The Vault: Part 2

The story of the 2000 women’s gymnastics all-around final picks up with Australian gymnast Allana Slater. In the midst of the competition, Allana realized that it was no coincidence gymnasts were falling on vault. 


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

ELISE RAY: You don’t just dream of going to the Olympics, you dream of going to the Olympics and medaling.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:
The Summer Olympics get underway … televised to 3.7 billion people …

ELISE RAY: First event, vault, I barely even touched my fingertips.

KELLI HILL: She had never not made a vault.

ELISE RAY: I basically landed on my back.

[SOUND OF CHEERING, THEN GASPS AND A FALL]

KELLI HILL: No part of that was normal.

ELISE RAY: You fall in Olympic Games, like, game over.

KELLI HILL: What do you say to an athlete that’s dreams are gone in a blink of an eye?

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Elise Ray might’ve been the first gymnast to fall on vault during the 2000 Olympic all-around final, but she was definitely not the last. Eight people fell, which was inexplicable and unprecedented. Something was very wrong, and it would take one of the youngest and least experienced gymnasts in the competition to figure out what it was.

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

Episode Two.

ALLANA SLATER: We never really discussed Sydney Olympics and what happened. I don’t know whether it’s still hard for people to live through. I have never heard anybody else’s narrative. It’s not a topic we’ve ever discussed anywhere in the gymnastics world. Not with any of my international friends. Not with my Australian teammates. Not at all.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): This is former elite gymnast Allana Slater. And this is really her first time talking this in-depth about her Olympic experience. And just like with Elise in our first episode, Allana’s story, it actually starts before the 2000 Games.

ALLANA SLATER: Obviously there was a huge buildup to a home game, so for Sydney there was a lot of media hype. I guess you have to go back to a year beforehand at the ’99 worlds where we suddenly came fifth.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Fifth place at the ’99 World Championships was way ahead of their 11th-place finish at the previous worlds. And this was a huge deal because, well, this is Australia we’re talking about. Definitely not what was thought of as one of the big gymnastics powerhouse countries. But maybe, if they could keep that upward trajectory going at Sydney, they could become one.

ALLANA SLATER: You know, there was just this huge expectation that we’d come onto the scene as a new country and it just really put our foot out there and there was just a big amount of pressure going into the Sydney Olympics.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): With the Olympics on the horizon in their own backyard, the Australians tried to set themselves up for success. That meant …

ALLANA SLATER: Lots of verification sessions … mock competitions … we had two sets of trials as well before that …

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): But along with the rigorous training and the pressure from the media came at least one home turf advantage.

ALLANA SLATER: We went down a few weeks before for a training session in the Olympic main arena just so we could get an idea of the venue and what it felt like.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): The main arena, that’s the Sydney SuperDome. It’s the largest indoor sports arena in Australia, and it was actually built for the Olympics. It fit 15,000 people. That’s 15,000 unknown variables, 15,000 potential distractions. So when the Australians went down to the SuperDome to train before the games, they tried to get a feel of what competing there would be like by simulating what it would sound like.

ALLANA SLATER: Going into the competition, we were pretty young and inexperienced as a team. So we had all these distraction tapes that had been prepared for us so that we wouldn’t be so distracted.

[SOUNDS OF JEERING, HORNS, CROWD]

ALLANA SLATER: Anything that could potentially distract us. Weird sounds …

[SOUNDS OF SIRENS, ROARS, STAMPEDE]

ALLANA SLATER: … mobile phone sounds, animal sounds …

[SOUND OF PHONES RINGING, BARKING, TRUMPETS]

ALLANA SLATER: … we were prepared for an entire zoo to go through.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): But when the Olympics began, and Allana walked into the SuperDome for the women’s gymnastics all-around final, the only sound she heard was cheering for her. It was coming from Aussies in the stands who were overjoyed to see one of their own in the biggest gymnastics competition in the world.

ALLANA SLATER: I mean, I look back now and think how incredible the experience was. A home games, 15,000 people screaming for you — I mean, it can’t get better from that.

[SOUND OF CROWDS]

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): With her bright red ponytail, and wearing a deep green velvet leotard, it was pretty easy for the home crowd to keep track of Allana throughout the competition and applaud her at every turn. That feeling of support rallied her through a rough start to the all-around.

ALLANA SLATER: So in the all-around finals, I started on beam and unfortunately, I had a fall on my first event.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): But during her next event, floor exercise, Allana stuck every skill. And the crowd? They went wild.

