This weekend, someone not named Simone Biles will win the national championship in women’s gymnastics for the first time since 2012. Biles, the winner of five Olympic medals in Rio (four of them gold), has taken 2017 off from training and competition to write a New York Times bestseller, win an ESPY award, and compete on Dancing With The Stars. (DWTS was her first competitive defeat since 2013.) So after four years of dominance, the field is finally clear for someone else to take the title of “best female gymnast in the U.S.” The winner of this competition will likely be a favorite to make the four-person world championship team in October.
Biles’s absence from competitive gymnastics may very well be temporary. Of all the members of the 2016 gold medal winning Olympic team, Biles is the safest bet to make a successful return to elite status and competition. (Watch her perform her eponymous skill months after the Olympics ended without training.) But for the time being, she’s out. What will her absence, however long it lasts, mean to the sport she dominated for four years and to the U.S. women’s team’s prospects in 2017?
By the time most Americans were first introduced to Biles in 2015—I pick that year because it’s when my friends who typically don’t give a crap about gymnastics started emailing me links and tagging me in Biles videos on social media—she was already something of a foregone conclusion in the sport. Gymnastically knowledgeable people had recognized for at least a year that Biles was invincible. When I went to the world championships in Nanning, China, that year, she was the most buzzed-about gymnast even before she won her second consecutive title. Biles came up in virtually every interview I did in Nanning, often as a tangent while we were talking about something else altogether. All conversations inevitably led back to Biles.
But this wasn’t always the case. In 2013, during her rookie season, Biles showed a lot of promise and seemed like she was a strong contender for any number of titles, but she wasn’t seen as unbeatable. She could lose if she made mistakes. In her senior competitive debut at the American Cup, she fell off the beam and finished second to Katelyn Ohashi. At the 2013 U.S. Classic, Biles went 0-3 before her coach scratched her from the vault. And Biles even came close to losing her first bid for the senior national title to Kyla Ross after her foot slipped off the bar on a toe-on skill. Biles edged Ross by just a couple of tenths.
But a few months later Biles won her first world title, and it looked a little different. This time she hit all of her routines solidly and the margin of victory was nearly a point. (Once again, Ross finished second.) Biles also qualified to all four apparatus finals, which is a rare thing in the sport. Since 2000, only one other gymnast has managed to pull this feat off: Russian Aliya Mustafina, who, like Biles, did it during her rookie senior season.
After that first world title in 2013, Biles was off and running. It wasn’t just that she won every competition she entered. It was that her competitors, recognizing the greatness, seemed to concede the gold to her before the meets even started. Raisman, who finished second to Biles at the Olympics in the all-around and on floor, spoke about how placing second to Biles felt the same as winning.
While this was an honest assessment of the situation—no one could beat Biles unless she made more than one significant mistake—I often wondered how the gymnasts felt about this state of affairs. After all, they’re elite athletes; they want to win. Did it ever bother them to march into major competitions, year-in, year-out, knowing that their best was never going to be enough to win gold?
The gymnasts mostly seemed to accept the “second-is-first” fate, in part, I imagine, because it’s really hard to dislike Biles. She was one of the most energetic presences on the competition floor. During competitions, you could pick out her voice from the sidelines, actively cheering on other athletes. (I recall hearing her cheer for Switzerland’s Giulia Steingruber at the 2015 world championships during the all-around final.) As a result, Biles was always popular among the very gymnasts she regularly routed.
But which is better for a sport? A hugely dominant star, or parity? Dominance can be thrilling to watch. The long distance swimming races were never my favorites until Katie Ledecky came along and started lapping her competitors by several seconds, literally swimming alone. That weird spectacle of her, shot from above the pool, swimming one way while her competition is still completing the previous lap, is compelling. Similarly, Biles was so superior to her nearest competitors that she made the sport’s confusing rules almost intelligible; anyone with eyes could understand why her scores were so high.
Dominance can also be boring. When Ledecky gets into the pool for the 1500m, you’re never in suspense over who is going to emerge victorious. Ditto for when Biles gets on the mat.
For the time being, some parity has been restored to women’s gymnastics in the United States. The all-around gold medal is up for grabs for the first time in four years. Even if Ragan Smith is the favorite, no one is ceding the title in advance. But the young gymnasts in Anaheim better make the most of Biles’s hiatus from gymnastics because when and if she returns, it might become a one-woman show again.