'Does the vault look low to you?': The Aussie teen who spotted Sydney's stunning gymnastics fail
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'Does the vault look low to you?': The Aussie teen who spotted Sydney's stunning gymnastics fail

From years of sizing up vaulting horses in gyms around the world, the whole thing looked off to Allana Slater. And she was dead right.

By Sarah Keoghan

Great Britain's Annika Reeder injures her ankle after falling on the incorrectly set vault.

Great Britain's Annika Reeder injures her ankle after falling on the incorrectly set vault.Credit:Andy Zakeli

When American gymnast Elise Ray fell on her back after vaulting during the Olympics' gymnastics all-around finals on September 21, 2000, many put it down to nerves.

More falls followed and when Annika Reeder of Great Britain lined up, missed her landing and hurt an ankle, the 15,000-strong crowd in Pavilion 3 at Sydney Olympic Park figured the tension was getting to the group.

It was only when raging favourite Svetlana Khorkina of Russia stepped up, ran in and also fell on her backside that raised eyebrows turned into serious questions. Something wasn't adding up. This was the stuff of an amateur competition, not the Olympics.

Australian champion Allana Slater hadn't seen the falls when she began the rotation but immediately sensed something was wrong.

“Does the vault look low to you?” she said to those around her.

From years of sizing up similar vaulting horses in gyms around the world, the whole thing looked off to Slater. And the teenager from Perth was dead right.

"Half the competitors had competed on vault and I was still unaware of the numerous falls occurring on vault [in previous rounds], particularly gold medal favourite Svetlana," she said.

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"But as I stood at the end of the vault runway for my warm-up, it immediately struck me that the vault was too low - my gut instinct based on staring down the runway at the vault for 10 years."

Slater first asked the other gymnasts whether they thought the same, before approaching personal coach Nikolai Lapchine. After her warm-up, she walked up to the vault and measured it against her body.

"Initially he [Lapchine] wanted me to get off the landing mat to allow the next girl her turn. However, I insisted he stop for a moment and let me show him where the vault measured on me," she said.

"I stood against the vault with my hand up against my mid-body and said, 'Look, the vault is too low, look where it comes up to on me ... I haven't grown overnight."

Lapchine asked Australian head coach Peggy Liddick, who had the apparatus supervisor re-measure the vault. Sure enough, Slater's observations were correct and the vault was raised 5cm.

"I couldn’t believe this was happening and that I was the athlete to say something halfway through the competition," she said.

The error quickly became a huge point of controversy for the Games, with a number of gymnastics figures outraged by how such an error could be made during an Olympic final.

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The event ran into overtime, with five gymnasts given a re-do on their first and second rotations before the vault was fixed.

Romania claimed all the podium spots. Andreea Raducan accepted the gold medal, Simona Amanar won silver and Maria Olaru clutched bronze before controversy swirled.

Khorkina was furious and chose to not vault again. Seemingly rattled by the drama, she ranked in 11th place after a fall on the uneven bars. The champion later told reporters to "get lost".

"I've never seen anything like this," United States coach Kelli Hill said at the time. "At the Olympics? It's unbelievable."

Now 36, Slater says she is still stunned by the actions of her teenage self; standing up in front of 15,000 spectators and, with her query about the vault, stalling a competition at the Olympics.

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"This in fact was quite a defining moment for me as a person and athlete, reminding me of my inner strength, confidence and ability to trust my gut. I still can’t believe it happened and that it was me that rang the alarm bells, little 16-year-old Allana from Australia," she said.

One of the major factors in Slater's courage was the close relationship with her coaches, and national coach Liddick in particular. The pair first met when Slater was on tour in the US in 1997, before Liddick was announced as the coach of the Australian team.

"Shortly after she became national coach, my father was killed in a commercial plane crash while I was in USA competing with the national team," Slater said. "Peggy’s empathy, understanding and passion to help me achieve my dreams, despite this tragedy, built a solid foundation of mutual respect and open communication in our partnership towards our shared goal.

"As I became older, Peggy became a mentor and friend, even supporting me to become an internationally accredited judge post-retirement."

Reflecting on the low-vault moment 20 years on, Liddick is still amazed by the incident, and the fact her young student had the courage to speak up against officials.

"Allana was a meticulous gymnast and very good at communicating with the coaches and so I knew there was a real concern," she said. "I was proud of how Allana handled herself in this adverse situation, we had practised many methods of handling distractions in training, but I did not predict this one."

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Liddick explained the equipment team at the venue had been provided with a set of outdated specifications, which led to the error.

Allana Slater after a winning routine.

Allana Slater after a winning routine.Credit:Ray Kennedy

"I felt for the athletes who vaulted unknowingly, vaulted on the too-low setting, it was an unfortunate situation," she said. "The athletes trust that the equipment will be set correctly, as there is enough adaptation that they have to contend with at a major event like this."

Olympian Allana Slater and husband Scott Penney at their wedding in April 2013 with Australia's gymnastic coach Peggy Liddick. 

Olympian Allana Slater and husband Scott Penney at their wedding in April 2013 with Australia's gymnastic coach Peggy Liddick. 

Slater now works as a sonographer and is a mum to a 10-month-old boy. Liddick retired from the national coach position in 2016. The pair still stay in regular contact.

Liddick lives in Melbourne and is participating in a COVID-19 vaccine trial.

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"Like my personal coaches, Nikolai and Jo, Peggy remains my friend for life," Slater said.

"They each played a special part in my wedding and are my extended family."

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