By Will Graves,
Simone Biles is not going to explain herself. Part of this is by design. Part of this is because she simply can’t.
When the gymnastics star is at her best, as she was on the night of Aug. 27 while winning her record eighth U.S. championship, she feels like she’s in a “fever dream.” It’s not autopilot exactly. It’s more of a vibe. A flow.
It’s in those moments that the doubts that still plague her almost daily even now, a decade into a run of unprecedented excellence, fade away.
There is no thinking. No overanalyzing. No “ twisties.” All of it recedes into the background. Her coach Laurent Landi calls it a skill. Biles, even at 26, won’t go that far. Maybe because she simply doesn’t want to.
She spent a long time, far too long, getting caught up in her head. She’s intent on not doing it this time around.
So yeah, she was smiling midway through a floor routine that made almost every other competitor on the floor stop what they were doing to watch and drew a standing ovation from a portion of the sellout SAP Center crowd. No, she can’t explain why. When her coaches told her she’d nailed every tumbling pass, she was clueless.
“It just doesn’t feel real for some reason,” Biles said.
It is. Remarkably.
Ten years ago she was a teenage prodigy who doesn’t remember much from her ascension to the top of her sport. She was always fixated on the next thing. World championships. Team camps. The Olympics.
Now she’s a 26-year-old newlywed determined to enjoy this. For real. Six months ago she wasn’t sure she was all in. Three weeks ago she returned to competition in Chicago feeling as if she was going to “throw up” every time she saluted the judges.
The woman who posted a two-day all-around total of 118.40 this weekend in northern California — four points clear of runner-up Shilese Jones and well ahead of Florida junior Leanne Wong in third place — is not ready to hit fast forward. She won. She’s letting herself be happy this time. That didn’t always happen before.
“We really try to celebrate our success individually and as a team just so that in a couple of years you can remember this,” she said. “Because I really don’t remember a lot from the past.”
She knows that gymnastics won’t last “forever” even if, for her in a way it has.
Peaks aren’t supposed to last this long. Most elite gymnasts at 26 — at least the ones who haven’t retired — are simply hoping to hold on to what they have.
The athlete who became the oldest woman to win a national title since USA Gymnastics began organizing the event in 1963 is not interested in that. Landi called Biles’ floor routine in the finals the best he’d ever seen her do.
“I think it’s maturity,” he said.
Biles’ eight crowns moved her past Alfred Jochim, who won seven between 1925-33 when the Amateur Athletics Union ran the championships and the men’s competition included rope climbing.
The sport has come a long way over the last century. No one has spent more time at the far end of the Bell curve than Biles, whose singular talents continue to push boundaries.
She’s training smarter these days, her only real acquiescence to the miles she’s put on it for the last 20 years. While she remains one of the most visible active athletes in the Olympic movement, she’s making it a point not to let the world in on every single little thing as she eyes a trip to Paris next summer.
Biles joked it’s because people are “nosy.” The reality is, she’d just like a little privacy.
“I like to keep (my goals) personal, just so that I know what I’m aiming for,” Biles said. “I think it’s better that way. I’m trying to move a little bit differently this year than I have in the past. I think it’s working so far, so I’m going to keep it secretive.”
There appears to be more balance in her life, leaning into the “it’s just gymnastics” mantra that helped fuel her rise.
Age hasn’t caught up to her yet, though she played it relatively safe — by her standards — on Sunday. She tweaked her right ankle while drilling her electric Yurchenko double pike vault on Friday.
The 14.850 she received for her Cheng vault was still the highest of the night on the event. So was the 14.8 she earned on beam. She had a score of 15.400 on the floor, too.
Next stop is Antwerp in late September, where Biles will try to add to the 25 world championship medals — 18 of them gold — she’s captured so far.
Jones figures to be on the plane too. The 21-year-old is a marvel on bars, where she thrives despite being tall (5-foot-6ish) for someone who opts to do this for a living. The crowd erupted when she nailed her dismount, her 15.000 score was tops in the meet on the event and put 10 months filled with injuries that have slowed her training firmly behind her.
Who joins Jones and Biles at worlds remains very much up in the air.
Reigning Olympic champion Sunisa Lee, who has spent most of the year battling a kidney issue her doctors are still trying to get a handle on, could have a chance as a specialist.
Wong, one of several athletes trying to compete at the NCAA and elite levels at the same time, put together two stellar nights that included an elegant bars set and a floor exercise that makes up for in precision what it lacks in power.
Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles, teammates of Biles’ at the 2020 Olympics, who have also spent the last two years splitting time between college and elite, weren’t quite as sharp. Chiles fell off both the bars and beam. Carey finished in the top 10 on just one event — vault — where the Americans figure to be loaded.
Biles will lead the charge. She joked she asks herself every day why she’s out there. The answer is simple. She feels like she owes it to herself.
“I still feel like I’m capable of doing it,” she said. It certainly looks that way.
This article was originally published by the Associated Press.