Simone Biles, on the cusp of Olympic glory

The 24-year-old champion is looking to win gold at the Tokyo Games and further cement her position as the greatest artistic gymnast of all time

Simone Biles Juegos Olimpicos
US gymnast Simone Biles at the Tokyo Olympic Games.LOIC VENANCE (AFP)

Simone Biles may only be 1.45 meters tall, but she is a force to be reckoned with. Combining grace, power and determination, the US artistic gymnast has a unique kinesthetic ability that allows her to know – without seeing and while flying through the air – how to land complicated tricks. Even a cat would be envious.

“Imagine if a woman could run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds, a threshold that has only been broken by the best sprinters in the world. It would bring the world to a standstill,” says Pablo Carriles, a trainer and international judge with experience at several Olympic Games. “Well that woman, in gymnastics, is Simone Biles.”

The difference with the others is so great… It’s almost embarrassing. She is in a league of her own, in another world
Pablo Carriles, international judge with experience at several Olympic Games

Few male gymnasts are even able to attempt what Biles does with such deceptive ease. She has been on the cover of the fashion magazine Glamour, which published a glowing report on the 24-year-old. On Instagram, Biles shares photos of herself eating pizza, with her boyfriends and dressed in leotards decorated with small goats – a reference to her status as a “GOAT,” the acronym for Greatest Of All Time. And Twitter has created an emoji just for her – a goat in a sparkling red leotard.

What’s more, Biles has not been afraid to take on big-name institutions. She recently left Nike, her longtime sponsor, and signed up to represent Athleta, an activewear label for women that is a division of clothing retailer Gap. Biles is following in the footsteps of track sprinter Allyson Felix, who also signed with Athleta after leaving Nike for cutting her pay while she was on maternity leave. Athleta will sponsor Biles’s Gold Over America Tour, which will travel across the US when the Tokyo Olympic Games are over. This tour undercuts USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body, which typically organizes such an event after the competition.

When Biles was 19 years old, she swept to glory at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, winning four gold medals and a bronze. She won gold for team, all-around, vault, floor and took third place for beam.

When she returned to her home in Texas, where she is trained by the French couple Laurent Landi and Cecile Canqueteau, a scandal erupted over Lawrence G. Nassar, the national gymnastics team doctor who was sentenced to more than 200 years in prison for sexually abusing young girls for years. Biles was one of the victims. The timid response from USA Gymnastics, which protected Nassar even though they suspected what was happening, outraged Biles, who said the organization could not be trusted.

Five years on, Biles is stronger than ever. She is 24 years old – in former times, gymnasts at this age were considered past their prime. Gymnastic legend Nadia Comăneci was just 14 when she was awarded a perfect score at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, and by the time she was 18 and competing in the Moscow Games in 1980, she was considered a veteran.

Simone Biles competes in the artistic gymnastics balance beam event of the women's qualification during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Simone Biles competes in the artistic gymnastics balance beam event of the women's qualification during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.LOIC VENANCE (AFP)

If Biles wins in the all-around category at the Tokyo Games, she will equal the record set by Czech artistic gymnast Věra Čáslavská, the Olympic champion of the 1964 Tokyo Games and 1968 Mexico City Games. She is one of only two female gymnasts to win the all-around gold medal at two consecutive Olympics.

Biles has transformed female gymnastics. To the power and strength developed since the 1990s, she has added acrobatics that only she has been able to master. One such move is the Yurchenko double pike vault, a back handspring onto the vault, a flip in the air, two twists at the same time and second flip landing in pile position. She is planning to debut the move at the Tokyo Olympics. The judges have given the move a relatively low score, but this is not because it isn’t difficult, but rather the opposite, says Carriles. “If you give it a very high score, Biles will come out ahead. No one can do it, and it is so risky and dangerous that many gymnasts would try to do it because even if they fell they would have a high score that would compensate them. And that would be dangerous,” he says. “The difference with the others is so great… It’s almost embarrassing. She is in a league of her own, in another world.”

The decision to give the Yurchenko double pike vault a relatively low score despite its complexity has upset Biles’s sense of justice, and she said she will continue competing the vault despite its low value. When asked why, she replied: “Because I can.”

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