For a lot of sports, it’s easy to appreciate greatness while it is happening. Everyone appreciated Michael Jordan while he was winning six rings. Everyone appreciated Tiger Woods while he was winning 14 majors. Greatness can be so easy to spot, because those athletes who are doing remarkable things set themselves apart from peers by such a wide margin that you almost wonder if that athlete is competing by themselves.
This is where we are at with Simone Biles…and the praise has yet to truly rain down on this one in a lifetime talent.
That’s the problem with gymnastics. Most of the viewing public only pays attention once every four years. Since Biles was not part of the Olympic team in 2012, many have yet to truly pay attention to her greatness. This, however, should be no excuse. If people aren’t paying attention, then they should start, because Biles is one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, and she has yet to compete in an Olympic Games.
What has Biles done to make her so great? Let’s recap. Biles has competed in the World Championships three times, and has won three all around gold medals. The number of women who have won three all-around World Championships before Biles? 0. This year, she also added a vault bronze, and gold in the team competition, the balance beam, and the floor exercise, bringing her career gold medal total to 10. The number of women who have won 10 gold medals in their World Championship careers? 0. That’s more than Svetlana Khorkina, Nadia Comăneci, and a whole list of other gymnasts who are considered to be the greatest of all time. Perhaps the craziest stat of all, Simone Biles has won 14 total medals in her three World Championships. There was a total of 18 events that woman gymnasts competed in during that time frame, meaning Biles won a medal in 78% of the events women gymnasts competed in over a three year period.
Many all around champions have an event they specialize in, and compete well in the other three. Biles, however, is the best in the world at the balance beam and the floor exercise, and her first vault is unmatched by anyone. The only thing that prevented Biles from winning the gold medal in the vault in Glasgow was the fact that her difficulty score on her second vault wasn’t high enough to match up with the other gymnasts, which is something she is working on. This means Biles isn’t just great at one thing – she’s great at everything she does, and that is why she is so dominant.
Let’s put a different perspective on this. Teammate Gabby Douglas won the silver medal in the all around. She became the first Olympic all around champion to go on and medal in a World Championship since 1981. Most women win the all around gold medal at the Olympics and hang it up, as that is the pinnacle of the sport. Douglas, however, decided to come back after three years away from the sport and worked her way all the way back to where she is now, a feat the gymnastics world hasn’t seen in an incredibly long time.
Yet that isn’t the news out of Glasgow. Douglas isn’t the talk of the gymnastics world. It’s Biles, and her absolute domination of the sport, that is making the headlines.
Team USA is going to have an embarrassment of riches when they show up to the Rio Olympics with what many will proclaim as the greatest women’s gymnastics team of all time. Not only will they have Biles and Douglas, but they are also likely to have Aly Raisman, a member of the Fab Five from London who placed fifth in the all around in qualifying at the World Championships and whose experience and positive energy makes her a vocal leader of the team, as well as Maggie Nichols, who proved herself to be an all around threat in the team finals as well as a bronze medalist on the floor exercise. The fifth spot on the team is up in the air, and they will have plenty of world class gymnasts to choose from, including Madison Kocian, who was on the team at Worlds and was one of four gymnasts to win a gold medal in the uneven bars.
Any team with Simone Biles on it would be considered a favorite to win a gold medal, but a team as stacked as the USA women’s gymnastics team almost seems like a lock for gold, and we’re a year away from Rio. Biles is a lock to make the team…but don’t tell her that.
"It feels amazing, and it feels an honor to be put in this position that I've been in,'' Biles told Tamron Hall on NBC's TODAY Show. "I think it would be so fun to go out there and represent if I get chosen for that team next year."
Biles will be on that team, and while she has blown away the best in the world over the past three years, the pressure will now begin to escalate. Biles was able to win gymnasts’ top prize over the past three years, and did so under relative anonymity. Now, as the sporting world turns to Rio, she goes from being the best in gymnastics to the face of the United States Olympic Team. People may not have been paying attention to Biles’ historic run in the sport before, but they will be as Biles goes for the greatest glory for a gymnast – Olympic gold.
Biles, who will attempt to follow the path of Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, and Douglas as all around gold medal winners, won’t have history on her side. The last all around World Champion heading into the Olympics was Jordyn Wieber, who did not make the all around finals at the Olympics. The last woman to win back to back World Championships was Shannon Miller, who was never able to win an all around gold at the Olympics. In fact, the last World Champion to win an Olympic all around gold medal was Ukraine’s Lilia Podkopayeva in 1996, and six out of the last seven Olympic Games has seen an all around gold medalist that was different than the World Champion.
The Olympics, however, has never seen a three time defending World Champion before, so Biles is entering brand new territory. What she has accomplished is already historic, so she can’t look to past success of other gymnasts to determine her future.
The challenges, the pressure, and the history don’t seem to have Biles nervous. In fact, it seems to fuel her. All around gold in Rio may be enough to make Biles the greatest women’s gymnast of all time, and for Biles, it feels like just another goal.