Simone Biles, the 19-year-old gymnastics phenom from Spring, Texas, cemented her position as the most dominant gymnast in the world on Thursday when she won the individual all-around competition in Rio. Biles outscored her nearest competitor, teammate Aly Raisman, by a mammoth margin of over 2 points.
Biles is the only woman to win world championships three years in a row, and has not lost a gymnastics meet since 2013. She was widely predicted to win the all-around competition at this summer’s Olympics, having qualified in first position and having been awarded the competition’s highest scores on three of four events in Monday’s team final, in which the U.S. won gold. Her all-around win is merely a confirmation of what gymnastics fans have known for several years: She is the best in the world, and probably the best of all time. Today’s final was less a competition than it was a coronation.
And for Raisman and Russian gymnast Aliya Mustafina, who took bronze, the real fight was for silver: No one in that gym was going to beat Biles. As Raisman has said, “Simone’s just in her own league. Whoever gets second place, that’s the winner.”
Biles had an uncharacteristically shaky start in all-around finals, with a large step out of her vault in the first rotation. Here, the advantage of her difficulty score was clear: Despite a significant deduction, she led the field by over .25, with Raisman, who also began the day on vault, finishing the rotation in second place.
But she was unshakeable on bars, where she scored a 14.966. Raisman, who preceded her on the event, was awarded at 14.166 after a routine littered with small errors. The two finished the rotation in second and fourth place, respectively, each bested by Mustafina and Seda Tutkhalian, both of whom represent the Russian Federation, traditionally a power on bars.
Australian commentator Liz Chetkovich, providing commentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, remarked, “Mustafina should take a photo of that scoreboard, because it’s probably the only time she’ll ever see that.”
Then it was on to beam, where Biles had qualified in first position and Raisman in seventh. Biles, after one small wobble, delivered the kind of slick, difficulty-laden routine viewers have come to expect, scoring a 15.433 and grinning as she saluted the judges after sticking her dismount. The two Russians had trouble on beam, with Tutkhalian stumbling out of a tumbling pass and falling out of her dismount, and Mustafina earning landing deductions, particularly on her dismount.
By the end of the beam rotation, Biles had a lead of over 1.5 over second-place Mustafina, with Raisman just .10 behind the Russian gymnast.
And lastly, to floor, where Biles and Raisman are particularly strong. Biles needed better than a 12.4 to win, and Raisman better than 14.0 to grab silver. The deal was all but sealed. Raisman performed with the same skill, and with greater confidence, than she displayed when she won gold on the event in London in 2012, and scored a 15.433. She burst into tears upon finishing her routine, knowing that she had secured at least a silver medal.
And then, Biles. She smiled through her routine, surely knowing that the gold medal was already in her hands. When she finished her final tumbling pass -- full twisting double back somersault -- the stadium all but exploded. Raisman, Biles and their coaches clung on to each other, smiling, as they waited for Biles’ score.
Biles has spent the last three years dominating the sport, and in gymnastics, where athletes are often retired by 20, three years can seem like a decade or two. For gymnastics fans, it has felt like an eternity, and an oddity: How did this juggernaut of a gymnast not yet have a single Olympic medal?
To say that Biles is particularly strong on one event over another is to obscure how strong she is on all of them. She qualified for three out of four event finals and stands a good chance of winning three more gold medals between now and Monday. She is an exceptionally powerful tumbler and an explosive vaulter, and is also agile and steady on the beam. She did not qualify for the uneven bars finals; as much as she can be said to have a weak spot, it is on bars, though she came within 0.30 points of making that final, too. She was the only U.S. gymnast to compete on all four events in the team competition, signaling national team coordinator Marta Karolyi’s confidence in her ability to deliver a good score under high pressure, even on bars.
Biles’ huge advantages on vault, floor and beam can be attributed to her high difficulty scores; the skills she is capable of executing provide her with a numerical head start before the competition even begins. Her first vault, the Amanar, has a difficulty score of 6.3, meaning that the highest possible score ― calculated by adding the difficulty score to an execution score that is out of 10 ― is a 16.3. In team qualifications on Sunday, Biles scored a 16.0. She is one of the few women in the world who regularly does that particular vault in competition. Gymnasts who wish to qualify for vault finals must perform two vaults from different “families,” meaning they must demonstrate versatility in the kind of vaults they have mastered. Biles’ second vault is called a Cheng, and it has a difficulty score of 6.4; in qualifications, Biles scored a 16.1. She doesn’t merely attempt the hardest routines in the world, she executes them to near perfection.
Her floor routine is similarly jam-packed with difficulty, including a tumbling pass that bears her name, because she was the first person to perform it in an international competition. It’s two back somersaults in the stretched-out layout position, with a half turn in the second rotation, which means she lands “blind,” facing forward with no way to see the floor approaching as she speeds downward. Biles told The New York Times last week that some of the elite male gymnasts who train with her cannot execute her signature tumbling move and get annoyed by their failure to measure up; she invented it largely by accident, hoping that the immensely difficult and dangerous forward landing would help her go easy on a sore ankle.
On beam, Biles performs the most difficult dismount in the world, a “full in back out,” which is a double back somersault with a full twist in the first somersault. It’s a trick many gymnasts include as one of their tumbling passes on the floor, but Biles does it off the beam ― at the end of a routine that is already loaded with difficulty.
On some events, her average difficulty scores represent a full point of advantage over the average “D” scores of other gymnasts, meaning that she could incur the 1-point deduction of falling off the beam, as she did at Olympic Trials, and still win ― as she did at Olympic Trials. There is a reason why Mary Lou Retton, the first American woman to win an Olympic all-around title, describes Biles as “the most talented gymnast I’ve seen in my life.”
Jessica O’Beirne, host of the popular gymnastics podcast Gymcastic, says that “in Simone Biles you are watching someone that not only comes along once in a generation, but maybe once in a hundred years ... There just isn’t an adequate comparison, because she is so far beyond anyone that has ever come before her.” One comparison that comes close, however, is to the Williams sisters, who, like Biles, represent a redefinition of how the sport is played and what is considered possible for female bodies.
Biles’ dominance comes down to her difficulty scores, and her difficulty scores are due to a preternatural athleticism, a particular gift for knowing where she is in the air and what appears to be an uncanny immunity to pressure ― despite the heavy weight of expectations in Rio this year, she has proved unflappable in competition. Her coach, Aimee Boorman, says that one of her mottos is, “it’s just gymnastics,” a perspective that seems to have shaped the way her star athlete, who she’s been coaching since the beginning, sees her task in Rio.
It’s just gymnastics, but gymnastics will never be the same. Queen Simone Biles has seen to that.
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