Any gymnastics anorak knows about the Produnova. It has become a modern gymnastics legend. Few skills are considered with such high regard and such awestruck anticipation. Since we last saw Produnova herself (one of my all time favourite athletes) perform the double front in 1999, we have been waiting with baited breath for another powerhouse to come along and perform it. The hype and dreaming that comes with the handspring double front in women’s gymnastics is matched only by a very small handful of other skills of equal insanity (the mythical double layout beam dismount, the TTY, the quad on floor). For years now we have speculated on who might appear to pick up this Holy Grail and stun the world.
Elena Produnova in 1999
...and as if from nowhere, Yamilet Pena popped up in Tokyo: a mostly unknown gymnast prior to this competition (and also from a minor country in gymnastics terms – the Dominican Republic). She threw a good few double fronts in training and warm-ups (not all of them landed, not all of them an easy watch for someone with legs) and after qualifications earned a ticket to the event finals.
Then came the crisp camera quality, commentary and slow motion. The few vaults we had seem Pena throw in Tokyo prior to this EF were mainly through shaky, long distance camera phone recordings from which little could be made out except the rotation and the landings. But the EF performance was a different story.
It was different because of this: it was a hideous, hideous vault. I don’t even mean this because she didn’t land it (if anything I am glad for her ankles that she let her back take the hit). I mean instead that the hype, history and legend of this vault have masked an uncomfortable truth: the handspring double front is not at all nice to look at.
What stopped me reaching this conclusion a decade earlier is the advances in sport coverage. My memory of the Produnova is based mainly on 3 videos from 1999: 2 at the worlds, 1 at the University games. This grainy coverage allowed the imagination to fill in the gaps, with an end product being a mental picture of an explosion of the horse into a light speed flipping and a crisp, planted landing. But in reality the vault falls short, as there are so many unsightly adjustments that have to be made to make the vault attemptable. These include a cowboy stance, an uncomfortably deep landing and clown feet. Also, so many flips make the whole vault seem completely downhill, with mechanics equivalent to under rotated twisting vaults which “twist into the ground”
All in all, I am not so sure how comfortable I am about the return of the Produnova, in almost every aspect. I think that new slow mo footage shows that even if the vault is landed, it would still be an unsightly piece of gymnastics. Further, it is clearly downright dangerous. That much rotational speed onto a blind landing seems to just beg for an injury, especially with girls like Pena who clearly haven’t got the skill competition ready. Also one has to ask the question, could it be satisfying for a gymnast to win a vault title with a messy 1.5TY and an ugly but hugely high tariff vault? I am thinking not.
With all the 2.5 chucking of last year I never thought I would say this, but I am all for the Amanar over the Produnova. Mckayla Maroney showed us what vaulting is all about: power combined with beauty. Not to be mean to Pena (she deserves real respect for her attempt) but I doubt there is any gymnast anywhere who could make the Produnova pretty.
With rumours of other gymnasts (including Mai Murakami) training this vault, let’s hope hard for gymnastics as opposed to cowboy legged circus tricks in the coming years.