Last March something special happened inside Ohio State’s Covelli Arena. The Michigan Wolverines realized for the first time what their coaches and their fans already knew—they were an excellent vault team. That day they began to consistently stick their landings, contributing to the team’s first ever score over 198.
“We were at the Ohio State dual meet and all of a sudden, for whatever reason on that day, it started to click,” head coach Bev Plocki recalled. “We had three or four stuck vaults. It was the first time as a team that we broke the 198 barrier. After we did it, it was one of those things when we were like, ‘It’s so exhilarating, so fun, now we know that we can do that.’”
The following weekend at Maryland, Michigan debuted six Yurchenkos one and a halves—one of only two teams in the NCAA to compete six 10.0 start-value vaults. They scored three 9.975s, dropped a 9.900 and posted a huge 49.800 total on the event. It was a defining moment for the team.
“My proudest moment was at Maryland last year because Scott [Sherman] and I told them, ‘You guys are a really good vault team. There’s six one and a halves in this lineup,’” assistant coach Maile’Ana Kanewa-Hermelyn said. “And then at Maryland, when they all started planting them, they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, guys, we’re really good vaulters.’ And we were like, ‘Whatever you need to believe in yourselves!’ That was a big jump forward for them in their confidence.”
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From that moment on the Wolverines became unstoppable on vault, consistently performing six Yurchenko one and a halves and sticking landings every week. At nationals in April, Michigan’s vault performance, which included three stuck landings, played a major role in the Wolverines’ first NCAA championship victory. “By day two, Scott and I weren’t nervous, we knew they were capable of it. They had absolutely proven it multiple weekends; it wasn’t just a one-time deal,” Kanewa-Hermelyn said. “They had been doing really well not just in competitions, but in practice, too. We were like, ‘Just do your vaults.’ And that’s exactly what they did. We were really proud of them.”
The exceptional result last year was not a fluke. This season the Wolverines started off where they left off in April—as the No. 1 vault team in the country. Two weeks ago Reyna Guggino opened Michigan’s season opener against Georgia with a stuck Yurchenko one and a half, and last weekend Michigan scored two 9.975s and a 9.950 to consolidate its primacy.
This level of success would always look remarkable, but it’s even more so because historically vault has been one of Michigan’s weaker events and, according to Plocki, sticking landings has been their “nemesis.”
Where does this success come from, then?
It’s the result of a number of external and internal changes in recent years. Michigan embraced the 2015 rule change that devalued the Yurchenko full to a 9.950 start value by recruiting athletes capable of performing 10.0 vaults. Plus, they modified their coaching techniques to make them more effective and better prepare the athletes for competition.
For years before the 2015 rule change, Michigan was one of the loudest proponents of the devaluation of the Yurchenko full, as Plocki saw it as the only way to reward athletes for performing more difficult skills. “We have been fighting to devalue this for many years, but we could never get it passed because other than the top six schools, nobody else wanted to devalue the Yurchenko full because that’s what they were able to do—they were afraid it was going to separate out and make an even bigger gap between [teams],” Plocki said. “We worked so hard for many years to create more parity in collegiate gymnastics, to the point where we almost had too much parity and the right skills were not being rewarded. … Now we opened up the door a little bit and created a little more opportunity.”
Once the Yurchenko full was devalued, Michigan invested in recruiting athletes who were able or had the potential to perform 10.0 vaults. In the current lineup, Natalie Wojcik, Sierra Brooks, Gabby Wilson, Naomi Morrison and Abby Brenner arrived in Ann Arbor with Yurchenko one and a halves ready for competition while Reyna Guggino and Abby Heiskell turned theirs competition-ready in college.
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While many trained the Yurchenko one and a half before the rule change, after 2015 they began working more consciously on it, as they became aware of the impact it could have on their recruiting process and on helping their team. “At the time when I learned the one and a half, the Yurchenko full was still valued out of 10.0, so at that point in time, it was just like an extra bonus,” Wojcik said. “Then as the rules changed, I realized that this is something nice to have that I could hopefully help my team with.”
Brenner echoed Wojcik’s sentiment. “When the rule changed, that’s when I knew it was really important. I knew it was really going to separate me from other girls during my recruiting.”
Seeing so many team members compete the one and a half also pushed other athletes to step up their game. Guggino, for instance, who had never competed the upgrade in club, took her training to the next level after Brenner’s injury last February and debuted her new vault towards the end of regular season. She’s been a lock in the lineup ever since. “She saw a lot of her teammates do it, and they really do hype each other up,” Kanewa-Hermelyn said of Guggino. “She’s like, ‘I can actually do it, and I actually really want to do this.’”
“Reyna didn’t have a one and a half coming in and then stepped up—she took my spot in the vault lineup and competed a one and a half,” Brenner added. “Just seeing her out there doing so well at it—just the joy of it—I was like, ‘Yes!’ I was so happy for her.”
