How Simone Biles Broke Gymnastics

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The following is excerpted from The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics’ Top Score—from Nadia to Now by Dvora Meyers, available now from from Touchstone Books.

“Simone Biles is the only true protagonist of the new acrobatic gymnastics that now rules the world, her audacious and spectacular acrobatics at the center of a unique style that exploits her daring and explosive movements to the full.”

Elizabeth Booth, the founder of Rewriting Russian Gymnastics and the Guardian’s Olympic gymnastics expert, had written these words after Biles won her second World all-around title. By this time, the international gymnastics community had all but conceded defeat to the powerful American teen, acknowledging that she might be the most talented gymnast who has ever lived. And after Biles won her third consecutive World title in 2015, becoming the first female gymnast to win three in a row and shattering the record for most World titles won, Nellie Kim told me, “She comes here already with plus two points ahead of everybody.”

But after Biles’s first win in 2013, the international gymnastics jury was still out on the gymnast. First of all, she didn’t enter the competition with a “mandate” from her win at U.S. Nationals. There, she only narrowly defeated 2012 Olympic team gold medalist Kyla Ross, who is something of Biles’s polar opposite. Tall for a gymnast at over five foot four, Ross has struggled to add difficulty to her routines since leaving the junior ranks but managed to get by on extremely clean execution. And during the all-around finals in Antwerp, Ross had been leading the Texan heading into the final rotation where Biles had a nearly a point on her in difficulty. Biles won, but she didn’t exactly run away with it.

After the all-around award ceremony, one athlete suggested a baser, more racist explanation for the sixteen-year-old’s beginner’s luck. Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito addressed the Italian media, remarking, “I told Vanessa [Ferrari] that next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win, too.”

In the age of the internet, nothing a gymnast says remains confined to her native tongue for too long. Her comments were quickly translated into English, and the online fallout ensued. To her credit, Ferlito quickly apologized on Twitter. (Where else?) But the scandal didn’t end there. David Ciaralli, the spokesman for the Italian Gymnastics Federation, attempted to rationalize Ferlito’s remarks in a post on Facebook. As you can imagine, rationalizing racist comments did not go well.

“Carlotta was talking about what she thinks is the current gymnastics trend: the Code of Points is opening chances for colored people (known to be more powerful) and penalizing the typical Eastern European elegance, which, when gymnastics was more artistic and less acrobatic, allowed Russia and Romania to dominate the field,” he wrote.

Powerful and artistic not only describe types and quality of movements but also are coded language for body type, and in this instance, race. Gymnasts who are long and lean tend to be called “artistic” regardless of how well they move or engage with the audience. Artistic is a code word for thin at a time when it is no longer acceptable to publish the weights of elite gymnasts.

The use of powerful and artistic in gymnastics is similar to how certain code words are used for African American athletes in other sports. White players, since they’re not considered innately physically gifted, are talked about in terms of their mental capabilities and hard work—they have “grit,” they “hustle,” they’re “scrappy.” A study that analyzed announcer comments from 1,156 men’s and women’s college basketball games found that black players were characterized as “athletic” and “physically powerful” and “possessing great jumping abilities.” The language of intelligence and leadership was used to describe the white players.

Swap out intelligence for artistry and you’ve got exactly what Ciaralli was saying in his statement about Biles and black gymnasts. And though the trigger for Ferlito’s offhand remarks and Ciaralli’s defense of them was Biles’s win in the all-around at Antwerp, they clearly also had another gymnast in mind when they spoke— 2012 Olympic champion Gabrielle Douglas. Biles’s victory made it back-to-back wins for gymnasts of color in World and Olympic all-around competition. It was this seeming “trend” of black gymnasts winning major titles that prompted the Italians’ comments on race, not Biles’s win alone.

But Douglas and Biles, as Ferlito and Ciaralli failed to note, actually performed different styles of gymnastics despite a shared racial affiliation. (Imagine that—two black women actually being distinct from each other.) Douglas is lithe and flexible, excelling on bars and beam while being noticeably weaker on the other two more dynamic apparatuses. And Biles is most certainly the power gymnast—performing explosively on the two leg events.

But perhaps more significantly, the language of inevitability, of “best ever–ness,” has never been applied to Douglas. She was seen as being imbued with the same degree of natural ability that all elite gymnasts possess—much more than the average person, more than even the average NCAA athlete—but not more than her fellow top-notch elites. Russia’s Viktoria Komova, silver medalist behind Douglas in London, was arguably the most naturally gifted gymnast at the 2012 Games. Komova is the daughter of a Russian champion and entered the senior ranks after a stellar junior career. She was the 2011 World all-around silver medalist and the World champion on the uneven bars. Douglas had competed in that same uneven bar final in Tokyo but had placed fifth. In 2012, Komova entered the Games with a bag full of new tricks and was the top qualifier to the all-around final.

