For athletes, the Olympics are a stage for pushing limits. For fans, it’s a time to wonder how the heck they pull off these back-bending, gravity-defying, mind-blowing skills. That’s as true as ever in Tokyo, where four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles could become the first woman to land a Yurchenko double pike vault in Olympic competition—and make it the fifth skill that bears her name. Two-time World Surf League champion John John Florence and two-time X Games gold medalist Mariah Duran will lead their sports into the Olympic era as surfing and skateboarding make their five-ring debuts. All three are known for making the toughest skills look easy. Here's how they do what they do.
TECHNIQUE Yurchenko Double Pike Vault
When Biles returned to elite competition after taking time off following the Rio Games, one question lingered: What motivates the greatest gymnast of her generation? She answered by debuting skills on beam, floor and vault that no woman had done in competition. Why? As Biles, 24, said after landing the Yurchenko double pike in competition for the first time in May: “Because I can.”
Until Biles, only men had performed the Yurchenko double pike—a vault that requires a round-off back handspring onto the table and 2½ backflips in a piked, or straight-leg, position—in competition. The gold-medal favorite in the all-around on July 29, Biles is also expected to win three event finals, including the vault. Her coach, Cecile Landi, explains the key elements of the skill.
“Simone is running at full speed about 22 feet from the table. If her hurdle is too high or too low, she will lose the momentum she created. [As her coaches], we tell her not to reach her arms down. That can slow her round-off. She keeps her chest hollow, does a perfectly distanced hurdle and a very good round-off and keeps her speed going.”
“The faster you go from the round-off to your hands [on the vaulting table], that is how you get the best block off the table, and that speed creates height. Simone is incredibly fast from the board to the table. Her body alignment on the board—tight legs and feet, bottom and shoulders aligned on top of each other—allows her to reach the table fast.”
“Simone is almost in a handstand, but her body is a little curved, her shoulders are open and she is very tight. A lot of people bend their arms or let their shoulders collapse on their body, but she is still pushing, and that is what gets her that rebound. Like a tight rubber band, she opens, stretches out and then snaps quickly to get height.”
“The height Simone gets off the vaulting table is mind-blowing. And the women’s table is set 10 cm [4 inches] lower than the men’s.”2010 world vault champion and 2008 Olympic team silver medalist
“She has about 1 meter from the table to the mat to do 2½ flips. She needs to get at least 3 feet higher in the air to do a double pike instead of a single, and a lot more speed. She also must find a balance between not grabbing her legs too late, which means she won't make it around, or too early. When she is in the hollow shape, we ask her to look at the vault table like she wants to stand on top of it and then pike her legs over to create the flip.” (Biles has said: “The hardest part is making sure I grab my legs in the correct spot, so they're not slipping from my hands.”)
“The greatest gymnasts have great body awareness and air awareness, and Simone is very aware of where she is in the air by feel. If you try to look the whole time when you are flipping that fast, you will get dizzy. She feels where she is at and allows herself to spot the ground as she comes around for the landing.”
“She works on her quads, hamstrings, calves and ankles to allow her to do these landings. Her legs are at almost a 90-degree angle with her body a little forward, her chest in and her eyes looking no higher than the vault table. Any higher and her head will fall back. The position looks like a deep squat, like she's sitting on a chair without a chair.”
“She salutes the judges after landing, and if she feels like she is falling back, she can hop back with her feet together and arms in the air to salute and hide that hop or step. As her coach, this is a moment of relief that it all went well. I’m also proud for her because I know she is proud to be able to compete this vault.”
“I’m pushing the boundaries every time I go into a competition and do new moves. Why not show off my ability and athleticism?”
John John Florence
Backflips are rare in surf contests, and Florence, known as one of the best aerialists in surfing, has yet to land one in competition. In Tokyo, where Florence will compete between July 25 and Aug. 1, he’ll look for a frontside wave with a steep section and wait for the right moment. “It'll either be the last seconds of a heat when I need a massive score,” Florence, 28, says, “or when I have a solid lead and room to try a big trick.”
