Simone Biles’ Balance Beam Final Is One of Her Career’s Greatest Moments
Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles’ career had been so remarkable for so long that the only surprises left seemed to be just how many outrageous new skills she’d surprise us with, just because she could do them. Her difficulty and execution have been astonishing for eight years, so it’s hardly surprising that many viewers (some might say too many) took her greatness for granted. Of course Biles is going to do things we’ve never seen any human do before; of course she’s going to whoosh though her astonishing number of twists with amazing power and grace; of course she’s going to push the sport past new frontiers we did not even know were there.
That’s part of what made her withdrawal from the team and individual event finals in Tokyo so shocking. And it’s why her announcement on Monday—that she would compete in the Olympic finals on balance beam, the last remaining event for which she’d qualified—brought such exhilaration (and, for some of us, nerves). Amid arguably the biggest shock she’d ever given the sport, many again took for granted that the past had shown us how the future was going to go—that she was done. But surprise! Lucky us. She came back, (probably) one last time.
Let’s be real. After the journey we’ve been on these Olympics—“we” here meaning Biles and her best friend, The Entire World—she could have mounted the apparatus in Tokyo’s beam final, done two leaps, fallen four times, and dismounted with the cartwheel back tuck I did in 1988, and we (the entire world) would all be bawling our eyes out. But she didn’t. She nailed it. She sailed through her dastardly wolf turn, obliterated all but one of her tricky connecting skills, and then positively flew off the apparatus with the highest, airiest double pike I have ever seen.
When it comes to the ways in which she has changed the sport of gymnastics, words will, to an extent, always fail to capture the sublime.
Both the context and execution of the performance mean that this third-place finish (behind two stellar routines by Guan Chenchen and Tang Xijing) will likely be remembered as one of the greatest things that the greatest ever did, in a historic career that may or may not be over. (Biles is famous for holding grudges against past iterations of herself; she has also mentioned competing in Paris as an apparatus specialist in homage to her French coaches.) Still, since this may be the last time we get to see her compete, there’s no time like the present to situate Biles’ triumphant return to competition Tuesday morning in the tableau of her historic career. Where does it fit in among her highest highlights, in a run at the top that was chock-full of them?
If athletic greatness had a single metric—the distance between the best and everyone else—then Simone Biles would be the greatest athlete of all time. And although some uninformed jokers might confuse greatness with winning gold at the Olympics, the results of a lone quadrennial competition could not begin to encapsulate Biles’ legacy in the sport she has dominated for eight years. And sure, it is unfair to whittle the greatest career in the history of gymnastics to a paltry list of achievements—and that’s without even touching on Biles’ extracurricular record, where she engineered the shutdown of an abusive system; kept the architects of that system accountable; and, in Tokyo, set a new standard for valuing gymnasts’ physical and mental health and their autonomy. It’s equally impossible to wrangle human words into describing the ways this gymnast has redefined “difficulty” in a sport that quantifies it. But I’m still going to try. And so here, at the (possible) end of her career, at the end of these cursed Games, are the 10 greatest moments in which Simone Biles pushed the world of gymnastics beyond its limits.
The year after an Olympics is usually pretty mellow in elite gymnastics; nobody’s coming out too hard because otherwise they’ll reach their peak performance long before the next Games. Go too hard, and they risk either burning out or getting injured. So it was unusual when a tiny 16-year-old out of Spring, Texas, showed up to 2013 Worlds with a new floor skill (seen above in Biles’ second pass) that required both immense power and immense precision.
The double salto (a flip) in the laid-out position—a difficult posture in which to rotate—is already among the hardest tumbling passes in the world. Biles added a half-twist in the second rotation that stuck a dangerous blind landing at the end. If gymnastics wasn’t paying attention to Biles before (narrator: it was), after she won the all-around by almost a point in 2013, there was no ignoring her. At the pinnacle of their careers, most gymnasts would be lucky to land this skill, get it named after them, and then go home champion of the world. For Simone Biles, it was the first of five World Championships she would win.
That’s right—the time Biles won five medals in the 2016 Olympics is the ninth most impressive thing she’s done. Sure, she popped off two astronomical vaults: a sky-high Amanar and near-perfect Cheng, which propelled her to the all-around gold (by more than 2 points) and, later, to the top of the vault medal podium (margin of victory: 0.713):
And yes, she won floor by almost half a point, housing a legendary tumbler by the name of Aly Raisman:
And yes, Simone damn near fell off the beam but still won bronze. The 2016 Olympics were triumphant for Biles, and she performed beautifully before taking a well-deserved year away.
