KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Fifteen seconds into her first routine, Simone Biles wanted to walk off the floor and out of the building on the first night of the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. She was half-kidding.
“I felt like I had tears in my eyes,” Biles said, seriously, of overcooking her opening floor exercise tumbling pass, a triple twisting double somersault that no woman had ever performed, and putting her hands down on the landing. “That was, like, the only time I truly felt sorry for myself in a real long time.”
Yet Biles leads nationals by a comfortable 1.75 points going into Sunday’s final day of competition. She will almost certainly extend her six-year win streak and tie the record of six U.S. women’s all-around titles.
The surprise in second place, Sunisa Lee, beat Biles in the execution score. So did three other gymnasts. Which underscores what makes Biles more dominant in this Olympic cycle after taking a year off post-Rio and changing coaches.
Biles, who for so long out-executed the competition, is now out-daring the world more than ever before. Her difficulty score, which added to the execution makes up the total score per apparatus, is out of this world.
She had 1.8 points more difficulty than the next-highest gymnast on Friday. That’s .45 more points of start value per apparatus, in a sport often decided by a tenth here or there. All of the other contenders were bunched within 1.5 points of each other in difficulty.
“I’m trying to build the best routine, the most efficient routine that she can do with the highest start value,” said Laurent Landi, who with his wife, Cecile, make up Biles’ new coaching team since her return to training in November 2017. “The bottom line is, that floor routine, she hits 15.5 with that. Nobody can get close to that. That’s what I want to try to do. Good bar routine, 14.5. Good beam routine, 15.5. We aim between 60 and 61 points.”
Biles scored 58.65 on Friday, but hit 60 at the U.S. Classic last month. No other woman has broken 58 points the last two years, according to TheGymter.net.
Biles won last year’s world title by 1.693 points, the largest women’s margin of victory at worlds under the 12-year-old Code of Points, which replaced the perfect-10 system. She apologized afterward because she fell twice (while competing with a kidney stone).
Incredibly, Biles had 2.7 more points of difficulty in the world all-around final than any other gymnast. Of her four Olympic/world all-around titles in the last Olympic cycle, Biles’ biggest D score advantage was nine tenths. Aly Raisman was only six tenths behind in difficulty at the Rio Olympics, where Biles won by 2.1 with a 1.5-point edge in execution.
There’s the difference in Biles 2.0, at least so far.
Biles said she has no idea what her difficulty scores are. Told of the whopping edge of 2.7 points at worlds, she guffawed.
“I shouldn’t be laughing, that’s not funny,” she said, catching herself. “We don’t try to say, oh, how far ahead can I be in difficulty? But it’s more of, how much can I push myself?”
Biles just does what the Landis tell her. In their nearly two years together, that’s meant adding never-been-done skills on balance beam, floor exercise and vault. Her biggest overall upgrade came on the uneven bars, where she earned a world medal for the first time last year.
“She did an Olympics and was incredibly successful,” said Chellsie Memmel, a 2008 Olympian who has been a judge at all six of Biles’ national championships. “Now it’s like why not add more into it and see how much she can push the envelope? And it’s insane.”
The insanity came in those first 15 seconds Friday. Biles’ unprecedented triple-double on floor would be scored at a J value, Memmel predicted before the competition and Biles repeated after. Skills are assigned a value that corresponds to a point total. An A receives one tenth, a B gets two tenths and so on. Memmel never thought she would see somebody crack the one-point barrier with a J.
“A lot of girls are counting Ds,” Memmel said of floor exercise tumbling passes. “She’s not counting any Ds. They’re all above.”
NBC Sports analyst Nastia Liukin competed with Memmel in the first Olympic cycle under the Code of Points. Her head-to-head battle with Shawn Johnson at the 2008 Beijing Games was so tight that they had the exact same D scores in the all-around final, which Liukin won by six tenths.
Liukin said that her coach and father, Valeri, sat her down a few months before the Games to show how she compared with Johnson’s D scores. He also wrote out Liukin’s Olympic uneven bars routine, which would be valued at an astronomical 7.7 D score, a year and a half before the Games.
“A great coach, that’s what they’ll do because they don’t want us to worry about that,” Liukin said. “When you’re 16, 17, you maybe don’t even really quite understand.”
Cecile Landi said that Biles’ ideal total difficulty would be 25.6 points combining the four events, which is two tenths more than her 2018 World Championships total.
It would be another four tenths higher, except they’ve decided not to attempt Biles’ unprecedented vault that she got named after her at last year’s all-around final.
Laurent Landi said doing that vault, without a warm-up, at October’s worlds, along with the new beam and floor skills would be “too much pressure, and I don’t want her to feel overwhelmed.”
“She can do it, we know that,” Cecile Landi said. “But, the risk, is it worth it? You’ve got to be careful. She’s 22, and we’ve got to make sure we’ve got one more year to go.”
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