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Simone Biles set to star at likely last world championships, fueled by snub

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In Simone Biles‘ second Olympic cycle, she has become comfortable speaking out. Whether it be about problems within USA Gymnastics or taking on the social media critics who disapproved of her last name being on the back of a competition leotard.

Biles begins what will likely be her final world championships — “99 percent” sure she won’t be back in 2021 or later, she said — with qualifying on Saturday (TV, live stream schedule here).

She will compete with fuel added just this week. And she hasn’t kept to herself why she’s “pissed off.”

The International Gymnastics Federation women’s technical committee announced what point values would be awarded to new skills performed in Stuttgart, Germany.

Two of the unprecedented moves are Biles’ viral clips from the U.S. Championships in August: the triple-double on floor exercise and the double-double dismount off the balance beam. If Biles performs them in international competition — like at worlds — they will be named after her. She already has one eponymous floor pass and vault.

The committee gave the triple-double, which would be “The Biles 2,” a J value — corresponding to a full point in difficulty score (one tenth for every letter in the alphabet). Until now, the highest value given to an element was an I. Biles hoped The Biles 2 would be a J.

The double-double off the beam will be credited an H — eight tenths in difficulty. This is what led Biles to tweet, “hahahaHAHAHAHAHhahaHahaAhahAhahahaAhahahHAHAahaaaaaaaHa bull—-.” She had also hoped the double-double off the four-inch beam would be a J.

One of Biles’ coaches, Cecile Landi, tweeted that Biles makes the dismount look “too easy.” Biles concurred. She noted that an easier skill — a full-in — is an E on floor and a G on beam. The double-double on floor is an H, so, she asked, why does a double-double on beam rise one tenth from a full-in instead of three like it does on floor?

“They don’t want to make a new column,” for an unprecedented value on beam, Biles said. “That’s what they said.

“If it were [a gymnast from] another country trying it, it would definitely be a J. But because it’s me. It’s so unfair, because, am I in a league of my own? Yes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t credit me for what I’m doing.

“They keep asking us to do more difficulty and to give more artistry, give more harder skills. So we do, and then they don’t credit it, and I don’t think that’s fair. They keep asking for more, we give them more and they don’t credit it. So what’s the point of even asking? If you’re going to give it an H, nobody’s going to try it. But if you give it a J, not saying people will try it more, but at least it makes sense to try it because it’s something to shoot for.”

The FIG issued a statement Friday.

“In assigning values to the new elements, the WTC takes into consideration many different aspects; the risk, the safety of the gymnasts and the technical direction of the discipline,” it read. “The direction of the FIG for the past two Olympic cycles has been to encourage the perfect execution and beautiful artistic performance, while continuing the development of the skills. With this in mind, the WTC has assigned a ‘reasonable’ difficulty value to the dismount, reflecting on these many aspects. There is added risk in landing of double saltos for beam dismounts (with/without twists), including a potential landing on the neck. Reinforcing, there are many examples in the Code where decisions have been made to protect the gymnasts and preserve the direction of the discipline.”

To Biles, the new skills are more important than bagging a bunch more gold medals and breaking more records.

She is at 20 world championships medals so far, tied with Russian Svetlana Khorkina for the female record and three shy of the overall record held by Belarusian Vitaly Scherbo. Her 14 golds are already a record.

She is an overwhelming favorite to lead the U.S. to a seventh straight Olympic or world team title on Tuesday and earn a fifth all-around crown Thursday. In next weekend’s individual apparatus finals, it would be a shock if she didn’t win floor and vault. She also owns two beam titles (none since 2015) and, last year, earned her first medal on uneven bars (silver).

“This is probably the most confident I’ve ever been,” Biles said Tuesday.

She called last year’s worlds, in her comeback from a year off, “a disaster,” because the gymnastics she remembers most from the meet were her two falls in the all-around final. Never mind that she competed with a kidney stone and still won by the largest margin in history, thanks to her astronomical difficulty level.

But then she said that Aly Raisman reminded her that when Raisman and Gabby Douglas came back from two-year layoffs in 2015, they struggled as well. Raisman failed to make any individual finals at those worlds. The next year, she took second to Biles in the Olympic all-around.

“Coming back off the time [away], it’s not easy,” said Biles, undefeated in all-arounds for six years. “I think people think it’s easy because I made it look easy, but in the gym it’s not easy. … In my time off, I had the time of my life.”

The next 10 months will likely be the last of Biles’ competitive career. Maybe a handful of meets to go. Next year at the Olympics, she could become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion since Czech Vera Caslavska in 1964 and 1968. She could lead the U.S. to a third straight Olympic team title, not seen since the Soviets won eight straight from 1952-80.

But first, there is Stuttgart. And now, another reason to give a performance for the ages. But don’t expect any more new skills next year.

“I think I’m out, sorry,” she said.

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report from Stuttgart.

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*Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Vera Caslavska’s name.

2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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