Simone Biles took the floor with a smile that had a hint of mischievousness in it. Her glitter makeup and the sequined stars and stripes on her red, white and blue leotard sparkled under the bright lights.
She was ready for the Olympic moment everyone had been expecting from her for three years. She was ready to have fun.
Was there pressure to prove she was the greatest female gymnast in history? No, Biles doesn’t allow pressure to burden her, which was clear Thursday as she swept the crowd along on her acrobatic romp, leaping to stupefying heights and shimmying to a samba beat.
She nailed her signature move, “The Biles,” a double-flip layout with a devilish half twist added in order to cause a blind landing and raise the degree of difficulty to the highest of any routine in the field.
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The gold medal was hers at that point, as if there was any doubt. Only a major mishap would have prevented her coronation, and she never falls. Never ever.
The 4-8 Biles stood in the arms of 5-3 teammate Aly Raisman as they awaited the final score, 15.933 points, best of the night. Once again, it was Biles by miles in a sport scored to hundredths of a point. The three-time world champion finished with a total of 62.198 points, 2.1 ahead of Raisman to add the Rio Games all-around title to her closetful of gold medals. Biles led the U.S. team to a similarly large margin when the Final Five won gold Tuesday.
Biles, Raisman and their coaches Aimee Boorman and Mihai Brestyan hugged as cameramen surrounded them. Everybody wiped tears, except Biles, composed as always — at least on the outside.
“Every emotion hit me at once so I was just kind of a train wreck,” she said. “I feel like I did my best and that’s all you can do. When you have fun that’s when you’re most successful.”
Asked if her Olympic triumph confirmed her as greatest ever, she shrugged, giggled and shook her head.
“I don’t know who but it’s not me,” she said.
When national team coordinator Martha Karolyi was asked whom she would deem the best, she gave the names of two gymnasts who won gold 40 years apart: Nadia Comaneci, from Karolyi’s homeland of Romania, practitioner of the perfect 10, and Biles, who performs tricks that have shot the sport into another galaxy.
“Nadia was very precise,” Karolyi said. “Simone is so exciting.
“From 1976 to 2016 that’s quite a few years and the gymnastics is so different and the skills are more difficult. With Nadia we wanted to come close to perfection. Now Simone is closest to perfection.”
Compare the Comaneci and Biles routines from Montreal and Rio and you can see how the sport has evolved from elegant to electric. Biles is a whirlpool of motion on vault, a handspringing trapeze artist on the four-inch balance beam, a bouncing ball of complex choreography on floor. She scored highest on those three disciplines Thursday and was seventh on parallel bars, her weakest event because she’s short even for a gymnast.
Boorman, who has coached the 19-year-old Biles for 11 years, talks a lot about safety and health. She never wanted to push the talented Biles too hard or too fast because she’s seen too many gymnasts burn out or get hurt. It took her a year to convince Biles to do her hardest skills on beam.
When Biles started, she was out of control.
“Everything she did was ugly,” Boorman said. “She could do big skills up here but couldn’t land. Couldn’t stay on beam to save her life. Her hands were so small she couldn’t hold onto the bar. The first time she vaulted, she stopped on the first one, sailed way over on the second and scored a zero.
“After we went to our first training camp with Martha we weren’t invited back.”
Yet Boorman saw something special in the kid with unusual grace under pressure and tremendous power.
“You’ve seen her legs and butt,” Boorman said. “She’s got springs in her calves. She’s pure muscle. But in gymnastics you don’t just have to be strong, fast and flexible. You have to be fearless.”
Biles was born in Ohio to parents with drug and alcohol addiction problems. She and her siblings were sent to foster care, where she vaguely remembers a trampoline in the yard.
When a return to her biological mother’s home did not work out, her maternal grandfather, Ron Biles, and his second wife, Nellie, brought Biles and her sister to Spring, Texas, and adopted them.
In order to preserve the household furniture from destruction, Biles was enrolled in gymnastics classes.
By age 16 she was world champ, so good that she developed a Serena Williams-like psychological advantage over opponents (Williams was at the arena watching Thursday). Raisman says Biles is “in a different league. Our coaches tell us not to worry about beating Simone.”
Raisman, two-time gold medalist in 2012, got the all-around medal she deserved but was denied in a tiebreaker in London. She’s the nervous one, and says Biles’ jokes keep her calm, as they did when she went into floor in third behind Russia’s Aliya Mustafina. But Mustafina’s old-school balletic form, expressive hands and 13.933 score weren’t enough to beat Raisman’s chock-a-block tumbling runs. Raisman got emotional as soon as she landed, then told Biles to go out and stick it.
“I saw Aly start to cry and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, she’s going to make me cry before floor,’ ” Biles said.
But she smiled instead. Expect more smiles and three more gold medals before Biles leaves Rio.