When Biles returned to competition after her 2017 hiatus, she had both nothing to prove—she’d decimated the competition in Rio—and everything: Returning successfully to elite gymnastics after a year away from training is nigh on impossible. Very few gymnasts have ever done it (winks at Raisman), and yet Biles not only came back strong, but substantially better than she was before. She had “upgrades” (gym parlance for replacing skills with harder skills) such as the Moors—the double-twisting double layout you see above—that positively falls from the sky. (We would not see the Moors again after 2018, for she would soon upgrade again.) So, in 2018, not only did Biles win her fifth straight U.S. Championships by 6 points (over two nights)—she also swept all five events: all-around, vault, beam, floor, and even her “weakest” event, bars. She did it all dressed in teal, as a tribute to survivors of sexual assault.
Yes, an off-year silver medal is more impressive than the entirety of the Rio Olympics, and here’s why: Bars is Biles’ least favorite event. Nary an NBC broadcast elapses without 2008 Olympic champion Nastia Liukin repeating the gymnast’s desire to take a chainsaw to the apparatus that—unlike the other three events, for which lower-body strength and power are crucial—relies almost entirely on rhythm and upper body, and thus does not play to Biles’ advantages. Or, rather, it didn’t, until she spent a year training under new coaches Laurent and Cecile Landi and returned from her hiatus as second best in the world on the apparatus that she loathes. A great gymnast excels at events to which she’s already predisposed. It takes a stratospheric athlete to dominate an event that doesn’t come naturally, even just for a year. (Biles would never again attack the bars with the same intensity as she did in 2018.)
At 2018 Worlds, Biles also debuted the most difficult vault the world had ever seen: a roundoff back handspring with a half-twist onto the table, and then a salto with two twists (and a blind landing). The new skill, Simone’s upgrade to the already difficult Cheng, also brought a long-needed correction to the event, because the International Federation of Gymnastics, or FIG, granted the Biles vault a point valuation in difficulty that equaled the infamous Produnova—a front handspring double tuck, aka the Vault of Death—that several gymnasts used to chuck at each Olympics, on the off-chance they landed it. Because Biles’ execution was clean, a chucked Produnova would never be able to beat her, thus disincentivizing it and making vault finals safer for time immemorial.
In the 2019 season, Biles introduced two more skills, both of which took her name after she landed them successfully at 2019 Worlds. This beam dismount, the double back salto with two twists, threw another full twist onto the “full-in,” the next-most-difficult beam dismount in the world. Unfortunately, controversy arose—Biles declared “bullshit”—when the FIG slapped the dismount with an “H” rating—which, yes, is the most valuable beam dismount in the Code of Points, worth 0.8 in difficulty, but a mere tenth of a point higher than the full-in and the same rating that the same skill earns on floor, which, you know, is the ground, rather than a 4-inch plank 4 feet above it.
The FIG released a statement indicating that the Women’s Technical Committee had taken the dismount’s risk into account, meaning it did not want to value the skill high enough that gymnasts would be incentivized to risk breaking their necks to capture extra tenths, à la the Vault of Death. But the extreme unlikelihood that a gymnast would ever chuck a beam dismount in emulation of the inimitable Biles made the decision seem paternalistic—few gymnasts even compete the full-in—and birthed the not quite correct narrative that Biles is so good that some of her skills are “banned” in order to level the field. Still, her insistence on occasionally competing the Biles in 2021, despite the measly extra tenth it granted her, was further indication of both her greatness and her autonomy.
Most world-class gymnasts are lucky to open their floor routines with a tucked double-double, a tumbling skill first competed by Romanian great Daniela Silivas back in 1988. It’s what Biles competes as a fourth pass, or “dismount,” at the very end of her routine when most world-class gymnasts, running on fumes after a minute and a half of full-endurance acrobatics, are grateful to crank out a simpler skill such as the zero-twisting double pike. So what does the GOAT mount with? A triple-double: That’s a near-indescribable tumbling pass with two flips and three twists in the air.
Not only is this dizzying skill so difficult that only a handful of men have ever pulled it off, but, as you can see here, the 4-foot-8 Biles actually executes it cleaner in the air (and sometimes higher!) than her male counterparts.
