RIO DE JANEIRO – There was a moment after the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, last month in San Jose, California, when Simone Biles was shooting a video and she had to stop the production.
“Wait!” Biles said, turning to one of the producers. “I’m an Olympian. I have to remember that now I’m an Olympian.”
Six weeks later, Biles doesn’t need any reminding of that – nor does the rest of the world. But what she still hasn’t fully wrapped her head around is what she achieved in Rio the last two weeks. The four gold medals and the bronze. The history she made. The greatness she confirmed.
She wasn’t even comfortable standing alongside swimming legends Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps for the Sports Illustrated cover, out this week.
“It’s still weird to me because I look up to (Katie and Michael) because they are so accomplished – the greatest,” a smiling Biles said after her Olympic effort was complete. “I felt a little nervous around them because I felt like I didn’t belong there, but it was really exciting.”
But Simone now does belong. Alongside Ledecky and Phelps, alongside her Final Five teammates, and alongside the gymnasts who have come before her and become household names, like Shannon Miller, Mary Lou Retton and Nadia Comaneci.
Saturday morning, Biles was announced as Team USA’s flag bearer for the Closing Ceremony, further cementing not only her legacy in the sport and what she accomplished and Rio, but showing the respect that her Olympic teammates have for what she has been able to do.
"It's an incredible honor to be selected as the flag bearer by my Team USA teammates,” said Biles. “This experience has been the dream of a lifetime for me and my team and I consider it a privilege to represent my country, the United States Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics by carrying our flag.”
“She is the biggest talent of today,” said U.S. women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who coached Comaneci in the 70s and – in her final Olympics as a coach – Biles. “In 1976, Nadia was the biggest. In our days, Simone is the biggest talent combined with a very good discipline of work and preparation for consistency.”
What are the words that are left to use about Biles? She exhausted them for reporters that followed her in Rio with every flip, spin, twist, jump and Biles – yes, she has a gymnastics element named after her – that she made.
Even her teammates are wide-eyed of what she’s done.
“Simone is so amazing. She’s crazy,” offered Aly Raisman, the world’s second-best gymnast – after Biles. “I can’t believe that she has four gold medals. It’s hard to put into words. I don’t even consider myself competing against her because she is just at another level. I’m in awe watching her and I’ve trained with her every day for so long.”
Biles isn’t sure where she rates herself historically. Better than Retton? Equal to Comaneci? To her, it is all still mind-boggling. Next week, when she returns to real life and home, her life won’t be one she fully recognizes, however, and instead one of an Olympic gold medalist and an American sporting hero.
“I would never rank myself, that’s weird,” Biles said bluntly when asked where she thinks she falls in terms of history. “It’s pretty insane what I’ve accomplished in my first Olympics. It’s definitely rewarding and I’m very proud of myself.”
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Biles wasn’t a part of the conversation in 2012 at the age of 15, but then – a year later – was world champion in 2013 and has been the best ever since. It’s rare for a female gymnast to have staying power at the top year after year after year (after year). In Rio, she seemed better than ever.
“There are very few women that have dominated gymnastics like this, the way that she has,” said Amanda Borden, a member of the Magnificent Seven in 1996. “It’s tough to do as a young female as you’re growing up. That hasn’t been issue for her. I think it’s been absolutely incredible for her.”
|Gold medalist Simone Biles celebrates on the podium at the medal ceremony for the women's floor exercise at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Arena on Aug. 16, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
Her coach, Aimee Boorman, has been by her side for 11 years, and remembers a bouncy little girl with endless ability but little control. After being asked to a national camp for the first time before she was 10, they weren’t invited back the next year.
“When she was really little, I was like, ‘Whoa, that kid has something!’” Boorman said. “What it was and how far it would go, I wasn’t sure. I don’t really play that way. I just like to nurture along the way and see where it goes. If you would have seen her when she was 8, you would have never pegged that she would make a national team. Everything she did was ugly! (Laughs.) She could do big skills here, and then bounce 15 feet after them. She couldn’t stay on the beam for her life – and she couldn’t hold on to the bar.”
Biles stayed on that beam four different times in four routines this Olympics, however, including in the balance beam event final when she caught herself, hands
on beam, after nearly falling. She won the bronze and was asked if it was a disappointment not to have the gold, but she thought otherwise: She was happy to have landed on the podium.
“You can’t worry about what other people think or expect,” she said earlier this year, in the lead-up to the Olympics. “You can’t try to please other people. You have to put yourself first. You have to do what you have to do.”
Now what Biles has to do is up to her. There is a national tour with her Final Five teammates and a slew of other American gymnasts … and then? And then it’s not clear. Boorman allowed herself to think that this might have been Biles’ last meet, and Biles did the same. But was it? She will be 23 in Tokyo at the next Olympics, which isn’t old by any means in gymnastics, but it’s not young, either. At 22, Raisman was nicknamed “Mama Aly” or “Grandma Aly” by her teammates in Rio.
Can Biles take time off and come back, like 2012 Olympians Raisman and Gabby Douglas?
“I think she would be able to do that if that’s what she chooses to do,” Boorman said. “She’s just so talented. Her skills come so naturally that it’s just about getting your body in shape to be able to do the skills.”
Having waited for the Olympics to come along for so long, Biles can’t believe in a way that they are now done and over with. But now she doesn’t have to answer those ‘what if’ questions that has loomed over her since 2013.
“There is some sense of relief,” she said, smiling again. “It’s kind of sad how fast all of this came to an end. You just keep pushing and keep going, but I’m excited it’s over. Well, it’s kind of sad, too.”
It’s sad to think that may be the last of Biles that we’ve seen on the competition floor. But wow, what an Olympics she gave us. Insert your own descriptive hyperbole here. She’s used them all up at this point.
And watch her closely when she walks out into Closing Ceremony with that American flag. It will tower over her, all 4 feet, 8 inches of Biles. Another reminder that the biggest feats can be accomplished by the smallest human beings. Simone Biles, thanks to these Olympics – no, thanks to herself – is now a giant of the sporting world.