The Vault: Part 5

On the final episode of Blind Landing, British gymnast Lisa Mason reflects on the culture she trained in. Elise and Allana discuss the impact that the Sydney Olympics had on their lives.


Episode transcript

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Hey everyone — this is a serialized story, so if you haven’t listened from the beginning, go back to Episode One and start from there.

Previously, on Blind Landing

KELLI HILL: They set it wrong. That’s an official failure.

KYM DOWDELL: Mistakes are never acceptable. But what is more unacceptable is when you don’t learn from those mistakes.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] Did you ever get an apology or explanation from the officials for what happened?

ELISE RAY: Oh no. No. Nothing.

ANGIE FIFER: When it comes to getting information after, it’s just move on, move on, whatever.

ALLANA SLATER: It changed the trajectory of the entire competition for everyone involved.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): When the vault was set two inches too low during the women’s gymnastics all-around final at the Sydney Olympics, it had a ripple effect on the entire competition. It impacted who walked away with gold and who just walked away. In this final episode, we’re going to hear about how that ripple effect lasted long after the competition. But first — one more story about the vault.

I’m Ari Saperstein. And this is Blind Landing, the untold story of one of the biggest mistakes in Olympic history.

Episode Five.

A couple years ago, when I read about the vault controversy for the first time, there was this one thing that I wondered about. In fact, it was the very first question that popped into my mind.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] I’d love to know — what do you make of the fact that so many gymnasts went on the vault before you did, before you notified the officials that it was low? Does it surprise you that 18 gymnasts competed before you did, so many of them having falls, you know, without coming to the same realization as you?

ALLANA SLATER: I guess I don’t know if anybody said anything.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): When Australian gymnast Allana Slater competed on vault during the 2000 Olympic all-around final, she was number 19. Half the all-around competition was over before Allana got her turn on the vault, and before she realized it was too low. And remember, she figured out that the vault was the wrong height because she just looked at it and knew that it was wrong.

ALLANA SLATER: So whether anybody thought it or said it, I’m not sure. I guess I was in disbelief that 18 girls would compete and not either a) say anything or b) notice. I guess that, for me, there was never a day that I went down onto the vaulting table, vaulting horse and it felt instantly wrong.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): I reached out to all 18 gymnasts who competed on the vault at the wrong height. Some got back to me, and others, they spoke to other media, or they wrote memoirs. In the end, I was able to piece together what nine of the 18 gymnasts thought when they vaulted at the wrong height.

All nine thought that something was off. A few thought they were the problem, like Svetlana Khorkina, who assumed she was using too much power. Or Elise Ray, who thought it was just nerves. I heard that from a few gymnasts. A couple remember thinking that something looked off to them — like, maybe it was the springboard, or maybe it was the landing mats. But they couldn’t figure out what it was. A couple of gymnasts said that, even though it felt wrong, they had no idea why. Like, no theories.

So basically: it was really hard to figure out what the problem was, and it seemed possible that Allana really was the only one who realized the vault was too low.

But, that rundown I gave you, that’s what eight of the nine gymnasts thought.

LISA MASON: My name is Lisa Mason. I am a GB Olympian gymnast, competed at the 2000 Olympics.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): This is British gymnast Lisa Mason. At the start of the all-around competition, Lisa was one of the first gymnasts to go on vault, long before officials realized it was at the wrong height.

LISA MASON: Vault was my first piece. For me, personally, it was the only event, really, apart from floor, that I would not really get nervous on. It’s over and done within a few minutes. I enjoyed it probably more than anything.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And when Lisa got on line for the warm-up round on vault, she remembers seeing gymnast after gymnast struggle.

LISA MASON: Yeah, I just remember everyone was kind of just freaking out a little bit because you’re working your whole life for this competition and you can’t figure out why you keep on stacking it. You’re like, “What is going on?”

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): In case you’re not familiar with British slang — stacking it? That means falling. And when it was Lisa’s turn to go …

LISA MASON: I knew something was off from the jump. And I just remember being up there warming up and I kept on falling onto my bum and again and again. And my coach’s like, “What’s going on?” I was like, “There’s something wrong with the vault.” And he looked at me like I’m freaking crazy. He said, “Lisa, there’s nothing wrong with the vault.” I was like, “Zoltan, there is something definitely wrong with the vault.”

