“I think it’s a story that needs to be told.” – Elise Ray, Blind Landing

By Christy Sandmaier

Imagine a magnitude of expectations, a lifetime of training and preparation, and the weight of the world on your shoulders, resting on two inches.

As the 2020 Olympic Games get underway in Tokyo this week, memories of Olympics past are inevitable. Still close to many gymnastics fans around the world is the vault controversy that took place during the Women’s All-Around Final at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. It’s a competition forever marked with multiple asterisks. Doping, age falsification and, the vault setting that changed the course of an entire competition – for many athletes, the most important competition of their lives.

Released today, Blind Landing tells the untold true story about one of the biggest mistakes in Olympic history – 20 years ago, the vault was accidentally set two inches too low, derailing the competition with injured gymnasts and hotly contested results. To this day, it’s hard to believe an incident such as this could have taken place at any major competition, let alone an Olympic Games.

Through original interviews with gymnasts, coaches and officials who were there, the miniseries is comprised of five episodes, each centered around a different athlete: Elise Ray, who was inches away from landing on her neck; Allana Slater, who brought the vault issue to the officials during the all-around; Svetlana Khorkina, the frontrunner who fell on vault; Maria Olaru, who reveals that she witnessed the same issue earlier during the Olympics; and Lisa Mason, who says she was dismissed by her coach when she tried to notify him of the vault problem. 

“I knew something was off from the jump,” Mason said. “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.”

“We never really discussed Sydney Olympics and what happened,” Slater notes. “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.”

Of feeling “off’ on her warmup vault, Slater remembers, “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…. who goes to the Olympic Games and thinks the equipment is going to be set up incorrectly?”

Dr. Bill Sands, a leading expert on sports science and gymnastics says that Slater’s concerns about safety were spot on. “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.”

Preparation and physics is one of many angles examined as the gymnasts and coaches interviewed candidly take the listener through their own raw experiences leading up to and throughout the competition, and how they processed the results and moved on with life, including 1997 World All-Around Champion and gold-medal favorite, Svetlana Khorkina.

“My first thought after the fall on vault? It was pain. Pain in my knees and pain in my heart because I knew that with such a mistake on vault I wouldn’t be able to be the winner of the all-around,” Khorkina remembers.

Eight gymnasts fell on vault in the first half of the competition. At the Olympic Games. It was unheard of.  Ultimately, someone stopped the third rotation vault warmups in progress to look as Slater stood her ground that the setting was incorrect. For those of us in the arena and watching at home, the image of Jackie Fie, former FIG Women’s Technical Committee President, motioning as if raising the vault is forever etched in our minds. It’s a scene we’ll never forget and one that we hope we never see again.

A decision was made not to redo the competition (also examined throughout the series – in particular within the FIG, who says the outcome resulted in improved safety protocols), though all the gymnasts were given the option of vaulting again in a “fifth rotation” after the original competition that day concluded. Khorkina declined a new attempt and new score. The damage had already been done. She fell on bars and ultimately went on to place 10th in a meet many felt should have been hers.

“The Olympic Games are not a small-town competition,” Khorkina said. “No one has a right to make mistakes, including those who ensure the safety of the competitions, and the standard of apparatuses, and so on. That is why I thought it right not to attempt another vault at the end of the competition.”

Ray finished 13th, opting to vault again but had taken a fall off beam. Slater finished 16th and Mason was 23rd. 

We’ll never know, of course, what the final outcome might have been had the vault been set correctly and revisiting the story doesn’t make it any easier to digest. Still, the miniseries allows the athletes who were so deeply involved a much-needed voice and another chance to heal. And that’s important. In many ways, what they went through solidifies just how extraordinary athletes who reach an Olympic Games are.

For Ray, telling her Olympic story, and looking back at her career as an athlete and now as a coach has come full circle to an extent. As Saperstein notes in Episode 5, “From an unexpected hard moment in Elise’s life came unexpected joy.”

“I feel like I have a lot to share with the young women kind of going through that as well,” Ray says. “I mean, this has been an incredible experience.”

Blind Landing can be found on Apple Podcasts. Click Here to Listen!

Blind Landing is hosted by Ari Saperstein (This American Life), and produced Christian Green (Carolina Public Press), Myka Kielbon (KPCC and KCRW) and Jessica Taylor Price (contributor to Teen Vogue, ESPNW & Bleacher Report).

LIST OF INTERVIEWEES – Elise Ray, US Olympic Gymnast – Kelli Hill, Elise Ray’s former coach – Allana Slater, Australian Olympic Gymnast – Dr Bill Sands, sports scientist – Svetlana Khorkina, Russian Olympic Gymnast – Angie Fifer, Ph.D., CMPC, executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology – Maria Olaru, Romanian Olympic Gymnast – Slava Corn, former Vice President of the FIG (the International Gymnastics Federation) – Kym Dowdell, former member of the Women’s Technical Committee and the Sydney Olympic Organizing Committee – Lisa Mason, British Olympic Gymnast

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