Mary Lou Retton: Simone Biles needs Olympic gold to secure greatness

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The greatest gymnast Mary Lou Retton has ever seen is a wonder.

She has the power to get such height on the vault it seems as if she’s bungee jumping from the roof.

She has the energy to make the final tumbling pass of her boundary-pushing floor exercise – when most of her peers are breathless and counting the seconds until the music stops – as fresh as her first.

She has the poise to flip and swoop and turn on a 4-inch wide slab of wood 4-feet off the ground so fluidly it’s like an X Games version of ballet.

“The god-gifted ability of explosiveness and just her athleticism, you can’t teach that,” said Retton, the 1984 Olympic champion. “You cannot teach that. You can teach somebody to be a little bit more graceful. You can teach someone more skills, but you can’t teach that special unique quality that Simone has.”

Get ready to know Simone Biles. In her sport, the live-wire 19-year-old from Spring, Texas, enjoys first-name only status, the byproduct of a three-year run of dominance that includes 14 world championship medals with a record 10 golds and three all-around titles.

“We’re joking she should have to compete with the guys,” Retton said. “She’s so good. She pushes it. She’s just special.”

If still somewhat anonymous outside of the buzzing fans who inhabit the social-media driven gymternet. For all of the awe Biles inspires, the one thing – really the only thing – Biles lacks is that Olympic moment of triumph with the world – the whole world, not just part of it – watching.

“It’s that Olympic all-around gold medal, the Queen Bee, the most important,” Retton said. “Yeah I think she needs it as part of her repertoire.”

There is no denying Biles’ excellence. She could never turn another backflip and her spot in her sport’s pantheon would be secure. Yet to the general public, she remains somewhat unknown. It took her two world titles before Twitter would verify her. Her followers – currently in the 82,000 range – total just 10 percent of those who follow 2012 Olympic champion (and 2016 teammate) Gabby Douglas.

“It’s like you still need that one puzzle piece,” said 2004 Olympic champion Carly Patterson. “It’s just crazy. You really need to have that checkmark to be looked at as one of those tops. That’s what it seems like. Her career is incredible and you wonder if that creates so much pressure.”

Such is the fine line Biles, her family and longtime coach Aimee Boorman have been trying to walk in the run-up to Rio. While they have taken steps to maximize the potential a golden moment in Rio would provide – Biles turned professional last spring – they have also been careful in creating internal expectations focused more on the process than the end result.

“She could quit tomorrow and still be a world champion,” said Boorman, who coaches at the aptly named World Champions Centre, the state-of-the art training center/passion project the Biles family opened in suburban Houston last fall. “We tell her that if people want to put pressure on her to win the Olympics, that’s their pressure, not hers.”

For Biles, it’s not about her scores. Biles doesn’t pay much attention to them. It’s not about winning, maybe because every meet she has entered since the 2013 US championships has ended the same way: with Biles atop the podium ducking her head so the latest medal to her ever-growing collection can be draped around her neck.

It’s not even about her highly GIF-able routines either, the ones that leave her peers in awe. If Biles is being honest, she doesn’t even know the formal terms for some of the skills she does anyway.

“They’re like, ‘Oh, you did a …’ and I’m like, ‘I did a what?”‘ Biles said. “No, I flipped twice. I twisted twice. They go ‘it’s called a …’ and I’m like ‘Why do I need to know that? I just need to go and do that.”‘

While Biles is happy to talk about shopping, favorites pictures of junk food on Instagram and kidnapping Steph Curry‘s kids so she can babysit them (as she did on Monday after securing a spot on the five-woman team while easily winning the Olympic trials), she’s not interested in fangirling over herself.

“It hurts my head, but it’s fine because it’s something I do every day,” Biles said. “You can’t avoid the gymnastics questions.”

Particularly the most basic one. How?

“We all have skills I guess,” she said.

Maybe, but Biles somehow seems to have all of them.

The sport’s code of points – overhauled over a decade ago to get rid of the 10-point system in favor of one designed to great a higher risk/reward factor – forces its competitors to make a choice between aggression and precision. Biles is the rare gymnast who doesn’t have to choose. She can do both.