He’s going, “You need to just take a step back.” He’s Hungarian, my team coach, and he’s like,”Take a step back,” and I was like, “Well, what’s that going to do?” And he was like, “Just do it!” And he seemed to have thought I was being nervous and making a scene. I was like, “But you can see everybody is off.” But I just knew it. I knew. And I think if you can look at video footage, you can tell, like, as soon as, when I said to you earlier on I would not get nervous about vault. That was something I was confident with. So in the footage of me vaulting in Sydney, you can see, like, I was worried because I knew something wasn’t right, you know.

I mean, when you’re sitting there, you’re working on this equipment day in, day out, you know when something’s off.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] So you, you said that you tried to talk with your coach. You said, “Hey, something’s wrong,” and it wasn’t until the third rotation after 18 women went that, for whatever reason, Allana, you know, got a different kind of attention or response. And do you think that’s something to do with the broader culture of the sport, people feeling like something’s wrong …

LISA MASON: In the sense that gymnasts are supposed to be seen and not heard, so it’s kind of like, “Shut up and do your job?” Yeah, definitely. When so many people were saying something is not right, and when so many gymnasts were falling, it’s like, you can’t keep ignoring there’s something wrong here. Something is not right.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And of course, Lisa was right. There was something wrong. At the end of the all-around final, Lisa was one of the five gymnasts that chose to vault again. She improved her score and moved up a few spots in the rankings, which Lisa says was a huge deal, because funding for the UK gymnastics program was directly tied to where gymnasts placed in major competitions.

Now, one thing that’s important to note here is that Lisa was in the first rotation on vault. And that exchange she had with her coach? It happened just minutes before the competition started, during the warm-up.

Had something been done about her complaint then, there may not have been the scary falls that led to some of the gymnasts feeling devastated their chances were gone, that may have led to more falls in other events that the gymnasts couldn’t redo, that led to the whole situation leaving a mark on the competition and left gymnasts and fans forever wondering “What if?” Like with Maria in our last episode, this moment Lisa’s sharing, it might have been another incident where the vault’s ripple effect, one of the biggest mistakes in Olympic history, seemingly could have been stopped before it ever really began.

And with the stakes so high — I mean, this is the Olympics after all — why would a coach be so dismissive of their gymnast? Why, according to Lisa, would her coach say the problem was with her nerves, when she was telling him the problem was the vault?

ANGIE FIFER: From a coaching perspective, they were probably trying to keep them focused on what they had to do instead of worrying about the equipment.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): This is sports psychologist Angie Fifer, who we’ve heard from throughout the series. Angie has a good idea about what Lisa’s coach might have been trying to do.

ANGIE FIFER: In sports psychology, what we constantly talk about is, what’s your process? Stick with your process. It doesn’t matter if the equipment feels weird, doesn’t matter if, you know, it’s not the bounciest floor or it’s not the brand of bars that you love. So, really trying to help the athlete stay focused on: what are the things that you need to do to have a great routine.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] So, it sounds like there’s a rationale for Lisa’s coach telling her not to pay any mind to something that might distract her focus. But then, I mean, here, during the all-around final, Lisa’s right. So what’s the takeaway? Is it just that the vault being too low was so unprecedented that he could be forgiven for dismissing her, or is there something he should’ve done differently in that moment?

ANGIE FIFER: If you’re hearing one person say, like, the vault feels funny today, that’s different than the entire, everybody feeling like something’s wrong. I think for athletes, for coaches, for officials, it’s being understanding and appreciating the context of the situation and not just minimizing, well, “must be crazy.” I mean, this is … it’s a big moment, so, yes, let’s do our due diligence and take the extra look.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): I reached out to Lisa’s coach, Zoltan Jordanov, early on in the making of this show. And for a long time, I didn’t hear anything. I wrote to him on Facebook, contacted the federation he worked with, tried going through others, nothing. And then, right as this podcast was about to come out, long after we finished production, Zoltan got back to me.

