By Blythe Lawrence

Hard to believe it now, but there was a time when Kayla DiCello struggled to land her double-twisting Yurchenko vault.

The complex skill requires a gymnast to fly backwards onto the vaulting table and push off with her hands, launching herself into the air to flip backwards and wrap two full twists before planting her feet firmly back on the mat.

The challenge for DiCello came in completing the twists. Cranking those two complete 360-degree rotations to put yourself into position to land like a lawn dart is a big ask for a junior elite gymnast still developing her power, and for a time DiCello grappled with not being able to do it.

“Getting the double-twisting Yurchenko was really special to me, because I’ve been working on that for a really long time,” the 15-year-old from Maryland said. Before last season, “I wasn’t getting all the way around, or I wasn’t getting off the table in a way to land it.”

But none of that was evident during Saturday’s women’s vault final at the Junior World Championships in Gyor, Hungary, where DiCello confidently shot down the vaulting runway to turn in a formidable double-twisting Yurchenko, hitting the table just right to convert her backward momentum into a forceful upward block, leaving her plenty of time to do the twists and nail the landing.

Her reward: a 14.600 from the judges, the highest score of the day in the women’s competition. Combined with a less difficult but clean second vault, DiCello averaged 14.166, giving herself and the United States its first-ever Junior World gold medal in artistic gymnastics.

Doing it well felt great. Doing it 24 hours after landing fourth in the women’s all-around competition was even better. Narrowly missing an all-around medal “made me even more determined to do a little bit better than before,” DiCello said Saturday. “I feel really good about how I did. I was very proud.”

There was a lot to be pleased about for the six U.S. team members who took to the apparatus on the first of two days of individual apparatus finals Saturday. In addition to DiCello’s gold on vault, Sydney Barros finished fifth on the event, recording 14.133 for her own double-twisting Yurchenko.

“I feel like I could have done a little bit better today on vault, but overall I feel proud of myself for getting to this position and I’m looking forward to next time,” said Barros, 14, who is coached by former World champion Kim Zmeskal at Texas Dreams.

With a confident 13.766 on uneven bars, World Olympic Gymnastics Academy’s Skye Blakely finished fourth on one of her best events, only 0.034 from the bronze. DiCello, the only gymnast in the women’s competition to qualify for all four event finals, finished sixth as Russia’s Vladislava Urazova topped the standings.

At 5’2”, 14-year-old Blakely cuts a striking figure on the uneven bars. Though her longer lines occasionally make learning new skills more of a challenge, she said, the reward comes in the way it looks when she puts it all together.

“I’m kind of tall,” Blakely stated matter-of-factly Saturday. “When I started growing, I started kicking the low bar and it was a hard transition. But I’ve gotten used to it.”

On Sunday, DiCello will be up first in the balance beam final, and both DiCello and Blakely will participate in the women’s floor final just before the curtain falls on the competition.

After a seventh-place finish in Thursday’s team final, Garrett Braunton, Matthew Cormier and Isaiah Drake all saw action again in Saturday’s event finals, where Drake and Braunton finished fourth and sixth, respectively, on still rings, and Cormier notched sixth on men’s floor.

“The guys all put it out there, to say the least,” Drake said following Thursday’s team competition. “We didn’t have a perfect meet but no one didn’t put up a fight. Everyone fought really hard, which was awesome.”

Korea’s Ryu Sunghyun took the gold medal on men’s floor, while Japan’s Takeru Kitazono won on pommel horse. Canada’s Felix Dolci from Quebec captured the title on rings.

Knowing there’s much to be gleaned from their international rivals, the American men made sure they soaked it all in. “It’s crazy to see how amazingly good these other countries are,” Cormier commented. “It feels good to be part of that crowd.”