PITTSBURGH – Simone Biles proved Thursday night that you can’t take your eyes off her, even if the beginning of her floor exercise music sounds like an incoming email tone.
In less time than it took to look down at a phone and look back up, the 17-year-old all-around world champion was bouncing off the blue floor to an upbeat tropical tune and officially taking over at the P&G Gymnastics Championships. After the first of two days at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Biles had scored 61.800 points and held a giant 3.150 lead over the field.
Biles, a Spring, Texas, native, was already the headline gymnast coming into the competition, but it was during her second rotation, on the floor exercise, that she officially stole the show. Moments after her biggest rival and 2012 Olympian Kyla Ross fell on her first tumbling pass on floor, the spunky Texan turned up the tempo and performed the type of energetic, fun, athletic gymnastics reminiscent NBA halftime show.
“I guess that’s what I’m here for is to put on a show for the audience and to go out there and prove to myself what I’m capable of,” said Biles, who also won the floor exercise world title last year, her first season as a senior.
This weekend’s meet marks a drastic change for Biles. One year after winning the U.S. all-around title as a relative unknown, and then following it up with a world title, Biles is the star attraction this week. Her photo is the one blown up on promotional banners throughout the Steel City, and her name was the one that elicited the biggest cheers in the evening introductions.
Outside of the gymnastics community, though, Biles is still relative unknown. That might change should she make the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, but for now she’s sticking to her humble routine at World Champions Centre in Spring, about a 25-minute drive north of Houston.
“It hasn’t changed at all,” she said. “I’m still Simone around the house.”
That allows her to focus on her likely next goal: defending her world title in October in Nanning, China. USA Gymnastics will name the six-woman team following a training camp at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas. Biles is favored to defend her title, which would make her the first person to do so since Russia’s Svetlana Khorkina in 2001 and 2003 — and the first American to do so since Shannon Miller in 1993 and 1994.
OFF NIGHT FOR ROSS: The story coming into the P&G Championships was supposed to be Biles vs. Ross, the duo that finished 1–2 at last year’s U.S. and world championships, and also at the Secret U.S. Classic earlier this month. Instead, Ross ended the night with 57.950 points, in fourth place, behind Biles, Maggie Nichols (58.650) and Alyssa Baumann (58.400).
The fall on Ross’ floor exercise tumbling pass was killer, but the Olympian known for her remarkable calm under pressure was a bit off all night. She also broke form badly on the uneven bars, her last event.
“It was really rocky tonight,” she said.
The 17-year-old from Aliso Viejo, California, said she wasn’t concerned with the performance, instead chalking it up to “hard luck” and declaring that she’d do better Saturday.
“I really want to come back in a lot stronger on Day 2 and show my normal consistency in all of my routines,” she said.
WORKING TOWARD WORLDS: Only 13 women are entered into the senior competition this weekend, and only eight are in the all-around competition. With six spots on the world championship squad, nearly half the field is in the mix.
Biles and Ross appear likely to fill two spots, but the others could go in a number of directions.
Nichols had another strong night after finishing third in the all-around at three previous events this year, the U.S. Classic, City of Jesolo Trophy and Tokyo World Cup. Baumann showed little fear in her first senior U.S. championships. Meanwhile,
MyKayla Skinner, who won two events at the City of Jesolo Trophy, rounded out the top five at 57.550.
Ashton Locklear is making her case as an uneven bars specialist. A few weeks after winning the event at the U.S. Classic, the Hamlet, North Carolina, native posted the top score Thursday at 15.850. It was the only event Biles did not lead after Day 1.
Then there’s Brenna Dowell. The 18-year-old is set on going back to the world championships this year after she made the 2013 team only to be named an alternate at the last minute. Dowell came into this weekend’s competition with a sprained ankle and is only competing on uneven bars. Her score of 15.400 Thursday was second only to Locklear, but she hopes to prove herself in all four events at the upcoming camp in Texas.
“I’m hoping to prove consistency on bars because that’s my event, and I’m hoping I can use that as a tool to make it on the world team,” she said.
Chrös McDougall has been a reporter and editor for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.