Not for the first time, Simone Biles has lit up the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. In Stuttgart, she claimed another five world titles to surpass the overall World Championship medal record, men and women combined. Winner of four Olympic golds at Rio 2016, the 22-year-old American now has Tokyo 2020 in her sights. She will be among the most hotly anticipated stars at the Games, where she is looking to add to her gold medal haul in the all-around and apparatus events.
Twenty-five World Championship medals, 19 of which are gold, with five titles won at the 2019 World Championships in Stuttgart in October (team all-around, individual all-around, vault, balance beam and floor): at the age of just 22, Simone Biles is the most decorated artistic gymnast of all time, men and women combined, having beaten the record held since 1996 by Soviet-turned-Belarussian gymnast Vitaly Scherbo, who has 23 medals and 12 golds to his name. Biles, born on 14 March 1997 in Columbus (Ohio), achieved her feat over five World Championship editions starting in 2013, but her five victories in Stuttgart represented her best gold medal haul in 10 days of competition.
And that’s not all: the four-time Olympic champion performed new skills that now bear her name: the spectacular “triple-double” (three twists with two flips) in the floor event and the incredible “double-double” (two twists, two flips) on the beam dismount. Given that she already had signature moves named after her, in the floor and vault events, the triple-double will be called the “Biles II”! “I feel like putting my name on a skill is really rewarding, just because it'll be in the code forever,” she said.
“Last year was kind of tragic. Definitely wasn’t my best performance but, you know, you live and you learn, and I feel like today, going out there, I didn’t want to do that again,” she said after her record-breaking fifth individual all-around title on 10 October. “I feel like it’s not me. Sometimes I wonder how I do it. I wish I could have an out-of-body experience to witness it, because sometimes I think I’m going crazy. I really don’t know how I do it sometimes.”
The surprising thing about the year that Biles, now officially the greatest gymnast of all time, refers to as “tragic” is that, at the Doha 2018 World Championships, where she was suffering from a kidney stone, she still managed to win the individual and team all-around, the vault and the floor, although she finished third in the balance beam. It’s clear, however, that she has widened the gap with her rivals: in the floor event in Stuttgart, for example, she beat her young compatriot Sunisa Lee, who took silver, by a whole point (15.133 vs 14.133).
Biles was one of the stars of the Olympic Games Rio 2016. Aged 19, she lit up the artistic gymnastics competitions, wowing the crowds present in Rio, and spectators watching on TV all over the world, by winning four gold medals. But an uncharacteristic error – an unexpected slip – cost her the title in the balance beam event; she had to settle for bronze, with Dutch gymnast Sanne Wevers taking gold. But Biles finished her tournament with a near-perfect performance in the floor event, earning a score of 15,966 thanks to a samba-influenced routine that showcased her power, agility and creativity. “My first Olympics and I’ve walked away with five medals: that’s not disappointing at all,“ she said afterwards. “It shows dreams can come true. I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps: I’m the first Simone Biles.”
After the Games, she took a year out from sport in 2017, before resuming her career the following year, with Tokyo 2020 firmly in her sights and now working with two new coaches, Laurent and Cécile Landi from France. And the rest is history. “Obviously Cécile and Laurent do a really good job at pushing me in the gym to do upgrades,” explained Biles. “Not only because I’m ahead, but just for myself and to see what I can do and see how far I can push myself and what I can put out there. Because a lot of the skills were kind of unimaginable, but then we turned them into doing them for real. So that was pretty crazy.”
Next year in the Japanese capital, it will be Biles’ time to shine once again. “Going into the Olympics, I will be one of the biggest household names, but I never really think about it,” she said. “I just try to go in there and do what I came to do, do my job. But it will be kind of crazy that I'll be one of the biggest names out there. I feel like, for me, my accomplishments, I feel like it's just going out there and hitting my routines the way I'm capable of. And then I'm pretty happy.”
Biles has stated that she will be retiring from gymnastics after the Tokyo Games. But in the meantime, she will be giving it her all in training to be at her dazzling best next year. She is not necessarily intending to come up with new skills, but rather to “solidify” her existing, and extraordinary, routines. “Right now, we're kind of solidifying the routines,” she said. “Obviously, we do want to bring back the Biles on vault, but probably, next year, we will train it a lot more than we did this year, focusing on a pretty good Cheng [a move honed by China’s Fei Cheng, a triple world champion in the vault]. And then we'll see.”
The Tokyo Games will provide Biles with the opportunity to add to her legend, and permanently etch her name into the gymnastics and sporting history books.
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