We all watch Olympic gymnasts every four years, sometimes more, for the U.S. Championships or World Championships, and we marvel at how these small athletes can pack such power and strength.
When it comes to U.S. women’s gymnastics, it wasn’t until the horrifying revelations about sexual abuse suffered by the athletes over decades that we realized that these tiny gymnasts have most likely been the strongest athletes in the world, mentally and physically, to achieve at such a high level despite such insidious wrongs that were put upon them.
At the top of that list, perhaps atop the all-time list of women’s gymnasts, stands Simone Biles, also a survivor, smiling, poised, and showing no signs of relinquishing her spot at the top of the mountain.
She’ll be among those competing at this year’s GK U.S. Classic, to be held Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center. Biles has already qualified for the U.S. Championships, and won’t compete in the Pan Am Games, so her aim this weekend is to get sharp, and begin to prepare herself for an Olympic year.
At age 22, she’s at the upper edge of elite gymnastics. But the gap between her and the rest of the world doesn’t appear to have narrowed. At last year’s World Championships, she fell off the vault and balance beam, but still scored the largest all-around winning margin in the event’s history.
In a casual floor exercise workout, she threw out a triple twisting double tuck somersault, according to NBC Sports, which is only notable because no woman has ever done it in competition.
You won’t see it in Saturday’s competition. What you will see is one of the most dominant and accomplished athletes of our lifetimes. A gentle suggestion: If you’d have paid to watch Muhammad Ali (whose museum is only a couple of blocks away), or Michael Jordan, Lebron James or Serena Williams do their thing in this building, it might be worth your time and money to catch a glimpse of Biles. Just to say you did.
She said on Friday that she doesn’t think of herself in those terms, doesn’t feel the pressure of the “greatest ever” label that routinely is tagged to her name and career, which now includes more world titles (4), more international medals (20) and more international gold medals (14) than any gymnast in history, man or woman.
“I feel like I don’t carry that weight, just as much,” she said. “Because it’s other people telling you, and I feel like you don’t realize until you maybe stand in the mirror and say it yourself, and I haven’t had that realization yet. So for me, it’s just following the greats that have come before us.”
And, for Biles, going where none of them have been.
In the meantime, real life begins. After winning gold in Rio, Biles took a year off. She wrote a No. 1 New York Times Best Seller, A Life in Balance. She competed on “Dancing with the Stars.” For many, adjusting to life as a celebrity brings its own challenges. But Biles stayed disciplined. Her year away was taken with her return in mind.
“Mentally and physically it was a really good deal for me,” she said. “I feel like if I’d kept going I would have probably burnt out by now. But once you’re out of it you realize how much you miss it, so once I came back it was really exciting to play in the gym and try to get some of those skills back.”
Still, the schedule is busy. She didn’t get asked about her play in the recent MLB All-Star Celebrity Softball Game, but only because we ran out of time. There are demands, she said, but nothing that she can’t manage.
“I actually haven’t had to adjust just because I did the whole entire process before Rio, and you know I have a great team with my coaches and my agent, and they do my scheduling and my calendar really well,” Biles said. “Sometimes in the offseason that’s when we try to pack in more of my obligations, but other than that, it’s been OK. It’s been pretty easy.”
She certainly makes it look easy, though she said if you saw her around the house, you might say otherwise. That’s right, she’s perhaps the only elite U.S. gymnast who is also a homeowner. But she’s not ready to switch to full-on “adulting” just yet. The main challenges?
“The cleaning,” she said, laughing. “I’m a very clean person. I’ve lived in apartments and with my parents. But before, you’d wipe down a counter and walk away and five minutes later it’s dirty again. That blows my mind. And I have a dog, so that’s another side of adulting. And all the bills. I try to go as many days without spending, and then my gas runs low, or this happens, and I’m always just somehow spending money. Adulting will just somehow suck the money out of your pocket. That’s the hardest part, just paying for everything.”
That, somehow, I don’t think is going to be a problem. Even as her coaches devise new and more difficult skills than her competitors can even devise, let alone execute, Biles has proved able to cash any check. And she doesn’t appear to be slowing down yet, with Tokyo on the horizon.