It was quite the week to be Simone Biles. On Tuesday, at the 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, the diminutive 22-year-old superstar helped her team to their seventh consecutive gold medal, at the same time beating the record for the most world medals ever won by a female gymnast. Three days earlier, she had become the first female gymnast to compete a triple-double tuck at worlds, flying into the rafters to complete an unprecedented two flips and three twists during qualifications. On Sunday, she beat Belarusian gymnast Vitaly Scherbo’s 23-year-old record to become the most decorated world medalist of all time—man or woman—when she won gold for a near-flawless beam routine.
These are just a few bullet points on Biles’s long, record-breaking resume. Last year, she broke the record for the most world all-around titles with four, and earned four golds, a silver, and a bronze to nearly match Larisa Latynina’s 1958 medal record for a woman at one world championships (five golds and a silver)—and Biles did it all with a kidney stone (for her part, Latynina was four months pregnant at the time). At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Biles became the most decorated American gymnast of all time, also winning the most golds of any American female gymnast at one Olympics. One year earlier, in 2015, she became the first to win three consecutive all-around world titles and surpassed the record for most number of world gold medals, with only three world championships under her belt. And in 2013, at her very first world championships, a 16-year-old, braces-clad Simone became the first African-American to win the all-around world title.
She’s given contemporaries reason to fear her and has left legends in her wake, like 90s champions Shannon Miller and Svetlana Khorkina. (Khorkina, by the way, isn’t taking it well, saying after Biles beat her world medal record that if she were 15 years younger, she would be able to challenge her.) And as long as she stays healthy for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, Biles is a shoo-in for breaking one of the longest-standing and most coveted records in all of women’s gymnastics: Latynina’s record of 32 combined world and Olympic medals, a record set 53 years ago. Biles now has a combined total of 30.
Winning every medal in sight and breaking decades-old records is one thing, but where Biles has truly set herself apart is in her margins of victory. In Thursday’s all-around final, Biles beat the second-place competitor by 2.1 points (another record), punctuating the competition with a mic-drop of a floor routine. Her team won Tuesday’s final by nearly six points. Last year, while battling the kidney stone she dubbed the “Doha Pearl,” she fell twice in the all-around competition and still won by over 1.5 points—her then-largest margin of victory. Biles’s closest competitors know they are really only competing for second place; Aly Raisman once quipped that coming in second to Biles is equivalent to winning the meet, and Russian vault specialist Maria Paseka has wondered aloud if Biles could kindly stay home until after Paseka is retired. With Biles, there’s no real nail-biting over who’s going to win. The only question is how much Biles will win by, and how she will reshape the sport itself along the way.
Biles’s talent has even confounded those at the international gymnastics federation. When Biles submitted her triple-double to the federation to have a difficulty value assigned before worlds qualifications, they had to create a new column to accommodate it. When she did the same for her double-double beam dismount, they gave it a lower value than Biles was expecting, prompting her to call “bullshit” on the decision. The federation later released a statement citing the “added risk” of the element, including, for example, “a potential landing on the neck.”
“It’s so unfair, because, am I in a league of my own? Yes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t credit me for what I’m doing,” Biles said in an interview with USA Today. Similar to Liu Xuan’s one-armed giant, which was also deliberately under-credited by the FIG, when you push the boundaries of the sport, the sport is bound to push back. Still, Biles completed the skill in qualifications to get it named for her, the extra tenths she would have earned not mattering in the slightest. Later, when Team USA received an award for the highest level of difficulty at the competition, the irony didn’t seem lost on Biles, who held the trophy, tilted her head, and grinned for the cameras.
Two days later, when Biles flew out of bounds on her now eponymous tumbling pass during the all-around competition, it didn’t look like a mistake. It looked like not even the floor could contain her greatness.
At the 1968 Olympics, long jumper Bob Beamon beat the world record by nearly two feet, forcing officials to find a measuring tape and prompting competitor Lynn Davies to tell him, “You have destroyed this event.” We’ve seen sport-breaking athletes sine then—Katie Ledecky winning the 800 meter freestyle by 11 full seconds and Usain Bolt grinning through his sub-10 second 100 meters come to mind—but nobody has broken her sport as routinely and spectacularly as Biles has.
“I’ve won five world titles,” she told USA Today, “The facts are literally on the paper.” But that doesn’t mean she’s bored—quite the opposite. Biles still has competition, though it’s internal: “I never go into a competition trying to win,” she said at a worlds press conference, “I just go into a competition trying to compete like I train.” After her record-breaking all-around win at 2018 worlds, she said she was “disappointed.” That might explain why she still says she feels like she’s going to throw up before competitions; like the rest of the competitors in the arena, Simone Biles is competing against the best gymnast in the world.
That’s a contest Biles usually wins. Even though the only records she has left to break are her own, she still breaks them. Her fifth world all-around title broke her own record, as did her medal on beam. Until she retires, we’ll watch her go on inventing new moves and breaking her own records; we’ll wonder if she’ll fly right off the floor so many times that officials will have to extend it; we’ll watch her grin as the sport struggles to contain her; we might even see her destroy it to create something new.
And after it all, Biles will walk away as the greatest of all time.