Angry Simone Biles still leads gymnastics nationals; how she passes the math test

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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.

MORE: U.S. Championships TV schedule

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.”

MORE: Simone Biles explains GOAT leotard

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Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

Jordan Thompson
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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

VIDEO: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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