Just the other day, I was talking to a fellow gym nerd about the upcoming world championships in October. “Who’s your number two?” she asked, by which she meant who did I think would win the silver at worlds. I won’t say my answer because I am almost always wrong about these things. I don’t have to say that my number one—everyone’s number one—is Simone Biles. With Biles back in gymnastics after a post-Olympic hiatus, the all-around gold medal is, once again, not up for grabs. There are very few certainties in sports, but this is one of them.
But of course anyone who has been paying attention to the goings-on in U.S. gymnastics—anyone who has so much as read a headline with the word “gymnastics” in it over the last two years—knows that a lot has changed since Biles competed at the Olympics. Since Rio, USA Gymnastics has come under sustained and highly warranted criticism for its role in enabling sexual abuse of athletes by its member coaches and former team doctor Larry Nassar. All five members of the 2012 team have come forward as victims, and four of the five members of the 2016 Olympic team have revealed that Nassar sexually abused them. Back in January, Biles revealed that she was also one of the survivors of Nassar’s abuse. The national governing body has been sued by over 300 women and girls, most of them gymnasts, who have been abused by Nassar. Steve Penny, the longtime CEO and president, was forced to resign. Then the entire board was forced to resign. All of the organization’s major sponsors have fled.
Biles, despite being a victim of Nassar and USA Gymnastics, wound up being cast not just as the savior not just an organization but of the sport in the United States. After podium training at 2018 nationals, Biles was asked about whether or not she feels that she’s expected to ride in on a white horse and save the day. “That’s a lot of the feedback that I get,” she replied, adding that it’s not fair to her. “I can’t carry the whole gymnastics world on me.”
When I spoke to Biles earlier this week, we didn’t talk about Nassar or the upheaval in USA Gymnastics, at least not directly. The sex abuse scandal is a grim presence, always. There’s just no way to talk about gymnastics in 2018 without talking about the tumult and shame that threatens to consume it.
And so Biles and I talked about gymnastics—the strange and spectacular sport it self, and the specific upgrades she’s made. While Biles’ return has sapped the women’s contest of some its suspense—we know the outcome before the competition starts, at least at the top—her presence does inject a different kind of excitement. It’s not about what will happen so much as it is about what Biles will do next, and how easy she will make it look.
The first time I watched Biles in 2013, I saw her do a tucked double twisting double somersault. I remember being awed by how effortless it looked, how high she got. I recall thinking that you could drive a truck under her somersaults when they were at their zenith. All of this suggested that Biles was capable of doing even more.
And she was. Biles upgraded her program significantly over the next two seasons as she romped her way to three world titles. But in 2016, though, she basically stopped upgrading. Her former coach Aimee Boorman explained to me at the start of 2016 that, during that pivotal year, when the pressure on her young protege would be the most extreme, they were trying to keep everything safe and consistent. This was ultimately successful given how many medals Biles brought back from Brazil, but it came with a downside—the potential for boredom. “It’s hard,” Boorman said, “because she likes to try new things.”
Biles agreed with her former coach that she couldn’t have handled major upgrades in 2016. Though Biles played around in the gym with skills that were more difficult than those she competed with, as many gymnasts do, she never really considered adding those elements to her routines. “I just didn’t know if I could handle it nerve-wise,” she told me. She also didn’t think she’d need to. “I did think that I couldn’t get any better or improve,” she said, “so that was kind of difficult for me both mentally and physically.”
After some time off and with the pressure of not losing the Olympic gold medal now alleviated, Biles is once again pushing the technical boundaries of the sport. On the floor exercise, in which she is the defending Olympic champion, Biles is mounting with a laid out double double. That tucked double double, the one that so impressed me five years ago? It’s now relegated to the final run of her four pass routine where most gymnasts perform a simple double pike or whatever their easiest run is due to being gassed at the end of a 90-second exercise.