And here is what he wrote:

Zoltan didn’t dispute Lisa’s description of their conversation — that Lisa told him she thought something was wrong with the vault and that he didn’t think much of it. Zoltan told me that he didn’t think it was reasonable to expect a coach to know what the problem was because the vault error was so unprecedented. He noted that there were a number of other experienced coaches there, none of whom realized there was a vault problem. And finally, he wrote, quote, “Regarding Lisa, she was not the kind of gymnast who was not listened to. She always spoke her mind, no matter right or wrong. So ‘shut up and do your job’ did not apply for Lisa, but ‘do the job’ was required in the National Team.”

What Zoltan said about there being lots of other coaches who didn’t notice the vault was low: that’s true. But the thing is, Zoltan wasn’t in the same position as every coach that day. Not every coach had a gymnast telling them that something was wrong with the vault.

There were, as far as I’ve been able to determine, two gymnasts who told their coaches that something was wrong with the vault: Lisa and Allana.

Zoltan says none of the coaches could have been expected to doubt that the equipment was at the right height. But Allana’s coaches did, once she told them. It sounds like, while Zoltan focused on what his gymnast was doing, Allana’s coaches were focused on what their gymnast was saying.

Now, I want to give Zoltan the benefit of the doubt, because I think it’s easy to look back and say he should’ve done something differently and, undoubtedly, so, so hard in the moment to know what to do. I wondered: Could you chalk up what happened to a single bad call, a fluke that Zoltan didn’t think to look into Lisa’s complaint, whereas Allana’s coaches did take action? But the different situations these gymnasts found themselves in that day — Allana feeling heard and Lisa feeling dismissed — weren’t isolated to that one moment in Sydney. And when you hear them talk about their experiences, it is quite a stark contrast. According to Lisa and Allana, those feelings describe their relationships in the years and years leading up to that moment in Sydney, and just how different they were. For Lisa …

LISA MASON: It’s always been, “You’re a kid. You don’t know anything. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Whereas, for Allana …

ALLANA SLATER: The environment that I grew up in, it was always one to be empowered and it’s okay to ask questions.

LISA MASON: And, it’d be like, “Why can’t you just do your job and not question things?”

ALLANA SLATER: It’s okay to question authority if you feel like something is incorrect or unfair.

LISA MASON: I’m always been known as this troublemaker, I guess is what people would say. But that’s because I’ve always been the one to say, “No, this is not right. I don’t agree with that.” Or, “Can you explain this to me?”

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): The question I asked Allana at the beginning of this episode …

[IN INTERVIEW] Does it surprise you that 18 gymnasts competed before you did without coming to the same realization as you?

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): … I think I was looking for answers in the wrong place. When it comes to how the vault problem got resolved, and why it didn’t get resolved sooner, I think it’s less about whether or not gymnasts noticed if something was wrong with the vault, as it is about how the coaches reacted to the people that did.

Allana says she had a great relationship with her coaches, what she calls a uniquely positive relationship. Because there are a lot of problematic coaches in the sport of gymnastics. Even the system Allana grew up in, Gymnastics Australia, is under fire for a history of alleged abuses, as is every federation we’ve mentioned in passing on this show, by the way.

So what are the odds that Allana would end up with a positive coaching experience in spite of that, and be the one to notice the vault was wrong, and have felt empowered to speak up and know she’d be heard? It’s almost like Allana and her coaches were the only ones who could’ve fixed the vault problem, like it was fate that they would be the ones to save the day. And when Allana looks back on that moment, and looks back on her life, that’s kind of the way she sees it, too.

ALLANA SLATER: I had a very unique relationship with my coaches. Don’t get me wrong, not that I didn’t ever get yelled at or get in trouble or anything like that. We had a lot of rules. But, I guess for me, it was a little different.

You know, I don’t know if you know my history. My dad died when I was 13 while I was competing in the US. My female coach was the last person to have any level of contact with my dad via email before he got on the plane and was killed.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:
In the far east tonight, searchers are going over the debris of an airline crash that killed 234 people yesterday in Indonesia …

… flight 152 was en route from the capital, Jakarta, to Medan. No one survived this crash …

And my male coach Nikolai was standing beside me when my mom had to tell me my dad had been killed in a plane crash. And to have to get on a plane straight away, when his death was caused by a plane crash, is incredibly difficult.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Allana’s coaches were with her as she went through one of the most traumatic things anyone could experience in their life. And from that point on …

