RIO DE JANEIRO – Simone Biles and Aly Raisman stood in a hallway speaking to throngs of media around them when Raisman let out a shout: “Simone! Danell is going!”
“Danell” was Danell Levya, and “going” meant their U.S. teammate Leyva was up on the high bar for the men’s individual final in the event, the last artistic gymnastics competition during these Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
So there they stood, side-by-side, the best female gymnasts in the world watching on a media mixed zone TV as one of their compatriots and friends went for his second medal in as many finals that day.
Standing and watching: It was what most of us had done the past 10 days as Biles and Raisman had performed in front of millions and become American darlings – Biles for a first time, Raisman again, four years after three medals, including team gold with the Fierce Five.
But they were the “Final Two,” as women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi had called them after their floor routine final Tuesday afternoon, in which – and no shock here – Biles won gold and Raisman captured the silver.
So as they stood and watched Leyva, the media stood and watched them watch, too. They have commanded our attention as the two best gymnasts in the world this Olympic Games. Of course we would wait for them a few seconds longer. How could we not?
“We’ve waited for this moment for so long, and then today walking to breakfast we were like, ‘Wow, today is the last day,’” Biles said of the Olympic waiting game, now over – completely, suddenly. “I think we were so excited to do good floor routines.”
Great more than good, actually. Biles flew to a 15.966 while Raisman hit a 15.500, the U.S. going 1-2 on the floor for the first time ever in that event. Biles walks away from Rio with four gold medals, more than any American gymnast – man or woman – has won at one Games, while she, Raisman and their Final Five teammates proved that they were far and away the best women’s gymnastics team in the world.
The numbers are mind-boggling: The nine medals overall for the women’s team is an Olympic record for the U.S. Meanwhile, Biles’ four golds in one Games ties her with three other women in history, and Raisman becomes the first American to medal on floor at back-to-back Games, having won gold in 2012. With her team gold, all-around silver and floor silver in Rio, Raisman is now the second-most-decorated U.S. Olympic gymnast, one medal shy of Shannon Miller. And Gabby Douglas, the reigning Olympic all-around champion, also made history, becoming the first to return to the Games since the great – Ms. Perfect 10 herself – Nadia Comaneci in 1980.
“It’s been a long journey, and this was the last event at the Olympics,” said Biles’ coach, Aimee Boorman, fighting back tears. “You work so hard for so long. … It feels fulfilling. That’s the word I would use, ‘fulfilling.’”
It was fulfilling to watch the women again on Tuesday, Raisman saying she feels like a better gymnast now than she was four years ago in London and – wait for it – not ruling out a return to the Olympics in 2020. She’d be 26 in Tokyo.
“I said I get better with age, so maybe I will,” Raisman said laughing. Then, she turned serious: “It’s obviously very hard to get to the point and it’s not always fun getting back into this crazy shape that we’re in right now, but I love gymnastics and I love competing and I think surpassed my expectations and everyone else’s. I’m on a high right now. I’ll take a break and come back to the gym and see how it goes.”
Biles, too, is unsure if this is the end of the road for her. Both will go out on tour this fall before fully re-evaluating.
“We had a phenomenal experience,” she said. “I need to take a little break, have some fun and just not think of it. I’m going to have a break and then I’ll think about it.”
The nine women’s medal and three from the men make this the most successful gymnastics effort – 12 total – at an Olympics since Team USA won 16 in Los Angeles in 1984.
Biles did not win what many had expected her to: Five golds in five events. A bobble on the balance beam left her in third, while teammate Laurie Hernandez won the silver. Five golds was an expectation that she had not had of herself, however, and Boorman made it clear that she and Biles see the Games as an astounding success.
“I’ve always told her, ‘Other people’s expectations are not your responsibility,’” Boorman said firmly. “The thing with the bronze medal yesterday, she was very proud. She won a bronze medal on the balance beam at the Olympics. How many people get to do that? She told the media, ‘That was your goal for me to have a gold medal on it. My goal was to have to do my best performance and hopefully end up on the podium.’”
But should Biles decide not to return to competition – she’s 19 and would be 23 in 2020 – this was her last Olympics, even if she does compete domestically or internationally for a bit henceforth. Boorman, her coach of over 10 years, is acutely aware of that.
She has thought about Biles not coming back for another Olympics, she said, fighting back tears as she was asked about it. How does that feel?
“It’s like sending your kid off to college,” she explained. “You know you’re going to see them, but you just don’t know what their life is going to be but you’re excited for what they’re going to go out and experience. That’s where I am right now. It’s a journey. This is a milestone.”
A milestone that puts Biles in the history books – for a long time.
“It’s pretty insane what I’ve accomplished in my first Olympics,” Biles said reasonably, her eyes surrounded by glitter, another Olympic gold hanging around her neck. “It’s definitely rewarding. I’m very proud of myself. It’s crazy.”
“She’s crazy. I can’t believe she has four Olympic gold medals,” she said. “It’s amazing; it’s hard to put into words. I don’t even consider myself competing against her because she’s at another level. I’m in awe watching her even though I train with her every day.”
“There’s probably going to be some pizza involved,” Boorman laughed of a celebratory plan.
Biles and Raisman said they are planning a team watch party of their all-around final, as the Americans had yet to see it for themselves. It’s one of the many sparkling moments for Team USA, which also included Madison Kocian’s silver medal on the uneven bars.
Biles, who had Olympic-sized expectations looming over her ever since the first of three all-around world titles that she won three years ago suddenly couldn’t believe it was all finished.
“There is some sense of relief because you keep pushing and keep going until it’s over,” she said, having gotten teary-eyed on the medal podium Tuesday as the national anthem played.
“But, I’m sad that I’m done, too.”