SI Vault
 
A Vault Without Fault
Bob Ottum
August 13, 1984
The U.S. gymnastic teams almost always stuck it to their opponents as they stunningly leapt to the fore
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August 13, 1984

A Vault Without Fault

The U.S. gymnastic teams almost always stuck it to their opponents as they stunningly leapt to the fore

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Noticed? Well, yes, Bart, now that you mention it. Conner opened with a full twisting double-back that blended somehow into a painfully perfect handstand, then stirred in soaring leaps and gainers and, somewhere in there, a high front somersault in which he landed cleanly balanced on one leg and one knee in a madcap sort of will-you-marry-me? pose. It had been a stunning show. And while the jiving and high-fiving was still going on among the U.S. gymnasts, the judges gave it a 9.90. The playbacks will show that it wasn't high enough by .10, but what do the judges know?

On the next rotation, Tong Fei and Li both banged out 10s on the rings, while the Americans posted mid-to-high nines on the pommel horse, and the U.S. lead over China had diminished to 1.3. The inexorable nibbling had begun. The Chinese remained cool and the Americans grew more hyper by the moment. But they hung in there: When Lou Yun served up a 10 on the vault, Gaylord volleyed with his own 10 on the rings, featuring a double full-twisting back somersault in which he landed with both feet drilled into the mat. On the parallel bars, Hartung, Tim Daggett and Vidmar scored 9.90s, and Conner hit a 10. And up came the final round, with the U.S. on the horizontal bar and China on the floor and the American lead now just .6. Oh, that's not scary enough for you? Then how about this: One of the judges on the bar was a Chinese, one Enchun Lu.

Enter the Gaylord II. This is an aerial maneuver that's Gaylord's alone. No other gymnast attempts it: a flyaway back flip with half-twist, recatching the bar with an impossible undergrip. All of this takes place in the air above the bar. It's so terrific it seems a shame there's only one tiny problem with it: Gaylord doesn't always hit it. Say about, oh, 60-40. And when you miss this one, you're in mucho trouble. Sometimes Gaylord plummets out of the heavens like a flaming Spad, as he did at the Olympic trials in June, when he lay half-stunned on the mat and came up with a 9.35.

Still, Gaylord knew his team needed points. The first man up, Scott Johnson, had scored a dismal 9.50 in what everybody figured was the start of the Great Chinese Judging Revenge. Abie Grossfeld, the U.S. men's coach, also knew; he'd asked an aide to run to the officials' table and peek at the point totals. This was the situation: "If Mitch plays it safe," Grossfeld said later, "he's good for maybe a 9.8, right? And we needed that. There's no way I should've let him go for the move." But now listen to Gaylord: "I sensed it was very close, and we needed a score. And then I looked at Abie. And Abie looked away. And I said aw-riiiiggght!"

Gaylord hit it; of course he did. For one flickering moment he was lost from view as he twisted in the lights. Then he came winging back down, and while everybody did an Oh, my God! he somehow stretched far beyond his 5'8½" to grab the bar in time. He drew a 9.95, and spurred by that success, the last three men poured it on: Conner a 9.90, Daggett a 10 and Vidmar a 9.95. And that, Olympic fans, was that.

That was also the night the U.S. women's team stayed up until all hours at USC's Olympic Village to congratulate the men, waiting like patient housewives for their carousing hubbies to come home from the smoker at the Elks. But the men didn't come home, naturally, at least not until long after the girls had been shooed off to bed. "I'm a Mormon," Vidmar had said earlier, "so I can't celebrate as hard as the rest of the guys."

"Well, yeah," said Conner, "but he's married."

By this time in the Games there was no reason to believe anybody would win anything in a runaway. Vidmar's various heroics in team play had put him in the lead for the men's individual all-around, but not by much: 59.275 to Li's 59.225, with Gushiken lurking in fifth spot, behind Conner and Tong. And, sure enough, after the second rotation, Li and Vidmar were tied at 79.05. One more round and they were still locked—but Gushiken, with a mighty 10 on the vault, had edged into third. And in the fifth round, after a helicopter-style full layout dismount from the high bar for a 9.95, Gushiken had the leaders in his sights. "I knew if I took each event very carefully," he said, "I would win." A thoughtful pause. "And if there is such a thing as a God in this world"—Gushiken shrugged doubtfully—"I must thank him."

It came down to Gushiken, Vidmar and Li, in that order, and a handful of statistics: Gushiken 108.8 points and Vidmar and Li tied for second with 108.775. Vidmar and Li led by .025. Vidmar needed a 9.95, nothing less, on the parallel bars. He also needed a 9.9 from Gushiken on the floor, nothing more. As it turned out, they each got a 9.90. And then the two of them met off to one side while waves of noise washed over them. Historic conversation: "Are you finished?" said Vidmar. "Finished," said Gushiken.

"Congratulations," said Vidmar. The final count was Gushiken 118.700, Vidmar 118.675, with 118.575 for Li.

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