by Dvora Meyers for Slate
Last week in Nanning, China, Simone Biles won four world championship gold medals, locking down the team championship, the individual all-around title, and the beam and floor exercise apparatus finals. (She also came very close to a fifth on vault, taking the silver.) Biles has now won more world championship gold medals than any other U.S. gymnast (she has six including last year’s haul, putting her ahead of Shannon Miller) and won more golds than any female gymnast at a single world championships since Ludmilla Tourischeva in 1974. These accomplishments would cap off many a gymnastics career, but with two years to go until the Rio Olympics, the 17-year-old Texan seems to be just getting started.
In China, the loudest cheers during the women’s competitions were for the hometown girls (naturally) and Biles. While the former demands no explanation, Biles was a fan favorite due to the sheer difficulty and amplitude of her skills. On vault, she launches higher and flips farther than any other gymnast (save perhaps McKayla Maroney, who was back in the States recovering from knee surgery). On beam, she attacks her skills with vigor, especially her dismount series. She does a much harder pass than any other gymnast on that event—two back flips to a full twisting double back—and does it as well as it has ever been done. Biles uses the end of the beam as a launch pad, lifting off into the somersaults. It’s such a hard dismount that you could be forgiven for doing it with poor form—with knees pulled apart the way that Dominique Dawes performed the series in the mid-1990s—but even on the hardest acrobatics, Biles keeps tight form and shape.
And floor. Not only does Biles do four of the hardest passes in the women’s competition, she does it with the sort of ease that suggests the potential for more—more twists, more rotations. She doesn’t take more than a few running steps into her double twisting double somersault and yet it flies up high. She completes her flips and twists well before she lands, dropping out of the sky with her chest up, sometimes with a small bound backward. Her power cup runneth over, as you can see in a video from this August.
Biles is such an exceptional gymnast with such prodigious talent that discussion of her accomplishments and abilities is often decontextualized from the competition. And in a sense, that is fair. She does not have a direct challenger at the moment. Biles can’t be beaten by any other gymnast unless she first beats herself, or gets injured. She is seemingly above the fray.
But Biles’ success comes at a moment when the U.S. program’s overall dominance also seems inevitable, and the women’s field is less competitive than ever. This year, the Americans won the team competition by 6.7 points, which is a far cry from the 0.1 winning margin for the Chinese men over Japan. On the men’s side, the medals were spread out among several countries, including places like Croatia and Hungary. With regards to the women, all of the medals save one were won by the four traditional powers—the U.S., China, Russia, and Romania.
Photo Credit: Lintao Zhang for Getty Images Sport