COLUMBIA — On the vault, the fastest event in gymnastics, even the keenest eye can’t catch every movement.
The entire routine, from the time a gymnast hits the springboard to the moment he or she lands on the mat, lasts less than two seconds.
Not every gymnastics event happens so quickly. Floor exercises normally last a minute and a half and include a number of tumbling passes and dance moves. When watching the floor, a quick eye isn’t as important as a vigilant one.
Whether they happen in an instant or over a sustained period, the intricacies that make up a gymnast’s score on a routine are often subtle. The movements typically happen extraordinarily quickly and must be carried out to exact specifications.
Shari Mann understands this point better than most.
Mann, who lives in Columbia and helps operate Authority Gymnastics and Cheer on Peachtree Drive, has more than 33 years of gymnastics experience on the event floor and at the judge's table.
In 1981, she competed for the USA gymnastics team at the World Championships in Moscow. She participated with the national team for another two years. After her competition career ended, Mann began judging gymnastics and is now a Brevet judge — the highest certification recognized by USA Gymnastics.
Like her competition career, Mann’s judging career has been illustrious. She has judged international competitions in Belgium and France and was one of eight judges to be selected to determine the USA Olympic gymnastics team at the 2008 US Olympic Trials.
From a technical standpoint, gymnastics has changed significantly since Mann competed in the early '80s. The floor exercise now has springs under the mats. The uneven bars are now farther apart, allowing gymnasts to do full swings. The balance beam absorbs more energy than it used to. The vault, once a rock-solid, log-shaped apparatus called a horse, is now shaped like a tongue — a design that is much safer and helps gymnasts gain more air on the takeoff.
Regardless of the equipment changes, Mann’s history as a gymnast helps her pick up on minor details that come from years of experience on the floor.
“Athletes understand the difficulty,” Mann said. “You have to weigh that with the execution. We know how difficult it is on some skills.”
Certain cues tell judges more than what a casual observer might notice. On the vault, for example, an extra step on a landing usually indicates that a gymnast didn’t get enough height. A flight that is off-center can indicate that a gymnast didn’t push off from both hands at the same time.
Details like this are what keep coaches busy in practice, where the wrinkles are ironed out in preparation for the meet. The little things count: each step can equal a deduction up to 0.1 and discrepancies in seemingly minor areas such as body posture, leg position and flight distance can all result in deductions on an athlete’s vault score.
In every event, it’s nailing the little things that result in perfect 10s. A gymnast’s ability to execute a vertical handstand on the bars often carries significant weight in a gymnast’s score, Mann said. Mann also referred to entertainment value as a key component on the floor.
The event that cost Missouri dearly on Mar. 14 against then-No. 3 Florida was the beam. Three falls on the beam resulted in an entire point deduction for the Tigers in the event. By comparison, Florida was only deducted 1.900 points in the entire meet.
“Beam is like the make-it-or-break-it,” Mann said. “It’s a tough one.”
Mann acknowledged that the beam contains certain challenges that set it apart from other events.
“(The gymnasts) are on four inches,” Mann said of the apparatus. “They have to be perfect. You have to make sure your body is in the same place all the time. Sometimes it’s not.”
Missouri’s performance in the Florida meet pushed it out of regional qualifying contention. In Saturday's Southeastern Conference Championship in Birmingham, Ala., the Tigers finished last out of eight teams.
Missouri junior Rachel Updike scored a 9.900 on the vault, placing her sixth at the meet and earning her All-SEC honors.
But the gymnasts on the floor weren't the only ones facing a challenge. Taking a place at the judge’s table is a task in and of itself.
Like competitors, judges must also prepare for meets, Mann said. She said she often reads over the rules in the days leading up to judging a meet as a refresher.
Mann admits part of the thrill of judging is the difficulty that comes with it.
“It keeps my brain challenged,” she said.
Those mental exercises are different, certainly, from the ones a gymnast goes through while performing on the big stage. But behind the judges' table, the mind has to work like it is out on the floor: watching quickly and vigilantly, aware that every moment counts.
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.