The routine takes roughly six seconds to complete.

But for Anton Stephenson, the vault has left some lasting impressions.

The Nebraska men's gymnast recalls the first time he stuck a landing on a Yurchenko, one of the more unique and difficult vaults. It came in high school.

"It was the coolest moment," Stephenson said.

Then there was the summer of 2018. Stephenson nailed his landing two consecutive days to win the U.S. vaulting championship in Boston.

Stephenson is a three-time Big Ten Conference champion in the event. He was named Big Ten men's co-gymnast of the year. But the Fishers, Indiana, native is determined to take his vault to another height. That would be a national championship.

The NCAA Championships are Friday and Saturday in Champaign, Illinois, and Stephenson is one of the favorites in the vault. It will be a tough field.

Stephenson's impact on the NU gymnastics program goes beyond his impressive vault performance. He's an All-American in multi-events, and he recently was named Nebraska's male student-athlete of the year.

"It's bittersweet," NU coach Chuck Chmelka said of this being Stephenson's final meet as a Husker. "He's so important to our team's success in every way that you could imagine. We've never really had a guy in every way like that. He has encompassed everything that collegiate athletics is about. I doubt I'll have anybody like that again."

So what makes Stephenson such a great vaulter? Why the Yurchenko?

Stephenson and his coach take us through the intense, and yet graceful, routine.

The start

"When I'm standing at the end of the runway I do the same thing on every event," said Stephenson, who tied for second on vault at the 2018 NCAA meet. "It's slowing my heart rate to make myself feel as comfortable as possible, confident and low-key, but also to make the exact same feeling as practice. I do the same breaths, I do the same chalking rotations."

A 25-meter runway stands between Stephenson and the table, or horse. Many vault routines require a lot of generated speed, but that's not the biggest key to the Yurchenko.

"It's more for lankier guys like me who maybe are not the powerhouses you typically see on vault," Stephenson said. "So it's not about how fast I run, it's about the technique of getting what's called a strong block, when you hit the horse and go up in the air."

Going in blind

What makes the Yurchenko stand out from other vaults is its approach. It's the trickiest (and for first-time trainees "scary," Stephenson said) part.

The vaulter does a cartwheel-like round-off, and uses a back handspring to push himself toward the table. Stephenson's back is to the table at that point.

"A Yurchenko is also unique because it's the only vault that you don't see the table when you're approaching it," he said. "You just have to know where the table is; where the other vaults, you run into it. Just knowing where that table is without seeing it and keeping your arms locked so that you're ready to push as soon as it gets there."

Early training sessions for that particular vault requires many reps on soft mats and then mats over the table, Chmelka said.

Air Stephenson

Once in the air, Stephenson executes a double full — a 1½ somersault with a 2½ twist.

"You can kind of tell sometimes when you're going to stick, but there are definitely other times, where I'm underrotated or didn't get a good block, I've got to start bending my knees a little bit," Stephenson said. "Definitely you can adjust for your block by how you twist and flip in the air.

"A Yurchenko is actually a very beneficial vault, because there's less deductions pre-flight,  so when I do my round-off back handspring onto the table, my legs stay together, whereas a lot of other styles of entry they have leg splits."

Said Chmelka, "Then he also does it beautifully. His toes are pointed and he just looks really nice in the air, and there's no execution errors or very few."

The landing

This is where Stephenson separates himself from most other college vaulters.

Sticking (no hops) a vault landing is one of the toughest things to accomplish in gymnastics. Stephenson is extremely consistent at bringing his feet together and sticking his landings.

A stuck landing results in an extra point to a gymnast's score, and can be the difference between winning and finishing somewhere in the middle.

If you score in the 14s, then you just executed a great vault. Stephenson has scored 15 points or better twice this year.

"There's a lot of body mechanisms happening at once and in order to come down and nail it consistently — there's so many variables — and he has the uncanny knack to stick," Chmelka said.

Confidence and comfort

Stephenson has been doing this vault since his senior year in high school. He says comfort is a big reason behind his success.

"That's the key," he said. "Even someone that is that comfortable with this vault, I still don't think about sticking it ever because I don't want to change anything, so I still have to stay focused. I still have to settle myself and think of the right things.

"It's very fast, so you really don't get a lot of thoughts in."

Reach the writer at 402-473-2639 or cgrell@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsGrell.


Sports editor

Clark Grell is sports editor.

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