KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Simone Biles does things no woman gymnast ever had. And if she doesn’t do them perfectly, she’s ticked off. That’s because she knows she can reach these heights — literally and figuratively — and wants everyone watching to enjoy them with her.
People do, and not just in the arena where she’s competing. Celebrities from the sports and entertainment worlds also marvel at Biles and take to social media to express it.
“It’s kind of crazy to think about that,” Biles said after winning her sixth U.S. Gymnastics Championships all-around title Sunday before an enthralled crowd at Sprint Center. “Whenever they retweet it or I see they reach out on Instagram, I feel like my heart stops. Because I’m like, ‘Wow, they actually notice me.’ Because what we do, I feel like, is so much smaller — gymnastics isn’t that widely recognized. So to get that support from everybody else, and they’re really excited about it, makes us feel like we’re doing something good.”
Here at the U.S. championship, Biles shared her genius again, cleanly nailing the triple-double (three twists, two flips) on the floor exercise. That unprecedented-for-women, gravity-defying move was the highlight of the Simone Show, but there was plenty else to see.
She dominated the all-around, her 20th consecutive such title dating back six years. Biles’ score of 118.500 was almost five full points ahead of second-place finisher Sunisa Lee’s 113.550. Finishing third at 111.850 was Grace McCallum, like Lee, a 16-year-old native of Minnesota.
Biles, 22, also won the vault, the balance beam and the floor exercise titles. Even in the event she sometimes just rolls her eyes at in irritation, uneven parallel bars, she finished third. That was Biles’ final performance of these championships. After sticking her landing, she exited with a big grin and waved her arms as if to say, “OK, tonight, even the bars were my friend.”
In Biles, we are seeing a generational-level talent, someone so gifted and driven she has changed the conversation about what’s possible in women’s gymnastics. At least, what’s possible for her.
“It’s inspiring to everybody,” said Tom Forster, high-performance team coordinator for the U.S. women’s gymnastics program. “It’s really cool. We’re super happy she’s come back from 2016 and wants to do it again. We’re so excited. It’s good for the sport.”
The U.S. championship was the first major event new USA Gymnastics CEO and president Li Li Leung presided over. To her credit, she was upfront in a session with the media about the many challenges the organization faces. Ultimately, though, Biles and men’s champion Sam Mikulak excelling here provided a much-needed boost for the United States gymnastics team a year out from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Admittedly, the U.S. women and men are in different places right now as far as global competitiveness. The women are defending Olympic and world champions, and favorites to win both of those upcoming events, too. Despite the gap between Biles and her teammates, the pool of American women’s talent is deep. It will be tough narrowing to five (with one alternate) for the world championship, which is Oct. 4-13 in Stuttgart, Germany.
There also was a wide margin between Mikulak, who won the men’s all-around title here Saturday, and the other Americans. His score of 174.150 was more than five points ahead of second-place Yul Moldauer of Oklahoma (168.600). Mikulak also walked away from Kansas City with golds in floor exercise, high bar, pommel horse and parallel bars.
But the American men are long shots for a podium finish as a team at the world championship or the Tokyo Olympics. Mikulak was consistently terrific here, with no falls in any of his 12 routines. Yet he was bluntly honest about how circumstances — including injuries to some other top gymnasts and retirements since the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — kept this from being a truly top-level men’s competition.
“It is a weird place for the U.S. [men] right now,” Mikulak said. “You could probably make the argument that maybe this is the easiest time period for USA Gymnastics for a guy like me. With that being said, I do just see this competition as a steppingstone. Not to really downplay how awesome it is, but I’ve done this a few times. I’m ready for bigger aspirations.”
Mikulak joked that getting his sixth U.S. all-around title just basically means he’s “old.” He will be 27 in October. But with age, he said, has come wisdom and mental toughness. Yet a lengthy senior career — he competed in the 2012 and ’16 Olympics — hasn’t dulled his love for the sport. Mikulak said he’s considering competing past the Tokyo Games and into his 30s. Getting a bronze medal in high bar at last year’s world championship was a breakthrough he has continued to build upon.
“I thought that was a good segue to open the door, and now I just want to try crashing through that door,” Mikulak said. “And maybe get a couple more [medals], and maybe different colors. I finally got a taste, and I want as much as I can get now.”
While Mikulak is still attempting to catch up with top individual competitors from the likes of China, Japan and Germany, Biles’ main competition has been herself. She won four gold medals and one bronze at the Rio Olympics but still has unfinished business.
“I feel like this time around I’m doing it for different reasons,” Biles said of preparing for another Olympics competition. “The first time around, you do it not just for yourself but you have a lot of people to prove [things to.] This time, I’m just doing it for myself, and I think that’s the beauty of it.”
The Olympic qualifying system for gymnastics was overhauled after the 2016 Olympics. For Tokyo, there will be four-person teams instead of five but there will be multiple ways for individuals to qualify. The aim of the changes was to allow more opportunities for apparatus specialists to get into the Olympics.
Unfortunately, what it has done more than anything is confuse people — so much so that it’s already been decided to return to five-person teams for the 2024 Olympics.
What’s easy, though, is keeping your eyes on Biles. She continues not just to be the gold standard on the women’s side but to perform skills no one else has. At the U.S. championship, she did a double-double dismount off the balance beam in preliminaries and a triple-double in her opening pass on the floor exercise both nights. These were all firsts in any women’s competition.
At this point, all she accomplishes just adds to a historical place in the sport that is already secure.
“I feel like I don’t want to think about it yet,” Biles said, “because that will make me old real quick. So just do what I do.”
Biles also has not hesitated to talk about her trust issues with USA Gymnastics. She poignantly talked before the event about still struggling in the aftermath of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case. Then Sunday, she mentioned how her coaches still haven’t been paid bonuses they’re owed from USA Gymnastics from last year’s world championship. That’s because USA Gymnastics is in bankruptcy court, having filed this past December.
Biles sees using her voice as part of what she calls “adulting,” and she is embracing that as well as continuing to redefine excellence in her sport.
“I do try to get out so I’m not thinking about gymnastics all the time,” she said, adding she owns a home how. “It’s been really exciting; I’m adulting, little by little, and it’s really fun.”