Sports

The Absurdity of Simone Biles

The greatest gymnast ever is better than she’s ever been.

Simone Biles stands on the podium after winning her record fifth U.S. all-around title at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships 2018 in Boston on Sunday.
Simone Biles stands on the podium after winning her record fifth U.S. all-around title at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships 2018 in Boston on Sunday.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images.

Sorry, everyone else who wanted to win a gymnastics competition before 2021.

When Simone Biles teased a short video of her return to training this past April after an 18-month hiatus, following her total obliterative domination of the 2016 Olympics, gymnastics fans were afforded a few shots of the GOAT confidently knocking out her signature moves in practice—moves that, lest we forgot, were so much better than her closest competitor in Rio (who, lest we forgot, was Aly Raisman!) that she could have fallen in two events and still won the All-Around competition.

But for obsessives like me, watching Simone do Simone things wasn’t the highlight here. That’s because the video also included glimpses of the 21-year-old Biles training skills that were somehow even harder than her Rio repertoire.

Yes, after a mere nine months back in the gym with new coaches Laurent Landi and Cecile Canqueteau-Landi, Biles came barreling back to elite competition in July at the GK U.S. Classic (which used to be called the Secret Classic before USA Gymnastics lost all of its major corporate sponsors in the aftermath of the Larry Nassar horror show). At Classics, Biles was so powerful that she charged out of bounds twice on floor, and so apparently nervous that she very uncharacteristically fell on uneven bars. And yet, she was still so dominant that she won the competition by more than 1 point, posting the highest All-Around score in the world this year.

At Classics, Biles reminded everyone who might have forgotten that she has only one competitor: past versions of herself. And now, after last weekend’s jitter-free showing at the 2018 U.S. Championships in Boston—where, decked out in a teal leotard in defiant show of support for fellow victims of sexual assault, she became the first woman to sweep every event since Dominique Dawes did the same in 1994—I can confidently say that 2018 Simone Biles has already smoked the living daylights out of 2016 Simone Biles, who was already the greatest gymnast the world has ever seen. To preserve some semblance of suspense in its televised broadcasts, NBC has now taken to posting former point spreads between Biles and the second-place finisher, to see if she can beat them. And reader, boy can she.

The U.S. Championships is a two-day competition in which athletes compete in every event twice. Biles won it by 6 and a half points, meaning she could have fallen six times and still come out on top. She beat out reigning world champion and heroic glasses-wearer Morgan Hurd, who is herself a spectacular gymnast, and who “hit” (i.e. had no major deductions in) all eight of her own routines. For comparison, the spread between Hurd and bronze medalist Riley McCuster was 0.55.

NBC commentators Nastia Liukin and Tim Daggett quickly ran out of superlatives to describe what they were seeing. It got to the point that Daggett—himself a former Olympian—just watched her vault and went OOOH MY!

Even if you don’t follow gymnastics seriously or know its Byzantine scoring rules, you can probably tell that was a good vault. But maybe, probably, you don’t know how good. It is called a Cheng: a round-off approach with a half-turn onto the vaulting table and a somersault with one and a half twists. It is one of the most difficult exercises in competition, possibly the most difficult if you don’t count the Produnova, which only specialists attempt (and rarely land).

The few gymnasts who dare to compete the Cheng usually eke it out with painful breaks in form, if they can get it around at all. It is the kind of skill whose difficulty usually oozes through every millisecond of its execution—that is, you can tell, through the gymnasts’ obvious exertion, that they are pulling out every iota of their power and technique to land it on their feet.

Biles makes the Cheng look easier than my morning walk across the street to get coffee, popping off the table and soaring so high above it that she nearly goes out of frame, in an elegant layout position, toes pointed, body perfectly straight. (Oh yeah: She can also do an Amanar, as powerfully as legendary vaulter McKayla Maroney.)

Imagine that LeBron James took a year off from the NBA to swim with sharks, and then came back after training for nine measly months and was suddenly able to jump over the backboard. That is how good Biles is on the floor exercise, where she has added something called a Moors—two flips, two twists, in a laid-out position that oh, hey, makes it very hard to flip all the way around.

Like the Cheng, the Moors is currently the hardest floor skill that’s regularly landed in women’s competition; like the Cheng, most athletes who crank a Moors around do so in obvious physical distress. Even its namesake, Canadian super-tumbler Victoria Moors, didn’t make it look easy. But Biles does.

Not only does she go higher, and twist faster, and layout laid-out-ier than anyone else ever, she also delays the twist until the first flip is almost complete, giving us a little breath in the air that effectively says Oh, what, this old thing? (Yes, she also popped out of bounds one measly time during this routine, on her namesake Biles skill. Like Daggett, I legit don’t care.)

You know what else Biles makes look easy? Another double-double, done in a tucked position, which she throws so high that one could, as Dvora Meyers has written, drive a truck under it. And she does it at the very end of her routine—fourth!—at a time even world-dominant gymnasts such as Raisman are so exhausted they can barely crank around a double pike (two flips but no twists). For comparison, Hurd does her double-double as her “mount,” or opening pass.

The craziest thing about all this is that Biles still has more “upgrades” (i.e. harder skills) that she hasn’t deigned to use in competition yet. One is the mythical double-double beam dismount—yes, the same skill that most elite gymnasts can’t do on floor, except off a 4-inch-wide plank. Currently she “only” competes a full-in, a double flip with one mere twist in the first rotation, again so high that television crews often wish they’d panned out.

And the other craziest thing about all this is that Biles’ only alleged “weakness” from 2016—the uneven bars—is no longer a weakness. Her new coaches, the Landis, who rose to prominence by shepherding 2016 silver bars medalist Madison Kocian, have now helped Biles figure out how to dominate on her “bad” event. Biles has long made no secret of the fact that she doesn’t enjoy bars—she once said she wanted to take a chainsaw to every set of the apparatus she came across—and in 2016, it was the only Olympic event final for which she did not qualify. In Boston, she won the event.

Here we once again see that ridiculous double-double dismount, plus a set of very difficult release moves including a Shaposhnikova—where the gymnast transitions from the low bar to the high bar basically upside down—that transitions directly into a Tkachev high-bar release without a giant swing in between, and a second Shaposhnikova with a half-twist later in the routine. Of all Biles’ comeback upgrades, her uneven bar work is the most impressive, because it reflects the kind of intellectual maturity that prodigies usually aren’t required to develop. That is, Biles has always been so good at the other three events that she could afford to dismiss bars altogether. For this quadrennium, she’s decided that’s not enough, and attacked that event with her characteristic focus and determination.

Before Biles became dominant on the bars, the rest of the world had zero chance to beat her. Now, the rest of the world has … zero chance to beat her. As of this moment, 2018 Simone Biles, bars goddess, can even mop the floor with the only real threat to her dominance: 2016 Simone Biles.

I am so superstitious—and perhaps slightly unhealthily invested in the success of a stranger—that I don’t even want to mention a word that rhymes with flinjury. That said, provided that she stays healthy for the next two years, all meaningful competition in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be in the Non-Simone Division, i.e., for silver.

Some jerks, who are jerky and wrong, may say this makes the sport less interesting. To this I say: Shut the entire hell up and genuflect to greatness. In a time so fraught with misery—both within the embattled USA Gymnastics organization and outside it—we could not be more fortunate to live in the age of Simone Biles.