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An Indian gymnast is about to try a death vault that even Simone Biles won't attempt

"There’s no way out. You either land it, or you break your neck."

Dipa Karmakar of India competes on the vault. Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Simone Biles, the ten-time world champion who has so far picked up two of her expected five Olympic gold medals in Rio, wouldn’t even think about competing the Produnova.

"Oh, she could do it," her coach, Aimee Boorman, said last summer. "She has the power. But she doesn’t want to die."

Watch the women's vault finals live online at NBC Olympics

Debuted in 1999 by Russian gymnast Yelena Produnova, the "death vault" is a front handspring entry with two front tucks off the table. Common in men’s gymnastics (some men you’ll see in the Rio vault final will even add a half twist in the second flip and one man, Igor Radivilov, will even attempt a never-before-seen three flips on Monday), most women generally don’t have the upper body strength to push off the table in a way that will give them the air time needed to safely rotate the two flips around to their feet.

Many who attempt the vault are powerful enough to rotate that second flip at least to their butts, but if anything goes wrong — missing the sweet spot while making contact or a hand slipping during the push off — there’s almost no way to balk the skill in the air.

"Once you’re in the air, you’re going for it," 2012 vault silver medalist McKayla Maroney said. "There’s no way out. You either land it, or you break your neck."

The first thing kids learn in this sport is how to fall, but with the Produnova there simply isn’t enough time. When a gymnast’s hands leave the table, she has about two seconds to rotate her body forward two times before hitting the mat. If she doesn’t have enough height or if her rotational speed is a hair slower than it should be, she doesn’t get the time needed to rotate it fully; she also can’t halt the forward momentum, risking finishing the vault upside down.

Every other vault you’ll see in the women’s field is an easy single layout flip made difficult by adding multiple twists. The rotation on these vaults has the body spinning around itself like a top rather than flipping over itself. Knee injuries are common for gymnasts who haven’t mastered the timing or who make mistakes, but head and neck injuries aren’t an issue.

Since Produnova, four gymnasts have competed the vault, two of whom — 41-year-old seven-time Olympian Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan and newcomer Dipa Karmakar of India — will perform it in today’s vault final.

With a start value of 7.0, the vault will be the most difficult we witness, even if the North Korean gymnast Hong Un-jong unveils her long-awaited triple-twisting Yurchenko, expected to be valued at a 6.8. After these, the Cheng — a Yurchenko half-on front layout with one-and-a-half twists off performed by Biles, Hong, and Maria Paseka of Russia — is the hardest at a 6.4.

All four of the Produnova vaulters are from underfunded or nonexistent programs lacking coaches that can teach the skill and technique required in other difficult vaults like the Amanar and the Cheng. While harder to rotate and land, the Produnova is more about power than skill. Gymnasts learn front tucks early in their training, and some of the stronger kids chuck Produnova vaults into foam pits at the gym to show off.

Because its difficulty makes it worth so much, a Produnova with a fall could score higher than many hit vaults from the world’s top gymnasts. High scores lead to medals and medals lead to media attention and funding, which is why Karmakar began competing this vault to begin with. Without it, she wouldn’t have won the bronze medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, a first for India’s women’s program, leading to thousands of dollars in government support for Karmakar, who was training on out-of-date equipment prior to the medal.

Karmakar is the first Indian woman to compete in gymnastics at the Olympic Games, and by qualifying eighth into the vault final, she is also now the first Indian gymnast — male or female — to make an Olympic apparatus final. She reportedly trained the Produnova over a thousand times in the months leading up to the Games, and though she typically performs "butt grazers," landing in squat so deep that her butt brushes the mat before she quickly stands up out of it, she’s never had issues with under-rotating to the point of scaring observers.

The scary Produnovas do exist. An Egyptian gymnast, Fadwa Mahmoud, landed her first competitive attempt face first, coming centimeters away from a neck injury. Yamilet Peña of the Dominican Republic, who trained the vault onto mats with holes in them, often received scores of zero for under-rotating just enough to land on her butt or back (a vault has to land feet-first to get credit). And at world championships last year, Chusovitina missed out on the vault final after crashing her Produnova attempt, accumulating over two points in deductions to finish 13th.

In today’s competition, neither Chusovitina nor Karmakar is expected to medal. Even if either magically sticks the Produnova, the vault final requires an average of two vaults, and neither has a second vault difficult or clean enough to make it happen without mistakes from those at the top. But for both, the risk is worth it, resulting in the attention and funding that will help them and their countries go forward in the sport.

Essentially, the "death vault" is a necessary evil for gymnasts from developing countries trying to put themselves on the map. For those who compete it, the ends justify the means.

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Know your sport: Olympic gymnastics explained