Whether the athletes arrived in college with a ready-to-go Yurchenko one and a half or they worked their way up, they all agree that their vaults improved in Ann Arbor thanks to a special coaching duo: Sherman, who’s been an assistant coach at Michigan for 26 years, and Kanewa-Hermelyn, an Oklahoma graduate who’s entering her third season as an assistant coach for the Wolverines. Their collaboration has helped build the strongest vault lineup in the country.
What’s so special about their coaching style?
One important technical aspect when training vault is that their attention is not on sticking the landing but on the entry, as well as on all the other aspects on the vault that facilitate the stick at the end. “Something that shocked them at first, we were like, ‘Do not try to stick,’” Kanewa-Hermelyn recalled. “If you set yourself up in the roundoff back handspring, you have a much better chance to stick that landing.”
The roundoff, Kanewa-Hermelyn explained, is “your vehicle to your vault.” In training, then, the Wolverines work hard on perfecting their roundoff entry and on getting off their hands fast. Then, they dissect every other aspect of the vault. They concentrate on being ready for the table and on the block. They work on air awareness, on their arm placement in the air and on visualizing the Yurchenko full, before twisting one more time to complete the one and a half. On the final half twist, they focus on their chest and eye position to avoid looking straight down at the ground upon landing. “We tell them all the time the bigger you try and make your vault, the easier it is to stick—you’re going to have more time in the air, you’re going to be able to see everything for the landing,” Kanewa-Hermelyn said.
When they do landing drills in training, the Wolverines also work on minimizing deductions by taking active, rather than reactive, steps when necessary. “Minimizing deductions on your landings means when you land something, you don’t spring up right away and try to quickly take a step,” Kanewa-Hermelyn explained. “It’s really about absorbing that landing, and then if you have to move your feet, do it in a controlled manner, not a reactive step.”
Together with focusing on technique, moreover, the Wolverines work on developing their self-confidence. “Vault is an adrenaline event,” Kanewa-Hermelyn said. “You are running full speed towards a stationary object, and you have to be able to stay in your zone—in your calm, safe space—and not let those outside distractions and the nerves get to you while you do your vault.”
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For the gymnasts, trusting their training and trusting that the coaches are putting them in the best possible position to succeed are aspects that Kanewa-Hermelyn feels she’s brought over from Oklahoma, where vault was one of her best events. “I got to that safe space on vault and I just did my vault. I wasn’t trying to go higher or longer or to stick it, I was just doing what I did in the gym,” she said. “So I think I tried to bring that over from being a gymnast to now and motivate [the gymnasts] in the same ways here at Michigan.”
Since Kanewa-Hermelyn’s arrival in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines have also changed the structure of their vault training. While they split into groups when they train the other events, they train vault together as a group to reproduce a similar atmosphere to that of a competition. “A lot of times in competition when people step or they hop, it’s a big adrenaline rush,” Kanewa-Hermelyn said. “We really try to bring that adrenaline and energy to practice every day.”
Working together on vault is a change the gymnasts have found useful, too. “We usually split off into groups for most of the events, but a lot of the times we vault together, which I think is something that has been really keen to our success, especially rising and building our vault scores up in most recent years,” Wojcik said. “It’s really fun to have that team atmosphere on vault even in practice where we’re all there together.”
Making the atmosphere in practice as similar as possible to competition helps the athletes in two different ways. On the one hand, it makes them concentrate on making the vault as good as possible on each one of their attempts. “Something I read that stuck with me is that under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your training,” Wojcik said. “I try to think about doing in practice what I want to do in a competition, and mentally, even if we’re not doing an intersquad in practice, I’ll try to get myself into the competition mode so that when I’m actually in a meet, it doesn’t feel much different from practice.”
On the other hand, when practice is not perfect, the Wolverines learn how to keep the energy up, which is key to success in competition, too. “That’s what makes me happy—not necessarily, ‘Oh, we had an amazing practice because everybody hit their routines.’ A couple may have not had the world’s greatest practice, but they didn’t let it get to them, they didn’t let it get to their teammates, they contributed to the spirit, they still clapped, they still cheered, they worked out the issues they had but with a positive attitude,” Kanewa-Hermelyn said.
All these coaching and training techniques were tested in the most high-pressure situation last April at nationals—and proved successful. The Wolverines had a fantastic vault rotation, which gave them a significant edge in their quest for the national title.
“It was a joy to watch, it was incredible, it was so much fun,” Brenner said. “I always tell people that that’s when I knew it was our day—when we were just dropping those vaults one after another, and each one kept getting better and better. … That’s when I feel the energy turned and everyone was like, ‘We’ve got this, this is our day, it can’t go bad from here.’”
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