the advantage definitely can be had.''

An Amanar is a version of what's known as a Yurchenko vault. Gymnasts do a roundoff onto the takeoff board, a back handspring onto the vault and then push off into a twisting somersault. Yurchenkos are differentiated by the number of twists - the more twists, the harder the vault. An Amanar, sometimes referred to as a 2 1/2, has 2 1/2 twists. The more common Yurchenko double has two twists.

That extra half-twist may not sound like much, but it adds a whopping 0.7 points to the value of the vault.

''It's definitely so important because it's almost a full point lead for each vault,'' Raisman said. ''We're definitely trying to work on the landings to make sure they're as perfected as possible.''

Execution scores still have to be factored in, of course. But assuming each American does an Amanar in team finals, where three gymnasts compete on each event and all three scores count, the U.S. could build a sizable lead over Russia, Romania and China with just one event.

No wonder Russian coach Alexander Alexandrov has been spotted sneaking peeks at the Americans while they're working on vault in the training gym.

Two of the Russians tried Amanars at Thursday's training, but only Viktoria Komova had any success. She landed two nice ones while Maria Paseka - put on the team essentially for her Amanar - was splatting all over the landing mat. Huang Qiushuang is the only Chinese gymnast who's done one, but she didn't even try it Thursday.

Romania's Sandra Izbasa doesn't do an Amanar, but she does another vault that is nearly as difficult. Another Romanian, Diana Chelaru, might have one in the works if the little hop-turn she added after her landing was any indication.

Though Simona Amanar first did the vault at the 2000 Olympics, it remained a rarity until 2008 because of the height and power needed to complete the twists. Replacing the slim horse with a broader table had removed much of the danger inherent with any vault, but the Amanar carried the risk of a serious knee injury if a gymnast landed short, low or, worst, while still twisting. (Aliya Mustafina, the 2010 world champion, blew out her knee doing an Amanar at the 2011 European championships.)

''It's really hard to do, and we saw it when Mustafina did it last year at Europeans, she injured herself,'' Germany's Elisabeth Seitz said. ''It's scary, but when you see the Americans, you think it's so easy.''

It wasn't always this way.

Shawn Johnson was the first U.S. woman - and ninth in the world - to do it, mastering it in 2008. Since then, however, Mas Watanabe, a coach on the U.S. women's staff, has figured out a secret to the technique. Karolyi won't say exactly what that secret is, only that it has to do with the entry and the push-off into the twisting somersault. But it's been so effective that, by the 2010 U.S. championships, Wieber, Maroney and Lexie Priessman were all doing Amanars - and they were still in the JUNIOR division. Wieber went on to win the world title last year, while Maroney took gold on vault.

Now there are more than a dozen Americans, at both the senior and junior levels, with Amanars.

''The first day I walked back into camp, it was November of 2010, I walked in and people were starting to warm up on the events and I saw, no joke, eight girls, back to back, throw (Amanars),'' said Johnson, who took two years off after Beijing. ''I was like, `I'm done. I have to retire.' I was the only one who did it (in 2008), and the difficulty of the sport has grown so much.''

The impact was obvious at last year's world championships, where the Americans outscored Russia by more than two points on vault and wound up running away with the team title.

And that was with only two Americans doing Amanars.

''I think we'll be the only country that has every single girl throwing an Amanar, and that's really cool,'' said Johnson, who retired in June because of lingering effects from a knee injury in a 2010 ski accident. ''We have so much difficulty right now. If we can stay on and not make any big mistakes, then we'll be unbeatable.''

---

Follow Nancy Armour at www.twitter.com/nrarmour

Tagged: Shawn Johnson, Aly Raisman, Mckayla Maroney, Jordyn Wieber

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