Many of Biles’ skills are so intricate that enumerating just how difficult they are, and just how well she executes them—the very qualities that set her apart—can force a gymnastics head to speak in what may sound like gibberish to normal people, as we gesticulate wild-eyed at a blur of flippy things. But if you’re worried you don’t quite get it, just trust me: The triple-double is one of the most exquisite elements of Biles’ legacy.
Speaking of not understanding: After Biles’ withdrawal from most events in Tokyo, there’s been some chatter in certain swamps calling her “weak” for refusing to die on live television, and remarking that she is emblematic of a generation of coddled milquetoast babbys who lack the champion mentality of, say, a podcaster too chickenshit to get a teeny shot to stave off a plague. To that crowd, I give you 2018 Worlds, where Biles not only debuted a vault and won all-around by more than a point despite falling twice (yes, she biffed and got right back out there), but she did it with an active, largely unmedicated kidney stone she nicknamed the “Doha Pearl” after the meet’s Qatar locale. The pain of a kidney stone has been described as the man’s version of unmedicated childbirth. And Biles, on maybe a couple of Tylenol, went home with five medals.
I noted at the top that we would have all sobbed if Biles had so much as done a single cartwheel on the beam and hopped down. But did we, the world, forget whomst we were dealing with here? Simone Biles does not chuck. Like all top international elites, she competes routines she has confidently dialed in, or she cedes her spot to the next available contender. As Biles has shown us in Tokyo, she does not compete unless she feels fully ready to bring it. And Tuesday, it was brought. Edged out by two astounding routines (including winner Guan Chenchen, whose difficulty is next-level), Biles nabbed a hard-earned bronze, making her career haul seven Olympic medals total, tying Shannon Miller’s record for a U.S. woman.
Aly Raisman has explained that the way to nail beam skills is to attack that apparatus like you want to break it, and after this routine, that plank was smithereens. Biles hit it into submission nearly flawlessly, with only a tiny continuity break and a sky-high (and twist-free) dismount. Intact, however, was the world’s heart, after watching the GOAT withdraw from four meets in a row, before summoning the nerve, poise, and sheer mental toughness to march back onto the podium of a women’s event that’s nerve-racking on the best of days—and go lights out.
1. Debut of the Yurchenko Double Pike, 2021 U.S. Classic
Simone Biles did not need to upgrade her vault again. Nobody asked her to, nobody expected her to—and yet, what started as a “fun” exercise to improve her block (the pop off the table that allows gymnasts to flip and twist) became a real thing: Instead of adding, say, another half-twist or twist to the single flip every other female gymnast competes, at the 2021 U.S. Classic, Biles successfully completed a vault that added an entire second flip, something no female gymnasts (and precious few men) had ever done in competition.
After a career inspiring the pathological overuse of hagiographic modifiers (guilty as charged), Biles did something that left even the effusive NBC commentator Tim Daggett his version of speechless. Even Biles herself tweeted from the competition floor that she couldn’t believe it.
This vault is a double Yurchenko (so named after the back handspring entry), in the difficult piked position. Aside from fellow legend McKayla Maroney once horsing around with a tucked version of the same vault (and promptly getting eighty-sixed by former national team coordinator Marta Karolyi, who I guess decided to care about an athlete’s safety one time), no female gymnast has ever so much as fever-dreamt of a double-flipping back handspring vault. This was, and remains, so far beyond the limits of what anyone thought women’s gymnastics could be that I still don’t really have the words.
As Nastia Liukin said on air when the double pike debuted, Biles likes to let her gymnastics speak for her. And that was what made the Tokyo withdrawals so difficult: Suddenly, the gymnastics couldn’t. Or, more accurately, it couldn’t in that moment. Because you know what? The fact that she couldn’t compete the double pike at this Olympics is unfortunate, but largely, it’s inconsequential. The existence of this vault is forever—on film at these Games even, in podium training, looking stellar.
Though I have enjoyed trying to explain how unthinkable this vault is—and how phenomenal Biles herself is, and will always be—in the end, I don’t think I can really do it justice. When it comes to the ways in which she has changed the sport of gymnastics, words will, to an extent, always fail to capture the sublime. Luckily, in this case, the silence speaks louder—the silence, that is, of Biles’ airtime on this vault. Truly, the length of that silence is more than the laws of physics should ever have allowed a (very human) human being to conjure, before she lands, triumphantly, on her feet.