Olympics Recap: Individual Gymnastics, Day 1

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Another day, another dominating performance from Simone Biles. That’s been the case for each day of women’s gymnastics competition thus far in Rio, it was the case on Sunday and she’s still got two more chances to continue her dominance over the sport over the next two days.

The first women’s event final was vault, one of three events Biles qualified to compete during the first day of competition. Biles’s presence alone in the final was enough to shape the way the competition played out. In qualifying, she finished with the highest score on the event, a 16.050, 0.367 above the second highest qualifier, 2008 Olympic gold medalist on the event, North Korea’s Hong Un-jong.

Since Biles was the overwhelming favorite to win gold — as she’s been in every competition in Rio — many of the eight participants risked a chance to finish on the podium to take a swing at unseating Biles for the gold. Hong was the first example.

In the vault finals, gymnasts must perform two distinctly different vaults from what are considered different families. This describes how the gymnast makes her entry onto the vault, whether it be a front handspring, a roundoff onto the table or a roundoff onto the springboard and back handspring onto the table. Typically in this format, a gymnast will attempt her hardest vault first to get it out of the way.

Instead, Hong did what is normally her second vault first, a Cheng — a roundoff onto the springboard, half turn into a front handspring on the table and a 1.5-twisting front layout off — in order to see how the vault scored to see if she should attempt a harder vault second. Her first vault wasn’t perfect, which left her no choice but to try a new vault — a triple-twisting yurchenko, a new skill that adds a half twist to Biles’s main vault — if she wanted to win gold. She wasn’t able to get all three twists around and had to count a fall, which eventually put her in sixth place.

Even two of the best stories in women’s gymnastics during Rio were based around trying to challenge Biles on vault. Oksana Chusovitina, the 41-year-old from Uzbekistan, and Dipa Karmakar, the first Indian women to qualify for Olympic gymnastics, both attempted the hardest vault for women — a front handspring double front — in an attempt to get atop the podium. Chustovitina’s vault was a little low and over-rotated, which caused her to do a forward roll on her landing. Karmarkar, however, did land with her feet first, sat down shortly after, but stood back up quickly. It was one of the best modern attempts at what is known as the Produnova and it put her in fourth place.

But with all the risks taken by others, the path to victory was made easier for Biles. She was the last gymnast to go and won handedly, by a record 0.713. That’s the highest margin of victory for a single event during an Olympic final. It was Biles’s third gold medal in the Olympics, which tied the record for most golds for an American woman gymnast in a single Games and it was the U.S.A’s first ever gold medal on vault. She’ll have the chance to win two more with beam finals on Monday and floor finals on Tuesday.

Sweep Not to Be

Biles is the favorite for gold in every event she has or will compete during Rio, but there’s one event she did not qualify for in finals, the uneven bars. But the U.S. still entered the day with a solid chance of winning gold and possibly sweeping all events in women’s gymnastics with both Madison Kocian and Gabby Douglas in bars finals.

But the sweep just wasn’t meant to be, as the gold medal went to Russia’s Aliya Mustafina, the bronze medalist in the all-around this year and the 2012 gold medalist on bars.

Douglas was the second gymnast to go, but found herself out of medal contention almost immediately when she had to fight to get a skill over the bar through a handstand early in her routine. Mustafina set the bar shortly after with a nearly flawless routine and a score of 15.9, which was higher than her qualifying score of 15.833.

Kocian, the 19-year-old Texan brought on the team to compete bars, did her part. She was the highest qualifier in the meet with a score of 15.866 and missed that mark just slightly with a 15.833 in the final, still good enough for a silver medal. Kocian had no major mistakes, though, and actually had a cleaner routine than Mustafina — 9.133 to 9.1 in the execution score — but Mustafina’s start value was a tenth higher than Kocian’s which proved to be the difference.

She was only a specialist during these games, but Kocian did three bar routines over the past week and her scores were the highest, highest and second-highest of those meets. The silver medal may seem disappointing, but Kocian has had a spectacular Olympics.

Men Making History

The men also had two event finals on Sunday, floor and pommel horse. Both of those events were filled with history making performances. First was Great Britain, a country that saw Max Whitlock win the first individual all-around medal for a male gymnast in the Olympics since 1908 with his bronze on Wednesday.

Well, Whitlock was at it again on Sunday, winning the gold medal on both floor and pommel horse, two events that don’t often overlap in skill level. The medals were the first and second individual golds for Great Britain in their gymnastics history. Whitlock’s teammate Louis Smith joined him on the podium for his second consecutive Olympic silver medal on pommel horse.

Whitlock’s win on pommel horse was not a surprising one, but his floor victory was. The two Japanese favorite’s Kohei Uchimura and Kenzo Shirai had rare mistakes, which opened up the podium as Shirai and Uchimura finished fourth and fifth, respectively.

Where the Japanese duo left an open space, a Brazilian duo pounced at the opportunity. Heading into Rio Brazil had only ever won one Olympic medal in men’s gymnastics, a gold on Rings by Arthur Zanetti in 2012. In front of a home crowd, Brazil tripled that total as Diego Hypolito and Arthur Mariano finished with the silver and bronze. When Sam Mikulak of the U.S. finished his routine and his score was posted as the last competitor, the two Brazilians were brought to tears when they saw Mikulak’s score failed to push either of them down the standings.

Despite finishing first in qualifying, Mikulak ended finals eighth after a few mistakes during his floor routine. However, the U.S. men did get their first medal of the Olympics, a bronze from Alex Naddour on pommel horse. Naddour was the strongest competitor on what is notoriously the U.S.’s worst event and he won the country’s first medal on the event since 1984 when Peter Vidmar took gold and Tim Daggett took bronze. Naddour was an alternate on the 2012 Olympic team and made the most of his only event final.

Mikulak and Danell Leyva, the sole medal winner for the U.S. in London, have three combined chances for medals in event finals. Leyva will compete on parallel bars and high bar on Tuesday, the final day of competition for gymnastics. Mikulak win join him in the high bar final.

Event finals continue on Monday with rings and vault for the men and beam for the women. No U.S. men qualified for Monday’s two events, but Biles and Laurie Hernandez will compete for the U.S. on beam.