Komova seemingly had it all: she had the highest collective degree of difficulty in the competition, and she performed with a refinement honed through years of careful study and ballet. Douglas was next in line, in terms of difficulty. After watching the Russian during the qualifying rounds, I wrote to a friend, “This [gold medal] is Komova’s to lose.” It was. And she did. Douglas needed Komova to give her an inch. Or, as it turned out, several wayward steps on her vault landing. Douglas won in 2012 by capitalizing on her opponent’s errors, which is a perfectly respectable way to win an athletic competition. But she was by no means dominant. Her win in 2012 was hardly a given. Her gold medal was not inevitable; her gymnastics was not effortless as Biles’s performance is frequently characterized.

A note on the word effortless: it is perhaps one of the most frequently deployed adjectives when it comes to Biles and her brand of gymnastics. (I’ve already used it several times in this chapter.) It can mean either “requiring or involving no effort” or “displaying no signs of effort.” After watching Biles practice in her home gym for two days, I couldn’t decide which definition worked better. Was it that she wasn’t working as hard as her teammates? Or was it that she was putting in the same amount of effort as the others, but hard work simply looked different on her? Biles was taking the same number of turns as her fellow gymnasts, doing the assignments as ordered by longtime coach Aimee Boorman, yet her practice struck me as lackadaisical at times. Maybe that’s because she was so much better than her compatriots that effortless even described maximum effort.

Or maybe the fact that she doesn’t have to struggle quite as much is the trick—Biles doesn’t have to push herself to the breaking point to win. It’s as Nadia Comaneci recalled Bela Karolyi saying of her when she was young, “I was the only gymnast he could never break.” It’s a risky business trying to stay on the right side of the breaking point, to know just how hard to throttle and when to back off. That Karolyi didn’t know Comaneci’s limit was, in part, the secret of her success. He didn’t know how to crack Comaneci. (At least the 1976 Comaneci—it was an entirely different story when she came back to train with him in 1978.) And with Biles’s limits seemingly nowhere in sight, perhaps she won’t break either. Excellence, for both Biles and Comaneci, has been about not showing your work as you would on a math test.

Not that Boorman is trying to break her star pupil. “It’s just gymnastics,” she repeatedly announced as her guiding philosophy about the sport. This laid-back attitude sort of upends the narrative of “hard work” that plays a prominent role in athletic training and in women’s gymnastics in particular. So that to admit that sometimes you and your athlete cut out of practice in the middle of a bad day for a cup of coffee—which Boorman did in the mixed zone after the 2014 National Championships—probably rankles some folks. It also undermines the story that gymnastics tells itself when looking into the mirror—that it’s the hardest, the toughest, and, doggone it, people like it that way.

Timing is said to be everything. But in gymnastics, timing is called peaking. It’s considered less a matter of good luck and fate and more the result of optimal planning and coaching. Douglas is an example of an athlete who was “perfectly peaked.” In London, she competed at the edge of her physical and mental abilities at exactly the right moment—the Olympic Games. She rode the momentum all the way to an all-around gold, her only significant individual international title as a senior gymnast until that point.

The 2011 World Champion Jordyn Wieber was seen as being imperfectly peaked. She won the World title and national title the year before the Olympics, which is a bad omen for winning the Olympic all-around. Wieber failed to qualify to the individual all-around finals in London.

“Is she peaking too soon?” is another way of asking “Is she winning the wrong titles?” as though a top gymnast and coach have total control over when and where to excel, when to be injured, when to turn sixteen, when to be ready. Before the 2014 World Championships, I asked Boorman about the fear that many have about Biles, that she is winning too soon and will have a tough time staying on top until the Olympics. Implied in that concern is that maybe something can be done to change the narrative, to keep her from winning until Rio. And then, this thinking implies, you can just flip the winning switch again.

Boorman has heard this all before, even from inside her own gym back in 2013. “I know that, this was last year, the other coach I was working with at the time said, ‘We need to hold her back. We don’t want her to win this year. We don’t want her to win Nationals. We don’t want her to win Worlds because she’s going to peak way too early.’ I said, ‘You know what—what if this is all she ever gets to do? What if this is her hurrah moment? That she’s the national champion and gets to go to Worlds. What if it’s all done after that? Are we going to hold her back because we’re thinking about Rio? Or are we going to let her shine now and then just try to keep her healthy and keep her shiny?’”