[SOUND OF APPLAUSE]

ALLANA SLATER: So I competed floor and the crowd had really lifted me up by that point.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Allana was halfway through the all-around competition, and next up was … the vault.

ALLANA SLATER: Vault, actually, at the time was my weakest event.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): In her training leading up to the Games, Allana was hyper-focused on this event.

ALLANA SLATER: I was doing massive numbers on vault. I was doing about 40 vaults a day.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): She was focused on getting in as many repetitions as possible. Feet on the springboard, hands on the vault, stick the landing …

[SEQUENCE OF VAULT SOUNDS REPEATS]

… day in, day out in training. And now, now was the moment to see if all that prep work would pay off.

ALLANA SLATER: I went to vault and I think I was the first athlete for that rotation to compete.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Would it be like balance beam, where she fell? Or like floor exercise, where she nailed her routine? That, that should have been the question going through Allana’s mind. But it wasn’t. Because standing in that 15,000 seat arena, with 15,000 unknown variables, 15,000 potential distractions, in the midst of the Olympics, there was just one thing on her mind.

ALLANA SLATER: So I’m standing there at the end of the vault runway. And like I said, I’ve spent countless hours on vault. And I just remember thinking to myself, that vault looks low. That really looks like a low vault.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): It was Allana’s turn to warm up. She sprinted down the runway, feet on the springboard …

[SOUND OF SPRINGING OFF A VAULT]

… hands on the vault …

ALLANA SLATER: When I did that, I felt like I was going downhill. So when I felt like I went downwards, I had never felt that in my entire life going on to a vaulting horse, and there was no way I was getting off the mat until they checked it. I was like, “I’m not getting off this landing mat until somebody measures this vault.”

And I remember my coach Nikolai going, “Allana, get off the mats,” and I was like, “No, look at the vault, it’s too low!” I’m walking up to the vault and I’m like, measuring it to me, and it was almost my waist height on the landing mats and I think I said to my coach, Nikolai, “No, Nikolai, look at the horse. I have not grown this much in a few days.”

I was thinking, there’s just no way it’s safe, for myself, but also, it’s not right for everybody else.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Allana’s coach brings the complaint to the officials. And as they talk, Allana goes back down the runway to where the other gymnasts are. And the rest of the pack, they’re confused. Because the vault warmup is paused, and they have no idea why.

ALLANA SLATER: I remember just standing there, talking to the girls at the other end, as best as I could in broken English, of course. “The vault’s the wrong height. It’s too low. It’s really low. Look at it. Does it not look the wrong height to you?” Thinking, maybe I’ve just gone crazy. Maybe — maybe it’s not the wrong height. Surely I’ve just gone a little bit crazy in the midst of this, the Olympics and the great pressure that it is. All I could think was I really hope I’m right. And then all of a sudden …

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): There’s a group of officials all staring at the vault.

ALLANA SLATER: Out come the tape measures, and…

[SOUND OF VAULT BEING EXTENDED, THEN CRANKING AND SQUEAKING]

ALLANA SLATER: … the vault is lifted.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Allana wasn’t crazy.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:
At the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, today … The vault problem …
… Several competitors failed to execute a vault … Several scary falls …
… The gymnasts sat, flopped, and crashed …

ALLANA SLATER: I was right.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:
After the horse’s height was set too low.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): The vault …

ARCHIVAL AUDIO: The vault set too low …

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): … it was low.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:
… the apparatus was two inches shorter than it should have been. And that’s it for the news summary tonight …

ALLANA SLATER: I think we were just all in shock, if I’m perfectly honest. Total shock that it happened.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): The gymnasts couldn’t believe it, their coaches couldn’t believe it. The judges couldn’t believe it.

ALLANA SLATER: I don’t think there’d ever been any competition where the apparatus had been set up incorrectly. You know, who goes to the Olympic Games and thinks the equipment is going to be set up incorrectly?

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): The vault was two inches too low. Two inches, that’s the size of a chapstick. The size of a golf tee. Smaller than the width of an iPhone. How much of an impact could two inches really have?

DR. BILL SANDS: Two inches lower — that doesn’t seem like a lot until you actually do it.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): This is Dr. Bill Sands, a leading expert on sports science and gymnastics. And he says that Allana’s concerns about safety were spot on.

DR. BILL SANDS: If you think about the swing of a baseball bat — if you move the swing two inches, then a line drive or a home run turns into a pop up. If the horse is in the wrong place, even by a couple inches, that can utterly destroy the fragile nature of the impact with the horse and subsequent push.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Feet on the springboard, plus hands trying to push off a vault that isn’t at the right height, could end in disaster.

