Now meet the “Zuhlke,” named after a member of the Towson gymnastics program.
Allison Zuhlke created the unique and inventive vault that has adopted her name. The freshman all-around gymnast debuted the vault against Pittsburgh at a quad-meet in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Saturday, becoming the first gymnast to complete the vault in an NCAA competition.
The “Zuhlke” involves sprinting down the runway, performing a front handspring with the feet landing on the springboard, flipping forward with a half-twist landing in a handstand position on top of the vaulting table, and pushing off to flip backwards with a full twist before landing on the mat.
The move has generated more than 2,000 likes on the Tigers’ Instagram page and almost 250 likes on the team’s Twitter account. The attention is astonishing to Zuhlke, who is still coming to grips that the “Zuhlke” is listed in the Junior Olympic Code of Points for USA Gymnastics.
“Honestly, it’s kind of hard to comprehend that I actually have a move named after me,” she said Tuesday. “It’s very cool. I still can’t believe it.”
The “Zuhlke” is so difficult and novel that it has a start value of 10.0, putting Zuhlke at an advantage over most other gymnasts who compete vaults worth a maximum of 9.95. Points are then deducted for mistakes such as a lack of height and an unsure landing.
Towson coach Jay Ramirez said the front handspring is the rare component of the vault.
“She does that front handspring, and all gymnast enthusiasts know that is really difficult,” he said. “But then she does a quarter-on and then a backflip with a full twist-off. It’s kind of like she just catapults and keeps twisting the entire time until she lands. So a lot of times, because it is so rare, people have to keep looking at it, and they’re trying to figure out what it actually is, and we’re just saying that it’s the ‘Zuhlke 2′ and that it’s named after her. But it is an extremely difficult vault.”
Asked if the front handspring is more dangerous than the round-off, Zuhlke said, “I feel like it could be because if you mess up, you’re just going to faceplant into the table. But anything in gymnastics is dangerous. So I don’t think it would be any more dangerous.”
Zuhlke, an 18-year-old native of Waukesha, Wisconsin, has been participating in gymnastics for 13 years and said her favorite event is the balance beam. Her least favorite? The vault.
“Isn’t that weird?” she acknowledged with a laugh.
Those struggles on the vault led to Zuhlke developing what she called “mental blocks” when performing on the apparatus as she grew up. In 2015, she worked with Vitali Rudnitski, coach and owner of the Salto Gymnastics Center in Waukesha, on approaching the springboard and using a front handspring instead of the traditional round-off.
“I just couldn’t make it or do it right,” she said. “So then he decided, ‘Why don’t you do a front handspring onto the board and a Tsuk [Tsukahara vault] onto the table?’ I can do a Tsuk, but I couldn’t get enough power to make it work. So he said, ‘Maybe try a front handspring, and that will help you get into the table faster.’ And it seemed to work.”
Rudnitski, a former member of the 1996 and 2000 Belarus Olympic Teams, said he got the idea of a front handspring because he had seen young boys do it when he was growing up. He said he is not surprised that few gymnasts have tried to copy Zuhlke’s vault because it requires a certain amount of courage to flip “blind” into the vaulting table.
“In some cases, some gymnasts just have that ability naturally to perform different skills that nobody else can do,” Rudnitski said. “She is the same gymnast like a lot of others in the United States. She just has that ability to go out there and do it. If you ask some gymnasts to try it, I bet they would say, ‘You know what? That’s pretty scary. So I’m not going to try it.’”
The current vault is actually the second “Zuhlke” listed in the Code of Points since she unveiled it at the 2018 Junior Olympic Nationals. She debuted an earlier version at the 2016 Junior Olympic Nationals, but tinkered with it because it had a start value of 9.7.
Zuhlke said it took her three to four months to get a solid grip on her vault. She can recall only one mishap with the vault about three years ago, but said she escaped without suffering a serious injury.
“I guess it’s just part of the gymnastics mentality, that it happens a lot,” she said of that one slip-up. “Everyone lands on their face at some point. You’ve just got to be strong enough to get up and try it again.”
Against Pittsburgh at that quad meet, Zuhlke scored a 9.60 on her patented vault because her chest was pointed slightly towards the floor and she took a step on the landing. But her attempt touched off a raucous celebration among her teammates.
“I was waiting for her to go, but I remember her making it, and we all screamed and ran down to her and were like, ‘Yay!’” sophomore all-around gymnast Lauren Bolen said. “We knew that she had basically made history in NCAA gymnastics.”
Despite Zuhlke undergoing ligament reconstruction surgery on her left ankle in August 2019, Ramirez targeted Zuhlke as one of his first recruits. Zuhlke had been sidelined until Jan. 1 when she began to train with her teammates.
“We were all so happy that she could do it because it’s kind of like ripping off a bandage,” Ramirez said. “It gave her the confidence to know that she can do it now. So now we can go back into the gym and really train because she knows she can do it.”
Ramirez, who took over the program in October 2019 with assistant coach Ashley Sauer, said Zuhlke and sophomore Camille Vitoff, who performed a Yurchenko One and a Half, at Saturday’s quad-meet, represent a different generation of gymnasts for the Tigers.
“It is awesome just for the program in general just to have that unique kind of thing,” he said. “We’re just really excited that we can offer some unique, crazy skills.”
With two vaults named after her, Zuhlke joins a select group of gymnasts with moves named after them, including World and Olympic champion Simone Biles, who has four original moves to her name. Being mentioned in the same sentence with Biles is awe-inspiring for Zuhlke.
“That’s crazy,” she said. “I still can’t comprehend it.”
Bolen said Zuhlke’s modesty has made a fast and positive impression with her teammates.
“We’re over here talking about her vault all the time and hyping her up, and she’s just like, ‘Thanks, guys,’” Bolen said. “She’s just very humble about it. It makes sense coming from her and her personality.”
Rudnitski echoed Bolen’s perspective on his former pupil’s humility.
“I’ve spoken with her several times, like, ‘Ally, you need to understand that your name is going to stay in the Code of Points for your whole life. This is your name and people will recognize it.’ She’s like, ‘OK, so what?’” he said. “… That’s pretty usual for her. She is that type of person that says, ‘Well, it is what it is, but I’m not going to change what I did.’”
If imitation is a form of flattery, Zuhlke said she would welcome future gymnasts competing her signature vault.
“That would be so cool,” she gushed. “I would feel just very happy.”