Opportunities to win major titles aren’t like party invites—you can’t turn down one and then simply decide to win the next. So many things need to go right for a gymnast to win an Olympic gold medal or a World title—physical health, mental preparedness, age— that to believe you can control all of the variables verges on magical thinking.

I’ll admit, however, that like the coach who had suggested that Biles “try” not to win in 2013, I had given some serious thought to this idea before Biles competed at the 2014 World Championships. Would it be so terrible for her to win the silver? I wondered. Can a gymnast even throw a competition in the same way that a boxer throws a fight? Should Biles have hopped off the beam or slipped intentionally from the uneven bars? What would “not peaking” even have looked like for her?

To watch Biles compete and train, of the ease of her trying hard, reminded me of a David Foster Wallace line from one of his several essays about tennis. He described the experience of watching two pros nonchalantly practice on the courts before a match. “The suggestion is one of a very powerful engine in low gear,” he wrote of the two tennis players hitting balls back and forth. Biles seems to be operating consistently in low gear, which makes you wonder—what would it look like to see her perform in high gear?

Perhaps it would mean seeing her do skills such as the ones she unveils in practice videos she posts online. In one from four years ago, she performed a double twisting double somersault from the balance beam. For most gymnasts, this skill is the most difficult you can do on the floor exercise. I asked Boorman about this astonishing dismount. “How that transpired is she’s doing these huge full ins [full twisting double backs] one day, and I was like, ‘You know, you can double double that.’ We had, for months, been kind of joking about her doing a double double off beam.”

Biles, at first, had refused. “‘I’m never going to do that. I’m going to die,’” she supposedly told her coach. During the WCC training session I had watched, I had seen her fall from the uneven bars. On the way down to the mats, she cried out, “I’m going to die!” It had been in jest as it had been when she said the same to Boorman about that crazy dismount. Everyone, including Biles, laughed. In Biles’s vernacular, “die” seems to be synonymous with “fall.”

“Then that day [the video was shot] I said, ‘You know, you could double double that,’” Boorman continued. “She goes, ‘Yeah, I know I could.’ I leave it at that. I wait for her to say, ‘I’m going to do it.’ She walks over and she says, ‘Go get your iPad because I’m only doing it once and if I die, I want it on video.’” This is the video that has been circulating ever since.

I told Enrico Casella, Vanessa Ferrari’s coach, about the video of this skill when he brought the conversation around to Biles. (Everyone I interviewed in China wanted to talk about her.) Despite the Italian delegation’s fraught history with the American gymnast, he had nothing but praise for her. And he seemed to understand why Boorman would put Biles up to this move in the gym even if it never left their training base. Casella said, “Sometimes they need to try something new because sometimes it becomes boring to repeat the routine.” The need to innovate and increase difficulty isn’t always borne out of the desire to win but from something much more mundane—boredom. Biles went for that dismount from the beam, not because she needed to but to relieve the monotony of the daily grind, to get a jolt as one does from a cup of coffee. This is how she plays. It’s just that her level of play, Boorman explained to me, is so far above that of her nearest competitors.

Knowing that Biles can do an extra twist on that skill changes the way you watch her do the comparatively easy dismount. That missing revolution is like a phantom limb—you can feel its presence by the additional height she gets off the edge of the beam. Ever since seeing that training video of her doing the more complex dismount, I mentally insert the extra twist when I watch her.

I have a feeling that’s what her fans do when they watch her do her incredibly difficult gymnastics—they wonder what else is possible. Biles doesn’t impress so much with what she can do but with what she might do.

When talking about Biles, Nadia Comaneci said, “She’s a talent that’s born once in a while. You have somebody who can do something we cannot even design on a paper.”

Kim told me, “When we created Code of Points, we couldn’t even think that a girl like her will show up. She’s unique.”

At its best, the open-ended scoring system is supposed to inspire and reward the Simone Bileses of the world to train and master extreme skills. But if Comaneci’s assertion is correct—that Biles exemplifies the best in the new rulebook but is also a unicorn who possesses a style unlikely to be replicated—what does that mean for this Code of Points? Is it inherently flawed if only one athlete can fully embody its noblest aims, to push the envelope on difficulty while also performing with virtuosity, verve, and form?

Comaneci had come to symbolize the Perfect 10, so her rivals were chasing the athlete, a score, and the idea that the score represented. Without a symbolically meaningful score, it’s just Biles herself that everyone is chasing.

Excerpted with permission from The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics’ Top Score—from Nadia to Now by Dvora Meyers, copyright 2016, Touchstone.