American women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) has a new face and that face is 17 year old Simone Biles. Biles is a senior elite from World Champions Centre and on her way to creating a legacy as a once in a generation talent. She is the first athlete to repeat as All-Around World Champion since Russia’s Svetlana Khorkina in 2003 and she is one of the most dynamic and impressive gymnasts the sport has ever produced.
Biles is also African-American in a sport that is mostly White. After her dominant performance at 2013 Worlds, members of the Italian WAG team suggested that would have won if they had painted their faces black. According to this Chicago Tribune article the federation’s spokesperson complained of a judging system that favored athleticism over the balletic style that had previously been the trend. These comments are both erroneous and racist. Biles, like any gymnast, puts in hours at the gym. She is both consistent – most likely a testament to her training and work ethic – and incredibly precise in her skills.
In addition, a recent cast to discussion of Biles is that she is so talented as to not even be human. This is an incredibly problematic comment to apply to a young, black woman. Simone Biles is as human as the rest of us. We are merely witnessing the rise of one of the greatest athletes the sport will ever see.
Simone Biles on vault at the 2014 World Gymnastics Championships
Biles has risen to the top of her sport by combining incredible difficulty with precise execution and near perfect body lines. In a sport that regularly jokes about “helicopter legs” (twisting the legs around each other when doing a twisting skill) or “cowboying” (grabbing the thighs and spreading the legs in a tucked flight position), Biles body seems locked in position. While fans and commentators concentrate on how much flight she gets and how much power she generates, they often ignore the beautiful precision of her form that truly makes her gymnastics stand out.
Simone Biles on balance beam at the 2014 World Gymnastics Championships
She has been tremendously successful in senior elite competitions. She won 2013 US Nationals and peaked for the year at Worlds where she qualified for all-around and every single apparatus final. She won the All-Around title and medals on three of the four apparatus event finals, beam, vault and floor. She came back in 2014 with an upgraded floor pass and beam dismount. She became US Champion once again. There was talk about how she would fare against Aliya Mustafina of Russia and Larissa Iordache of Romania but 2014 saw her become the first woman to top the podium in two consecutive World Championships in over a decade. A fall on the bars cost her a place in the event finals but she went on to win medals on floor, beam, and vault. She has won more World Championship medals than any US women’s gymnast except Alicia Sacramone , who competed at the senior elite level for almost a decade. Biles has been a senior elite for two years.
She is incredibly consistent. She has been thrown off her game only once. There was a bee hiding in her congratulatory bouquet at Worlds 2014 which forced her to drop her bouquet and hide behind Romania’s Larisa Iordache. Nothing else seems to faze her. This consistency allows her to upgrade to ever more difficult skills. Upgrades are the lifeblood of a gymnastics quad or Olympic cycle. A gymnasts’ routines must become more and more difficult as the four year Olympic cycle gets closer to the Games. A winning routine in the first year of the quad wouldn’t be a winning routine in the third year and especially at the Olympic Games. Biles has already made two major upgrades from 2013-2014. She upgraded from a half twisting double somersault to a full twisting double somersault as her dismount from beam. This skill involves dismounting the beam and making a full twist into two backwards somersaults. It is an incredibly difficult skill that is made more difficult by the precision required of beam and the difficulty in generating power. Biles is so strong that she can generate that kind of power on the beam. Biles also introduced a skill named for her on floor: a laid out double somersault with a half twist out.
Recent video from training shows her training a full twisting double somersault and a double twisting double back somersault, and a laid out double somersault with a full twist out. The most impressive rumored upgrade is a triple twisting Yurchenko vault. It is a vault that no one else has ever competed. If she were to successfully compete it in a World Championship or Olympic Games the skill would be named after her. It is a testament to how good she is and how she pushes herself that she is working on an upgrade from a Yurchenko vault with 2.5 twists, (an “Amanar”) a vault which only a handful of women are competing, to perform an even more difficult skill.
The US gymnasts traditionally kick off the senior elite year with the AT&T American Cup. Biles won by almost five points and broke 60.00 – including breaking 16.00 on both vault and floor exercise. Biles broke 62.00 + in AA. The last weekend in March, Team USA competed at an international meet in Jesolo, Italy. Biles scored 15.00+ on every event, including a huge 15.950 floor exercise. Once again, her all-around score broke 62.00 (62.10) and put her over two points ahead of the second place finisher. Biles continues to tower above the competition and she is only getting better. She’s working harder, upgrading her skills, and executing her existing skills even more precisely. It remains to be seen what Biles can do but it will certainly be extraordinary to watch.