Morgan Hurd

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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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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Four thoughts off 2018 World Gymnastics Championships

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Four thoughts off the 2018 World Gymnastics Championships, where Simone Biles scribbled through the record book with medals on every event, including four golds, in her first international meet since the Rio Olympics …

1. Simone Biles, greatest athlete of 2018?
Many top sports countries have Sportsperson of the Year Awards, which usually honor athletes in individual sports. It’s a little different in the U.S., where team sports dominate, and there are multiple marquee year-end honors from the likes of Sports Illustrated and The Associated Press. Those outlets typically choose American athletes, but not always (see Johann Olav Koss and Martina Hingis, for instance).

Voters who take a close look for this year’s awards have a few deserving female candidates. Biles, the 2016 AP Female Athlete of the Year, is of course on that short list, after arguably the greatest meet of her career and the most trying year.

Biles returned to training under a new coach on Nov. 2, 2017, after a 14-month break. She still traveled frequently for sponsors until mid-December and struggled mentally as recently as May, coach Cecile Landi said, according to Olympic Channel.

“She was in the gym for two, three days, she started to feel better,” Landi said of last fall’s training, according to the report. “And then she had to start all over again, and she was like, ‘I tried, I think I need to quit. That’s it. It’s too hard.’ She would quit every three days.”

In January, she came forward as one of hundreds of Larry Nassar survivors. She and many other U.S. gymnasts trained for the major summer and fall meets while USA Gymnastics underwent leadership change after leadership change.

Biles returned to competition in July, then swept the gold medals at nationals for the first time in August. Then in Doha, she led the U.S. women to a sixth straight Olympic or world title, this time by the largest margin of victory under a 12-year-old scoring system. That was the first of her six medals in six events at worlds, a feat not seen in 31 years.

Others who had incredible years? Breanna Stewart, who led the Seattle Storm to the WNBA title and the U.S. to a world title. She was MVP of the WNBA regular season and WNBA Finals and the MVP of the world championship. Not much more one can ask of a basketball player.

There’s Swiss triathlete Daniela Ryf, who overcame jellyfish stings under both armpits minutes before the Kona Ironman World Championship last month. Ryf then shattered her course record by 20 minutes in perfect weather (the men’s course record also fell by nine minutes in Kona). Ryf also won her two other major races this year, taking 12 minutes off her Ironman European Championship course record and earning her fourth Ironman 70.3 world title.

Let’s not forget about the Winter Olympics, where the majority of dominating performances came from women (such as Ester Ledecká, Marit Bjørgen and Chloe Kim).

MORE: 2018 Gym Worlds Results

2. The U.S. women’s rebuilding was a reloading
The first worlds with a team event since the Olympics taught us that the U.S. is more dominant than ever, even with a whole new team aside from Biles. If Biles’ team-final scores are substituted for the U.S.’ fourth athlete from qualifying, the Americans still win by five points over Russia, nearly the margin of victory from 2015 Worlds.

Morgan Hurd confirmed this year that her 2017 breakout (with a world all-around title in Biles’ absence) was no fluke. She earned a medal of every color in Doha. Riley McCusker, after some errors in qualifying, had an uneven bars score in the team final bettered only by Biles of the 23 other gymnasts.

The other two world team competitors, Kara Eaker and Grace McCallum, were third and 11th, respectively, at the 2017 U.S. Junior Championships.

Some of the U.S.’ most promising gymnasts — including Ragan SmithEmma MalabuyoMaile O’Keefe and Gabby Perea— were significantly affected or sidelined altogether by injuries in 2018. Jade Carey, who last year went from not being an elite gymnast to earning two world championships medals, skipped worlds in favor of maximizing her Olympic team chances.

A comeback from any of the other Rio Olympians for Tokyo 2020 would be a daunting exercise.

3. Artur Dalaloyan, from kicked off the team to world’s best gymnast
Not Alexei Nemov. Not Paul Hamm. Not even Kohei Uchimura. None of those Olympic all-around champions accomplished what Dalaloyan did at a world championships — earning five medals in one week (Dalaloyan’s included all-around gold). Nobody had since Vitaly Scherbo in 1991.

The 22-year-old had no high-pressure, global experience before Doha. He was not on the Olympic team. Limited by a broken foot, he competed in one final at 2017 Worlds, finishing last on vault after getting into the event due to another gymnast’s injury.

In fact, Dalaloyan was once kicked off the national team for disciplinary reasons at age 15, according to the International Gymnastics Federation. He missed the Rio team after not taking the sport seriously upon his return to the Russian program.

“When you are 18 or 19 years old, it is difficult to lock yourself in the gym and only train. I wanted to have fun, dance with girls, go for walks, and much more,” Dalaloyan said earlier in 2018, according to the FIG. “I thought, ‘Why limit myself? After all, I’m already in the national team!’ Then I began to notice that the other guys were all progressing, and I was wasting time. When I realized that I really could not get to Rio, I discarded all unnecessary and went to work. It was like something clicked in my head. I really understood a very simple thing: I need gymnastics.”

4. Sam Mikulak changed by medal breakthrough
When Mikulak had his first medal miss at the 2013 World Championships, he said, “You’ve got to learn to lose before you can learn to win.” After Mikulak earned his first individual medal in his sixth Olympic/world champs appearance last week, he sounded like a changed athlete.

“It wasn’t the epitomizing moment that I thought it would be,” he said. “There’s a lot more to life than getting these things.”

Will that change how the 26-year-old approaches the sport? Who knows. In the summer, Mikulak was so invested in earning a medal that he said he couldn’t retire without one. It conjured images of Blaine Wilson pacing and racking during the 2004 Olympic team final. There was still some of that fire in Mikulak as he wore the high-bar bronze Saturday.

“I feel like I finally broke the barrier, and I’m going to go home, and I’m going to want to get more of these,” he said.

He certainly has the talent. Mikulak qualified for five individual finals at worlds, the most by a U.S. man since 1979. He would have earned an all-around medal if not for errors on his last and best event, high bar. He led an otherwise young U.S. men’s team to fourth place, the best it could have hoped for barring collapse from China, Japan or Russia. He did so after being limited at nationals and worlds in 2017 due to his second left Achilles tear in two years.

Next year, Mikulak can break his tie with Wilson with a sixth U.S. all-around title. Then in 2020, he can become the first U.S. male gymnast since Wilson to compete in three Olympics. Maybe, like Wilson, he can finally earn an Olympic medal in his third try.

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MORE: Why Simone Biles can win with two falls