Simone Biles goes into another world all-around final, wishing for a rival

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STUTTGART, Germany — Simone Biles admits it gets lonely at the top. She’s been in a league of her own since the Rio Olympic year. After taking 14 months off, she returned in 2018 to even greater dominance.

“Sometimes I wish there was somebody closer,” she said after leading the U.S. to the world team title on Tuesday, earning a female record-breaking 21st career world championships medal, “but at the same time I have to go out there and do what I came to do.”

Biles won last year’s world all-around title by a record 1.693 points, despite falling twice and competing with a kidney stone. She is undefeated in all-arounds for six years. Thursday marks the fifth anniversary of the last time anybody was within one point of Biles in a single day of official all-around competition.

She carries her usual favorite status into Thursday’s world all-around final (10 a.m. ET, NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app). Last year’s silver and bronze medalists — Japanese Mai Murakami and American Morgan Hurd — were not chosen for their world teams.

Biles upgraded her difficulty since last year, too. She added two more unprecedented skills — the triple-double floor exercise pass and the double-double dismount off the balance beam — though she could choose not to throw them.

Biles had 2.7 more points in difficulty score than any other gymnast last year, which allowed her to fall twice (one point deducted per fall) and still win easily. Yet she apologized on social media for her performance in Doha, dismayed to prevail without her best routines.

“At times, I don’t know, I still get nervous, no matter how far ahead I am,” she said Tuesday.

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If Biles ever needs a pick-me-up, she can check her social media mentions. On Twitter alone, Chrissy TeigenMichelle Obama and Monica Lewinsky congratulated her during the U.S. Championships in August.

“I didn’t think it would blow up the way it did,” Biles said before worlds. “Then on Twitter it was up there for weeks. … I was just looking at my phone. I was like, mom, look. Usually that only happens in an Olympic year, something gets that much attention.”

Then this week, LeBron James retweeted her double-double beam dismount from world championships qualifying, commenting that she was “flat out INCREDIBLE!!!”

Biles brought gymnastics to a place it’s never been. In a non-Olympic year, the world’s most famous basketball player was star struck by something that happened in qualifying, when medals were not even at stake.

NBC Sports analyst Nastia Liukin starred in an Adidas commercial during the 2004 Olympics, then debuted as a senior in 2005. In the gymnastics world, she was a star throughout the 2008 Olympic cycle. But she could not think of an experience leading up to the Beijing Games that was comparable to Biles’ buzz these last two months.

“We didn’t have social media in 2007 or 2008, so it had to be like an in-person [thing], or it had to be someone calling you or emailing you,” Liukin said.

That call didn’t come until after she won the Olympic all-around in China. Maria Sharapova got her number and invited her to New York Fashion Week.

“That to me was like, wow,” Liukin said. “Because of Fashion Week, but more so because it was her.”

The silver-medal favorite on Thursday may be 16-year-old, first-year senior American Sunisa Lee, who said earlier this summer that it was scary to share a competition group with Biles.

Lee was within .35 of a point of Biles in last month’s world selection camp, an unofficial competition where Biles fell off the uneven bars. She was second in all-around qualifying here, 2.266 behind Biles, despite a balance beam fall.

“To just be competing alongside Simone, she’s freaking amazing,” Lee said after the team final, drawing laughter from the rest of the U.S. team. “Words can’t even describe.”

Biles and Lee will rotate Thursday in the same, top-ranked group. Biles will be going for her fifth world all-around title, extending her female record, in likely her last world championships.

It is the biggest day of competition for Biles until next summer. And another chance to extend gymnastics’ reach.

“I never really feel like I’m a big name,” Biles said. “Everybody puts that on me. I don’t put it on myself.”

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