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When Simone Biles returned to gymnastics competition this past July at the U.S. Classic, the 21-year-old could already credibly be called the GOAT — Greatest Of All Time.
Already the first woman to win three consecutive all-around world titles, already the fifth women’s gymnast to win four gold medals at one Olympic Games, and already the most decorated U.S. gymnast with a combined 19 Olympic and world championships medals, Biles in the 2013-16 Olympic quad had unquestionably established herself as one of the best gymnasts, if not the best, of all time.
And yet what the Spring, Texas, native has done in these past three months might have been her most impressive run of success yet.
Coming back from a planned post-Olympic break in November 2017, Biles worked herself back into competition shape surprisingly fast, with gymnastics routines so difficult that she was able to win the U.S. Classic despite a fall on uneven bars.
Simone Biles competes in the balance beam at 2018 FIG Artistic Gymnastics Championships on Nov. 3, 2018 in Doha, Qatar.
Then, three weeks later, she showed up in Boston with routines she said were better than those she performed in Rio and proceeded to sweep all five national titles — winning the all-around plus the four individual events, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since Dominique Dawes did so in 1994.
Of course, that was just the appetizer. The climax of the season was always to come at the world championships, and once again, Biles was out of this world.
One by one, Biles marched through the competition Oct. 25-Nov. 3 in Doha, Qatar, marking new milestones and smashing new records by the day. Just how impressive were her five days of competition in Doha? Consider:
- On Oct. 27, Biles started her day in a local hospital, where she received treatment for a kidney stone. Upon checking out in the early-morning hours, Biles got some sleep and soon found herself racing down the vault runway, where she performed a roundoff with a half-twist onto the vault table, followed by a somersault with two twists before landing blindly on the mat. The extremely difficult vault, which had never been performed by a woman in international competition, will henceforth be known as the Biles. And, oh yeah, it helped her post the top all-around score in the women’s qualifying round, where she also posted the top score on beam, floor and vault and the second-best score on uneven bars. What was that about a kidney stone?
- Three days later, Biles and her U.S. teammates were back and running away with the team championship, their winning margin of 8.766 points being the biggest ever at a major international competition since the new scoring system went into place in 2006. The U.S. has now won every world or Olympic title dating back to 2011, and Biles — who anchored all four events in this year’s team final — has been key to four of those teams. The win also qualified Team USA for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
- Two days after that, on Nov. 1, Biles fell twice in the women’s all-around final — and still won by another record-setting margin. How does that work? Biles’ four routines carry a combined difficulty score of 26, which is 2.4 higher than anybody else. Truly testing the axiom that she could fall and still win, Biles passed easily. The win was Biles’ fifth in as many tries at the world championships or Olympics.
- Despite being the defending Olympic champion on vault, Biles had never won the world title. That changed as event finals got underway on Nov. 2. Though she elected to not do her newly eponymous vault, Biles nailed both of her still-very-difficult vaults to win her world title. In doing so, she also claimed her 13th total world title, giving her the record for most in a career and breaking a tie she held for just one day with former Russian men’s gymnast Vitaly Scherbo.
- And she wasn’t done yet. That same day, Biles claimed a silver medal on uneven bars, the sole apparatus on which she hadn’t yet won an Olympic or world championships medal. In doing so, Biles also became the first American to win a world championships medal on each event during her career.
- The world championships wrapped up on Nov. 2, with Biles entered in two more event finals. She opened on balance beam, where she survived some early wobbles to win a bronze medal. Then she wrapped up the competition on floor exercise, the event on which she’d already won three world titles and the 2016 Olympic gold medal. So it was little surprise, then, when Biles showcased her unmatched tumbling skills to win a record fourth world title. In doing so, she became the first to win world medals in all six competitions since the Soviet Union’s Yelena Shushunova in 1987.
- Did we mention she did this all with a kidney stone?
By the time Biles got back home to Texas on Sunday — where she had a large pepperoni pizza and box of cinnamon rolls waiting for her — Biles had amassed 20 world championships medals in her career, tying the women’s record held by Russia’s Svetlana Khorkina.
That Biles was able to accomplish so much so quickly after a 14-month break from the sport was almost unimaginable. Even peers who have come back from extended breaks to have success, such as U.S. teammates Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman during the last Olympic quad, needed significantly more time to work back into top fitness.
The question now is what’s left?
Biles could retire today and still lay claim to her GOAT status. That’s not her plan, though.
After some deserved R&R and, presumably, further treatment for her kidney stone, Biles plans to come back and compete through Tokyo 2020. That would give her one more world championships, in 2019, plus one more Olympics to add to her already impeccable resumé. Three medals in Tokyo would enable her to surpass Shannon Miller as the most decorated U.S. Olympic gymnast.
Although Larisa Latynina’s career Olympic medals record is safe — the Soviet gymnast won 18 medals, nine of them gold, from 1956 to 1964 — Biles next will have another Khorkina milestone in her sights as soon as next year’s world championships in Stuttgart, Germany. Biles’ 25 combined Olympic and world medals trails Khorkina’s 27 for third all time. Should Biles maintain her health, Latynina’s 32 combined medals are certainly within striking distance by Tokyo.
Considering what she was able to accomplish this past week, it’s perhaps not wise to bet against her.
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials every year since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.