I asked Biles about the technique of that laid double double mount, which is called “the Moors.” Most gymnasts who have attempted this skill, and there haven’t been many, start twisting almost immediately, so as to fit in the two flips and two twists before their feet hit the mat again. Biles does not do that. She does something much more impressive. Biles delays initiating the twists until she’s almost into her second flip of the two, and then has to cram both into the final rotation. And of course, she lands this crazy hard pass with a giant jump backwards and power to spare, suggesting that she could do even more. Which is crazy to even contemplate.
Biles explained that her technique on this skill, which looks for all the world like her flexing her unprecedented power, actually has to do with a shortcoming—she struggles with twisting on the first flip of a double laid out skill. “If you know me, you know, if it’s not tucked, I cannot full it in, so that’s why I’ve always done a double lay fullout,” she said. (Indeed, of her two double layout style passes in her Rio floor routine, both featured twisting on the second flip of the rotation.) “I’d rather wait, because if I start twisting too early, my rotation tends to stop and I kinda just splat on the mat.”
It’s not quite right to call this a weakness. Biles admitting to having a slightly faulty superpower is like someone complaining that they levitate inconsistently—it’s not something people are supposed to do in the first place. But that challenge is what led to her unique approach to the pass. “So my technique is a little bit different but I know where I am and that really helps me,” she says. “And it kinda helps my rotation too because I can’t start twisting until I’ve rotated in a good enough position.”
“I’m shocked by myself, surprised by myself,” Biles told me of her ability to increase the difficulty of her program over what she did in Rio. “Shoot, I’m even older, too. I don’t even know how this is happening.”
Another crazy pass in the routine is the one that comes right after her mount: she performs a full twisting front flip and tumbles right out of it into a full twisting double back. To Biles, this pass is even wilder than the mount we just talked about. “I swear, out of all my floor passes, I can honestly say I feel like that’s harder than the other ones,” she commented.
The idea for that pass was, again, borne out of necessity. Since the last Olympic cycle, certain rule changes have been submitted; among them a requirement for a forward flipping element that is not an aerial. (Biles performed four backward tumbling passes in Rio and then did an aerial during the dance section.)*
Biles and her new coaches, Laurent Landi and Cecile Canqueteau-Landi, were looking to do something different. I wondered aloud if it was hard to generate enough speed out of the front-full to pull around a full twisting double back. Biles was nonchalant in explaining how she pulls this seemingly crazy thing off: “I also train a lot of power hurdles to double and power hurdles to full in, so I guess that part helps me.” If that’s hard to understand for those not versed in Gym Speak, just know that it is even harder to do.
While her acrobatic abilities have clearly remained intact, and with them her ability to dominate the women’s field, much has changed for Biles over the last two years. Beyond the upheavals at USA Gymnastics and her coaching changes, Biles has found herself in a new role relative to the new crop of gymnasts on the U.S. elite scene. Most of the gymnasts that Biles came up with have moved on, either from the sport altogether or to collegiate gymnastics. Of the 2016 eligible group, only Ragan Smith and Ashton Locklear, both Rio alternates and both members of the 2017 world championship team, are still training and competing. Madison Kocian, who just revealed that she was abused by Nassar, is competing for UCLA. Aly Raisman, a two-time Olympian, hasn’t officially announced her retirement, but she also hasn’t resumed training and has spent her time since Rio speaking out against USA Gymnastics for enabling Nassar’s abuse. Laurie Hernandez has announced her intention to make a run for Tokyo but it’s unclear whether she’s resumed full-time training and she has not set a date to return to competition. Gabby Douglas has mostly laid low since the 2016 Olympics and has given no indication that she is planning to compete again.
“It definitely is scary, because we have known each other for so long,” Biles said of her former teammates moving on. “We’re like family at this point. But it is so good to see them having fun and relaxing in college.”
Two of Biles’ closest friends from the national team, Maggie Nichols and Katelyn Ohashi, are both now college gymnasts. Nichols was the top ranked collegiate gymnast last year; Ohashi competed for UCLA, which won the NCAA team title. Biles visited both gymnasts and attended a UCLA meet during the season. Had Biles not forfeited her NCAA eligibility to turn pro in 2015, she might be competing alongside Ohashi at UCLA. For elite gymnasts, the opportunity to turn pro comes in the run-up to an Olympics, and for most elites that happens before they head off to college. Gymnastics is an “early specialization” sport and female gymnasts can compete in major events such as the world championships or the Olympics starting at age 16.
