Normally, Simone Biles ends her floor exercise routine with her right hand on her chest, her left up in the air, as her music comes to a close. But during Thursday’s all-around competition, she changed it up. Instead of her normal pose, she dropped the mic to finish off her set.
She didn’t need to wait for the score. Biles—and everyone else—knew that she had just locked in her fifth world all-around title, breaking records as she did it. Biles, who grew up in Spring, had won the title by just over two points, the highest margin of victory under the post-10 scoring system. That gold also brought her to twenty-two medals in world championship competition—just one away from tying the twenty-three medal record set by the Unified Team/Belarus’ Vitaly Scherbo in the mid-1990s. She’s more than likely to do so during this weekend’s apparatus finals, too. Biles is the favorite to win gold on at least two event finals (vault and floor) and is a very strong contender for gold on balance beam.
This is becoming routine for Biles: Another competition, another record obliterated. And when she’s written about, the records—most world championship gold medals ever, most national all-around titles won by a woman, first American to medal on all four events at a world championships—tend to receive the lion’s share of attention. While that’s impressive, I want to focus on her gymnastics: The height of her flips, the seamlessness of her technique, and the almost giddy feeling that one gets while watching her perform. This all contributes to her victories, but it also transcends them.
I’ve been writing about Biles since early 2013, when she made her senior elite debut at the American Cup. Even though she didn’t win that competition—viral sensation Katelyn Ohashi did in what ended up being her final elite meet—Biles’s potential was evident from her very first vault. In that meet, she showcased her power and the seeming ease with which she did some of the most difficult skills, two things that would become her trademarks. She rotated so quickly that she could kick out of her double twisting double somersault on floor, and still bound backwards a couple of feet with power. Even as she was doing one of the most difficult tumbling passes in the women’s gymnastics repertoire, Biles made you believe that she was capable of so much more.
When I visited Biles’s gym in Texas for the first time in 2014, I saw her working upgrades, such as adding a full twist to her double layout. At this point, Biles had already won two world all-around titles, but she wasn’t a household name yet. A video of her doing a double double off beam had been circulating online for at least a year around that time, too. Her former coach Aimee Boorman said she’d coaxed Biles into giving it a go, just for kicks. When I interviewed her for The End of the Perfect 10, my book on women’s gymnastics, Boorman says she told Biles to “double double that,” referring to adding a twist to her usual full twisting double back dismount. “She goes, ‘Yeah, I know I could.’” Biles then told her coach to fetch her iPad and record it, “‘because I’m only doing it once and if I die, I want it on video.’”
I never thought I’d see Biles do it in competition and that didn’t matter to me; it was simply enough to know that this outrageously difficult skill was actually possible. Biles eventually brought the dismount to competition, even though it was underrated by the women’s technical committee of the International Gymnastics Federation. Still, introducing these incredible skills has made the second act of her career more than just a bid to rack up more wins and break more records (not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to earn more hardware).
Biles has gone viral twice this summer—not because she won, but because she did unbelievable skills in competition for the first time. There was the video of the triple twisting double somersault she performed during her floor routine, shown from multiple and at different tempos—the normal speed at which she did it in competition, and slowed down so that you can truly appreciate everything jammed into that split second. Articles and Twitter threads about the physics of it followed; that it was a skill performed to accrue points in competition was almost beside the point.
A similar thing happened when her double double dismount from beam went from a fuzzy 2013 training video to the competitive floor. The excitement was about the skill itself; it was practically decontextualized from the competition. Biles didn’t need it to win but she did it anyway.
Biles has even left her mark on skills she didn’t innovate herself. In 2005, Chinese world and Olympic champion Cheng Fei introduced an incredibly difficult vault to win her first world title on the event. After doing a roundoff onto the board and half turn onto the table, she rebounded up and away, completing one and a half twists while flipping in a laid out position. The skill, one of the most difficult vaults in the women’s Code of Points, is named for her.
But when Biles started doing the skill in 2016, it was clear that she had taken the vault to a whole other level. Not only was her form impeccable like Cheng’s had been, the American went higher and farther, her body remaining fully stretched until landing. As with her tumbling elements on floor, Biles bounced back a couple of feet, with more power left to give. She then converted that into an extra half twist, and a vault of her own.
Now Biles also has a beam dismount that’s uniquely hers. And another tumbling pass of her own. And yes, she owns most of the records in gymnastics—most world championship gold medals, most worlds medals won by a woman, most world all-around titles for a woman, the largest margin of victory in the new scoring system. She’ll own another by the time the weekend is over.
But as astonishing as all of this is, I no longer watch Biles to see if she’ll break more records and cement her greatest of all-time status even further. I watch her to see how high she goes, how many twists she can wrap into her flips, the beauty of the shapes she creates with her body, and how she pushes the limits of the possible. Simply put, I’m in awe of her gymnastics.