HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. -- In 2012, as the “Fierce Five” U.S. women’s gymnastics team was winning the Olympic team gold medal and gymnasts like Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman were becoming household names, a young Simone Biles was watching on a big screen TV at her gym in Texas.
One of the things Biles remembers about that day had nothing to do with the routines of the U.S. stars in London. It was that she got part of the day off from training, a rarity in the hard-work world of competitive gymnastics.
And when Douglas won the all-around gold medal two days later and became the latest “face of American gymnastics,” Biles figures she cheered, but she doesn’t really remember exactly what she was thinking.
“I just was like, ‘Wow, that’d be so cool if you go to the Olympics,’” Biles recalled.
But did she picture herself on that podium, like so many young gymnasts do?
“I never really thought about it,” she said.
She now is thinking about it — and with good reason.
Biles, now 18 and the two-time reigning world all-around champion, has filled the void left when Douglas and Raisman — the fourth-place all-arounder and floor exercise gold medalist in London — took breaks after the Olympic Games. In their absence, Biles has become the world’s undisputed top all-around competitor and, most gymnastics experts would say, she’s in line to be the new American darling of the sport going into next year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Now, she’ll have some competition.
Douglas has returned to competition and hopes to repeat in Rio. But it was Biles doing the repeating on Saturday night, taking the all-around gold medal at the 2015 Secret U.S. Classic, where Douglas, competing for the first time in the United States since before the 2012 Games, took second. Raisman, also competing in her first domestic meet since the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, finished fifth. Maggie Nichols was third and Bailie Key fourth in the last qualifier for next month’s P&G Gymnastics Championships in Indianapolis.
Biles is flashy and playful — sometimes winking at the crowd, for example. Of course, she’s focused on the technical aspects of her routines, but she says she also likes to put on a show.
“That’s what they pay for, that’s what they came to see,” Biles said of the throngs of young girls (and their parents) who filled the Sears Centre in suburban Chicago for Saturday’s Secret Classic. “So if you can incorporate it, why not?”
But Biles is also awesomely powerful. Her compact, muscular frame is packed into a tiny body, so short she can stand straight up underneath the lower of the two uneven bars without hitting her head.
But she can fly. Her vaults are spectacular. She works more twists and turns into them before she lands than looks possible. Her floor routine, while showing off her fun, playful side, also has incredible, aerial acrobatics. On Saturday, she earned top scores on the vault, floor and balance beam; Douglas topped her on uneven bars, though Biles’ performance on that apparatus was strong as well.
The beam and floor routines were new — and she said she was nervous. And she’s focused on improving them, rather than thinking about her place in the overall gymnastics pecking order, or whether she’ll be standing on the podium in Rio.
“I’m still focusing on my routines, because I need to get consistent with them,” Biles said.
Biles has not only won back-to-back world all-around championships — the first American to do that since Shannon Miller in 1994 — but also is two-time defending national champion. In Indianapolis she’ll have a chance to become the first U.S. gymnast to win three straight national all-around titles since Kim Zmeskal in 1990-92.
But that previous success all happened while Douglas and Raisman have been away from competition.
Still, on Saturday, the gymnasts were cheering one another on, even in the heat of competition.
“We’re all going through the exact same thing ... we’re kind of like family,” Biles said of Douglas and the rest of the competition. “I just think of them as friends, and we always need that little lift, so we give it to each other.”
Dave Royse is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a former reporter for the Associated Press and News Service of Florida. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.