RIO DE JANEIRO – Halfway through the women’s all-around final, Simone Biles was in an unfamiliar, unthinkable place: Second place, that is.
But Biles, the three-time reigning world champion and heavy favorite for Olympic gold, steadied herself with the sturdiest – and icy-cool – balance beam routine, taking back the lead from Russia’s Aliya Mustafina and then never looking over her shoulder again, soaring to a historic gold medal two days after the U.S. women won their second straight team Olympic gold medal.
Biles, who scored a 62.198, becomes the 10th woman in history to win both team and individual all-around golds at an Olympic Games, and becomes the first reigning world champion to win the Olympic title since Lilia Podkopayeva in 1995 and ’96.
Her American teammate Aly Raisman launched a comeback of her own after the second rotation, when she was in fourth place. The Fierce Five veteran, now 22 and captain of the newly-coined Final Five, also hit on beam in rotation three and then delivered an Olympic-sized floor routine to give the U.S. the gold and silver medals. Raisman finished with a 60.098, Mustafina 58.665.
It marks the second time Team USA has gone 1-2 in Olympic history. Nastia Liukin won gold and Shawn Johnson captured the silver at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. The U.S. has now won an unprecedented four women’s all-around titles in a row: Carly Patterson in 2004, Liukin, Gabby Douglas in 2012 and Biles.
What did it do to Biles’ psyche when she saw that she was in second place halfway through the meet?
“Nothing,” she told reporters afterwards. “I just went up there and did the stuff that I had to do. It didn’t really bother me.”
It was a “trust in your training moment” for Biles, with women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi watching from just a few rows above the beam. Karolyi, famously stone-faced, stood and cheered as Biles landed off the beam. From there it was full steam ahead.
“Beam is always the key,” Karolyi said later on. “It gives the most challenges and I love challenges. Both girls went out there and dominated. There was no question mark.”
The Olympics have emphatically answered the question marks that were floated above Raisman’s head when she began her comeback to the sport in late 2013. The silver is a crowning moment in her career, having tied for third at the 2012 Olympics only to be knocked to fourth due to a tiebreaker rule. She has said that result has been a driving force in her return to the sport.
Her coach, Mihai Brestyan, leapt in excitement as Raisman finished what was a glorious floor routine, having won that event in 2012. He said he wasn’t completely sure she could make it this far when she began her journey back to the sport.
“It took me a year or more” to be convinced, said Brestyan, another famously gruff coach. “You come back for everything or you don’t come back. There were a lot of hard times. We are 100 percent together. I don’t have words to explain.”
There are few words, as well, that aptly describe what Biles put forth on Thursday night, and what she continues to do in gymnastics overall.
The night belonged to her, as she breathed a visible sigh of relief after finishing her beam routine, hugging coach Aimee Boorman as Karolyi jumped to her feet in the stands just above the beam, shouting positively towards her. It was the moment when the script got back to its original form and all was right in the Olympic world.
“I know that Aliya is so strong on bars,” said Biles of Mustafina, who scored a 15.666 in the second rotation in that event. “It’s kind of expected of her to put up those scores.”
After beam, Biles went from a deficit to a 1.5-point lead and headed to her favorite event: floor. It’s there, up last among the six women, that she flew to the gold medal, scraping the ceiling with her toes as the crowd clapped along with her Brazilian-themed routine.
In terms of conquering the globe, it’s the fourth year in a row for the 19-year-old, who won world championship titles in 2013, 2014 and 2015. With 14 world championship medals in her pocket (10 of them gold) – more than any other U.S. gymnast – she now has two Olympic golds in her collection, and could earn as many as three more in the event finals next week, when she competes on vault, beam and floor.
“She’s been incredible; I don’t know what more to say,” 2004 Olympic all-around champion Patterson told TeamUSA.org in a phone interview about Biles. “It’s mind-blowing to watch her talent.”
Douglas, Biles’ Final Five teammate, also won both the team and individual all-around golds at the London Games in 2012. On Wednesday, Kohei Uchimura completed such a feat as well in the men’s competition, the Japanese star winning his second consecutive individual Olympic title.
Is Biles the best ever? Let that debate rage. But for the next four years she is the Olympic all-around champion, and that’s something no one can ever take away from her.
“People have asked me if she’s changing gymnastics, and I say, ‘Absolutely, she’s changing gymnastics,’” Amanda Borden, a member of the gold-medal winning Magnificent Seven team from 1996, told TeamUSA.org. “The question is, Will there be anyone else that can match what she’s done? And I don’t know that. I think she’s that phenomenal. Her level of difficulty is insane when it comes to women’s gymnastics. Her ability to execute with pretty much flawless detail and consistency is unbelievable.”
And trailing after two rotations in the Olympic final? That makes her achievement all the more great.
After Raisman broke down in tears following her own flawless floor routine, covering her mouth and putting her hand to her heart, she watched as Biles did much of the same. Simone hit each of her passes with soaring height and stuck the landing on her fourth and final. Biles ran off the floor and found her coach, Boorman, for a hug, then embraced Raisman.
“It was very emotional because we finally did it,” said Raisman. “We went four for four. I’m relieved that it’s over but very proud. It was so special.”
Biles took to the podium near the vault to wave to an erupting Rio Olympic Arena, Olympic champion three years after she won her first worlds. Raisman soon joined her, the two waving as they were engulfed in cheers.
Boorman, who was the head coach of the Final Five two nights ago but has also worked with Biles for over 10 years, said she began “ugly crying” at the sight of her charge saluting the Olympic crowd, champion on this stage at long last.
“After 11 years… you know, this is a coach’s dream, also,” Boorman said. “I have been in gymnastics since I was 6 years old. It’s been my career and my passion and what I love to do. It’s been great to be on this incredible journey with her.”
Biles, far and away the favorite to win this event over the last two years, said she has perfected the art of blocking out all the noise. Her ability to let go of the pressure almost matches her eye-popping gymnastics prowess.
“I deal with pressure very well,” she said, laughing. “I don’t listen to anybody.”
But hopefully Biles hears the accolades pouring in from around the world with Olympic gold around her neck. As she came to speak to a swarm of reporters, the first question was: “How do you feel, Simone?”
It’s clear the Olympic champion has a golden sense of humor to go along with the medal she earned Thursday. Now, someone find her a celebratory meal.