It was not until 1999 that a woman gymnast could successfully complete a handspring double front vault. And when she did, the vault came to be known as the Produnova vault. Russian gymnast Yelena Produnova was just 19-years old when she attempted the vault in the Universiade, also known as the World University Games--an athletics event meant for university athletes from across the world.
On Sunday, 22-year-old Dipa Karmakar from India literally sailed through the vault to land a berth in the vault finals in Rio Olympics this year. She is the first Indian woman to have achieved that feat.
Interestingly, at present, Karmakar is one of the only five women in the world who have been able to successfully complete the Produnova vault. It's not difficult to see why. To describe it in the simplest terms, the Produnova vault requires a gymnast to run up to the vault (the gymnastics apparatus) and first do a handspring--that is literally toss himself/herself into the air using the vault as some sort of a jumping board. Then, they are required to do two neat somersaults mid-air, following which they have to land on their feet.
It's easy to see why the Produnova vault is considered one of the world's most difficult and dangerous athletics feat. The chances of someone landing on her head or neck are high. It exposes the athletes to life-threatening injuries.
Egyptian athlete Fadwa Mahmoud managed to pull off the Produnova vault successfully in 2014 in an athletics event in Africa. However, the video of her performing the vault may just send a shiver down your spine--she nearly topples over and lands on her neck after hitting the ground.
It's nicknamed the 'vault of death' for good reason.
When top US gymnast Simone Biles was asked if she would attempt the Produnova, she said, "I'm not trying to die." In fact, when the US gymnastics team was asked by the press this year if anyone was going to attempt the Produnova this year, gymnast Laurie Hernandez's personal coach Maggie Haney declared they are 'never' going to try it. The Wall Street Journal reports Hernandez herself quipped: "No, thanks."
Sportskeeda reports: "It has a difficulty rating of 7.0--the highest of all vaults--and the front handspring led double frontal salto, when not executed perfectly, runs the risk of splitting the gymnast's spine in half or injuring him or her permanently."
Here's a video of Karmakar performing The Produnova from earlier this year.
Various reports have pointed out that because the vault is extremely difficult and nearly-life threatening, completing it successfully also means very high scores. The official difficulty rating of the vault is 7. An article on Seventeen explains: "The gymnastics scoring system rewards highly difficult, dramatic moves. A gymnast's score combines two numbers: the difficulty score (how challenging a move or routine is) and the execution score (how well a gymnast performs). Because the Produnova vault is so insanely hard, Dipa gets a crazy-high score for it—a massive 15.300. That was good enough to get her to Rio. And she's crossing her fingers that once she's there, she'll have a shot at a medal."
However, the Wall Street Journal reports that the same grading method is least likely to survive for long. The international gymnastics body is all set to rework its scoring system. When that happens, The Produnova will be "devalued more than most vaults", unless someone can do it well--a sort of negative marking. This will be done to keep away rookie gymnasts from trying complicated and difficult stunts.
The Indian Express reports: "Trouble started about five years ago when Yamilet Pena Abreu of Dominican Republic and Egyptian Fadwa Mahmoud attempted the dangerous vault in search of a high score (it has the highest Difficulty of 7) , and even dicey executions occasionally fetched them a place in an event final. But it put a lot of hearts in mouths, as fans seethed over Produnova wannabes from non-traditional countries going for broke and tumbling hazardously. That the athletes who couldn't reach the finals with lesser difficult vaults were using this tougher maneuver to move ahead, didn't sit well with traditional fans."
The same report says that the vault has also been criticised as the last resort of gymnasts who are not particularly great at other gymnastics moves.
In an interview to BBC, Karmakar chillingly said, "One wrong move and I could die on the spot."
Karmakar's coach Bishweswar Nandi told Hindustan Times that since gymnastics was not India's strength, they have to take some risks: "We have to take this risk because we are not a strong nation when it comes to gymnastics. Dipa attempts Produnova because it can get her bigger points and a chance to enter the finals of tournaments."
People who love watching gymnastics are split on the idea of banning The Produnova. While many are against the banning of the vault, a majority of commenters want the scoring to be regulated. A comment on the YouTube video of Fadwa Mahmoud says, "However, I don't think any gymnast should compete this vault until they can land on their feet standing, with knee bend NO MORE than 90 degrees, pretty consistently. I agree that if someone lands this vault on their back or still rotating, it should be a score of zero to discourage anyone from competing it until they are quite secure in performing it." This is a sentiment echoed by several experts and people who watch and follow gymnastics.