Simone Biles’ road to GOAT status, sixth U.S. all-around title, and how it almost didn’t happen

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Simone Biles that captivated national primetime TV on Sunday might not have existed if she didn’t change her mind back in 2016. The double-double. The triple-double. The voice for accountability and change in her troubled sport. All gone.

Aimee Boorman, Biles’ coach from age 7 through the 2016 Olympics, decided before the Rio Games that, post-Olympics, she would move from the Biles family gym in Texas to an executive director position at Evo Athletics in Florida. Biles would not be following her.

At one point, “I didn’t think she was going to come back,” after Rio, Boorman recalled Sunday by phone from Florida, “because she was saying she didn’t want to come back.”

Biles captured a record-tying sixth U.S. all-around title by a hefty 4.95 points this weekend. She has won 20 straight all-arounds dating to 2013, returning last year after a one-year break to dominate more than before.

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She became the first woman to land a triple twisting double somersault on floor exercise and the first to land a double twisting double somersault off the balance beam. Both skills, should she throw them at October’s world championships, will be named after her. Biles already has one floor tumbling pass and a vault named after her.

Biles, speaking after Sunday’s coronation, acknowledged Boorman’s recollection from three years ago.

“Yes and no,” she said. “I really did in that moment feel like I was going to be done, but there was a slight chance that I would want to come back. Everyone’s like, oh, you’re going to come back, and I feel like I fought it more.”

Boorman sensed as Rio approached that, more and more, Biles wanted to go for another Olympics.

“I always thought in the back of my mind, why wouldn’t she come back?” said Boorman, who is still friends with Biles, though their conversations aren’t about gymnastics anymore. “It’s so easy for her. At 22, it hurts a little more on her body, but it’s still not hard for her.”

Biles said shortly after Rio that she would take one year off from competition. She performed in USA Gymnastics’ post-Olympic nationwide tour, breaking a rib at one stop but soldiering on without watering down her routines. She suffered perhaps her most high-profile defeat, taking fourth on “Dancing with the Stars.”

She found two coaches to succeed the irreplaceable Boorman: Cecile and Laurent Landi, who guided fellow Texan Madison Kocian to uneven bars silver in Rio.

“If I had to pick coaches that I would want to take her, it would be you two,” Boorman messaged Cecile during the interview process.

The Landis set out to build on what Biles had accomplished with Boorman. The new skills that Biles debuted in the last year? She had already been doing them in practice in the last Olympic cycle.

“Probably 2015, at some point I asked her if she wanted to continue to upgrade or focus on being really clean and consistent,” Boorman said. “We decided to take the safe route.”

By then, Biles was working on a three-year unbeaten streak. Though other gymnasts sometimes had more difficult routines, Biles would prevail on the strength of her execution scores.

“There wasn’t any reason to push it,” Boorman said. “That confidence had built up.”

The Landis helped Biles find new motivation in implementing those unprecedented beam, floor and vault skills and overhauling her uneven bars routine.

Biles said she doesn’t have a goal to get a skill named after her on every apparatus, but she does submit one unprecedented bars move to the authorities before competitions, “just in case I mess up and do an extra half-pirouette.”

At last year’s worlds, Biles had 2.7 more points of difficulty than any other gymnast. That allowed her to win by the largest margin in history despite two falls (and the fact she competed with a kidney stone).

She averaged nearly two points more in start value than anybody else on each night this week. On the first night, she ranked fourth in execution scores but still led by 1.75 points overall. Biles wore a GOAT leotard at practice on Wednesday, and why not: she now starts competitions with a sizable advantage, knowing that nobody dares approach her difficulty.

Biles contends that, in this Olympic cycle, she has fewer people to prove with her routines and results. “I’m just doing it for myself, and I think that’s the beauty of it,” said Biles, who between routines on Sunday grabbed her phone and retweeted videos of her skills that had gone viral (“I didn’t want to be the last one to see it,” she said).

The drive remains. She was nearly in tears a minute into the competition Friday after overcooking the triple-double and putting her hands down on the landing. She used an expletive to describe her bars routine. 

