No hyperbole here: Simone Biles is the greatest
STUTTGART, Germany -- There are clutch performances. And then there is Simone Biles when it counts. After watching her competitors fight to hold on to landings during the balance beam final at FIG Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart on Sunday, Biles executed one of the cleanest routines of the week. Aside from a hop back on her dismount, she paired the most difficult routine of the afternoon with the highest execution score of the final.
Then she walked to the finisher's seat, sat next to current leader Liu Tingting of China and waited.
When her score appeared, the typically stoic Biles leapt from her seat, smiling, dancing and punching the air with excitement. To the rest of the world, her story here in Stuttgart was written before the book was cracked open, but Biles takes nothing for granted, expects no score until it appears in lights on the board. When it did, and her 15.066 launched her into first place, she didn't try to contain her excitement at making history. Again.
"I was really excited," Biles, 22, said after the meet. "I thought it was going to be at least a 14.8, 14.9, but to see a 15, I was like, 'Woah, that's pretty crazy.' I was really proud."
With her beam gold, which was her 24th world championships medal and 18th gold, Biles surpassed the record previously held by Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus and became the most-decorated gymnast in world championship history.
That she earned No. 24 on beam made the moment even sweeter. Biles is the 2014 and 2015 world champion on the event, but a mistake in the final at the Rio Olympics in 2016 dropped her to bronze. Since then, her confidence has wavered and she's said beam causes her the greatest nerves of any event. So, she went to work on her consistency, upgraded her skills (and introduced a new dismount to the sport) and whittled her weaknesses into strengths. Three years after Rio, she is the world champ yet again on the sport's least-forgiving apparatus.
"It meant a lot because Cecile [Canqueteau-Landi, her coach] has really been working on bringing my confidence back up to where it used to be on beam," Biles said. "So, to go out there and nail the routine just like I did in practice, it felt really good. I know she was really proud, so I'm thrilled with that performance. It was probably the highlight."
Over the past week-and-a-half in Stuttgart, Biles has shown why she is the greatest athlete in the history of her sport. It is her unmatched skills, yes. But it is also her unflappable consistency in competition. Her showmanship. And her ability to lift her teammates after they fall. In the team final Tuesday, after 16-year-old Sunisa Lee fell off the beam in her world championship debut, Biles unleashed the top-scoring beam routine of the day. She also put up the highest scores on vault and floor and led Team USA to its fifth-straight team gold. In doing so, Biles surpassed Russian legend Svetlana Khorkina as the most-decorated female gymnast in world championship history.
"That's why we put her up last," said Tom Forster, high performance coordinator for the U.S. women's team. "In those moments, you have to sink the free throw or your team loses, and she always makes it. Within gymnastics, people understand how mentally tough she is, but I don't think she gets enough credit for her mental skills from the rest of the world's perspective. She's not like anybody we've seen."
And she was only getting started. Two days after the team final, in another nearly flawless all-around performance, Biles won a record fifth world individual all-around title by a record 2.1 points. At the end of her captivating floor routine, which includes the most difficult skill performed by a woman, a triple-twisting double tuck now called the Biles II, she posed and mimed a mic drop, an idea she received from one of her 3.5 million Instagram followers. (Biles also boasts 1 million followers on Twitter.) On Saturday, she picked up the mic, dusted it off and added a second world vault gold medal to her cache, tying Scherbo's record.
And then there was Sunday. If the anticipation surrounding Biles was high before the start of this meet, it reached full tilt on the final day of competition. When the venue announcer introduced Biles as the final woman to compete on floor -- "From the United States ... Seeee-Moan Biles!" -- the energy in Hanns-Martin-Schleyer Halle shifted.
Gymnastics meets are loud, sensory affairs. But in the moment before the opening notes of Biles' floor music began, the arena fell silent. And that silence spoke volumes, filled with anticipation, excitement and respect. Fans in Stuttgart and anywhere Biles competes know they are witnessing something special, a once-in-a-generation athlete who has elevated her sport and changed the perception of what it takes to be an elite gymnast. It is so difficult to put into words just how unique she is, it's best just to watch and enjoy, especially considering that floor routine was likely her final performance at a world championship.
"She's an amazing competitor and she's obviously not human," said Canadian gymnast Shallon Olsen, who finished fourth in the vault final. "She can do so much stuff that others can't. She's an exceptional athlete. Just to be out there competing with her is really phenomenal."
Biles is in a stratosphere all her own, competing in a sport of her own making. At 22, four skills now bear her name, including one on floor that no other woman has attempted in competition. Her collection of skills, and the technical precision and apparent ease with which she performs them, is her sport's equivalent of the sub-two-hour marathon. She is changing what is believed to be possible in women's gymnastics, and, with her visibility and popularity, has turned a once-a-quadrennial sport into a year-round, every-year attraction.
"Simone is amazing. She has so much experience and is very inspiring," said 16-year-old Sunisa Lee, the youngest member of Team USA in Stuttgart. "She really helped me get through this competition. She's given me a lot of pep talks this week."
Biles is able to guide her young teammates because she's been there. Before she dominated the sport, winning every all-around competition she's entered since 2013, she struggled with confidence issues and consistency. They need only to watch her compete on beam to be inspired by her resilience.
But that, of course, is why Biles is Biles. She is not satisfied with success achieved yesterday -- or five minutes ago. Only she and her coaches know what she is capable of accomplishing before she chooses to hang up her leo for good, and until that day comes, her inner drive will propel her -- and the sport -- forward.
Right now, that means more than adding new skills to the code of points. As USA Gymnastics faces bankruptcy, lawsuits and possible decertification by the USOC in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, Biles is a guiding light for her young teammates and fellow survivors, and a sunbeam for her sport. No gymnast has repeated as all-around Olympic champion in more than 50 years, yet Biles is the clear front-runner for gold next summer, and could lead her team to a third-straight team gold medal in Tokyo. And she will do so while smiling and dancing and sharing her life outside of gymnastics with the world.
"Even as dominating as our team has been with Simone on it, there is some anxiety going into 2020," Forster said. "But I am far less concerned about the gold medal. If you listen to the survivors of our sport, the criticisms made against this organization are about putting medals first. We don't talk about the gold medal. We talk about the process and making sure we're fair to the athletes. Our job is to help our athletes achieve the best in a positive way.
"We're going to prove that you can compete at a high, world-class level and enjoy the sport at the same time," Forster said. "But I told the girls: It is up to you to hit your routines and prove you can have fun, be focused and do your job."
That's Simone Biles in a sentence.