ALLANA SLATER: There was always a level of communication in training. And that is particularly unique at that time in gymnastics, absolutely. I guess that’s where I was incredibly lucky, to have had that environment not only in my household but with my personal coaches. So I could ask questions and could just be myself. And yeah, I trusted my coaches to believe me. I trusted that they wouldn’t think I was crazy. I trusted that they would listen to me and say, “Yes, Allana, we need to check it.” And they did. And I’m thankful that I had that relationship with my coaches.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): There was this recurring theme that kept coming up in my interviews with gymnasts. This idea of the ripple effect — how a single moment can have large, unexpected consequences. And, in particular, how something bad in their lives led to something good.

ELISE RAY: After Sydney, I wanted nothing to do with the sport. I wanted out. I wanted to be as far away from it as possible.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Before the Olympics, Elise Ray knew her future was likely to go in one of two directions.

ELISE RAY: There’s two paths, professional path or amateur path, which is NCAA. And you can only do one. You can’t do both. As soon as you accept money, you can no longer compete with NCAA.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And the closer it got to the games, the more Elise was eyeing the latter path.

ELISE RAY: I had plans of medaling at the Olympics and going professional. That’s what I thought was gonna happen.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): But Elise left the Olympics empty handed, with no medals. And when she got home, that meant no sponsors, no cover of Wheaties boxes, no touring around the country, nothing. It wasn’t until after the games that Elise even really began to process all she had been through.

ELISE RAY: It was sort of a delayed anger. But after the fact, kind of when you get home and you reflect on, like, “Wow, that was supposed to be the best competition of my career. That was my dream, that was my” … then yes. The anger started to set in for sure. And the questions of, how did this even happen? Who let that happen? Those questions were big, they were large. And that anger stuck with me for a couple years, I would say.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Left feeling that anger and disappointment, Elise still had the other path — collegiate gymnastics. But going down that road, that wasn’t as easy of a decision as it might seem.

ELISE RAY: I didn’t even know if I wanted — you know, I had signed with Michigan. I was committed to them, but I didn’t even know if I wanted to do that.

KELLI HILL: She had such a hard time even talking. She couldn’t even talk about the Olympics without getting emotional.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Elise’s coach Kelli Hill.

KELLI HILL: I don’t even think she allowed her parents to have any memorabilia up in their house. You know, it was … it was tough. It was hard. It was hard. It’s hard to watch her do that, having to go through that.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): But Kelli, and her parents, and the rest of her friends and family helped Elise through the doubts and heartbreak.

ELISE RAY: I have a lot of wonderful people in my life who sort of steered me in that direction. So I went straight to Michigan, University of Michigan, and competed there for four years.

It was hard for me to find joy in the sport for the first couple years. And I had a lot of teammates, and certainly the coaches too, who helped me do that. So I think I had a lot of people in my corner. And I just kind of had to go through that, you know what I mean? I had to feel it and kind of go through the mud. And that was an incredibly healing, amazing experience for me. I competed and practiced and was part of a team. And it was, you know, the biggest blessing. Because, again, I kind of found a love for the sport again.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Falling on the vault in Sydney caused a ripple effect in Elise’s life, leading her down the college path instead of the pro athlete path. And that eventually led Elise to a career coaching college gymnastics.

ELISE RAY: I wouldn’t be coaching gymnastics if it weren’t for, you know, my own personal experience in college.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): From an unexpected hard moment in Elise’s life came unexpected joy.

ELISE RAY: So I feel like I have a lot to share with the young women kind of going through that as well. I mean, this has been an incredible experience.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): At the beginning of every episode, I say two things. First, that this is an untold story. And that’s because almost all the gymnasts I talk to had never been interviewed, in depth, about the vault controversy before. I really can’t explain why this story hasn’t been told in detail until now, but back when I first started looking into it, I thought that, maybe, maybe the gymnasts didn’t want to talk about it. Like, maybe it was just too horrible a moment in their life to go back to. But, in fact, the gymnasts I spoke with, they were so eager to talk. It’s a story that they really want to tell, that they want people to hear. And also, that they want to hear.

ELISE RAY: I think it’s a story that needs to be told.