“If you made it look as easy as Simone, you’d be smiling too,” said former Olympic coach Bela Karolyi, whose wife Martha has turned the U.S. national team into the Harlem Globetrotters in leotards and ceiling-scraping hair buns. “There is no one to compare Simone to.”

On the final night of Olympic trials Sunday night Biles drilled her intricate Amanar vault and earned a 16.2, the highest of the meet on any event. The score included a 9.9 mark for execution, as close to perfection as the judges let things get these days. Her two-day total on vault of 32.200 was 1.3 points clear of runner-up MyKayla Skinner, the equivalent of a three-touchdown win in football.

There’s so much cushion between Biles and the rest of the world that even a fall or two like the one on beam Sunday night that briefly set her eyes ablaze – a miscue that would jeopardize the medal hopes of most – is basically no big deal. Not that it mattered to Biles. She’s spent the last three years setting a standard that is uniquely hers, which may be her most remarkable talent of all.

“Typically you can have an athlete that’s head and tails above the rest, they might rest on their laurels a little bit,” said seven-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller, a member of the 1996 U.S. team that won the country’s first team Olympic gold. “They might slide a little bit. She doesn’t. She’s at the top of her game every time.”

The ultimate stage awaits.

MORE: Analyzing the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team

Olympic flame to travel by sea for Paris 2024, welcomed by armada

Paris 2024 Olympic Torch Relay Marseille
Paris 2024
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The Olympic flame will travel from Athens to Marseille by ship in spring 2024 to begin the France portion of the torch relay that ends in Paris on July 26, 2024.

The torch relay always begins in the ancient Olympic site of Olympia, Greece, where the sun’s rays light the flame. It will be passed by torch until it reaches Athens.

It will then cross the Mediterranean Sea aboard the Belem, a three-masted ship, “reminiscent of a true Homeric epic,” according to Paris 2024. It will arrive at the Old Port of Marseille, welcomed by an armada of boats.

Marseille is a former Greek colony and the oldest city in France. It will host sailing and some soccer matches during the Paris Olympics.

The full 2024 Olympic torch relay route will be unveiled in May.

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Paris 2024 Olympic Torch Relay Marseille
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Mikaela Shiffrin heads to world championships with medal records in sight

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Before Mikaela Shiffrin can hold the World Cup wins record, she can become the most decorated Alpine skier in modern world championships history.

Shiffrin takes a respite from World Cup pursuits for the biennial world championships in France. She is expected to race at least four times, beginning with Monday’s combined.

Shiffrin has a tour-leading 11 World Cup victories in 23 starts this season, her best since her record 17-win 2018-19 campaign, but world championships do not count toward the World Cup.

Shiffrin remains one career victory behind Swede Ingemar Stenmark‘s record 86 World Cup wins until at least her next World Cup start in March.

Shiffrin has been more successful at worlds than at the Olympics and even on the World Cup. She has 11 medals in 13 world championships races dating to her 2013 debut, including making the podium in each of her last 10 events.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

She enters worlds one shy of the modern, post-World War II individual records for total medals (Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt won 12) and gold medals (Austrian Toni Sailer, Frenchwoman Marielle Goitschel and Swede Anja Pärson won seven).

Worlds take place exactly one year after Shiffrin missed the medals in all of her Olympic races, but that’s not motivating her.

“If I learned anything last year, it’s that these big events, they can go amazing, and they can go terrible, and you’re going to survive no matter what,” she said after her most recent World Cup last Sunday. “So I kind of don’t care.”

Shiffrin ranks No. 1 in the world this season in the giant slalom (Feb. 16 at worlds) and slalom (Feb. 18).

This year’s combined is one run of super-G coupled with one run of slalom (rather than one downhill and one slalom), which also plays to her strengths. She won that event, with that format, at the last worlds in 2021. The combined isn’t contested on the World Cup, so it’s harder to project favorites.

Shiffrin is also a medal contender in the super-G (Feb. 8), despite starting just two of five World Cup super-Gs this season (winning one of them).

She is not planning to race the downhill (Feb. 11), which she often skips on the World Cup and has never contested at a worlds. Nor is she expected for the individual parallel (Feb. 15), a discipline she hasn’t raced in three years in part due to the strain it puts on her back with the format being several runs for the medalists.

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