When Simone Biles launches into her Amanar vault, she’s like a human cannonball, shooting through the air with such height that it looks like she might never come down.
When she tumbles across the floor, she’s like a human tornado, whirling and corkscrewing with such velocity it looks like she might bounce off the platform into the stands.
Biles is the Michael Jordan of gymnastics, defying gravity and propelling her sport to another dimension.
She is the overwhelming favorite to win the U.S. Olympic Trials on Sunday night in San Jose, California. Expectations are sky-high for the Rio Olympics, where she could win five of the six gold medals — in the team, all-around, vault, balance beam and floor exercise events.
Mary Lou Retton, the 1984 gold medalist, says “Simone is the most talented gymnast I’ve seen in my life.”
She’s the best gymnast most people have never heard of. She was a few months too young to be eligible for the 2012 London Olympics, where Gabby Douglas wowed the judges and stole the show as leader of the “Fierce Five.” Biles recalls watching Douglas on a large projection screen at her home gym and being inspired by her.
Barring injury, Biles will capture the Olympic spotlight and be the darling of the Rio Games, following the pattern that typically occurs every four years, when sprites in spangly leotards bound across the TV screen. At age 19, Biles has perhaps one chance to dominate the sport’s showcase. The Olympic cycle is particularly merciless to female gymnasts, who hit their prime in their teens before they grow into sizes less compatible with the physics of gymnastics.
At 4-9, Biles is short even for a gymnast, but she stands head and shoulders above the competition. She’s the first female gymnast to win three consecutive world championships — and the first black world all-around champ. Last month she won her fourth consecutive national championship — by four points, another unheard-of margin in events usually decided by hundredths of points. She has won every all-around competition she’s entered since August 2013. If she wins three golds in Rio she would become the most decorated American gymnast of all time.
“When the coaches talk to us they say don’t even count Simone, she’s in a different league,” said Aly Raisman, a 2012 gold medalist who is a lock to make her second Olympic team. “There’s so much pressure I don’t even know how she does it. Her level of difficulty is so high, but she’s able to control it. She just does not fall. She’s so consistent.”
Consistency when the stakes are highest is exactly what Martha Karolyi — the uncompromising U.S. national team coordinator — is looking for as she chooses the team that will close out her Olympic coaching career.
“Simone has matured into a gymnast we can count on in the biggest performances,” said Karolyi, who doles out praise sparingly.
It is Biles’ power that gives her the air time that enables her to construct skills with start values on a higher tier.
“She has always had a special explosiveness, but in the last few years she has added grace,” said Maria Garcia, Danell Leyva’s mother and co-coach at Miami’s Universal Gymnastics with husband Yin Alvarez. She’s observed Biles refine her routines.
Biles has one maneuver where she spins two-and-a-half times on one foot with the other leg stretched out parallel to the floor while perched on the four-inch-wide balance beam. Her dismount begins with two back handsprings. Then she goes airborne into a double flip with a twist into a landing where she’s hammered into the mat.
Her one weakness is uneven bars. She doesn’t have the length and lines of a Svetlana Khorkina or Nastia Liukin.
“I would describe myself as bubbly, outgoing and energetic and my style as elegant but powerful,” Biles said. “That’s why it’s harder for me to get a flow on bars. I’m a power athlete.
“Floor is a way for me to get my personality out there. I interact with the crowd. Once I turn it on I get this kind of sassy smirk.”
Biles might never have contemplated Olympic dreams without her grandparents. She was born to drug-addicted parents in Columbus, Ohio. When she was 2, she and her siblings were placed in foster care. Their maternal grandfather, Ron Biles, and his second wife, Nellie, took the children into their home in Texas.
When a reunion with their mother didn’t work out, Biles and her younger sister Adria were adopted by Ron, and his sister adopted the girls’ brothers, Ronald and Adam.
Biles stays in touch with her biological mother by phone but calls Nellie “my mom.”
“I was too young to remember a lot of what happened,” Biles said. “People think of it as a sob story but it’s not.
“My journey has been a blessing.”
Biles grew up in Spring, Texas, a suburb of Houston, as a hyper kid who liked to jump on sofas and beds.
“I started gymnastics late, at age 6 during a daycare field trip,” she said. “My parents just wanted to protect their furniture.”
Biles trains with longtime coach Aimee Boorman at the recently opened World Champions Centre, a huge gym built and owned by her parents. Before they got into the gymnastics business, Ron was an air traffic controller and Nellie ran a chain of senior citizen homes.
Biles suffered in the past by what she calls “mental blocks.”
“I am my biggest critic,” she said. “Being a perfectionist has kind of killed me on certain days, but it makes me better in the long run. Now I enjoy having fun.”
She is adored by her teammates for her sense of humor and helping them stay relaxed at meets.
“In the gym we’re very intense but outside we’re very silly and goofy,” Raisman said at nationals in St. Louis.
Said Douglas: “I love that kid. We’re so loud when we’re together. We look at each other and laugh, like we already know the joke.”
Biles is glad Douglas, 20, made a comeback after two years away.
“We’re like sisters,” Biles said. “It’s amazing — not just because we’re two African-Americans in gymnastics but because we give little girls hope.
“Gabby was young in 2012. I don’t think she was done. We are all peaking now.”