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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Maria Sharapova appears set to miss Tokyo Olympics

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Maria Sharapova, who would have a difficult time qualifying for the Olympics next year, committed to play an event in California the week of the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova is scheduled to play World Team Tennis matches in California during the Olympic tennis events in late July, according to a press release. Sharapova’s longtime agent hasn’t responded to a message seeking confirmation that she is ruling out the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova, 32 and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, was barred from the Rio Games due to her 15-month meldonium suspension in 2016 and 2017. That alone could rule her ineligible for Tokyo, given the World Anti-Doping Agency’s sanctions against Russia on Monday.

Sharapova is ranked No. 131 after a season shortened by shoulder surgery. She would have to be among the top four ranked Russian women after the French Open in June for possible automatic Olympic qualification. She is currently the 14th Russian.

Olympic eligibility rules include minimum participation requirements in Fed Cup, which Sharapova hasn’t done in this Olympic cycle, though exceptions can be made.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said in 2017. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility. One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

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Russia banned from Olympics, world champs for 4 years; athletes could compete as neutrals

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Russia is banned from the next two Olympics and other major sports events for four years, though its athletes could still compete without representing the country if cleared by anti-doping authorities.

Russia’s hosting of world championships in Olympic sports also face being stripped after the World Anti-Doping Agency executive committee approved a full slate of recommended sanctions for tampering with a Moscow laboratory database.

Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in major events — including world championships — only if they are not implicated in positive doping tests or their data was not manipulated, according to the WADA ruling. “In this circumstance, they may not represent the Russian Federation,” according to a WADA release.

“While I understand the calls for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes whether or not they are implicated by the data, it was the unanimous view of the CRC [compliance review committee], which includes an athlete, that in this case, those who could prove their innocence should not be punished, and I am pleased that the WADA ExCo [executive committee] agreed with this,” WADA CRC chairman Jonathan Taylor said.

There are 145 unnamed athletes within WADA’s “target group of most suspicious athletes” from 2012-15 who would not be allowed to compete at the Olympics, Taylor said, adding that it’s possible those names will be made public. About one-third of them are still active.

Russia’s anti-doping agency can appeal the decision within 21 days. Russia previously signaled it would appeal the ruling.

“The decision will come into effect only when it becomes final ie when either RUSADA accepts it or it is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” a WADA spokesperson said in an email.

Russia avoided blanket bans for the Rio and PyeongChang Olympics after a state-run doping program was exposed by media and WADA investigations after Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Approved Russian athletes competed as neutrals — “Olympic Athletes from Russia” — including in team sports in PyeongChang. Those Russians combined to earn two gold medals (figure skater Alina Zagitova and men’s hockey) and 17 overall, compared to the leading 33 Russia earned at the Sochi Olympics before medals were stripped for doping.

“Will Russian athletes be accepted as Olympic Athletes from Russia?” during the ban, Taylor said. “No, they are neutral athletes, which means not representatives of any country. Not representatives of Russia.”

Going forward, “they cannot use the name of the country in the name of the team,” WADA president-elect Witold Bańka told The Associated Press.

Two of the 168 Russians who competed in PyeongChang failed drug tests and were punished for doping.

More recent evidence shows that Russian authorities tampered with a Moscow laboratory database to hide hundreds of potential doping cases and falsely shift the blame onto whistleblowers, WADA investigators and the International Olympic Committee said last month. “Flagrant manipulation” of the Moscow lab data was “an insult to the sporting movement worldwide,” the IOC said last month.

“Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order … but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial,” WADA president Craig Reedie said.

Russia will be allowed to participate in the Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, that open Jan. 9.

WADA’s inability to fully expel Russia from the Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Games frustrated the doping watchdog’s vice president.

“I’m not happy with the decision we made today. But this is as far as we could go,” said Linda Helleland, a Norwegian lawmaker who serves on WADA executive committee and has long pushed for a tougher line against Russia. “This is the biggest sports scandal the world has ever seen. I would expect now a full admission from the Russians and for them to apologize on all the pain all the athletes and sports fans have experienced.”

Although the IOC has called for the strongest possible sanctions, it wants those sanctions directed at Russian state authorities rather than athletes or Olympic officials.

“To allow Russia to escape a complete ban is yet another devastating blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. “And, in turn, the reaction by all those who value sport should be nothing short of a revolt against this broken system to force reform.”

Russia’s Olympic champion women’s handball team is currently competing at the world championships in Japan. Its next match is Tuesday against Montenegro. Russia has been the scheduled host for the world luge championships in Sochi in mid-February.

The “major sports” events that fall under WADA’s sanctions do not include European Championships or other non-world championships events such as tennis’ upcoming Australian Open.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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TIMELINE: Russia’s recent history of sports doping