Even for those incapable of counting the twists in a triple-twisting double back or distinguishing an Amanar vault from a Cheng, Simone Biles’s triumphant 2019 world championships was a moment. In total, Biles won five gold medals out of the six medal events in Stuttgart, clinching the team competition and all around finals, before dominating the vault, beam and floor event finals. She is now the most decorated gymnast of all time at world championships with 25 medals across five competitions.
One of the greatest difficulties of watching a niche, complex sport such as gymnastics is deciphering the difference between two routines that are usually separated in the scoring by only tenths. But Biles flew higher than the rest of the field, with tighter form and bigger skills. She is so much better than every other gymnast in the world that she makes the sport easy to watch.
However, Biles’s victory carries greater significance than medals. Three years ago, she departed the Olympic games in Rio with four gold medals and a bronze. She had been the best gymnast in the world for four straight years in a sport that is normally too difficult and unpredictable for sustained dominance. As she inched closer to the Olympics, the hype surrounding her became impossible to escape.
When her Olympic prospects were discussed, the question wasn’t whether she would win but whether it was possible for her to fail badly enough to lose. The pressure could have easily suffocated her. After she won her third straight all-around gold at the 2015 worlds, Biles spoke about her achievement as if she had lost ownership of it to the hype: “I was just glad that it was finally over and everybody got their three-peat. Everyone could finally put that out in the paper,” she told Buzzfeed.
Throughout the first years of Biles’s career, the Olympics were always the ultimate goal. Biles and her then coach, Aimee Boorman, countered the risks of failure in Rio by promoting consistency throughout the Games. She was already miles ahead of the other competitors, so instead they focused only on choosing routines that were “easy” for her and were replicable on any given day, regardless of how much pressure she was under. They still happened to be more complex than those of any other gymnast in history.
Since returning to the sport in 2018 after a post-Olympics sabbatical, Biles has hired new coaches – Laurent and Cecile Landi – and the 2019 worlds were a reflection of their new philosophy. In lieu of any competitive rivals, they decided that the healthiest way to keep her motivated after achieving her dreams was to remove those constraints and to test her own strength, seeing how far she can push the sport in the process.
Throughout the summer, footage of Biles was disseminated to all corners of the internet simply due to the sheer audacity of the skills she was attempting. She became the first woman in history to land a triple-double (triple-twisting double somersault) in the floor exercise and the first person to compete a double-double dismount on beam – two skills that gymnastics fans had dreamed of seeing but never imagined would come to fruition.
Many gymnasts can throw huge skills with their legs flailing and form deteriorating, but what sets Biles apart is that her technique makes even the most difficult skills look so tidy and easy. The few times Biles has stepped out of bounds on her triple-double, it has been because she overpowered the skill. It’s difficult to know if she has even reached her limit yet.
By landing both skills on her feet in Stuttgart, they became her own. She now has four elements named after her in the gymnastics code of points. Each time she nailed them throughout the week, her smile was as wide as the five times she stood on the podium with a gold medal around her neck. She says that she took more joy from gaining ownership of those elements than winning her medals. It makes sense. She has already won more than she could have ever imagined, but now her name is indelibly written into the rules of gymnastics four times. Now her legacy is complete.
No occupation in sport is as ephemeral as a female gymnast’s career. Most peak in the middle of their teenage years before puberty gradually complicates their battle with gravity. It is tough for gymnastics to build a worldwide following when it changes hands so frequently and the public cannot build a relationship with its top athletes.
Perhaps the greatest reflection of Biles’s talent is that she has been able to bypass those limitations to enjoy a healthy, fulfilling career and her success has allowed her to build the following she deserves. When her videos flit across social networks, gaining hundreds of thousands of likes, it is because of the excellence of her ability rather than the number of Swarovski crystals on her leotard.
Biles has developed as a gymnast with each year and at 22 is better than she has ever been. Away from the gym, she has grown from a wide-eyed teenager into a grown woman who is outspoken and bold. It is not normal for gymnastics to be part of any general sporting conversation in a non-Olympic year, but Biles’s enduring greatness has made it essential.