INDIANAPOLIS — An arena gasped as Simone Biles crawled on her hands and knees.
Biles, who hasn’t lost an all-around competition in more than two years, who is the favorite for Olympic all-around gold in Rio, fell on her floor exercise routine on the first night of the P&G Championships on Thursday.
The crowd was shocked. So was Biles.
“Everyone thinks I’m a robot,” she said later. “I guess I’m human now, so that clears everything out of the way.”
That may be true, but the standings don’t lie, either.
Counting a fall, Biles leads the all-around halfway through by 1.4 points over best friend Maggie Nichols and by 2.4 over Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas (full standings here).
Neither Nichols nor Douglas fell on any of their four events Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Biles’ overall difficulty and execution are so great that she could probably fall again on the final night of competition and still earn her third straight U.S. all-around title Saturday (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 8-10 p.m. ET). Perhaps fall two or three times.
The pizza-loving Texan who has been known to light a candle to the patron saint of athletes before meets is four routines from becoming the first woman to three-peat at Nationals in 23 years.
“It just shows how amazing she is,” Nichols said. “Honestly, she’s my biggest role model. I look up to her so much.”
Biles, 18, bookended her performance Thursday with her highest scores ever on uneven bars and vault in three years at senior Nationals.
But she also fell on her uneven bars warm-up, made two errors on balance beam that even a non-gymnastics fan could spot and had that spill on a floor exercise pass her coach said she’s been doing since age 9 or 10.
Biles is the two-time reigning World champion on floor, her signature event.
“She’s getting really hard on herself for the mistakes,” said her coach, Aimee Boorman. “I think this meet was great that she had errors, one really significant error, and she really was able to move on.”
The first peer to find Biles after her floor exercise fall (video here) was 2012 Olympic floor exercise champion Aly Raisman, who, like Douglas, is competing in her first Nationals in three years. Raisman was fourth after the first day.
“I fell on beam, it’s OK,” Raisman told Biles with a hug, adding that she hadn’t fallen on beam since she was 8 years old.
“It’s strange,” Biles responded. “I’m not tired.”
Biles went from floor to her final event, vault, in third place behind Nichols and Douglas but close enough that an average landing would let her sleep on a lead.
“She usually lets it carry over,” Boorman said of Biles and mistakes.
Not this time. Biles stuck her Amanar vault (one of the hardest being done in the world today) and scored 16.25 points, the highest of the competition and, apparently, a personal best.
“She’s been trying to get a 16 for so long,” Boorman said. No woman scored 16 points in the vault final at an Olympics or World Championships since 2008.
Biles and everyone else are competing in hopes of making the six-woman team for the World Championships (last week of October in Glasgow, Scotland). That team will be chosen following a fall selection camp at the Karolyi ranch in Texas.
Second-place Nichols, a Little Canada, Minn., native whose Twitter handle is @MagsGotSwag12, led the competition after each of the first three rotations Thursday.
Nichols finished third in the all-around at the 2014 P&G Championships and looked destined for her first Worlds team until dislocating her left kneecap the following week.
“Maggie Nichols, the biggest improvement I can see in this quadrennium is her,” U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said Wednesday. “At the beginning, she was just average, new elite, two and a half, three years ago. … Of this moment, she is showing definitely world-class gymnastics.”
The Olympic champion Douglas, who finished second to Biles at the Secret Classic on July 25, said she can be better than she was Thursday and has more to show as she continues her return after two seasons away from competition.
“I need to just clean up my landings a little bit,” she said. “I need to work on not being too anxious to land. Just press and stick.”
What does Douglas think of Biles’ big lead while counting a fall?
“It just says that she’s a very good competitor,” Douglas said as Biles sat 10 feet away. “This is definitely going to push me, push Aly to be even better than we are.”
Raisman said she began her beam routine Thursday afraid she would fall. And that’s exactly what happened.
“It’s still not where I want to be, but that’s OK, we’re not supposed to peak at this meet,” she said.
The third active member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic champion team, Kyla Ross, tied for 12th on Thursday. Ross won World Championships all-around silver and bronze medals the last two years but has been off so far this season.
Biles was also not at her best Thursday, but it was still plenty good enough.
“She’s tough on herself, and she doesn’t want to disappoint anyone,” Boorman said. “There’s so much, all of the media hype about her, potentially going three national championships in a row. Then all of the Rio hype and all that. It’s putting a lot on her shoulders. She’s 18, and it’s a lot.”
The P&G Championships continue with the first of two days of men’s competition Friday night (Universal Sports, 8 p.m. ET).
Men’s preview: Sam Mikulak eyes three-peat; top contenders absent