According to WebMD, the most common symptom of a kidney stone is “severe pain.” Having one is, allegedly, “the worst pain a man can ever feel, because a man can’t go through labor.” It can make a compound wrist fracture feel like a vacation. It feels very, very, very bad. It feels almost as bad, I’m guessing, as I felt on Thursday, as I watched Simone Biles plant her signature vault—the vault I myself said made her unstoppable in these very pages a scant few days ago—on her posterior in the first rotation of the women’s all-around competition of the World Gymnastics Championships in Doha, Qatar.
I won’t watch it again; you can’t make me. Biles hasn’t sat a vault down since … since ever, I think. Since the apparatus was invented. Since the dawn of time! There are so few certainties in this miserable garbage world we’ve made for ourselves, and one of them was supposed to be: Simone Biles does not ass-plant vault.
And this wasn’t even the worst of it. A few minutes later, Biles mounted the balance beam and then promptly “dismounted” it again—except, you know, in the middle of a skill, and about a minute before the actual dismount was due to transpire. My brain could not even process what was happening. Simone Biles? Fell? Twice? In one meet? How? Why? Who am I? Again, don’t watch:
Is this what it feels like when your soul dies? Coming on the heels of Sam Mikulak’s last-second choke in the men’s all-around the day before, it was too much to bear. I had no choice but to break out the feelings-eating Halloween candy I’d been saving for election night.
I should probably mention some things here. First, Biles came back on Friday and landed both vaults on her feet in event finals, winning her third gold medal of these world championships by almost a full point. (Sure, she did the “easier” Cheng vault and it wasn’t the best she’s ever done it, but her execution score of 9.266 was still about half a point higher than that of silver-medalist Shallon Olsen.)
Second, Biles has competed this entire meet with a kidney stone, one she’s been living with for weeks and that she’s nicknamed the “Doha Pearl” after its discovery in a Qatari ER on the eve of qualifying. Sure, she told USA Today’s Nancy Armour the stone wasn’t to blame for her off day. But you know what kind of person says that? A tough-ass competitor who perseveres through intense pain.
Third, after that second fall, Biles marched onto the floor exercise mat and did the most difficult routine the world has ever seen, and even with a hop out of bounds scored a stratospheric 15.000.
And also, fourth: There is the small matter that despite those two shocking falls, Biles went and won the whole damn meet, her fourth career world championship, with the largest margin of victory—almost 2 full points—since the open-ended scoring system debuted in 2006. (And fifth: She killed it in Friday’s bars final, grabbing a silver medal on what has historically been her “weak” event.)
Biles is now the first female gymnast in history with four all-around world titles. Her 13 overall World Championship gold medals are the most by any male or female gymnast, and—after her vault and bars medals on Friday—she’s on her way to tying Russian legend Svetlana Khorkina’s record for most women’s world medals, if she gets gold, silver, or bronze in the beam and floor competitions Saturday. (If she stays on the beam and doesn’t land a tumbling pass on her face, she’s a lock to win both events by a large margin.)
The fact that Biles made history with probably the most off-kilter performance we’ll ever see from her is the latest indicator of just how good she is. As Lester Holt put it to a stunned Tim Daggett and Nastia Liukin in the NBC commentators’ booth, Biles may not have done her best, but she is still far and away the best. And for the fans who don’t think someone should be able to win with two falls because perfect 10s and artistry and so forth, I have some bad news: Biles could have absorbed another biff and still ended the day on the gold podium. (These curmudgeons have suggested the Code of Points be amended such that a fall is worth 2 points instead of 1, effectively demanding the entire scoring system change for the sole purpose of thwarting Simone Biles.)
Still, medals aside, Biles has been frustrated with her performance at these championships, telling reporters after the all-around that she was “still pretty disappointed” in herself because “I know what I can do out there. … I guess it’s good to be back on the podium … but it sucks. It just sucks, man.” Then she dissolved into laughter in a display of the irrepressible bubbliness that conquers even her dourest moods, an example of what gymnastics fans term #simonethings.
It’s true that Biles’ only true competition is her best self, and when we don’t get to see that best self—who is truly, inexplicably sublime—it’s disappointing. It definitely disappointed me, an ex-gymnast and lifelong follower of the sport, and perhaps more than it should have, given that I am a grown adult and the results of international gymnastics competitions do not affect my life. It is somewhat possible that there is so much horror in the “real” news that I have no choice but to bottle up my rage, and so I place slightly too much psychic energy into the travails of the United States national gymnastics team.
In a way, this makes sense: Biles and her teammates (including bespectacled American hero Morgan Hurd), as well as Mikulak and the somewhat more embattled men’s team, represent the best the U.S. has to offer the world: excellence under pressure, sportsmanship, mutual cultural understanding. (The U.S. and Russia—Russia!—rotated together during the team competition, and the love fest was palpable.)
In some cases, these are children (beam whiz Kara Eaker is 15 years old) shouldering both the cratering reputation of our country and the continuing shame of their own governing body, USA Gymnastics, an entity whose disgraced former CEO was arrested by a fugitive task force two weeks ago, whose new CEO had to resign after less than a week because of an awful tweet about Colin Kaepernick and Nike, and which just got sued again, this time by Olympian Tasha Schwikert Warren and her sister, Jordan Cobbs, for presiding over Larry Nassar’s decades of horrific abuse. When these gymnasts shine on the world stage, it’s far too easy to forget or overlook the rotting core of the organization that doesn’t deserve them.
And this is why Biles’ off day is a blessing. It forces us to remember that she is, in fact, human, and that without her and her other human teammates—some of whom have been very badly abused under USA Gymnastics’ watch, with no meaningful recourse or change in the offing—the sport and its governing body are nothing. I want to see Simone Biles at her best. I also want the organization she’s sustaining to understand that the superstar to end all superstars isn’t going to distract us from its horrifying moral failures.
It is highly unlikely that Biles will repeat these significant mistakes in the 2019 season, when she’ll have been training for longer than the 11 months she’s now had since returning to the gym after her post-Rio hiatus—and, presumably, when she’s kidney stone–free. But I’m grateful that we got to see her humanity, just this once. I’m even happier that USA Gymnastics saw it, too.