DR. BILL SANDS: Pushing off your hands has to be exquisitely well timed in order to benefit from any push that you might get from the horse. And so if you make mistakes there, you’re pretty well doomed.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Olympic officials readjusted the vault and tried to figure out what to do next. And while this was happening, the scope of the problem was just starting to set in.

ALLANA SLATER: There were a lot of really upset people. You know, half, half the girls had competed on the vault at the wrong height.

ELISE RAY: I have never in my career, number one, thought of it, and number two, knew that it could be, could be a thing. Nonetheless, at the most important competition of your life.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): That’s American gymnast Elise Ray, who had the very scary fall on vault earlier in the competition. And of course, when Elise fell, she had no idea it was the wrong height.

ELISE RAY: I mean, number one, you’re at the Olympic Games, you know what I mean? But number two, at any competition, you just assume that things are set properly, everything’s checked.

ALLANA SLATER: As a 16-year-old gymnast, you trusted that everything was set up. We certainly have never had anything like that happen in Australia or at any of our competitions before.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): That’s because it doesn’t happen. Not at local competitions, not at the collegiate level, not at international competitions, and definitely not at the Olympics.

ELISE RAY: No, I didn’t even know it was a thing. I didn’t even know that it could happen.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): So how exactly did it happen?

Actually, it’s pretty simple. See, the vault table is like a stationary bike, with different notches to move it up and down. There’s one standard height for men and one standard height for women. And the men and women’s competitions throughout the Olympics alternate on opposite days. They share the same equipment and the vault height gets changed every day. So before the women’s all-around competition, someone really messed up and readjusted it incorrectly, putting the vault one notch, or two inches, too low.

Now, I want to give a non-spoiler spoiler here: This is not a Tonya Harding situation. No one I talked to, no one has ever floated the idea of foul play or sabotage. In part because 18 gymnasts from such a wide array of countries competed on the vault at the wrong height. No one had anything to gain. All evidence points to it being a screw-up. A mistake.

And it might sound like a perfectly innocent mistake — but see, one of the reasons it’s never happened before is because there are so many checks and balances along the way. Countless people — judges, technicians, officials — that are supposed to double-check, quadruple-check, all the equipment for this exact reason. And here, in the midst of the Olympic Games, every check and balance failed.

ALLANA SLATER: But unfortunately, it did have a huge impact on so many athletes.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): There were so many scary falls on vault. A gymnast from Spain nearly stumbled into the vault, headfirst after landing. And a Brazillian gymnast landed crouched over, actually rebounding onto her head. And, of course, Elise Ray was just inches shy of landing on her head and neck.

ALLANA SLATER: Heart-stopping. In one word. Heart-stopping. You know, that’s a lot of scary, scary things that happened to a lot of girls. And, you know, Annika Reeder, I believe, got injured.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): A British gymnast, Annika Reeder, hurt her ankle on her landing. And it was bad enough that she had to be carried off the mat and pulled out from the rest of the competition.

ALLANA SLATER: Annika Reeder was, I guess, lucky from some perspective that it was only an injury that put her out of the sport and not changed her life significantly, because that’s the level of injury that could have happened with a mistake like that with a vaulting table.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): So how much of a difference can two inches make? Enough that having just a career-ending injury and not a fatal one can be considered, quote, “lucky.”

ALLANA SLATER: Because gymnastics is a dangerous sport and something worse could have happened.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): The vault, set at the wrong height during the women’s all-around final in Sydney, is one of the biggest and most consequential mistakes in Olympic history.

But, of course, that’s not where this story ends — because eight gymnasts had fallen after competing on vault at the wrong height. Athletes that should have been medal contenders were sitting at the bottom of the rankings. How could this possibly be considered a fair competition?

The officials needed to figure out what to do — and fast. And their solution?

ELISE RAY: If the vault setting was unheard of, this was whatever unheard of is times a million.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): On the next episode of Blind Landing …

ELISE RAY: Once the damage is done, you can’t go back.

KELLI HILL: They did not stop the competition.

ALLANA SLATER: Nobody is the winner of that event.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): That’s next time on Blind Landing.

CREDITS

Blind Landing is reported by me, Ari Saperstein — and produced by me, Christian Green, Myka Kielbon, and Jessica Taylor Price. Special thanks to Ellen Weiss and Mia Zuckerkandel, and thanks to our interviewees for sharing their stories.

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