This means that, for top tier gymnasts, the college-or-pro question is an either/or proposition: either you take the endorsement dollars or you take the scholarship. There are no professional leagues for gymnasts—although there is always the circus—which means that except for a select few, there really isn’t much money there to make. Biles, of course, is one of that select few. By 2015 it was very clear that Biles, barring something unforeseen, would be the Olympic champion in 2016. And with the virtual guarantee of that gold medal, the major sponsors came a-knocking. Biles had a choice to make: take the money or keep her scholarship.
It’s not hard to understand why she chose the former. Biles racked up several major corporate sponsors, including a Nike deal; she is one of just four gymnasts to be sponsored by Nike. It would’ve been incredibly difficult, and probably unwise, to walk away from those opportunities.
Still, Biles does sometimes wish she would’ve been able to do both. “It is kinda hard watching them because I wish I could’ve done it so badly,” she said of watching the Bruins compete this past season. “But I can’t and I’m still having fun and enjoying what I’m doing so I really can’t complain. But that would be amazing to just go out there and be able to do college gymnastics and be in college with the girls.”
This is more than just someone who spends her days in a gym wishing she was on campus in Westwood. College gymnastics is a more team-oriented environment than Biles has ever experienced before, and for someone who has watched her erstwhile peers graduate it makes sense that she’d yearn for something similar.
The strong bond that exists between the gymnasts that came up during the 2013-2016 years is evident from their social media posts. Raisman, 2014 world team member Alyssa Baumann, and 2015 world team member Nichols went on vacation together to Turks and Caicos last year, and documented the trip richly on their respective social media accounts..
And just last week, Biles showed her support for Ohashi by tweeting a video produced by the Players Tribune about Ohashi’s experience. This is more than just Biles boosting a friend’s social media signal. While Ohashi hasn’t come forward about sex abuse, she has—on her blog and in interviews—discussed other abusive practices in the sport. Ohashi has gone into great detail about how she was shamed by both coaches and fans for gaining weight as she went through puberty.
Biles and Ohashi have known each other for years. Both attended national team camps together and did most of their gymnastics training in Texas, Ohashi just outside of Dallas and Biles just outside of Houston; in 2013, Biles and Ohashi made their senior international debuts together. For Biles, it was her first international assignment ever; she had been added to the junior national team at 15, the very end of her junior career. Ohashi, however, was an experienced hand when it came to competing internationally, and the 2013 American Cup was her fifth international assignment.
It wound up being her last. Ohashi defeated Biles at that competition, in what wound up being one of the last times that happened to Biles. The pair’s 1-2 finish at the American Cup made it seem like “double trouble,” as they called themselves, was poised to take over, Ohashi never competed in elite level competition again. Though she had enjoyed an incredibly successful junior career, Ohashi disappeared.
Biles is proud of her friend for addressing her negative experiences in the elite world. “It’s good to see her finally speak out about this stuff that she was so terrified,” Biles said. “Because a lot of the time, if anything ever happens to us, we’re told from a young age to keep it secret. Everyone doesn’t know why she fell off the map or she did what she did. It’s kind of nice that she gets to tell that story and no one got to tell it for her. After all these years, I’m sure it feels like a burden off her chest in that she gets to explain to people what happened.”
Biles was talking about Ohashi and her experience, although Biles’ own experiences with abuse was barely even subtext at that point. The pressure to always appear happy and upbeat and hide the negative is as present and heavy today as it ever was. Technically, we weren’t talking about Nassar, but we kind of were anyway.
And that’s women’s gymnastics in 2018. Even the return of the great Simone Biles cannot and will not entirely shift our attention away from Nassar and all of the abuse the athletes have endured. The old problems have certainly not gone away regardless of how many times USA Gymnastics uses the word “empower” in its press releases. But Biles, with her boundary-pushing athleticism and the excitement she generates, gives us something else to talk about. It’s just another weight she carries for a sport that has never needed her more.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the floor exercise rule change.