RIO DE JANEIRO – In two hours Thursday afternoon, I went from watching Katie Ledecky, who defies the clock in a pool, to watching Simone Biles, who defies gravity on a gymnastics floor.
These two 19-year-olds, born three days apart in March of 1997, each dominates her sport in a way that leaves their rivals in awe.
“If Katie swims the way she can, we all are swimming for second or third,” Denmark’s Lotte Friis, a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist, told me two months ago.
“I knew Simone was going to win; I was just hoping to get second,” her U.S. teammate, Aly Raisman, said early Thursday evening, when Raisman had done just that as Biles took the Olympic all-around title by 2.1 points, the largest victory margin in the last 40 years.
Biles has a team gold medal. And the all-around gold. And she will be favored to add three more in the individual events.
Ledecky has three golds and a silver. She is heavily favored to win a fourth gold Friday after setting an Olympic record in the 800-meter freestyle preliminaries Thursday.
What Biles and Ledecky share is the same plan for getting farther ahead of the opposition when triumph already is a foregone conclusion.
“As good as I am, I still have to motivate myself in practice,” Biles said after adding the Olympic title to an unprecedented three straight world titles.
That was the Biles who lamented an imperfect vault, even if it was the highest-scored vault in the all-around, when she also led in floor exercise and balance beam.
But that commitment to excellence was not something USA Gymnastics national team coordinator Martha Karolyi felt about Biles when Karolyi saw her the first time about five or six years ago.
“I knew she had the talent, but she was a little bit out of control, very bouncy and not focusing sometimes,” Karolyi said. "You tried to make corrections, but she just wanted to (show off) her skills. (But) she understood and responded fantastically to my advice.”
Karolyi, 73, who is retiring after the Rio Games, was present at the creation after the 2000 Olympics of a U.S. gymnastics women’s program that now has produced four straight Olympic all-around champions. She also had a role in the training of iconic champions Nadia Comaneci of Romania (1976) and Mary Lou Retton of the U.S. (1984).
So who better to ask if Biles is the greatest women’s gymnast ever.
“I would have to say, `Yes,’’’ Karolyi answered.
Biles has a combination of power, technical mastery, fearlessness and focus that led to her coming to Rio with massive expectations on her 4-foot, 8-inch shoulders. She also has managed to stay healthy for three years in a dangerous sport.
“It never gets old watching her,” Raisman said. "She’s incredible, especially how she handled the pressure.”
The all-around is a strange event, a four-ring circus with intense effort followed by long breaks. Four athletes compete at the same time, with the loud music accompanying floor exercise a distraction from everything else going on.
A vault takes barely five seconds, uneven bars about 35, balance beam and floor exercise a maximum of 90 seconds each. Biles had nearly an hour from the time she finished her third rotation, on balance beam, to the time she began her last, floor exercise.
Yet she managed to lighten the anticipation. During introductions before the first rotation, she and Raisman were pointing at people in the stands and smiling. Biles laughed with her coach, Aimee Borman, after the vault. She sat on her knees on the sidelines while waiting her turn in the floor exercise.
The four-inch-wide beam is the place where things can quickly fall apart. Once Biles navigated that safely, she was home free on the floor, doing a sassy, swaggering routine to Brazilian-themed music. At the apogee of her tumbling passes, she flew so high that it seemed we were eye-to-eye, even though my vantage point was the third level of the Rio Olympic Arena.
Her signature move on the floor is a double somersault in the layout position (a stretched, arched back) with a half-twist and a blind landing. It is known as the Biles. She landed it Thursday as if her feet were covered in glue, prompting my colleague Andrew Das of the New York Times to tweet, “…maybe they should just change the name of women’s gymnastics to Biles.”
She is average only on the uneven bars. Biles was seventh (of 23) on bars in the all-around, and it is the only one in which she did qualify for the individual apparatus finals next week. She was happy that Thursday was her last bars routine.
“Just because you are at the top doesn’t mean you can stop,” Biles said. "You have to keep going.”
Philip Hersh, who is covering his 18th Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.