BOSTON – Simone Biles has been making history since her debut senior season in 2013, so naturally she would break more records at her return to the U.S. Gymnastics Championships this weekend.
Biles took 23 months off from competing and on Sunday, at only her second competition since the Olympic Games Rio 2016, she casually won the U.S. all-around title.
It is her fifth national all-around win (she claimed every title from 2013-16), making her the first woman ever to win five. USA Gymnastics started awarding all-around national champions in 1963.
The 21-year-old Biles also becomes the oldest women’s all-around champion in 47 years. Linda Metheny Mulvihill, at age 24, tied a 16-year-old Joan Moore Gnat for the title in 1971.
Biles proved in her return that she is leaps and bounds ahead of where the rest of the world was last year. Her two-day all-around score of 119.850 was 6.55 ahead of runner-up Morgan Hurd (113.300), who won the 2017 world all-around title in Biles’ absence from the sport. The margin of victory is the highest of her five wins; Biles’ previous largest margin was 4.95 in 2015. Riley McCusker placed third with 112.750 points.
In addition to the wide all-around gap, the most decorated U.S. gymnast in history bested her previous nationals performances by winning all four event tiles as well. She is the first to win all five golds since Dominique Dawes in 1994.
“Being the first to sweep all the titles since Dominique Dawes is inspiring,” Biles said. “It’s kind of cool to follow that path.”
Biles winning the four events, plus the all-around, for the first time has little to do with the field changing since the previous Olympic quadrennium. It has everything to do with Biles 2.0. She has quickly proven she is better than the Biles who won five Olympic medals in Rio – including four golds.
“She’s better physically than she was in Rio, and watching her in Rio I didn’t think that was humanly possible for anyone to be better than she was or for herself to be better,” said 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin. “It truly is a mental game at this point, but I have no doubt that if she continues doing what she’s doing there’s not a chance in the world that anybody is going to be able to beat her.”
Liukin’s comments have been echoed by countless others – from legends of the sport to Biles’ current competitors to USA Gymnastics staff.
“It’s incredible, and to actually look a little bit better than she did two years ago is just remarkable,” said Tom Forster, who earlier this year was named high-performance team coordinator. “You can’t be that lucky, so that is just hard work and training and dedication and determination.”
After committing to a return to training last fall, Biles trained for nine months leading up to the GK U.S. Classic in July, when she also beat out Hurd and McCusker. Her performances in Ohio last month, despite a fall on uneven bars and going out of bounds on floor exercise, were an indicator that she was better than the Biles who won three world all-around titles and nine world event medals leading up to Rio.
“She’s just on another level. I mean, she is,” said Chellsie Memmel, 2008 Olympic silver medalist and 2005 world all-around champion. “She is amazing; especially to come back and be even better – and not just better on the events she was already strong on, she’s better on everything, which is insane. And I still feel like she can do more. I still feel like the gymnastics isn’t that hard for her, which is crazy because she’s doing amazing things. It’s really impressive and I so appreciate what she’s doing.”
Memmel was alluding to uneven bars.
Always considered her weakest, bars is the one event in which Biles has never won a world or Olympic medal – or a national title until Sunday. Biles has only made an uneven bars final once at a global championships; she finished fourth at the 2013 worlds.
Her bars routines at TD Garden gave her a career-first win by 0.100 over McCusker, and the potential for an even shinier medal later this year when worlds are held Oct. 25-Nov. 3 in Doha, Qatar.
“Especially with how strong the U.S. bars workers are, I never would have thought this would happen, but I am improving on bars so that’s good to see and it gives me a lot of confidence going into future events,” Biles said.
Biles’ rise to a potential bars queen can be contributed to Laurent and Cecile Landi, the husband-wife duo that has been coaching her at World Champions Centre since her return last year. They are notable bars coaches, having led Madison Kocian to a world title in the event in 2015 and an Olympic silver medal in 2016. Laurent’s talent with bars date back to his competitive career; the former French gymnast won bronze on high bar at the 1994 junior European championships.
“I try to feel like Maddie Kocian on bars, and I tell her, ‘Maddie, I just have to be you on bars!’” Biles said. “It’s definitely hard following her footsteps because she is an amazing athlete, as well as an amazing bars swinger. It’s kind of cool to be trying to follow her, but in my own way because I can’t be Maddie Kocian.”
Even Biles admits her gymnastics is better than it has ever been before; her mental game is what still needs work, though.
“Confidence-wise and consistency I think we still have ways to go before I get to what it was in Rio,” she admitted.
Biles was a ball of nerves before both U.S. Classic and U.S. championships, telling her family she didn’t think she could calm herself down and handle nerves the way she used to.
Clearly that didn’t show on the competition floor. Her only mistakes at nationals were small hops on landings or stepping out of bounds on floor – all due to too much power.
Laser focus has helped quell her questionable confidence. Biles admitted after the first day of competition that she often does not hear Laurent’s praise and feedback after her routines, purely looking for her scores ahead. She also did not recall the shrieks from the audience, which, to many others, were nearly deafening.
“Shoot, I guess I didn’t really hear them,” she realized. “I tune a lot of it out.”
The improvement in performance and skill has come from age, she said.
“I know it’s kind of stupid, but I think I’m older, wiser, and I’m finally starting to get it. I’ve understood gymnastics for a while, but I think it’s really sinking in now.”