In the end, it all went down exactly as it should have: The greatest gymnast in the world was crowned as such. You would think that Simone Biles knew this would happen — not out of cockiness, just out of simple math. But Biles is someone who, after earning an automatic Olympic berth by finishing first at trials in July, refused to celebrate until she’d heard her name called. She’s someone who has spoken repeatedly of the dangers of taking things for granted or being too confident. And, earlier in Thursday’s all-around final, she even found herself in the unfamiliar position of not being comfortably on top.
Halfway through one of the crown jewel events of the Summer Olympic Games, Biles, the three-time world champion, sat in second place to Russia’s Aliya Mustafina. Biles had lunged forward with her right foot when she landed her vault, and her smile for the judges had a hint of a grimace. Mustafina’s soaring routine on the uneven bars took the top score on the apparatus out of the 24 finalists, while Biles, in that event, finished seventh. And so, going into the beam and the floor exercise, Mustafina had an ever-so-slight edge.
USA Gymnastics’ Scott Bregman pointed out that, as far as he could remember, this was the first time Biles had trailed in a major international all-around event since 2013. NBC’s Jonathan Horton, a former Olympic silver medalist, sounded almost gleeful: Finally, he said, we’d get to see how Biles could perform under pressure. As if she hadn’t already been doing just that.
Back at the U.S. gymnastics trials in early July, on the morning after the team had been selected — Biles made it automatically by winning the meet; her teammates were hand picked — the 19-year-old was asked where the biggest expectations for her came from. She thought for a moment. “The media, and other people that don’t actually realize what we’re doing,” she said. “They just think it’s so easy — they’re like, tweeting to us, like, why can’t you do this? And I’m like, dude, you can’t even jump 2 feet [in] the air.”
It was a surprisingly candid answer from Biles, who had quite understandably spent the past three days in affable-interview-robot mode, continually fending off, with her disarming smile, inquiries about her excitement level for Rio. (She hadn’t made the team yet, she insisted graciously, again and again and again.) Going into the Olympics, Biles wasn’t just expected to be a gold-medal contender. She was expected to win easily. She was expected to lead the U.S. in the team competition, and to win gold in multiple stand-alone events, and to become a household name and the face of a nation. She was expected to make it look easy, to inspire home viewers to get off their couches to try maneuvers in vain. No pressure, of course.
“I don’t really read it,” she said that morning after Olympic trials. “You don’t have to look at your mentions.” But when a reporter sounded surprised that someone as brilliant as Biles might have Twitter trolls, she was quick to rattle off some of the specific complaints. “They said night one [of trials] was terrible,” she said. “I took, like, a little hop on my step. I had the beam thing.” (Biles had overshot her vault landing and wobbled on a turn on the beam.)
She shook her head. “I was like, do you realize how many girls in the world actually do this? A few. So, you get what you get.”
One of those other few girls is Biles’s teammate, Aly Raisman, who won two gold medals and one bronze in London but missed out, by a tiebreaker, on making the podium in the all-around there. (She lost the tie to Mustafina.) Raisman beat out reigning all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas for a spot in this year’s final, and going into the final two rotations stood in fourth place. But these two rotations were the beam and the floor exercise, good news for the two American women. Biles’s beam and floor routines are so difficult that they’re inherently worth more points, and she’d have to really screw up — like, way beyond “little hop on my step” level — to erase that degree-of-difficulty advantage. Raisman, meanwhile, was the reigning Olympic gold medalist on the floor exercise and someone whose current routine is eight years in the making. Still, it’s hard to ever rely on that sadistic, skinny beam.
Biles got into gymnastics because she enjoyed being unhinged and loved the feeling of flying. At trials, national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said that when she first saw Biles as a kid, what stuck out was her raw explosiveness and her energy. (Asked if Biles reminded her of anyone, Karolyi settled on Mary Lou Retton.) The trick was harnessing and focusing that source of power. And there may be no event that requires more precise focus than beam.
With Mustafina watching, Biles stuck her powerful routine with only a minor wobble. She spun a wolf turn so impossibly seamless that NBC’s Horton told a story: The first time he’d seen Biles do the move, he’d thought, “That’s not so hard,” attempted it on the floor, and failed terribly. (He added that sometimes Biles trained at his home gym and made him feel terrible about his own routines.) When Biles nailed her landing, Mustafina looked more miserable than usual. When both she and her Russian teammate Seda Tutkhalyan made noticeable errors on the beam, it set the stage for Biles and Raisman to do what they do best.
By the time Raisman was up, the question was not whether she would win a medal but what color it would be. Raisman’s floor routine is breathtaking — fluid, strong, personal, and so ambitious. She grew emotional the instant she was done. After winning three medals in London, Raisman easily could have called it a career. But she was nagged by that brutal fourth-place finish in 2012. She spent four years changing her diet, tinkering with her training, striving not just to keep up but to stay ahead. On Thursday, at 22 years old, she won the silver — this time ahead of Mustafina, who earned bronze
But when Biles is in the picture, that second place is almost as good as gold. Unlike Raisman, Biles wasn’t oh-so-close in London; after winning the gold medal, she reminded the media that as recently as four years ago, “I wasn’t very good at gymnastics.” It’s hard, having just seen the greatest gymnast in the world do what she does best, to even comprehend such a remark. Biles became the fourth consecutive American woman to win the all-around, and she did so under enormous pressure — even as she made sure that it never, ever felt that way.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated the number of gold medals that Aly Raisman won at the London Olympics; she won two golds, not three.