Other gymnasts have come back with unfinished business from the Olympics. Notably Aly Raisman, who wanted and grabbed an all-around medal in Rio after missing a bronze in London via tiebreaker. Told of that, Boorman brought up the Rio balance beam final. Biles slipped and put both hands on the six-inch apparatus to keep from falling. The two-time reigning world champion ended up with a bronze medal.

Beam may have given Biles the most satisfaction between the two days in Kansas City.

“I finally did what I did in training,” Biles said, “so [Cecile Landi] doesn’t have to go back and say, Simone, we have to work on beam.”

Biles reads a Daily Skimm every morning and owns the book, “How to Skimm Your Life.”

“How to choose wine from a wine list. How to do your bills. So it’s a little more adulting,” said Biles, who is the only non-teen to win a U.S. women’s all-around since 1971. It’s another sign that this cycle is different.

“The first four years went so well, so see how this time around feels,” Biles said of her decision to return to training in November 2017. “It went pretty well.”

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Simone Biles returns to the gym, going from mental drain to physical pain

Simone Biles
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For Simone Biles, this was supposed to be the stretch run of a legendary career.

Instead, she returned to her gym on May 18 with long-term thoughts of waiting 14 months until the Tokyo Olympics. And the immediate aches of a world-class gymnast who just missed nearly two months of regular training.

“After that amount of time off, it kind of sucks because your body hurts and then you get really sore,” Biles said in a pre-recorded ESPNW interview that aired Thursday. “So you just have to get back into the swing of things. But it felt nice to see my coaches, my teammates, and just to be back on the equipment and in the environment.”

In that same Texas gym three months ago, Biles had a far different outlook. One that would have put fear into any gymnast who still harbored ambition of ending her near-seven-year win streak.

“I never felt more ready this early in the season,” she said. “I was so ready for the Olympics to be this year.”

Biles repeated in interviews the last two months that the Olympic postponement to 2021 was devastating. Thoughts zig-zagged: How do I go on another year, at age 23, in a sport recently dominated by (but not limited to) teenagers?

“I’m getting pretty old,” she said in the interview published Thursday. “Will I be at the top of my game?”

Biles proved the last two years — after a year off — that she can win — and comfortably — while not at her best. She grabbed the 2018 World all-around title by a record margin — with two falls. Last year, she became the most decorated gymnast in world championships history. In Tokyo, she can become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion, and the only one older than 20, in more than 50 years.

This for a gymnast whose early goal was to earn a college scholarship. Biles did, to UCLA, but had to give it up by turning professional.

“So I’ve exceeded that,” Biles said. “And then I wanted to go to world championships and Olympics, and I’ve been to five worlds and one Olympic Games. So, I’d be more than happy [to walk away].”

After gymnastics, Biles has another goal — to be a voice for foster kids. She was in foster care multiple times before being adopted at age 6 by grandparents Ron and Nellie.

Those plans, along with so much else for Biles and so many others, have been pushed back a full year.

“I was already being mentally drained and almost, not done with the sport, but just going into the gym and feeling tired and being like, OK, I’m going to get my stuff [done], get out,” she said. “We have this one end goal, and now that it’s postponed another [year], it’s just like, how are we going to deal with that? We’re already being drained, and so it’s to keep the fire in the sport within yourself alive.”

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2022 Pan Pacific Championships canceled as swimming calendar shifts

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The Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, a quadrennial major international meet, will not be held in 2022 “out of respect for the recent changes to the international sporting calendar,” according to a press release.

The Pan Pacs’ charter nations — the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan — agreed to the move. The 2026 event will be held in Canada, which was supposed to be the 2022 host.

The decision came after the 2021 World Championships were moved to May 2022, following the Tokyo Olympics moving from 2020 to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The quadrennial multi-sport Commonwealth Games — which includes Australia and Canada, but not the U.S. or Japan — are scheduled for July 27-Aug. 7, 2022.

“Organizing a third major championships in that window presented several challenges,” according to the Pan Pacs release.

Pan Pacs mark the third-biggest major international meet for U.S. swimmers, held in non-Olympic, non-world championships years.

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