Is Simone Biles unbeatable in gymnastics?
RIO DE JANEIRO — Simone Biles began hearing the questions as soon as she won her third straight world all-around title last autumn. How are you handling the pressure? What would it mean to you to win gold in Rio?
“Well,” the planet’s best female gymnast kept saying, “I have to make the team first. Well, I have to qualify for the all-around first.”
Now that she has done those things, the shortest member of the entire 550-member US squad (at a sturdy 4 feet 8 inches) finally gets her chance to come up big at Olympus in Thursday afternoon’s all-around. Up to this point, the focus had been on her American teammates and how much they were going to win by in the team competition.
Now it’s whether the 19-year-old from Spring, Texas, can defy the Olympic jinx that has undone the last four world champions and whether she can go on to win three more gold medals in the event finals, which would give her a record five for a women’s gymnast at one Games.
By her nature and by her training, Biles doesn’t look beyond the next rotation, the next tumbling pass, the next dismount. The notion that wealth and fame may await her after these Games is not something that she dwells upon.
“I never really think about it because it’s something you can’t expect,” said Biles, who has collected a record 10 gold medals at the global level. “You don’t know what it’s going to be like until it happens, so I just kind of do everyday life.”
Far from pondering her place in history, Biles doesn’t even follow her own sport.
“I’m not a gymnastics fan,” she said. “I don’t really watch gymnastics a lot. I know it’s crazy to say, but I don’t follow what the other girls are doing. Other coaches say, ‘Did you watch this?’ I’ll say, ‘I don’t even know what you’re talking about.’ ”
Everybody else, of course, has been watching Biles for a while now.
“The gymnastics world has known about Simone for many years,” said Nadia Comaneci, who put the sport on the map in Montreal four decades ago.
And what they’re saying is that Biles is unbeatable.
“She’s in a class all by herself,” said Mary Lou Retton, who in 1984 became the first US woman to win the all-around. “Honestly, she’s just untouchable. She can have a couple of falls and still beat everybody.”
Biles has won the last three world titles on floor exercise, where her tumbling pass with a double back layout and a half-twist is named after her. She won the last two global crowns on balance beam, where her full-twisting double-back dismount is the planet’s toughest. And she has made the last three world podiums on vault. So advanced is Biles on those three events that she could have a pratfall on uneven bars and still outpoint everyone.
“Going against her is going to be a huge challenge, and I don’t believe anybody is going to stand up,” reckoned Bela Karolyi, who coached both Comaneci and Retton. “I’ll be honest. I don’t believe there is anybody on earth at this point that I know can beat her.”
Biles’s road to Olympus has been most unlikely. Her mother was addicted to drugs and alcohol, so Biles was raised by her grandparents, who adopted her and whom she considers her parents. She was introduced to the sport on a day-care field trip to a Houston gym when she was 6, and powered her way through the USA Gymnastics pipeline.
Her senior debut came a year after the 2012 London Games, and it took a near-disaster at the Classic event, where Biles withdrew after multiple mishaps, to channel her into the championship lane.
“I almost killed myself,” she recalled. “But it’s OK because everyone needs a reality check.”
After a sitdown with national team coordinator Martha Karolyi and visits with a sports psychologist, Biles soon became unstoppable, winning that summer’s US championships and becoming the first African-American to claim the world crown. When she won her third one last year in Glasgow, everyone immediately put Biles on a rocket ship to Rio, which baffled her. Didn’t they know there were Olympic trials?
So she went to San Jose last month feeling unsettled.
“I was very nervous, because even before the competition, everyone named me to the team,” she said. “But it was not final.”
Even after Biles won the event to claim the automatic spot, she found herself reluctant to exult.
“When we were in the room, Aly [Raisman] was like, ‘Hey, Simone, you can start crying, you already made the team,’ ” she said. “But I wasn’t going to celebrate or take anything for granted until Martha comes in and announces it.”
Even after she’d moved into the athletes village here, Biles wouldn’t let herself believe that she was an Olympian.
“Every day in the room, Laurie [Hernandez] and I are like, ‘OK, this is a joke.’ We’re waiting to be woken up,” she said.
Once they’d performed on floor exercise in Sunday’s qualifying round, Biles turned to Hernandez and declared, “We’re officially Olympians.”
Had qualifying gone poorly, Biles could have missed out not only on the all-around — as world champ Jordyn Wieber did in London — but also on the event finals. No problem there: Biles placed first overall ahead of Raisman but also earned places on vault, beam, and floor as the top performer in each.
Five gold medals would put her up with the Olympic immortals, but the way that Biles got herself here was by being relentlessly temporal. All there is for her now is the Amanar vault in Thursday’s first rotation. If she lands that, then you can ask her about bars.