Simone Biles creates artistic gymnastics history in Rio
The sight of teenage prodigy Simone Biles mounting the podium at the Olympic Arena in Rio became a regular occurrence during the 10-day artistic gymnastics competition, as the US star finished with four golds and a bronze.
Making her Olympic debut in Rio, the hugely talented Simone Biles opened her account as part of the US team that swept to gold in the team all-around event on 9 August. Finishing a massive 8.209 points clear of Russia and China, the Americans blew away the competition to retain their title.
“It’s everything I’d hoped and then some,” said Biles. “It didn’t feel like we were at the Olympics. That helped us. It was like a normal routine and we stayed calm.”
While the victory was no surprise given the way that the Americans had flown through the qualifiers, there was huge anticipation in the arena to see what kind of brilliance Biles would offer up.
Rising to the top of the leaderboard after the vault, the US team maintained their advantage for the rest of the competition. By the time Biles stepped up to do her floor routine, the destination of the gold was already clear, but she supplied the coup de grace scoring an incredible 15.800 as she wowed the crowd with a stunning display set to Brazilian music.
Under the watchful gaze of gymnastics legend Nadia Comaneci, the 19-year-old secured her own legendary status with the best scores in the vault (15.933), beam (15.300) and floor (15.800). At just 4ft 9inch, Biles occasionally had to stand on tip-toes on the podium to match her team-mates but, metaphorically, she stood head and shoulders above all of the other competitors.
Since her breakthrough at the World Championships in Antwerp in 2013, Biles has rocketed to legendary status having already won a record 10 world titles. Born in Ohio, Biles was in and out of foster care from an early age before being adopted by her maternal grandfather and his wife in Texas. When viewed in light of these troubles, her recent tweet of “dreams do come true” takes on a particular significance.
Biles shared her first Olympic title with Aly Raisman, Gabrielle Douglas (a team winner at London 2012), 16-year-old Lauren Hernandez and Madison Kocian, the favourite for the assymetric bars competition – the only event in which Biles was not competing.
Biles wins all-around gold to double tally
On 11 August, Biles cemented her position as queen of the Olympic Arena by taking the individual all-around title. Romanian superstar Nadia Comaneci tweeted: “Congratulations Simone Biles and Aly Raisman. What a beautiful success.”
Many were already putting her ahead of Comaneci as the greatest female gymnast of all time, but the typically modest American was not ready to endorse such a label: “Some people say I am and others disagree, I’m just happy to keep doing gymnastics,” she shrugged.
However, a clear pattern is emerging: whenever Biles takes part in an international all-around competition, she wins. Too young for the 2012 Games in London, she has since sealed victory at the World Championships in 2013, 2014 and 2015, equalling the record of Russia’s Svetlana Korkhina in the process.
In Rio, Biles took top spot ahead of her compatriot Aly Raisman, who won her fifth Olympic medal and qualified for the final at the expense of team-mate Gabrielle Douglas, the defending champion. Finally, Russia’s Aliya Mustafina took the bronze to secure her sixth Olympic medal.
Finishing a sizeable two points clear of the runner-up and nearly four ahead of Mustafina, Biles and her team-mate hugged warmly after the event as the tears rolled down their cheeks.
Another gold for Biles in the vault
Three days later, the American teenager secured her third gold medal, this time in the vault. Feeling more comfortable than in the all-around competition, Biles was ready to enjoy herself: “That [the all-around competition] is the most stressful part of the competition. Now it’s the individual competitions so I can have some fun.”
Biles was the last to vault and her score – a solid 15.966 – was good enough for first place. This gold was especially satisfying as she had never won the vault in a major international competition before. “It means a lot to me,” she said. “It's something that I wanted so badly, so I tried to stay focused before I vaulted.”
US coach Laurent Landi was left waxing lyrical about his charge: “She’s phenomenal physically, but it’s all for nothing if you don’t have the most important thing,” he explained. “She’s shown that she’s also extremely strong mentally to be able to take on all that pressure and still dominate the sport.”