ALLANA SLATER: It would be nice for the athletes and for the gymnastics fans to know the real story.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): The other thing I say at the start of every episode is that this is the story of one of the biggest mistakes in Olympic history. And, yes, the vault was set at the wrong height. But I actually think there’s an even bigger mistake in this story, and that is what happened after. Because the way it was handled left as much of an impact on the athletes as the actual vault problem itself did. The athletes had to move on without having answers, without an apology, without an explanation, and without feeling heard.

Very few people know what it’s like to be an elite athlete, at the highest level of the sport, as a teenager nonetheless, and to have an unprecedented mistake derail such a big day. But I think a lot of people know what it’s like to live without closure. Learning to live without closure is something that takes time. And time, it can do incredible things.

There was one moment in particular, in making this podcast, when that became really clear. It was a story that Allana told me about how her Olympic experience ended. See, at the very end of the games, there’s this final event called “Gala Day.” Gala Day, it’s basically a victory lap reserved for the medalists to perform their routines one more time for gymnastics fans.

ALLANA SLATER: It’s normally reserved for medalists. And I got the opportunity to perform in the gala.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO: Allana will have the honor of appearing in gymnastics premiere event, the Olympic Gala Spectacular, a red carpet display by the medal winners …

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Allana, despite finishing the all-around in 16th place, was invited to do her floor routine one more time, too — in part, because the Australian audience wanted to celebrate her for making it so far in the sport.

ALLANA SLATER: I was incredibly lucky to have that experience. That was pretty special for me because, my dad, you know, his anniversary of his death was right on the Gala Day, actually. So, you know, I look back and I think that’s a lot to achieve in three years after a personal tragedy.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): What is so amazing about time is that time is capable of turning something heartbreaking into something beautiful.

ALLANA SLATER: I look back now with perspective. Perspective is a great thing in life.

ELISE RAY: I am 100% happy and feel very blessed in the path that got me to where I am. It was just, like, pretty terrible at the time, but that’s kind of just how life is, right? It’s unexpected and twists and turns and you have to be grounded in some kind of faith that you’re on your path. It is the path that you’re supposed to be on, even if it’s the unplanned path.

CREDITS

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Thank you so much for listening to Blind Landing.

This show would not have been possible without the help of so many people. And first, I want to praise our producers, who’ve done some great work behind the scenes: Christian Green, who went from being my intern to being my peer, and who is such a naturally gifted writer; Myka Kielbon, who befriended me on my first day at my first job in radio, and whose editing instincts are just so spot on; and Jessica Taylor Price, who reached out to join forces when she realized we were working on the same story, and whose gymnastics knowledge was such an asset throughout the making of this podcast. Without these three people, this show would not have gotten to the finish line.

I began working on this story back in the summer of 2019 — and it has changed a lot from when I first started, in no small part because of the generosity of people like Megan Tan, the Association of Independent Reporters, and Sam Anderson, all of whom hosted workshops for the story. And the people who participated in those workshops, like Ashleyanne Krigbaum, Laurelin Kruse, Tobin Low, Hanna Rosin and everyone in the LA Radio Club. Thanks to Annie Gilbertson, Suzanne Parish, Martine Powers, Noah Sellman, Jonathan Shifflett, Stephanie Ventura, and my radio support group — that’s Mo Lobarde, Joey Fischground, Muna Danish, Stefanie Ritoper, and Beandrea July — for all giving feedback along the way. And a huge thanks to Jessica Bendinger, whose endless encouragement has been so, so meaningful.

Finally, there are two people without whom this show would not exist. First, Mia Zuckerkandel, who was the very first person I talked with about the idea for Blind Landing. Mia has been a true mentor, holding my hand through so much of the process of conceiving, outlining, and reporting the story. She believed this was a story worth telling before anyone else.

And last, but not least, my best friend, my favorite person in the world — my mom Ellen Weiss. Mom, I am so lucky to be your son. Thank you so much.

Once again, to everyone who listened to Blind Landing, thanks for stopping by.

2 Comments

  1. This is such an interesting story and really should be made into a movie or mini series. It has so many elements and touches on broader issues that go way beyond sport

  2. Really interesting and frustrating for these girls. These girls sometimes are treated so poorly in this sport. They are so young and give up so much, only to be treated like show ponies.

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