Florence first landed a backflip in western Australia six years ago and believes the takeoff is key. Nail the “pop” off the wave, commit to the off-axis flip and the rest of the trick falls into place. Here are the six most important steps, in Florence’s words.
“I position myself on the wave to give me the most speed. We want to do our maneuvers on the part [of the wave] that’s not breaking, the clear water, not the white, foamy water.”
“I head toward the section and adjust my speed so I hit the ramp at the right time, which is more of a feeling than anything. You want to get a pop out of your surfboard, so you aim for the edge of where the wave is breaking.”
“Once you feel the pop, you immediately grab your board with both hands as you look back behind your left shoulder and initiate the spin. You are spinning and flipping at the same time. Especially in smaller waves, a backflip is about commitment. When it happens right, you know right away.”
“What stands out is the ease with which he does it. When I see John do airs, even if I haven’t done them—and I’ve never done a backflip—I can feel the mechanics in my body.”11-time world champion
“As soon as you get the flip around, you let go with your hands, which stops the spin and the flip. If you continue to hold on to the board, you’ll keep flipping. As soon as I let go, I extend my body to slow down the flip for the landing.”
“I look down at my board and see where on the wave I am going to land. The backflip is an amazing trick because if you get the right projection off the wave, it’s easy to land because you see your landing clearly and know where and when to let go.”
“A lot of what happens next has to do with the wave. The best-case scenario is it’s breaking when you land, and you land soft and with speed. The goal is to ride out of the trick with speed to set yourself up for another maneuver.”
“You know you’re going to get a big score if you land a backflip in a contest, probably a perfect score. To land one in Tokyo, that would be a dream.”
“It’s there in the name,” Duran says of the trick that helped clinch her spot on the first U.S. Olympic skateboard team. “It’s hard to flip.” A combination of two tricks—a kickflip and a frontside pop shove-it—hardflips are tough enough to perform on flat ground. Duran, 24, is known for sending them down massive stair sets. If she does so successfully in Tokyo on July 26, she should land on the podium.
Duran begins this complex, compound trick by initiating a pop shove-it, which spins the board 180 so the tail swaps places with the nose, and almost simultaneously flicks the board into a kickflip, or 360-degree rotation on its long axis. Here, Duran simplifies the step-by-step of the hardflip.
“I’m squatted low, ready to explode to clear the stairs. My shoulders and body weight are over the board and my feet are already in position. I want to feel stable 5 feet before I have to pop my board.”
“After the pop, I put pressure on the big toe of my back foot to shove the board frontside into a 180. At the same time, I roll my front ankle and flick the board with my foot into a kickflip.”
“This is the point where I decide if my front foot flicked the board hard enough to send it into a full rotation. If I see that it’s still rotating with me, then I commit to the trick. If it stopped rotating, I kick it away.”
“At this point, I’m super high off the ground and know I'm clearing the stair set. Also, my body is traveling directly over my board, not too far ahead or behind it, which is the best position.”
“As soon as I see the grip tape again, I know my board rotated a full 360 and I will ‘catch’ the trick. Both of my feet are above the board, my knees are bent and I’m ready to take the impact.”
“We call this ‘landing bolts.’ Both of my feet are lined up over my trucks [the metal that connects the wheels to the deck] and the bolts that connect them to the board, the strongest part. If my feet land in the middle or back of the board, it can snap in half.”
“The way she lands, I can tell she’s been working out, that her core and legs are strong. She’s in beast mode right now.”skateboard pioneer
“My body position looks exactly how I started, as I compress myself to take the impact of the landing, which takes a lot of strength in your legs.”
“My weight is centered over my board, so I am able to stand straight up and roll away with it. If my shoulders were too far over my tail or my nose, I would shoot off the board.”
“This trick has definitely separated me from the other women and gained me respect from male skaters. It’s a bridge to both worlds.”