Biles finished well ahead of Russia’s Maria Paseka, the reigning world champion, and Switzerland’s Giulia Steingruber. Dipa Karmakar, the first Indian gymnast to compete in an Olympic gymnastics final, finished just off the podium in fourth.
On the asymmetric bars, meanwhile, the only apparatus on which Biles was not competing, Russia’s Aliya Mustafina retained her title ahead of American Madison Kocian and Germany’s Sophie Scheder.
Mustafina received a score of 15.900 with the highest difficulty score in the competition (6.800), Kocian finished with 15.833 and the best execution score (9.100), while Scheder was further back with 15.566.
“It was painful, difficult, but I made myself work by saying to myself ‘I want this!’,” Mustafina explained, while her competitors were willing to admit that she is close to unbeatable on the asymmetric bars.
Shock result on the beam
On 15 August, the audience were treated to some drama as gymnastics’ newest superstar lost balance on the beam, handing the gold to outstanding Dutchwoman Sanne Wevers and just scraping a place on the podium.
Biles arrived in Rio with back-to-back world titles on the apparatus and was a hot favourite to win another gold. But when she lost her footing after a front somersault she had to grab the beam with both hands to save herself from falling. Despite looking slightly shaken, she went on to execute a perfect dismount. But the damage was already done and she scored just 14.733.
Wevers, meanwhile, who took silver behind Biles on this apparatus in the 2015 World Championships and finished fourth in the qualifiers, scored a 15.466 that would eventually seal the gold. “Oh my God, this is so amazing,” Wevers said afterwards. “This final was just nerve-wracking. The plan was to go all-out, but then I saw Simone making mistakes. She didn't fall off, but she definitely lost some points.”
"After seeing her score, I knew I had to change my strategy. I went all-out, but also with the thought that I would go for execution rather than just difficulty. The combination of both is crucial and it is something that I decide myself.”
Yet the Dutchwoman still had to wait for other competitors to finish. “Lauren Hernandez was my main rival,” she added. “After my routine I knew that she was in a strong position. She could’ve beaten me.”
“I knew my difficulty level was higher and that I had a good chance, but anything can happen. I knew I’d won the gold after I saw her score.”
For the first time in Rio, Biles had been bettered. Yet while her mood was briefly soured, she soon found her smile again when watching Hernandez, who had won silver at her first major tournament just a day after Kocian took second place on the asymmetric bars.
Biles back to form on the floor
Storming to a fourth gold medal with her floor routine, Biles underlined the USA’s leading position in women’s artistic gymnastics. “I'm a little bit relieved because it's been a long journey,” she said. “I've enjoyed every single moment of it and I know our team has too. It's been very long and, competing so many times this week, it kind of got tiring. We just wanted to end on a good note.”
The Texan entered the history books by equalling the record of four titles won at the same Games that has been achieved by four gymnasts – the Soviet Union’s Larissa Latynina and Hungary’s Agnes Keleti in 1956, when there were seven competitions as opposed to today’s six, the Czech Republic’s Vera Caslavska in 1968 and Romania’s Ecaterina Szabo in 1984.
And she finished in style. Facing off against compatriot Aly Raisman once again, the pair produced performances that most gymnasts can only dream of. Ultimately, it was the younger Biles who sealed victory ahead of the 22-year-old she lovingly calls “Grandma”.
The fifth to hit the floor after four competitors who had failed to reach the 15-point mark, Biles flew out in front with a near-perfect performance and a score of 15.966. Her floor routine represented the perfect opportunity to display her talents. With a samba feel to the performance, she added a playful edge to her typical combination of power and agility. She even added in her own signature move known as the “Biles”, which consists of a double layout with a half-twist and a blind landing.
Raisman, meanwhile, who was performing to the famous Russian song Kalinka, pulled out all the stops. Linking together a sequence of flawless jumps, she excited the crowd just as much as her superstar team-mate.
“Your first Olympics and you walk away with five medals, that's not disappointing at all,” said Biles with typical understatement. “Especially four being gold, that's just unheard of. I'm very proud.”