TOKYO -- American McKayla Maroney won a world title on her best event, vault, Saturday evening as event finals began at the 2011 World Gymnastics Championships.
Maroney's gold is the third triumph in as many days of women's finals for Team USA. The young, mostly inexperienced American squad surprised by winning the team title in dominating fashion Tuesday night, and Jordyn Wieber followed up less than 48 hours later by becoming the U.S.'s sixth world all-around champion, upsetting Russia's Viktoria Komova by a mere 0.033.
On Saturday, Maroney got her own individual podium moment after landing an Amanar vault (a roundoff onto the springboard, a back handspring onto the vaulting table and a flip with 2.5 twists off) and a layout Podkopayeva (roundoff onto the board, a half-twist in the air before the vault table and a front flip with half twist off). She was unrivaled in the difficulty and execution of both efforts, and averaged 15.3 points for the two vaults, more than half a point above silver medalist Oksana Chusovitina of Germany. Vietnam's Phan Thi Ha Thanh won the bronze.
"It was great to know that I could do that for the U.S., but also for myself, because I've worked really hard," said Maroney, who will turn 16 in December.
The world title on vault has seemed a long time coming for the California gymnast, who first attracted attention when she completed the uber-difficult Amanar at the 2009 Junior U.S. Championships when she was only 13. She stuck the same vault cold at last year's U.S. Championships, but has had to wait until this year to be age-eligible for world competition.
"It's more something that I do for fun," she said of vault, as compared to the other events. "I don't get nervous for vault -- I just do it."
Chusovitina, 36, won her ninth world medal on vault. Yes, you read her age right. Her first vault medal, also a silver, came in 1991, four years before Maroney was born.
Maroney's gold on vault caps a three-year run of American dominance on the event at the world level. Kayla Williams won the world title on vault in 2009, while Alicia Sacramone took it last year. This year's vault final was anticipated to be a showdown between Maroney and Sacramone, who was training a complicated twisting vault that has never been performed by a woman.
But Sacramone tore her Achilles training on the floor in Tokyo before competition began last week and quickly returned to the U.S. for surgery, leaving Maroney to compete without her biggest rival on the event.
"Yeah!" Maroney exclaimed when asked if she was disappointed not to be able to go up against Sacramone. "I think she really wanted to show the whole world her vault, and I wanted to compete against her too, to see what it is," she added.
Komova, who said she was "very upset" to lose the all-around gold, exacted a bit of revenge on uneven bars, swinging easily through a faultless routine to win her first-ever world title. Her Russian teammate Tatiana Nabieva earned silver with a clean and difficult performance that nonetheless did not contain the skill named after her, a toe-on reverse hecht release move that sends her soaring fully extended over the high bar.
China's Huang Qiushuang, initially her team's alternate for these world championships, delivered with the bronze on bars, her first individual world medal.
New all-around world champion Wieber recorded the third-highest execution score on uneven bars. But her difficulty score did not rival the top three and she finished fourth, a very respectable placement in what is considered her weakest event.
American Gabrielle Douglas, who delivered a clutch bar routine for the U.S. in team finals, caught her first release move on her fingertips and kicked the low bar as she swung out of it, costing her several tenths in deductions. She ended fifth on her best event, but the youngest member of the U.S. team said she was happy with how she had done at her first worlds all the same.
"I'm proud that I've made it here, and I can perform my routines," Douglas said. "That's what all counts."
Wieber still has two more opportunities to add to her medal collection at this world championships. She will compete on the balance beam and floor exercise during the final day of competition in Tokyo on Sunday. As with the all-around competition, Komova may be her biggest rival for gold on both events.