Natalia Yurchenko on Simone Biles' feat: "I was dreaming about seeing it"

The 1983 world champion and vault innovator explains how her eponymous element came to be and what Biles' double pike meant to her.

By Scott Bregman
Picture by 2019 Getty Images

Before artistic gymnastics had Simone Biles, it had the Soviet women’s team.

Like Biles, they dominated the sport, winning eight-straight Olympic team gold medals from 1952 to 1980. They also claimed titles in 1988 and, as the Unified Team, in 1992.

And even more like Biles, they pushed the sport ahead at a time that it was changing rapidly.

“It was the 80s when gymnastics started changing dramatically. It all started first with Olga Korbut, then with Nadia Comaneci and then after 1980 Olympics in Moscow, somehow it was an all-new generation, who had come to the stage and were throwing all difficult tricks,” said 1983 world all-around champion Natalia Yurchenko in an exclusive interview with Olympic Channel at her gymnastics club – CITY Club Gymnastics Academy – in Chicago’s South Loop.

Yurchenko was part of that generation, and she originated an entry on the vault, now known by her name, that changed the sport. Biles made it viral in her competitive return on 22 May, performing a state of the art version ending with a double piked somersault.

Prior to Yurchenko, vaulters came in to contact with the vault two ways: straight on or with a half turn. The latter is named for the Japanese great, Tsukahara Mitsuo, who first did it. Her daring innovation approached the vault by doing a round off onto the springboard and then a back handspring on to the vaulting horse.

“Overall, it was much easier than when we performed Tsuks before or front fronts,” explained Yurchenko. “So, we just noticed right away how much it's going to be developed over the future and for the future.”

Creating 'the Yurchenko'

The move was the brainchild of her coach, Vladislav Rastorotsky.

“Our coach was such a great innovator,” Yurchenko says. “So, everybody tried to create something that they only can do.”

She and other women training alongside her at Rostov-on-Don got to work one day at the behest of Rastorotsky, who also coached greats like Ludmilla Tourischeva and Natalia Shaposhnikova.

“One time, he just came to the gym and said that we are going to do that vault,” Yurchenko said. “So, we stacked the mats, we thought it's kind of a crazy idea because it seems like it was pretty dangerous doing it on that horse. But OK, let's try it.”

Yurchenko quickly perfected the vault, first performing it six months later at the 1982 Moscow News, she says. She submitted the element to the International Gymnastics Federation later that year at the World Cup, which she won.

The element was controversial at first, Yurchenko explained. Another parallel to Biles’ daring innovations.

“There were a lot of debates to allow it or not to allow it,” Yurchenko recalls. “I performed it in America, and the American judges, some of them, were really against it because it seemed way too dangerous, because probably maybe I missed hands one time on the warmup or in training.”

But not everyone saw it that way, and the vault was allowed in competition.

“I think because a lot of progressive coaches who saw that vault, saw a lot of potential difficult vaults in future of vault, it probably influenced judges, the technical committee, and that's how it came to life,” she says.

A boycott of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles meant Yurchenko never got the chance to compete her element at the Olympics. By the time the 1988 Seoul Olympics came around, she had retired from the sport, but her vault had become the main entry used in women’s gymnastics.

Biles makes it state of the art

Enter Biles, three decades and a complete redesign of the vault later. The vault table on which Biles performs her daring maneuvers isn’t the same vaulting horse Yurchenko first did the entry on.

Instead of a pommel horse-like piece of apparatus, the new vaulting table, introduced to international competition in 2001, resembles a tongue. It has increased surface area, perfect for the Yurchenko entry where a gymnast doesn’t see the vault before her hands touch it, and springs that help launch athletes into the air.

Yurchenko couldn’t foresee the revolutionised equipment nor Biles’ unmatched athleticism and flawless technique, but that doesn’t mean she and her coach didn’t dream of the possibilities.

Though she never competed the double flipping version Biles displayed at the recent U.S. Classic, Yurchenko says she tried them in training.

“We did try everything into the pits, not over the horse, but over the stacked mats, so we did double backs and double fulls, whatever you can pull in that time,” Yurchenko said. “Because in our gym, like I said, our coach was so innovative. We did a lot of difficult skills that we never competed because it was like ahead of time and not even in mind to develop them for competition.”

It was one of many elements she says she and her teammates worked in practice but never performed in competition. Others include a triple back on floor exercise and a double-twisting back flip balance beam mount.

“I really regret that we couldn't take a video of that time, but we were truly into working on very difficult stuff that when I tell people about, they don't really believe,” Yurchenko lamented about what surely would have been viral content in 2021. “But we have those girls who did that. They’re still alive and they know, they remember that time.”

A lasting impact

Seeing Biles so perfectly utilise the entry she pioneered was a dream come true for the 1982 all-around, vault, and balance beam World Cup champion.

“It’s such a joy to see that something that you started doing, getting into such a progress and [allowing] other people to compete with more difficulties and raise the bar even higher and higher,” said Yurchenko. “I was dreaming about seeing it. It was kind of tears of joy because you create something and you wait for the future generation to use it... I don’t think it can be better. It was just so amazing. I was amazed that we have Simone Biles, who can raise us all to that kind of level.”

None of it would have been possible without either groundbreaking woman.

For Yurchenko, it was the culmination of her legacy in the sport and a dream she had as a child to leave something for future generations.

“When it happens that my vault became the future for generation and generation and generation, I looked back and said, ‘how did this happen?’” said Yurchenko. “As I’m becoming older, it feels even more great. When you’re young, you don’t appreciate it… but now when you’re becoming older, you kind of value [it more] and try to analyze, how did this happen?”

To her, it feels like destiny.

“I needed to meet the right people, right coaches, right group of girls who were working with me and who were able to do the same things I was doing,” Yurchenko continued. “Without that, it wouldn’t happen. It kind of happened by surprise, but also it’s meant to happen.”